The mouthpieces came first. In the mid 1970s I was still a professional player and began to work on mouthpieces seriously, for my own use initially. I just re-faced existing mouthpieces to start with. I'd change something a little, notice what impact it had, then try other things and gradually build up a feel for the thing. Friends would come along and notice that I always seemed to have a more responsive mouthpiece than they did and say, "Do one for me", and that is when it really started.
In a surprisingly short time, in my little south London flat, I was getting people from the London Symphony and the English Chamber Orchestra saying, "Can you help me?" This may not have been a comment on me at all but may have said something about the mouthpieces then available to them. They were not all 1010 players by any means, so presumably, even if they wanted a mouthpiece for a Buffet clarinet, they thought that if there was someone who had a feel for this, and could perhaps do something to help, it was worth a try. It surprised me at the time, but it offered encouragement.
This was the period when many British players were abandoning their old B&H instruments and changing to Buffet. Alan Lucas, who was in charge of Buffet UK, was the man mainly responsible for this major change. Alan took an interest in my mouthpiece work and gave me a box of old Buffet mouthpieces that he didn't want, to experiment with. He had lots of them because then, if you bought a Buffet clarinet, the last thing you wanted was the mouthpiece. People just threw them away.
In the mid 1970s I started buying in my own part-finished blanks, from the United States initially and later from Germany and France. I started to do things in a controlled, meticulous manner, so that if there were two mouthpieces marked the same, they were the same, as near as dammit. At this time, as well as working on mouthpiece facings, I started investigations into mouthpiece bores. You can significantly affect the tuning of the clarinet from within the mouthpiece and I put a lot of time into that, including making the reamers to cut the bores.
It was a bit frustrating because the mouthpiece could only correct so much, since the instruments themselves needed correction as well. That led to my interest in designing clarinets. In the music business there are many people who tinker with mouthpieces, and they put their names on them. Some are good, some are not so good. You can do the same thing with barrels, because a barrel is easy to make. It will affect things. The same with ligatures. They can have an impact, and again, getting a ligature into production is comparatively simple. But the clarinet is the main thing.
The next significant step was that ex Boosey & Hawkes craftsmen Tony Ward and Derek Winterbourn, who were oboe makers in North London, wanted to expand into clarinet making. The first instrument that they produced was a copy of an old Louis E flat clarinet. They had heard about my mouthpieces and came along and asked, "Could you design a mouthpiece for our E flat clarinet?" So I did, and it included a special bore, which still has a particular tuning advantage for those clarinets. I worked out something for E flat mouthpiece bores that had not been done before, and it was a definite step forward. All the Ward & Winterbourn instruments were sold with one of my mouthpieces.
At this point Tony and Derek had made one B flat clarinet, which was based on the B&H Imperial 926 model. So we got together and produced a prototype clarinet, with my design ideas linked to their manufacture. I worked out the tone hole positions for Tony and Derek, specifying undersize bore and tone holes and also gave them specifications for the bell and barrel. I then finished the bore, undercut the tone holes, having made the cutters myself, made the speaker tube and finally fine-tuned it.
That first instrument was essentially a large-bore 1010 type clarinet, but with improved intonation and evenness of sound. The 1010 had been a highly successful instrument during the 1930s and 1940s but when it was reintroduced for the first time after the war, in the early 1950s, the newer instruments were not well received. So, throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s many British professionals still preferred their old pre-war instruments. Geoffrey Acton was responsible for some improvements in the mid 1960s, but not a great deal had been done since he left B&H to set up his own retail and repair shop. Because of this, to be honest, it wasn't very difficult to make immediate improvements.
That very first instrument had a thin walled body, much the same as the pre-war instruments, but I wanted a thicker wall, so we made another one. Tony and Derek were not overjoyed about that because they had prepared a lot of joints for the thin-walled body before we came together, but when we compared those first two instruments, the heavier one was clearly preferable. Looking back, it was very good of Tony and Derek to go along with this in the circumstances. They could have been forgiven for digging in their heels. The third instrument we made was our first A clarinet, with the heavier body of course.
Because of my mouthpiece work, I had come to know quite a lot of the leading London professionals and a number of them were interested enough to take those first instruments into their orchestras to try them. Roy Jowitt and Ronald Moore from the London Symphony, and Hale Hambleton, the English National Opera principal, were particularly supportive at this time. They came back saying, "Nice clarinets. When can we get a pair?" Hale eventually bought all three of those first experimental instruments, though he now has later models, as things have moved on, as they always will.
We then made our first batch of six B flats. Hale Hambleton bought one and so did Roy Jowitt, the London Symphony principal. Emma Johnson took one just three weeks before she won the BBC Young Musician competition. Another young player, Richard Hosford, now principal of the BBC Symphony and of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, also bought one.
