Klezmer anyone?!

Recently Allen L contacted me about a clarinet question at the clarinetpages.net, and he mentioned that he plays Klezmer. I don't often come in contact with Klezmer players, so I asked him these questions:

  • How would one go about learning to play in the Klezmer style?
  • Do you play a C clarinet for that?
  • Do you prefer an Albert system clarinet for that?
  • What are the standard pieces that all Klezmer players should know?
  • Please include Youtubes of you and your group.

Allen did a fantastic job answering me! If you have more to add about this topic, please join us in discussing this topic at the clarinetpages.info forum.

First off, I'd like to provide some clarification regarding what exactly "klezmer music" encompasses - but it's regrettably not straightforward. Klezmer originally arose in medieval eastern European Jewish communities to perform at "simkhas" (holidays and celebratory events, especially weddings). When brought to the United States by Jewish immigrants in the 20th century, it was further influenced by early theater music and early jazz. To some performers, this is the repertoire that is considered to be "klezmer music" proper. However, klezmorim (the plural of klezmer; the term "klezmer" originally referred to a musician - but the genre didn't have a common name until its revival in the 1970's, when "klezmer music", or music made by klezmorim, was shortened) have always borrowed from the cultures around them - for example, incorporating the folk tunes of Roma, Ukranians, Romanians, and others into their repertoire early on - and beginning in the mid-20th century, the repertoire has been augmented by Yiddish melodies, Israeli folk music, tunes from early 20th-century American Yiddish theater productions, and modern compositions in the traditional style. Some performers would also consider these latter borrowings to constitute "klezmer music", while others make a distinction between these and the older, more "traditional" repertoire.

As far as how to learn: As with all ethnic music, ornamentation and feel are of utmost importance, and cannot be learned from sheet music alone. It is critical to listen to a lot of music (especially older recordings, but also contemporary artists who carry on the tradition faithfully). Tons of vintage klezmer recordings are available on the YouTube channel Classic Klezmer (www.youtube.com/user/classicklezmer). In addition, Robin Seletsky has a very helpful YouTube page dedicated to klezmer

clarinet tutorials (www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLcngoxzwXCGmyrutyvP6a7aKbkCSouytA).

This is not to say that sheet music doesn't have its place. There are a number of fine collections to serve as an aid to learning the basic melodies. I recommend the Mel Bay "Klezmer Collection" book (available in C and Bb) as a great starter - it has a lot of tunes commonly played by klezmer bands, as well as good notes on the source recordings from which the transcriptions were made. One must be aware, however, that these melodies are only a starting point. A significant portion of the older klezmer repertoire consists of dance tunes, and like most ethnic dance traditions, improvisation is essential so as not to bore the dancers (nor musicians) to tears as the tune is played repeatedly. There are traditional styles of improvisation (as opposed to "anything goes"), and again I have to stress the importance of listening to the experts

perform in order to learn the established traditions. Bear in mind, however, that established performers have stretched the bounds of the genre quite far, including fusion efforts that stray far from the tradition.

Regarding the instruments: Thanks to a number of historic trends (predominantly in the early to mid 20th century), the clarinet is now often considered to be "the prince of klezmer". Historically, both C and Bb clarinets have been played by klezmorim. I utilize both instruments in my playing, not for specific historic or authenticity reasons, but rather because of the ease that a C clarinet lends to playing in certain keys, and reading concert scores without having to transpose on the fly.

I play Boehm instruments because I don't have the bandwidth to learn yet another instrument (I also perform frequently on guitar and Irish whistles - or at least i did, until the pandemic hit). My music page, which includes a few choice videos (with links to more on YouTube), is www.lutins.org/music.

And as far as "standard pieces that all klezmer players should know": Hmmm. I'm reluctant to name any particular pieces, because some of them seem to be played to death these days. I think it's best to start listening, and decide which pieces strike your fancy. I maintain a comprehensive guide at www.klezmerguide.com that may prove helpful for finding online recordings and sheet music sources for a tune that you come across.