Paris Is Listening

One of the publicly accessible collections Northwestern University has on its Repository site is The Robert Marcellus Master Class Audio Archives. The collection consists of 131 ¼” open reel audiotapes that have been digitized for preservation and access. These tapes document a series of Northwestern University master classes held by the American classical clarinetist Robert Marcellus from 1977 through 1990.

Listening to the classes reacquainted me with the art of breathing that I had to learn when playing clarinet in middle school. Marcellus’s soothing voice leads his class through proper embouchure. It is only after 35 minutes into the first class (1977-06-28) that we actually hear a clarinet playing, and it is beguiling when we finally do (37:15).

Harlow Hopkins, a professor at Olivet Nazarene College (now University) is “the first guinea pig,” as Marcellus introduces him. Though his performance of Cyrille Rose's “40 Studies, No. 13" sounds delightful to my slightly-better-than-totally-untrained ear, Marcellus’s incisive critique demonstrates his generosity. He encourages the clarinetists to think in eight notes, not simply quarters, in order to better understand the phrasing in the etudes. Listening to his comforting voice, I started miming old key positions.


More than conjuring up personal memories of band camps, this collection has been exceedingly helpful for many professional clarinetists today. Greg MacAyeal, Acting Head of Northwestern’s Music Library, recently gave a talk entitled “Avalon and On!: The Robert Marcellus Master Class Audio Archive” at the Music Library Association, Midwest Chapter Annual Meeting (Lousiville, KY, October 16, 2015). While the collection received various requests in its analogue form, since being digitized and made available for public use through Avalon, there have been 5582 page hits since the site launched. While 80% of page hits originate from the US, with cities such as Houston, Evanston, Chicago, New York, Denton, and Indianapolis, MacAyeal told me that interestingly Paris, France ranked as the third city for most page hits.


While it is still unclear the extent of Marcellus’s connections to France, in his first master class he discusses how his high school teacher, Earl Hamlin was a pupil of Georges Grisez, a famous French-school clarinetist. This school is the mode of instruction that Marcellus imparts in his Master Classes - practical exercises to focus on breathing and what he describes as the “neat clarity of finger action” — and apparently they are still relevant to assessors of the collection today in Paris and worldwide. MacAyeal remarked how this partnership between The Robert Marcellus Master Class Audio Archives and Avalon Media System has provided a significant contribution to the clarinet community. He has presented on the collection at the 2012 ClarinetFest and the Audio Archives were featured in the community newsletter, The Clarinet, in June 2014.