“Nobody ever encouraged me to practice. Nobody ever pushed me ahead. Nobody ever taught me how to play. Nobody ever told me that I played well.” These are not excuses, but observations of Herbert L. Clarke, the one-time world’s greatest cornetist, that serve as a testament to the singular method through which he realized his dream of becoming a great musician. Through self-motivation, determination, ingenuity, and talent, Clarke overcame hurdles throughout his musical development that enabled him to reach the heights of musical mastery in a way that even he did not expect.
Originally from Woburn, MA and the youngest of five boys, Herbert Lincoln Clarke was born on September 12, 1867 and received musical nurturing early in life, having had William Horatio Clarke, an accomplished organist, pianist, composer, and writer, for a father. Originally beginning his musical training on drums and violin under the guidance of his father, young Herbert had an affinity for band music and often dreamed of playing in one, a desire that his father denounced long before Herbert ever picked up the cornet, setting the stage for an unprecedented twist of fate. Upon hearing his brother Edwin perform on cornet, Herbert’s fascination with the instrument at the age of ten profoundly inspired him to devote every spare moment of his youth to perfecting his craft.
While the young Herbert’s venture into music was marked generally by astounding leaps in progress, obstacles never failed to present themselves along the way, and it is the sensibility through which Clarke conquered them that is most remarkable.
“…always know and feel just when to grasp an opportunity and then hold to it with tenacity.”
Clarke won one of his first victories when he was fourteen, then living with his family in Toronto, and wished to purchase a new cornet for himself. Inspired to earn more money after earning $3 for a performance with a local orchestra, Herbert shoveled snow for his neighbors, which yielded little useful income. Discouraged, though not to the point of submission, Herbert knew that the Canadian government supplied instruments to musicians of the Queen’s Own Regimental Band, an excellent amateur ensemble, not known for admitting minors. Wishing to keep this rather adventuresome plan a secret from the family, who often said to him, “you play rotten,” Herbert’s youthful enthusiasm and audacity led him to ask one of the band members, who also sang in church, if a new cornetist was needed. To Herbert’s surprise, he was invited to attend the next rehearsal, where he was not only assigned a position with the band, but was given a shiny, new cornet.
“I was ready to take advantage of every opportunity to perfect myself in music…”
One of Clarke’s greatest attributes was his humility. Never content or complacent with his progress, he took up playing the viola in a family-formed string quartet in addition to practicing arranging and composing music in order to become as well-rounded a musician as possible. These supplementary activities proved worthy endeavors, as practicing viola contributed to greater sensitivity of musical phrasing, and arranging and composing demonstrated the value of mental practicing, which only afforded Clarke greater facility on cornet.
“Well, if I want to be a great cornet player, I must be perfecting the little things first, otherwise I can only reach a certain limit and stay there.”
As is often the case in being a performer, one must learn to accept criticism, whether constructive or not. Fortunately for Clarke, he had been blessed with the ability to discern opportunities for growth, particularly where others’ pride might have presented a barrier. During his stint with the reputable “When Band” of Indianapolis, the teenage Clarke found himself the subject of ridicule by a fellow bandsman who listened to his private practice sessions and subsequently told him how “rotten” he played, which lasted for weeks. Not exempt from his feelings becoming hurt, Herbert initially requested that the man stop bothering him, though to no avail. After continuing to be criticized, Clarke simply asked the man what it was that he didn’t like about his playing, only to discover that he had, in fact, been making several mistakes without ever going back to correct them. Now realizing that his critic was actually a “friend-in-disguise”, Clarke recognized that he had only been practicing to play imperfectly and saw this as an opportunity to rework his practice routine in order to eliminate sloppy, careless mistakes.
“…there is no one, no matter how good, who cannot be replaced…”
As cultural traditions and tastes in music change, there always remains one constant, harsh reality in the life of a working musician: the uncertainty of finding and maintaining a job. Enjoying equal success on the viola as the cornet, Clarke had himself a respectable position as a violist with English’s Opera Orchestra in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, faced with the age-old hardship of attracting audiences, financial straits forced cuts to be made from within the orchestra, and both Herbert and one of his brothers were out of a job. Clarke realized at this moment that one must never be wholly dependent upon a single source of income, but must exercise independence in creating one’s own opportunities. Shortly after losing this position and still only nineteen, Clarke moved to Rochester, N.Y. to be with his parents and actually did become so discouraged that he nearly give up his life as a musician, until a man from the Academy of Music came knocking on the Clarke family’s door, asking for a boy who played viola and cornet. Again playing viola in the very line of work that had proven to be so vulnerable, yet all the more wise in the arena of self-promotion, Clarke saw a unique opportunity to offer his talents on the cornet, suggesting to the director the idea of having the orchestra accompany him in daily solo performances prior to the feature, and a career was born. One year later, Clarke was offered the prestigious position of cornet soloist with the Citizens’ Band, of Toronto, and continued to blossom into international stardom, holding subsequent positions with Gilmore’s Band, Victor Herbert’s Band, and that of the inimitable John Philip Sousa.
An American Dream come true, Clarke’s life story serves as an inspiration for musicians today. He made a career for himself in a beloved musical tradition through employing creative thinking, sound logic, and unwavering work ethic in order to overcome hurdles that threatened his path toward a career as a consummate musician.