Holly Redshaw: Can you tell me about your instrument’s history or biography: When did you get it, did it have a previous owner, and what led you to choose yours in particular? I’m assuming of course that like most clarinettists you own an A Clarinet and a B-flat clarinet, and I also wondered if you found them together or seperately?
Michelle Hromin: I got my most recent B-flat clarinet, which is the clarinet I use the most, on September 18th, 2018. I know that because it’s my parents’ wedding anniversary! I remember going to the shop in New York where I bought it. I previously had another clarinet for about four years before that, but it felt like it was time for a change. It felt like we (myself and the previous clarinet) were still working well together, but the sound that I was getting wasn’t really responsive to all the work I was putting into the instrument. So I went to try out different instruments from the Buffet Crampon model of clarinet, and I kept coming back to this one (my now-current instrument), which was actually a Tosca. I knew when I played it that this was the one for me, and the certainty of it scared me a bit. I went with one of my friends to try the instruments, then brought it later that evening to my teacher and said, “I think I’ve found this really great instrument. I would like to hear what you think.” Straight away he said, “That’s it, that’s exactly what we need.” It was the best feeling in the world.
I’ve named her Eleanor; it’s just been a name that I have really loved for a long time because it’s really sweet! Funnily enough, the instrument itself came with a very small, singular travel case. For clarinets, because we usually have a B-flat and an A clarinet, we typically carry them in a double backpack, but this has its own little individual case that you can take on the go. I really like that I’m able to just scoop it up with me if I need to.
My A clarinet I bought back in February 2016. I recently got a bass clarinet on June 3 2022, up in Birmingham, and I spent the best time exploring that and finding my own voice with it.
That came about because around this time last year, I was talking to Ausiàs who plays with Riot Ensemble, and we were just chatting about careers and things we were interested in. I said that I would like to get bass clarinet one day and that I have a strong affliction for playing. He told me I should check out a make called Royal Global bass clarinets. They’ve been coming on the market more recently but they’re a fraction of the price of the Buffet Crampons – but they’re, really on par in terms of quality, and very beautiful instruments.
I don’t have official names for my A and bass clarinet. We do have a joke name for my bass clarinet, because after my recital this past year my friend Pat said, “That was incredible, that was like a violation!” So as a joke I call her Violet.
HR: I’m always fascinated by how clarinetists spend so long choosing barrels, ligatures and reeds, and often might change these things fairly regularly. Did you have to change these things when you bought your new instruments?
MH: With my B-flat and my A, I’ve used the same kind of mouthpiece pretty regularly. I’ve gone from what’s called an M30, or an M30D, which is like a German version of the original. And a BD5, which I’ve been playing on for the past five or six years. But every two or three years I might get a new one or will test for new ones. Right now I’m starting to feel like “Okay, I’m getting the same core sound that I want, but maybe it’s starting to feel a bit more blown out, or some things aren’t speaking in certain ways, especially with certain notes.” Because of these things, I’ll then be able to tell if I’m ready to have a new mouthpiece, because then it will just round everything out a bit more.
With my bass clarinet, even though it’s a new instrument, I’ve had the same mouthpiece for about five years. Before I acquired it, I was speaking to someone who said “You should try this mouthpiece, it will just open everything up. You already have the foundation,” –
*(We got interrupted here as a group of Americans in the cafe we were at decided to say to Michelle “Respect for the converse!” No love for my doc martens, scandalous.)*
(MH cont) – “So I was talking to one of my teachers, who said, “If you try this mouthpiece, it’ll just open everything up. The foundation that you have for your playing is great, but if you try this, it’ll open it up and you won’t necessarily have to work as hard.”
HR: Did changing these things change how you felt about the instruments? Or did it simply make your life easier?
MH: Kind of both. I think recently I’ve been in a weird place with my playing because I’ve been so busy, which means in some ways I’ve been very back and forth when thinking about core issues such as; do I sound good? So changing to those new mouthpieces definitely helped with making me feel like I’m sounding my best – but at the same time, not having my equipment be operating at 100% all the time has made me realise, “Oh, I have so much versatility in what I can do!” And I’ll have to think about how I can communicate what I want even if I don’t have this mouthpiece, or if this specific note isn’t speaking the way I want it to all the time.
