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Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview with Tom Puwalski, retired Army Field Band clarinetist, clinician and author of "The Clarinetists Guide to Klezmer"

Hi Everyone! I am so thrilled to bring this interview with Tom Puwalski to you. He is an amazing player, and someone who has taken interesting steps in his career. Though I haven't stated it outright in the blog, my real interest in doing interviews with clarinetists is to see what paths they take in their career. There are many ways to go, and Tom is an excellent example of how to make a great career as a clarinetist. I hope you enjoy the interview, and look for the supplemental post that has an excerpt from his Klezmer book! 


Tom is the author of "The Clarinetists Guide to Klezmer" and has conducted workshops and clinics on clarinet performance and klezmer music. In addition to numerous recordings with the U.S. Army Field Band, he has released two recordings with Lox & Vodka. He has arranged and recorded music for two documentaries on Jewish-American Life: "And Half A Day On Sunday" and "The Old Days," as well as recording studio music for commercials, the Discovery Channel, and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. He is a member of the International Clarinet Society and a Backun artist clinician.

K.M. Tom, you have an interesting career! When you were studying, did you think that you would have taken this path?

T.P. Yes and No.  I started playing the clarinet at age 9, by 10 I was playing in the family polka band.  The U.S Army Field band was the next logical gig.

K.M. Speaking of studying, give us a quick run down of where you studied, whom you studied with, and degrees you may have gotten along the way.

T.P.  My first clarinet teacher was Alan Lawson, he made me transcribe solos off of Pete Fountain plays the blues and Rose Etudes. I still work and perform with Al. We’re running the first annual Wind synthposium together. I was a long time student of Ignatius Genussa, I learned a ton from him.  He had the most amazing sound of any clarinetist that I’ve ever heard. In 1979 I received a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music, and I couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan so I joined the 26th Army Band that was stationed on Staten Island, right under the Verrazano Bridge. I got to Study with Leon Russianoff, he taught me one of the most important lessons: how to practice and learn to play just about anything.  I didn’t finish my undergrad and Masters degree until after I retired from the Army.  I got my masters from U of MD where I studied with Loren Kitt.  I was also studying with Cecil Gold on my own since retirement.  He is an amazing clarinetist and teacher.

K.M. Why did you choose to study Klezmer music, and did you have any experience playing in this style before you chose to study it more seriously?

T.P.  When I was stationed in NY I used to go into Manhatten for my lessons with Leon on Thursdays to take my lesson and go and do something else musical like a show or a concert. We used to get a lot of free tickets through the USO.  One night I was walking around Lincoln Center and the there was a lot of Chassidic Jews going into Lincoln Center. I walked up to one man and asked what was going on, to which he replied “tonight the worlds greatest clarinetist was giving a concert” to which I replied, “I study with Leon Russianoff, and if the worlds greatest clarinetist was performing tonight he would have said something”. This man looked at me quizzically and asked, “you really have never heard of Giora Fiedman?” and I said no.  He reached into his pocket and handed me his ticket and said, “you need this more than I do.”  That was the first time I heard klezmer music and the first time I ever hear Giora. That night changed my life. I went across the street to Sam Goody and bought 2 Giora cassette tapes, Jewish Soul Music and Nigun of my People. I started my education in klezmer that night.

(There are some great clips of Tom playing klezmer clarinet along with many other great clips on his YouTube page www.youtube.com/user/klezmertom)

K.M. When you had the idea to write “The Clarinetists Guide to Klezmer” how did you begin the process?

T.P.  What I tried to do in “The Clarinetists Guide to Klezmer” was describe to the reader how those of us that play the music learned how to play it.  Actually it’s how everyone who plays any kind of music really well learns how to do it.  You have to learn music by listening to it and trying to imitate the players who you enjoy listening to.   Clarinetists are too glued to the page these days. I also think that if one really wanted to learn any kind of music, a great teacher and $5000 of Ipod downloads would be a better way to learn music than most college music programs.

K.M. Now that you have completed the book writing process, do you have any “words of wisdom” for blossoming authors out there?

T.P.  I’m currently working on my second klezmer book and it’s going to be very different from my first book.  This is going to be a klezmer play along.  Less words, more music. I’ll send you one track for everyone to play.  I want more people to actually try to play klezmer then read about it. As for writing advice, write from the heart, and hold nothing back.

K.M. Dustbuster, an interesting alias. :) Tell us about your work with Bobby B! (If you haven’t checked out Tom’s YouTube page yet, he performs with guitarist Bobby B in MANY different styles of music.)

