Dale Clevenger: Performer and Teacher

The title of today’s post comes from a recent doctoral dissertation by Margaret Tung (D.M.A., Ohio State University, 2009), who is now a freelance horn player in the Chicago area.  I came across Dr. Tung’s dissertation while poking around the web site of Ricardo Matosinhos, a professional horn player and composer in Portugal.  If you haven’t checked out Ricardo’s page, it has some great stuff, including an extensive listing of downloadable articles and dissertations.  I was familiar with many of the documents listed, but Margaret’s dissertation jumped out at me for several reasons.   1) In his position as Principal Horn of the Chicago Symphony, Dale Clevenger has been one of the most influential orchestral horn players of the latter part of the 20th century,  2) Mr. Clevenger’s teaching methods have not really been documented in detail, and 3) very little biographical information on Clevenger exists in printed form.  Margaret’s research covers all three of these topics, and is actually very fun to read, reading more like a biography than a dissertation.  Quoting from the abstract, which you can read here, these were the goals of this document.

The purpose of this document is twofold. First, it is designed to provide detailed biographical information on Clevenger. This information offers insights into Clevenger’s career, with particular attention given to experiences and decisions that have contributed to his success. The second purpose is to describe in detail two of Clevenger’s unique teaching methods, namely “synchronization” and “pursing.” Through personal interviews, Clevenger has provided highly specific information about these teaching methods. Photographs are included in order to enhance and clarify the descriptions.

Looking at the table of contents – you can display or download the entire dissertation for free at this link – most of the chapters deal in some way with Clevenger’s professional biography.  After an introductory chapter, subsequent sections address his early years, college years, freelancing, CSO years, and teaching methods. In addition, the appendix includes an extensive discography of Clevenger’s work with the CSO.  One particularly interesting section discusses Clevenger’s work as a jazz musician, something I was unaware of.

As a jazz musician, Clevenger spent seventeen years performing with the jazz group, Ears. He explained that the name Ears is a play on the word eras, stemming from the phrase, “Jazz of all Eras.” He said, “It was quite an education, and it called up all my previous knowledge of being able to play the horn and feel jazz.” As a high school student, Clevenger had begun listening to the music of Stan Kenton. He commented, “I was listening to that kind of music and I got exposed to it early on. I never made the decision that jazz wasn’t for me. I basically kept an open mind.” [pp. 59-69]

Another chapter deals with his teaching methods, specifically the concepts of “synchronization” and “pursing.”  Much of Clevenger’s pedagogy and playing technique can be traced back to these two ideas.  The author first describes them briefly as follows.

Two elements of fine horn playing that must be in constant balance are Synchronization and Pursing. Synchronization involves the process of beginning to play a note, in which the mouthpiece and horn connect to the face. Many factors must simultaneously occur, or inaccuracies on the horn will result. These factors include pressing in the mouthpiece, breathing, forming an embouchure,and placing the tongue for articulation while releasing the air. Pursing, or facial isometrics, involves changing the oral cavity of the mouth as well as the shape of the lips and embouchure to enable more air to flow through the lips, which produces a rich and centered tone. Synchronization and pursing, two unique teaching emphases of Clevenger, involve both physical and mental aspects of playing which improve sound and consistency on the horn. [pp. 67-68]

The detailed explanations of synchronization and pursing which follow include several photographs of Clevenger’s embouchure and mouthpiece placement, as well as instructions on how to perfect these techniques.  Though the terms may be unfamiliar, the concepts themselves are ones which many brass players generally recognize as being fundamentally important to performing at a high level.  Though I never personally studied with him, I have worked with several of Clevenger’s students in master classes and lessons over the years, and have been inspired and influenced by numerous CSO recordings.  Dr. Tung’s research fills in several gaps in the literature, and could easily be developed into several journal articles or a book.  Congratulations and bravo Margaret!


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