HR: Concentrating on your B-flat clarinet for a moment, what were the qualities that attracted you to that particular instrument? The things that made your teacher say, “Yes, that one!”
MH: Even from just picking it up, feeling the weight in my head, how the keys felt, everything felt very home-like. The span between the registers was really smooth. There was a lot of variety of sound, but in particular I was able to get the darker sides of the sound, which is always something I’ve looked for as a baseline – even when I’m starting my day and I’m just warming up, that’s the kind of sound my ears prick up to and that’s definitely what I felt with this instrument. There was an ease with the whole thing that let me know, “Yeah, this just feels right.”
HR: Can you choose three words to describe your instrument in particular? And you can choose three for each of your other clarinets too, if you’d like!
MH: For my B-flat clarinet I would say: robust, dark and enigmatic.
For my bass clarinet: spunky, light and free. Those contrast each other a bit but I think there’s a reason for that.
For my A clarinet I would say: resilient, in terms of it literally being quite a resistant instrument – I always feel like I’m working for the sound and that makes me appreciate it more. And wise, and colourful.
HR: Can you describe three key or memorable moments with any of your instruments?
MH: Regarding my bass clarinet, I went to the Bang On A Can festival this summer. It was one of my first times playing my bass clarinet professionally; I’d just gotten the instrument and I’ve been developing my own voice with it, but because I’ve been studying my other clarinets as my main focus at music college, all my bass clarinet tuition has really been my own undertaking, or I’ll take one off lessons. So while trying to develop your voice, there’s inevitably going to be some insecurities along the way. At Bang On A Can, we were doing a bunch of newly commissioned pieces, and in one of our first concerts of the day, I felt all the connection and all the work I had been putting in come to life with my instrument. I had this one very technical passage in a piece called Gender Envy by Yaz Lancaster; they had moved my part from B-flat clarinet to be on bass clarinet, and when I finally got it just how I wanted it was such a satisfying feeling.
With my B-flat clarinet, my recent branching outside of the more ‘traditional’ aspects of classical playing has been very formative. I played In Freundschaft by Karlheinz Stockhausen back in March. It’s been a core piece in developing my own repertoire in the last couple years. It feels like a piece that’s very me, with exploring moving with my instrument and my sound, and so has become very much attached to my B-flat clarinet. I feel very free as a result of learning that piece, by getting to explore moving with an instrument and as a performer. There’s a new perspective attached. I also just love that piece!
HR: That piece is also influential in terms of ‘acting’ for bassoon. It’s the one where you’re meant to dress up as a teddy bear, right?
MH: Only for the bassoon one! When Stockhausen was re-scoring it for bassoon, he had this nostalgic image of a child playing with their childhood teddy bear. So it’s only for bassoon, the dressing up. It’s such a fascinating difference!
Going back to your original question, my last memory is from a couple of days ago, actually, and comes back to practicing in my own way. I’ve started going over more jazz etudes in my practice and I’ve been transcribing them by ear. I’ve been doing it on my B-flat clarinet mainly, but I’ve been doing it on all my instruments. I almost feel like I have the muscle memory from when I used to play the saxophone. But a couple of days ago I transcribed something with three keys by ear and I thought, “Oh, it feels like you’re like learning a new language, even though your fingers already kind of know where to go.” But my fingers didn’t know where to go for this! It often feels as if new muscles are being unlocked.
HR: Can you pinpoint a moment where you felt fully connected with your instrument for the first time?
MH: I think around the time that I got my B-flat clarinet; I was in my second year of undergrad. I was definitely battling a lot of my own insecurities, and being one of the youngest people in the whole department. Specifically, we’d done the Ligeti Six Bagatelles in Spring 2019 with my quintet and I had organized a concert outside of the university. That was definitely a time where not only was the acoustic really nice in the venue, but all of us in the quintet were just owning the performance entirely. That felt like a moment of real connection.
HR: If you had to describe your instrument as if it was a person or a character, how would you describe it?
