An Interview with Dr. Pamela Shuler: The World of Music, the Clarinet and a Passion for Teaching

Nov 21, 2019 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Before we begin this interview, what first got you interested in music?

According to my parents, I have always been interested in music. I really don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t involved in some type of musical activity. As a child I participated in various choirs, played in a hand bell choir, was a part of various musical theatre productions, and through my school music program started to play clarinet in the fourth grade. The thing that initially interested me and has held my interest over many years is the results that can be achieved with practice. I enjoy setting goals and working towards achieving them. As a young musician, it was about learning note values and pitches on the staff. I saw that with focused practice, I could learn those concepts. Many years later, I still regularly set goals that motivate me to practice and continue to grow as a musician.

  1. Now tell us about your education and those teachers that have influenced you.

As I mentioned, I was very fortunate to start playing an instrument early. The earliest influences on my musical journey were my elementary band director, Mr. Thomas Anthony and my high school director, Mr. Robert Matchett. I still use phrases that I remember hearing from them with my students today. As a young clarinetist I had the fortune of starting private lessons early, with William Brewer. I am very thankful that he was willing to put up with some very rough beginning sounds! As an undergraduate I studied with Joseph Edwards and Robert Fitzer at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH. Both of these teachers had very unique and individual styles that allowed me to grow in different ways. In attending University of Illinois, I was a member of the clarinet studio of J. David Harris. I will always have his sound in my ears and teachings in my mind. Each day when I pick up my clarinet I work to try to sound more like him. The teachers that continue to inspire me are the students with which I work. The questions they ask and improvements they make influence me to continue to get better myself.

  1. Your doctoral dissertation as I understand was about one of my favorite musicians- Benny Goodman- what did you learn about his life and what did you investigate?

My exploration of Goodman started as a child. I am told that my Great Grandfather was the director of a dance band before WWII. At one point, he had my Grandmother playing cornet in the group. An appreciation for this type of music was then passed down to my mother, who in turn shared it with me. I don’t remember many of the specific gifts I received as a child for Christmas, but I very distinctly remember receiving a cassette tape with music from Benny Goodman and his band. I’m pretty sure I wore that tape out! Later on, as both an undergraduate and graduate music student, I was very surprised to come across pieces that included inscriptions such as “Commissioned by Benny Goodman” or “Composed for Benny Goodman”. At the time I was unaware that Goodman had quite a prolific career as a classical musician in addition to his profile as a jazz musician.

During graduate school I performed Contrasts by the composer Béla Bartók. While researching the work, I learned that it was Goodman’s first commission in the classical music genre. Building upon that, I was able to look at a number of other chamber works written by traditionally classical genre composers for Goodman. In addition to exploring the circumstances of and history of the commissions, I was also able to look at ways in which the composers incorporated elements that might have appealed to the jazz side of Goodman.

  1. Now, the rumor, the story about his signature song “Let’s Dance” was that it was recorded in New York, and basically flopped- but he and his band headed toward California for a number of gigs-and by the time they reached California– the airwaves were ablaze with the song ( I guess it “went viral”). Is this a story or is there any truth to this?

Ross Firestone does a great job of discussing this time in Goodman’s career in his text, Swing, Swing, Swing, The Life and Times of Benny Goodman. According to Firestone, Goodman was seriously considering disbanding as his group made their way west on that cross country tour headed towards California. Rough performances and reception left Goodman very uncertain about his future and what type of music the group would need to perform to see success. When the group finally made it to California, Goodman’s performance at the Palomar Ballroom turned things around. It seems the audience there was more than hungry for the group’s music and Firestone lists that evening’s performance “as the night the Swing Era was born.” It seems that there was a large crowd in California that had tuned in for the group’s performances on the “Let’s Dance” program and they were ready to support the group and their music.

  1. Now why the clarinet- tell us about its place in the world of music and the orchestra.

My mother had been a clarinet player in high school. I selected the instrument because my mother had played it and from hearing different instruments and their timbres, the sound of the clarinet has always been appealing to me.

The clarinet is a very diverse voice. As discussed, it is home in a number of genres including band, orchestra, jazz groups, and chamber ensembles. To me, there is something about the versatility of the clarinet that sets it apart. In addition to a very wide range of available pitches, in the correct hands, the clarinet has the ability to play at the softest of whispers and also wail at extreme dynamics. The warmth of tone and ability of the clarinet to blend make it a fantastic pairing with a number of instruments. In addition to being able to support other voices, the clarinet can both play very technical passages and also take on a leadership role in the sound of different groups. To me, an orchestra or band wouldn’t sound the same without a clarinet section. Since its creation around the year 1700, the clarinet has been popular with composers of different musical time periods, different nationalities, and different genres.

  1. You and I both know the importance of music- but again, another folk tale perhaps- but the story goes that ” if you put a musical instrument into a child’s hands early enough, those same hands will never hold a weapon to hurt others” Your thoughts?

One of the things that I love about music is that I get to work with others towards a shared goal. Some of my favorite musical memories involve sitting beside others who spoke a different language, had different life experiences, but yet we were able to create something wonderful together to share with others. Beyond connecting with others, music also provides the opportunity to express yourself as an individual. I often hear stories from my own students about them being able to take out frustrations and sadness via their instrument. I think there might be something to the phrase you mentioned.

  1. Nationally and Internationally where have you performed?

Nationally I have been able to perform in many states in a number of capacities. Recently, I was able to perform as part of the International Fellowship of Conductors, Composers, and Collaborators in residence at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. During this season I am also playing a number of concerts with the Southwest Symphony, based in Hobbs, NM and have an upcoming performance in Illinois.

Internationally I have been able to perform in both Spain and Japan. I’ve been very fortunate that music has allowed me to travel and work with others from across the world.

  1. What events are on the horizon?

At the moment I am working together with my colleague Dr. Richard Schwartz on planning a Single Reed Celebration at Eastern New Mexico University to be held in March 2020. We will have a number of guest artists coming in for this event and have a day of rehearsals, performances, classes, and clinics. The event is open to any clarinetist or saxophonist that would like to attend.

Performance wise, I have a number of chamber and orchestral performances over the next few months and am in the planning phases for my next recital.

  1. What advice would you give to parents in terms of encouraging their children to take up an instrument?

In selecting an instrument, make sure your child knows how different instruments sound and the basics of what is involved in regards to tone production on each instrument. In teaching beginning band for a few years, I loved seeing what instruments students were drawn to. In my experience, if students have had exposure to hearing different instruments, in most cases they have a preference when it comes time to select an instrument.

Another suggestion is to encourage your child after the initial “newness’ wears off. The preliminary excitement that comes with trying something new will fade. During this time, it is very important to encourage your child to focus on goals when it isn’t easy to hear the same rate of progress on a daily basis. Focus on how far your child has come since picking up the instrument the first time and how practice can continue to help your child grow.

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