I am sharing this today from my memoirs coming from my excellent past into my glorious present with the empowerment that if you have a dream, you can achieve it through work, dedication and perseverance! Mr. Robert Marcellus was the premier clarinetist in the world for a long space of time and someone that we young clarinetists based our abilities on. I believed that studying and working with him was not attainable and only a pipe dream for most of my young life. However, I finally took the chance with the obligatory lesson with this great master and was immediately embraced into his very interesting world.
From a young man, full of self-doubt and not thinking highly of my abilities, I achieved this part of my dream and treasure the time I spent with him and his wife.
Mr. Robert Marcellus or Dr. Bob
Mr. Marcellus, at the time I had the honor of working with him, was blind from diabetes but still going strong. Another event that happened during this time, was the day I was playing an F Sharp Major Scale, very fast (for all you musicphiles, that would be a quarter note = 120 plus beats per minute) and Mr. Marcellus stopped me in the first octave and said “Jere, don’t finger that F# on the side, finger it on the top, it’s sharp on the side.” I dropped my horn to my side and in a very concerned voice asked the question, “Mr. Marcellus, how did you know I was fingering it that way?” “Jere, I may be blind, but I have ears!” I thought, oh my, what have I gotten myself into? Such a keen ear and I knew then there was no skating around the issues of performance or interpretation.
On another note, my first experience at the Marcellus Master Class series was in the summer of 1985, what a summer! Of places to meet people, it was a break on the first day of the Master Classes and I had to go to the necessary room and take care of business. During my visit to the toilet…I happened to have a conversation with the gentleman standing next to me who happened to be the Principle Clarinetist in the Denver and Colorado Springs Symphony as well as a Clarinetist from Sydney, Australia. Upon asking my name, in a very off handed way, I was referred to as “The New Golden Boy” of the Marcellus Studio. Come to find out, there were two other performers that Marcellus had given this type attention to, one was my former Teacher, Maestro Alan Balter. Well, imagine my shock and surprise! Leaving a week of Master Classes at Northwestern University, I spent the next 3 summers with Robert Marcellus at his summer home in Sister Bay, Wisconsin, with 3 hour plus lessons every other day. Talk about intense work with someone whom I considered a wonderful mentor and performing artist.
I would also like to mention Mr. Robert Marcellus, a phenomenal performer, teacher and life coach. Even though he we blind from diabetes when I studied with him, he could still play rings around me or anyone else for that matter. I remember to this day, him hitching a ride on my arm to walk to the student center cafeteria at Northwestern for lunch and having me describe in detail, what I was seeing. The very definitions of color began to change for me as I saw every aspect of the landscape and relayed that to him. The warmth with a cooling breeze became a wonderful blend of Blues and Reds creating an ethereal hue of colors that came to life in many ways. Performing became more of a feeling than just technique. Perhaps an expression of the inner soul and spirit would be an appropriate way to state this very valid performance technique.
I adapted to their way of achieving, work, practice, dedication to learning and the willingness to learn.
There was one lesson with Robert Marcellus I will never forget
I almost blew it, or at least I thought I had, when I showed up for my second intensive lesson with this phenomal Master of the Clarinet and was not prepared. I was in Chicago and went out partying instead of hitting the practice room thinking I could skate by on the Mozart Concerto without being fully prepared. I came into his studio with a bit of a hangover and was prepared for a skate lesson, if you know what I mean. Funny thing happened though, he did not let me skate through it. I had to play the entire concerto from beginning to end.
I knew I flubbed it, fingers went flying in the first movement and I began to sweat and the more I began to sweat and mentally kick myself in the butt, the more I flubbed. Nerves got the best of me and he just sat there, smiling.
When he said, at the end of the first movement, to continue, well, I thought, OH SHIT! You’re not going to ream me out or anything like that? I know I messed up, aren’t we going to work on fixing it? Just how bad was it? It was horrid to me.
And so I began the second movement. Made it through that movement, barely and thought he would really throw the book at me, but he was just smiling big! On to the third movement. Surely he could not take any more of this torture I was putting him through, do something, please!
After the third movement catastrophe, he smiled and asked me how much I had prepared for today. I hung my head and said that I had not practiced. He still smiled and said two words that hurt me to very core of my existence, “I Know”. Even in my vodka smelling sweat that was now exuding from my open pores in that studio at Northwestern, I knew I had met my match and I could not just skate by any longer on my past accomplishments.
What he said next though, floored me. “Jere, there is nothing I can teach you about the clarinet, you already know everything there is to know about the instrument. However, if you wish to know the way I do things that is what I want to give you. You are an accomplished artists already, I want to put some finishing touches on you. You were unprepared for today’s lesson and this is your one get out of jail free card. Next lesson, I want the Mozart prepared for dissection and rudimentary development from the first movement.”
I had been slammed and dunked by the greatest clarinet player in the world and my bluff had been called. Yes, I had credentials out the wazoo, yes I had this and that and he acknowledge all that in one fell swoop and yet humbled me with his approach. By the way, my next lesson with him was two days away and I knew I had to sweat the vodka out so I could think clearly and get the fingers working well.
I left that lesson with my tail feathers tucked and in silence as I was not punished by him but I did punish myself enough internally. I knew it would not be perfect and I just knew he would kick me out of his very select studio of accomplished artists from around the world. I just knew it and that could be my excuse. Personal sabotage is the other side of perfection by the way. Believing in the hype too much.
There is a wonderful ending to this life time spent growing with him but I will save that for later.
My perfectionism meant that I had to do everything top notch and being handpicked to work with Robert was an accomplishment unto itself. However, I did not believe I was that good. I still have my doubts as I walk off stage after a performance, knowing the mistakes I made and tearing myself apart internally and sometimes externally.
My methods of dealing with this have involved the bottle and other mood altering substances but I have finally grown beyond that to accept that nothing is perfect and each live performance is unique in its own way. I had to stop kicking myself in the butt and as Leonard Bernstein said to me, don’t read the reviews from the critics! That is what they are paid to do, critique and find faults! HA! When that little pearl of wisdom finally sunk in, it flowered into a do the best I can and let it go attitude. So what if I missed that note in a 32nd note run. No one knows but me and the critic. LOL! The overall performance was excellent and moving to those that were there.
I have learned to validate myself and I can be my own worst critic. I can decimate myself without anyone else to help. I can rip myself to shreds without lifting a finger. I’m quite good at that, thank you very much!
With all that said, following the groundwork Robert laid out for me, I know that slow half tempo practice of even the most difficult passages in the clarinet repertoire will produce a solid technique so that when I am on that concert stage sweating bullets, it will be in place. I have to listen to that inner voice telling me to calm down and breathe, it will be ok.
One of my greatest dreams in life at the time, to study with Marcellus and I just about blew it. I came back next week, put his horns together and got them set up for him and very humbly said “Mr. Marcellus, I’m ready to learn.” That was a major turning point in my life. 3 years later, he finally told me something that floored me again. “Jere, you were already an accomplished clarinetist when you came to me, I just put finishing touches on you.” That was my last lesson with him, friend, mentor and great teacher.