MH: I think my B-flat clarinet is almost like an extroverted introvert. There’s a lot of personality. There’s so much variety in it, and especially since moving to London I’ve realised that, seperate to my instrument, I have my own ways of making sounds. Clarinets are often regarded as a kind of ‘disappearing act’ because we’re able to play so quietly, but I’ve realised the full scope of dynamics with this instrument. I’ve been able to feel those really special moments, such as individual notes and things that are incredibly particular. One example is when we played ‘Rítmicsas’ by Tania León over the summer; it’s very clarinet-cadenza-y, mixed with a saxophone cadenza, and has a lot of moving parts – it’s such a beautiful piece. But there’s little things with the voicings on the instrument, or how I’m able to use my throat and my air to make things almost sparkle in a different way. In one of our concerts, I was able to get it so it was really fragile, but I think if I tried to do that on my A clarinet, it wouldn’t work. It’s a very special thing with the instrument that I’m able to feel like there’s lots of flexibility and I’m able to push it a bit.
My A clarinet is almost like a stubborn old lady, and that’s what I love about it. A lot of the playing I do on it is orchestral, and I’m able to almost feel like I’m back in time in an orchestra, but I’m putting my own spin on it.
Then my bass clarinet – if I had to personify it, it would be someone who’s sitting in a smoky, cabaret cafe, listening to some smooth jazz. It’s similar to my B-flat in regards to the variety of sound, and also relating to the words I used, light and spunky. Maybe because of the repertoire I’ve been playing, I feel like my sound on bass clarinet is very different to what I’ve learned on the clarinet, which is a nice thing. There’s the core of how I sound, but then there’s also special things about the instrument, especially the very high, high, high notes – they have a lightness and translucent quality to them that I really love, and then the lower parts of the register have their own depth that I really love as well.
HR: I’m really intrigued by how your B-flat and your A clarinet are so different. I wonder how typical that is? I suppose I’ve always assumed that if people are purely playing orchestral repertoire, they want the switching between the B-flat and the A clarinets to be quite seamless. Is that common amongst other clarinettists? Because you seem to quite like having the difference between the two.
MH: I like having the difference. A lot of people do buy B-flat and A clarinets in a set, if they can, because it’s nice to have the matching quality. Perhaps my old B-flat clarinet did match a bit more to my A clarinet. This one does match well, though, and they very much complement each other, but they’re definitely not twins or sisters – maybe distant cousins! There’s definitely some kind of relation, and also the combination that I am the one playing them, so I know how to manipulate them. I suspect if someone else came and played them, they’d think, “Woah, these feel very different.”
HR: Do you think of any of your instruments as having a defining characteristic or personality trait?
MH: My B-flat clarinet in particular is very vulnerable and open. It’s a very expressive instrument, whereas my A clarinet is more reserved. I mean that in a nice way! It’s a very intimate instrument.
My bass clarinet, I feel like I’m still getting to know. It’s weird to almost call an instrument humble, but I think that because when I play it, I always wonder, “What is this going to sound like? I don’t fully know you yet. I know what I’d like you to sound like…”
I feel like I’m learning new things about it, and I like what I’m discovering.
HR: Following on from that, are your relationships with your instruments different in the practice room than they are in performance?
MH: That’s an amazing question. Yes, I think so. Over the past year or so, in performance my instruments now feel like they are a part of me. It feels like I’m expressing myself and my instruments are an attachment of that. It’s almost like another limb on my body, it doesn’t feel like there’s a separation. Whereas when I was a lot younger, when perhaps I had worse performance anxiety, it felt like, “Oh, I’m here, and I’m nervous. And I have this thing I need to do.” Now it feels like a very organic practice. I’m trying to get more of that into the practice room, but sometimes it’s difficult when you have specific things you need to learn, or repertoire for a concert, or things that don’t feel comfortable at first reach. And you think, “Okay, how do I do this so that it feels just as natural as this other thing that I did a couple of months ago?” It’s definitely a work in progress!
HR: You mentioned that you used to have more performance anxiety, and that aspects such as practice and performance felt seperate. Do you think that as you became a more confident performer, the instrument became more of an extension of you? Or did it become more of an extension of you and then you became more confident in performance?