T.P. Bob is an amazing guitarist and plays with me on many of my klezmer concerts. I started playing with Bob at a bar on Friday evenings, I was playing Soprano Sax and Flute, just seeing if I could go a gig without schlepping a clarinet along. I had a Yamaha wx7 since it came out in 1987 and I really loved the concept. I play sax, so the idea of a sax that can sound like anything was a cool, but the sounds on those old machines were just terrible.  I started doing some research and found out that the guys in Hollywood were using windsyths for lots of recording soundtracks. I found the synthesizers that they were using and adapted them to wind synth use. I started bringing it on gigs with Bobby and played 4-5 tunes a night on it, and after a few gigs I started playing it the whole evening. After a few months I didn’t bring an “analog” instrument ie. Sax, flute or Clarinet on duo gigs anymore. Plus it’s Purple sparkle, and how cool is that.

K.M. We can’t ignore your tenure in the United States Army Field Band. How long were you in the band, and were you ever in any other military band?

T.P.  I auditioned on Ft. Meade at the (now disbanded) First Army band.  Half way through the audition, the enlisted band leader called over to the Field Band and said they had a clarinetist they needed to listen to.  I turned down the audition; I grew up in Baltimore and wanted to go to NYC.  So I went to basic training, and the Armed Forces School of Music. After I had spent a little over a year in NY I got a phone call from the department of the Army informing me that I was the most “transferable” clarinetist in the Army, and they wanted to transfer me to Korea. 20 minutes later I got a call from the Field Band asking me if “I wanted to take that audition now.” So I returned to Baltimore and spent the next 18 years with the Field Band. One of the best gigs anyone could ever have.

K.M. What would you say the highlights of your career in the Field Band were?

T.P.  Two particularly come to mind. We were in France playing the 45th  anniversary of D day. We did a bunch of gigs on the beach for survivors. We were then scheduled to march a parade through the first French town liberated by the Allies, St. Mare Eglese. The Brits were playing their march, Colonel Bogey, the French band was playing the French National Defelay. The Belgians were doing the Belgian Parachutist.  We were playing Black Horse Troop, a really good Sousa march but not of the same gravitas as the music of the other groups.  We went to the drum major and asked to change it to Stars and Stripes, he asked the commander who told him that he’s in charge on the parade field, so he changed it. Now the Field Band is pretty much a concert band, we very rarely marched, and we ended every concert with Stars and Stripes with a huge ritard in the trio, and it was no different on the street. The next day the French newspapers said that the Field band is the only band they've ever seen actually march a precision ritard.  When we turned the corner onto the main street of that town, the French were waving American flags in each window. I had Goosebumps. My grandfather had marched through the same town 45 years earlier as a trumpet player.

The second happened a few years later. I was doing a solo on a concert and just before the announcer was to introduce me, he went to the mic and said, “ladies and gentlemen we are pleased to announce that as of 1500 hrs Zulu Time, all hostilities in the Gulf have Ceased, the war is over. Please welcome tonight’s soloist Staff Sergeant Tom Puwalski”. To perform a solo after that was truly amazing experience. I was really aware that I got to take a bow for all the men and women who engaged in that conflict. There was electricity in the air after that announcement.

K.M. That sounds amazing! Would you recommend service bands to interested clarinetists?

T.P. I sure would, there a fewer and fewer gigs available to live musicians these days. If I had to do it again, I would in a heartbeat. It’s also hard to find an orchestra gig that pays more than E-8 retirement. But when I was an auditioning clarinetist for the Army, I was very surprised how few who auditioned could really do the gig.

K.M. What is your most memorable basic training memory?

T.P.  Cleaning the grease pit while on KP. I have never been that greasy ever.  It was the worse day I’ve spent on planet earth.

K.M. How do you stay motivated to keep developing your clarinet skills?

T.P.  I was one of the lucky ones who managed to retire from an Army band, and still love to play music. I really have always enjoyed using a very “Zen” approach to playing and staying in the moment. I only remember one night in 20 years where I wasn’t really “there” when we hit Stars and Stripes, the other times I was there for every note.

K.M. What is your most memorable musical moment?

T.P.  I teach a klezmer class where I teach people to play klezmer music, by ear.  No written music. At the 2007 ICA convention in Vancouver, I taught that class to over 100 clarinetists.  By the end of the class everybody in the class was marching around the room playing a klez tune with my band.  Getting students to get outside their “boxes” and learn is a real turn on to me.

K.M. If you could magically wake up and play any kind of music, what would you do?

T.P.  I would have given anything to play in Astor Piazzolla’s band


K.M. What are you listening to now?


K.M. Bonus nerdo question! What is your clarinet set-up right now?

T.P. I’m playing on a new prototype Backun mouthpiece with either Legere signature 3.75 reeds, or gonzolez 3.5 Leblanc By Backun Symphonie Bb and A clarinets, with cocobolo bells and barrels. I’m very anxiously awaiting my new cocobolo with gold keys Backun Clarinet, this clarinet looks even cooler than my windsyths.

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