Following Peter Eaton's article in this year's spring issue, Anna Hashimoto talks to the clarinet maker about his life and playing, teaching, and instrument manufacture.
As a player of the Peter Eaton International model clarinets, I was curious to know how Peter transition from performer to instrument maker. I asked him a few questions at my recent overhaul appointment. Firstly, what inspired him to take up the clarinet?
"My serious interest in classical music started really quite late," he told me. "A close friend at school had a record player for his Christmas present when we were around 15, and I started to listen to piano concerto recordings with him. A couple of years later I went with a group of friends to see the film The Benny Goodman Story and became hooked, buying my first clarinet, a Boosey & Hawkes 8-10, which they were selling off at the time."
Following this, Peter had a few lessons before leaving school, and then essentially taught himself while getting the odd lesson from a local amateur clarinettist. Juggling full-time office work with practice during weekday evenings and weekends, he got a place at the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1963. In his final year there, the Ulster Orchestra was being newly formed. Peter auditioned and was offered a job, initially as second clarinet. A few weeks later he was offered the principal clarinet position. "So, exactly five years and two months after I played my first note on a clarinet, I had been appointed to a principal clarinet position with a full-time professional orchestra."
After four years in the orchestra, Peter pursued further studies to become a teacher. "I spent one of the happiest years of my life at Bretton Hall College of Education in Yorkshire, and then thoroughly enjoyed nine years as a clarinet teacher in Kingston upon Thames, Wimbledon and Surrey. During that time I realised that I needed to stretch myself much further than teaching offered. I had been working on clarinet mouthpiece facings initially for myself, but word got around and I started getting phone calls from players in the London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Orchestra asking if I could help them. It quickly turned into a part-time business."
I asked what initially got him interested in making clarinets. "In early 1982, I was approached by the oboe makers Tony Ward and Derek Winterbourn, asking if I could design and supply mouthpieces for all their new E-flat clarinets. I quickly learned that they were intending to venture into B-flat and A clarinets. By that time, I had some very firm ideas on clarinet design, so we quickly came together to produce some fine large-bore English clarinets, which immediately went into the hands of some of our leading professionals."
I asked Peter how his performing career has impacted on his instruments. In response to this he told me that during this first year with the Ulster Orchestra, he got the chance to purchase Jack Brymer's spare pair of pre-war 1010s, the London & Paris model. "They made a very beautiful sound but lacked weight, partly because the bells and barrels were made of ebonite. Jack managed to get a sensational sound from them himself but, in my hands, without Jack's wonderful projection, there was simply not enough sound. Most players feel that there is something magical in the instruments that our favourite player uses, whereas in reality it usually has little to do with the instruments, just the phenomenal talent of the player. It was during this period that I fully realised that most players were using instruments with disadvantages that really shouldn't be there at all. This was the start of my desire to try to do something about it."
Finally, I asked Peter if he had any advice for the next generation of clarinettists. "Choose an instrument which allows maximum musical expression rather than one which merely produces an acceptable sound, changing very little throughout the dynamic range. Most clarinettists think of the way the instrument itself should sound and they then try to make music within the limitations of that sound. Think purely musically first, in the way that a great singer would, and then try to produce those musical concepts through your clarinet."
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