MH: I think as I learn the vernacular of my instruments, and then as I develop confidence in putting myself out there more and trying things out, my mindset has changed to “Oh, I am a more competent performer.”
Ever since I was a kid, even when I got my first clarinet school, it has always felt like it was a part of me in some way. From the very beginning, if I’ve been feeling really stressed or rundown, 98 times out of 100, if I put my instruments together and I feel the sensation around it, especially the sounds of corks coming together, I feel that I’m at home and instantly feel much better about everything. I’ve had that since the beginning, so when you get a bit older and there’s more self-put pressure on performing, sometimes we can lose touch with that feeling. But it’s always been at the core of my playing. I’m now in more of a place where I’m able to access it every single day, whether I’m doing a big concert or I’m in the practice room, or even when I’m teaching. I think it’s a really important thing to bring to my students as well.
HR: Do you have a very strong connection to objects generally?
MH: I’m definitely one of those people that gets attached to a certain coffee mug or a specific pencil, a specific notebook while I practice. When I break my reeds in, I mark the back of them with the date and then number them. I will swap the positions around and sometimes I’ll get very attached to one reed in particular. I think that’s just kind of how my memory works.
Even though I’ve had several clarinets now, the same sensations or the feeling of putting the instrument together are the same; the sounds that come about when the joints are coming together are continuous throughout my career and life, thus far.
HR: How often have you changed instruments since you started playing?
MH: I got my starter instrument when I was nine. It was just one I rented through the school and I got my own a couple years after that – a student model, basically. I had that for quite a while before I got my big girl clarinet when I was about 16. I had it for about four years, then got my most recent B-flat clarinet, and I got my A clarinet around that time, too. The shelf life of a clarinet is very interesting – some people get new ones after four years, but sometimes I’ve got one after seven or 10 years. It really varies.
HR: Thinking more about when you perform with your clarinet, do you see it as an expansion to your musical self or a challenge?
MH: It depends. I’ve been feeling a lot more of the expansion, but because I’m now experimenting with different genres and writing more of my own music, I’m also experiencing more of a challenge because I don’t entirely know what I’m doing yet!
Also, as an improviser and when writing your own music, there’s a mixture of the two happening at the same time. So there’s a mixture of “Oh, this is a comfortable thing”, or “This has perked my ears up”, and then other times; “I don’t quite know how to do that yet”. It’s a challenge that I’m exploring.
HR: Do you ever feel any of the qualities you associate with your instruments becoming present during performance?
MH: Absolutely, especially when I’ve talked about things like resistance. Being a reed player, sometimes reeds can be unfavorable and they can bring out a quality that’s not always in the best way. I’ve had times where I’ll feel like the the best parts of what I’m doing are coming through, but because of the reed there might be a little bit of variety, too. And that’s a good thing.
HR: Do you like it when your instruments have challenges? Or is it just annoying and all you want is for it to work for you the way you want it to?
MH: I think if you’d asked me this a couple of years ago, I’d have said, “No, I want no challenges, I just want it to work.” But now I’m a little more open to it. So even now if, say, I’ve got a little bit of water in one of my keys – it’s fine and I’m able to get through it. But a couple of years ago it would have distracted me – now, I can still do whatever I’m needing to do. It’s now more about heightening my own awareness of my playing and the types of sound I want to be making and how actively I’m in control of that, versus what’s happening that is outside of my control.
HR: You do a lot of playing involving improvisation or interpretation of graphic scores, and you’re also a composer now! I wondered if that has changed your relationships with your instruments at all?
MH: It’s definitely made me connect with them more, because my whole outlook on my playing has been first and foremost around sound as opposed to technique, or technical aspects of the instrument. When I have something like a graphic score or have been messing around improvising, now if I stumble upon a technical passage that I’ve created myself within it, I’m still thinking more about how the sounds are blending into each other, and if I’m improvising with other people what’s going on around me and if I’m able to replicate that myself – or if I’m not, what can I create in contrast to that?
