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Audiences take note of extraordinary clarinet professor

December 02, 2008

The moist monsoon air begins to dissipate in Arizona during the early part of each fall semester. That is when Robert Spring and his friends take the stage. The audiences often respond as if they are being entertained by a rock star.

Spring is a professor of clarinet in the School of Music at Arizona State University’s Herberger College of the Arts. He’s done the work for more than 20 years. He makes no apologies. Influenced by the greats of the clarinet—Benny Goodman, Buddie DeFranco and Eddie Daniels among them—he cites rock and roll as instrumental in his performance style.

“I think that a lot of the emotional side of it comes from going to Pink Floyd concerts and seeing Jimmy Hendrix and going to hear Deep Purple and all of the energy those performers put behind their music,” he confesses.

The results are impressive. Whether playing a classical chestnut like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, or premiering a piece written for clarinet and saxophone that challenges the most liberated ears, Spring earns your attention. He has such an intense command of technique and style that his entire body seems to play his instrument. His face contorts into shapes that allow him to play literally minutes at a time without taking a mouthful of air. He attracts enthusiastic audiences to his concerts on the ASU campus, as well as to venues throughout the country and the world.

Wayne Bailey is a professor and former ASU School of Music director. He has watched Spring grow over the years.

“Bob's performance level is outstanding. He is undoubtedly one of the best clarinet players in the world. All you have to do is look at where he is invited to perform each year—he’s performed on six continents.”

And for those who think musicians are born into their talent, Spring is quick to dispel that myth. He says that he was humiliated when he first auditioned for John Mohler, professor of clarinet at the University of Michigan.

“I played about 15 seconds and he stopped me and said, ‘Boy, you're not very good.’”

But Spring was determined to study with Mohler and he learned discipline and motivation from his mentor.

“Part of it was that he played for us in every lesson. We all wanted to be like him. He had this beautiful sound and this wonderful technique and his way of motivating was not by anger or anything like that. If you were unprepared he’d say, ‘Ah geez Bob, I was really hoping we could move on to something else this week.’ And you just felt so bad that you practiced like crazy to be better the next time.”

Spring’s determination has led him to explore techniques that have grown to be part of the clarinet’s repertoire. He was one of the early practitioners of circular breathing.

“You exhale until your lungs are fairly empty,” the ASU musician explains. “Then you puff out your cheeks and the soft palette comes down and the tongue comes up and it forms a seal in your mouth. Then you breathe through your nose. It enables you to play longer and hold phrases longer.”

This is one of Spring’s signatures that elicits hoots and whistles from an audience, bringing them to their feet at the end of some of his extraordinary performances. It is part of his charisma, his draw—what attracts people to his concerts.

Like his mentor, Spring motivates his students through his love of music and his extraordinary technique. Katie Norman is a graduate student. She receives knowledge of the clarinet and Spring’s extensive training during her classes with him. But he also guides her in how to prepare for a performance, how to turn away from the score, how to gloss over any possible mistake she might make.

“He believes in his students. He really feels that we can all learn from each other,” she says. “I think that's why he works so hard to create a familial environment in the studio. Professor Spring is always pushing boundaries and challenging his students to do the same and not be afraid.”

Dealing with his own performance anxiety has allowed Spring to guide students to rehearse unflinchingly. They rehearse until they have gained enough confidence to take the music to a higher level. The performance becomes a part of their body—they know when to take a breath, where to turn a page, when to just listen.

Spring is an endowed Evelyn Smith Professor in the School of Music. He uses funds from that endowment to enrich his students’ experiences in music. His students all have the opportunity to record their work; some are even commissioning work for their instrument. They learn the recording and editing business and emerge with a polished CD of their recordings.

“The first thing that we have to do is to teach everybody to play as well as they can on their instrument, to perform as well as they can,” Spring explains. “We also have to train the mind, the mind that is going to expand into doing a variety of different things. We don’t teach one thing anymore. If students say they want to play in an orchestra, we don’t just teach them orchestra music. If they say they want to play in a military band, we don’t just teach them band. We’re teaching the complete student now.”

Beyond his teaching, Spring is engaged in research through commissioning new works by contemporary composers. A recent concert featured a composition by Andy Mead, with whom Spring studied music theory as a graduate student.

Mead’s work is complicated, dense and challenging. The early rehearsals were tense. Wayne Bailey conducted the piece for cello, viola, violin, clarinet, and percussion. He explains Spring’s role in an ensemble.

“He’s confident in his technique and can make quick adjustments when things go wrong in an ensemble setting. He is a terrific member of a group because he hears so well what other players are doing and makes adjustments to them. Conducting Bob is mostly trying to stay out of his way and let him play.”

The rehearsals for Mead’s work brought some edgy moments for the players. But the composer was delighted with the performance.

“I've had some pretty gruesome performances in the past with unhappy players, but this was as far from that sort of thing as I could ever hope for,” says Mead. “While they were ready to tell me that parts were tough they all dug in and gave me a very great gift in their performance.”

ASU has given Spring opportunities to develop his own art and to transfer his passion and skills to those who study with him. He is also an ambassador for the clarinet and a champion of commissioning new work for the instrument to develop a living repertoire of music.

“We’re really lucky at ASU,” he says. “We have the opportunity to play new music and people will come and hear it and enjoy it. And when you’re dealing with an audience that is pretty highly educated to begin with, they’re going to want to experience those new things.

Composers like Mead agree. “All too many musicians these days live in a kind of museum of the past, curators of a repertoire that was basically complete by 1897. Bob is not only dedicated to playing as well as possible, but has found that his musical life, which includes the incredible repertoire of earlier centuries, must also flourish in the now. He provides leadership for the field, his students, and their audience.”

Sheilah Britton,
(480) 965-0413