Tony Ward and Derek Winterbourn were doing the basic construction and I was responsible for the design, finish and final tuning. We made about forty of those clarinets in that way. Anyone was welcome to come along and ask for one, as indeed they did, but a lot went into the profession. I was particularly pleased when Jack Brymer played a pair in the London Symphony for the few months leading up to his retirement from the Orchestra. That other great English player, Gervase de Peyer, also bought his first Peter Eaton clarinets at around the same time.
Unfortunately, in the middle of all this, Tony Ward decided to emigrate to Australia, but we had it all sorted out by the time he went. So, for some time, he was constructing instruments in Australia and sending them back for me to finish.
When Boosey & Hawkes ended clarinet production around 1984, there were a few tentative contacts between me and B&H in the months that followed, because I was very keen to see the English clarinet-making tradition continue.
I finally made a significant contact with Hugo Schreiber, who was in overall control of the B&H group at that time, in December 1985. Initially I just tried to buy a few bits and pieces from him. I rang to ask if I could buy some raw materials and he told me that they had a substantial amount of clarinet-related parts etc. that they no longer needed. I visited the factory a few days later and found that they had a room full of components, raw materials and so on. At first I didn't realize what an opportunity there was in that room but the significance dawned on me within a day or two!
After Christmas I went back to see the manager of the Edgware factory to agree a price. I also asked then about other pieces of equipment - investment casting patterns, detailed component drawings etc. and, most important of all, the soldering jigs. You may not appreciate what goes into a soldering jig but the more complex soldering jigs can be substantial engineering projects. I said, "What about the soldering jigs?" "Oh yes, you can have those." So they gave them to me! I am most grateful to them because in doing so they gave me the opportunity to set up my own manufacturing business, in England, with the help of top quality English craftsmen like my right-hand man Graham Pinder. A lot of the advantage gained has been passed onto our customers because we are able to produce clarinets of the highest quality at an affordable price.
Soon afterwards I asked a specialist engineer to design a computer-controlled setting-out machine for drilling the tone holes, pillar positions etc., and also the tooling for profiling the joints and bell. Within a few months we were up and running, producing our first Peter Eaton Elite clarinets.
Our large bore Elite clarinet has moved steadily forward over the years. I am always on the lookout for improvements and because we make only modest numbers of instruments we can incorporate any changes immediately. In the early 1990s I developed our small-bore clarinet, the International. The idea here was to produce a clarinet essentially the same as the Elite but which could be used with the usual standard small-bore mouthpiece available anywhere in the world, whereas the Elite has to have a special mouthpiece bore. Players can simply attach their favourite mouthpiece to the International and get on with playing immediately. It has proved very successful and has opened up a worldwide market for our instruments.
We have never ventured into E flat or bass clarinets, though we've made a basset clarinet for Emma Johnson. It would be interesting to get involved with the design of French and German clarinets because I feel sure that I could make a contribution, but it will not happen now. I am too busy with the English ones.
The business is ripe for expansion now but I prefer to keep it small because I really enjoy the day to day practical involvement. I still do a fair amount of the production myself, including all the mouthpiece work. Perhaps the time for expansion would be when I eventually retire and hand over the business to someone else.
I have recently bought my last ever batch of wood, because I like to plan well ahead. I now have so much wood that I will have to turn the last of it into clarinets from the grave, or hand it on to someone else! It is African Blackwood, of the rosewood family, a wood associated with clarinets and oboes for a very long time. Occasionally over the years some makers have tried other woods and we seem to be going through one of those periods at the moment, but I want the most dense and stable wood I can get, which is unquestionably African Blackwood. It machines beautifully and retains its dimensions very well, whereas the softer woods tend to distort much more. That's the problem - as well as the fact that these other woods just don't offer quite the same musical qualities to the finished instrument.
We allow it to mature naturally for several years at least. Part way through this process we machine it from square section to round and put in an undersize bore. We used to do the boring ourselves, but now we get it gundrilled by a specialist company. It sits around for a long time like that, a very leisurely process. There's a naive concept that once you have dried the wood there should be no problems from then on, but wood is always moving and always will. Think of those occasions when the rings on your barrel, bell or middle joint become a little loose and this is an indication that the bore is also now a little smaller. This can be frustrating for any maker because we all cut our bores to very close tolerances. It is disappointing to find that it can change, although only very slightly of course.
There is a similar problem with mouthpieces. The level of facing definition that I now achieve, and the level of accuracy that I can cut, with the aid of computer-controlled equipment, is far higher than the material can sustain. Most mouthpieces are made of ebonite, a material that gives good results from a purely musical point of view. It is essentially hard rubber, which wears. So it is a good idea to have your mouthpiece checked from time to time and re-faced if necessary, especially if it is used a lot. Crystal is not the answer, because although it holds its dimensions well, at least until you drop it, it is virtually impossible to get a really precise formation in the first place. No two are the same.
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