Working with improvisation or graphic scores has allowed me to figure out more things that my instrument can do that I haven’t been privy to before with more standard notation. For example, with the Mozart concerto, I feel that maybe if I was given a graphic score and the Mozart concerto at the same time, and we spoke about the different perspectives and different things you can do with both of them, maybe I would have a different relationship to that kind of piece now.
HR: When you start exploring more extended techniques on your instrument, how does that change your relationship with it?
MH: It changes and affects a mix of things. I feel like I’m forming my own language with my instrument. I also feel that there’s a bit of a taboo around this idea of, “If you play largely contemporary music, you are only going to sound a specific way, you are not going to have access to certain things, and you need to be playing classical rep.” Most of my delving into contemporary music was largely because of the pandemic. I really dove into some solo pieces and they were the first semblances of things where I felt very confident and able to explore, and it felt like I was very much at home. But I would still constantly worry, “Is this right? Does it sound the way I was taught?” So when stepping into my own more and finding pieces I like, particularly with living composers, a lot of the initial parts of learning the piece have this “Is this correct?” aspect, as opposed to “How do I want to sound, or feel?”. I’ve been actively trying to change that narrative.
I’ve also been trying to do a mix of repertoire and revisit some of the classical pieces I learnt as a kid with this new perspective of; I’m the player, I have the freedom. I’m gradually finding the things from my education that have been very useful, and throwing away the things that haven’t.
In regards to extended techniques, there are some I can do and some that I can’t right now, and that’s fine! Multiphonics are really great, but I find a lot of satisfaction in how the fingers move between notes and then experimenting with how that type of technique then moves to different notes. There are techniques like slap tonguing that I don’t feel most proficient in, and that’s ok! I’m working on it, but I don’t think it has to mean, “You’re not this proper type of musician if you can’t do this, this and this!” They should be part of the process and I don’t think they should be othered, or even considered extended, necessarily. They’re just part of what’s out there.
HR: I feel the same. In 2021, one of my teacher’s classes did a sort of ‘group online performance class’ for (solo bassoonist) Bram Van Sambeek, where I played a piece called Niggun by Philippe Hersant. It has loads of multiphonics in it, and I asked him afterwards how you go about approaching that and making the multiphonics part of the very music itself, rather than a separate ‘bit’ within the piece where you just happen to do this strange thing. He essentially said that you have to learn them as if they are new notes that are just part of yours and the instrument’s vocabulary, and not to see them as ‘other’ – they have just as much worth as the ‘pure tone’ note next to it. They’re not separate. It’s not an extra thing I’m tacking on, it’s part of the instrument.
And lastly, I wanted to ask you about your scrap clarinet!* I know you don’t own the one I saw you play, so who did you get it from? Because I saw it and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since!
*Note from the interviewer: Michelle and I both took part in a concert for the new music collective and concert series Treephonia in September 2022, an initiative focussed on commissioning music inspired by trees and nature. Michelle played on a scrap clarinet made by artist Andrew Pierce in 2022.
MH: So Andrew (Zhou, founder of Treephonia) worked with an artist (Andrew Pierce) through RCM who made these scrap metal instruments sometime last year. Mine was a winding tube with this beautiful floral bell to it. To play it, I had to use an embouchure very similar to a flute embouchure. Around the mouthpiece there’s a piece of wrapped-around balloon for me to blow, instead of a reed, and there’s five finger holes and one on the thumb hole on the instrument – so it’s almost more recorder-like. It also makes more low frequency sounds. It was really interesting because I just had to use my ear and gauge where things were. It was a super fun thing to play.
HR: Did it feel at all like a clarinet to play?
MH: Not really, because Andrew actually called it a ‘scrap-metal contrabass clarinet’, so at first I thought that was interesting because of the size of it, being much smaller than a contrabass. The vibrating sound you get with it was similar to the feeling when playing contrabass, so even though in size it was closer to a clarinet, the sounds and the physical sensations were closer to a contrabass. I would definitely love to do more with it in the future because it was really cool, and to have more time to mess around with fingerings and other techniques.
HR: Did you get a sense of personality, in the short time you had with it?
MR: A little bit! I felt a bit of connection with it, especially with a new way of sitting, a new way of approaching an instrument – these are all things I feel I’ve brought from my other instruments and music-making to that one.