Guest Article: Six Questions for Clark Fobes
Heather Rodriguez interviews clarinetist and mouthpiece maker Clark Fobes on how he balances a performing career, a highly successful business and still has time to travel and create works of art.
At the age of 23, you began your career as Principal Clarinetist of the Fresno Philharmonic and simultaneously found success as a woodwind repair technician in the San Francisco Bay Area. What eventually prompted you to invest your efforts into opening your own shop?
Actually, I started my repair career in Fresno at age 21, and at that time was 2nd clarinet in the Fresno Philharmonic. I was appointed principal at age 23 and moved to San Francisco in 1981 at age 27 to enter the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a Master’s Degree candidate. In January of 1982 I joined the fine repair staff at “The Woodwind and Brasswind Workshop” in downtown San Francisco, not far from Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House.
I worked there for three years while simultaneously finishing my degree and entering the professional music free-lance scene. When I left the workshop I had eight years of experience specializing in clarinet, saxophone and flute repairs. I wanted more freedom to practice and free-lance, so I started my own small repair business out of a Murphy bed closet in my apartment. I believe my investment in equipment and pads the first year was $3,000, and my total sales were about $3,500! It was a start, and I have never borrowed money, and I have always made a profit. It took many years to develop a good income stream, but in the meantime I had the flexibility to practice and take gigs and auditions. I never wanted to be a “starving artist” and I recognized early that this was an ideal business from which to pursue my playing career.
Shortly after opening your own clarinet repair business, you began serious research and experimentation in the field of mouthpiece design and hand finishing. What drew you into this line of work?
I have always had a natural curiosity about the clarinet, how it functions and its acoustical properties. When I moved to San Francisco, my very first friend in the professional orchestral scene was the very talented clarinetist and bass clarinetist of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Gregory Dufford. Greg had been learning mouthpiece refacing from James Kanter of Los Angeles, and he showed me some of the basics. Once I acquired a few tools I was off and running and OBSESSIVE about learning not only how to face a mouthpiece, but how to properly voice it by adjusting all of the interior shapes. It took me nearly 2 years to get to the point where I could play my own mouthpieces with satisfaction. I focused on refacing mouthpieces for colleagues until 1990 when I decided to start making mouthpieces for sale first from Riffault blanks and later generic blanks from J.J Babbit. In 1991 I developed my first custom mouthpiece with J.J. Babbitt at the encouragement of Ignatious Gennusa. In 2000 I switched to blanks made by the estimable Hans Zinner of Germany. They supplied all of my professional blanks until June of 2018 when they closed their business. I foresaw this dead end more than 3 years ago and started working with Wes Rice of Rice Clarinet Works on my fully machined 10K Series of mouthpieces. I still have about 350 Zinner clarinet blanks, but I can now only offer 10K blanks for bass, Eb and alto clarinet. (Which are fantastic IMHO!)
When I entered the market as a maker of clarinet mouthpieces in 1990, I was not an overnight success. In fact, far from it. Frank Kaspar mouthpieces were then still highly prized and the “modern” masters James Payne, David Hite, Charles Bay, Robert Borbeck, Gennusa, and James Kanter were the standard bearers of the American mouthpiece school. And then of course the pervasive, monolithic competition from Vandoren was discouraging. But I plugged along believing in my particular sound concept and style of mouthpiece making knowing that each year I was gaining knowledge and developing a craft that would eventually overtake my repair business. There is so much satisfaction knowing that I am helping to shape the art of clarinet playing in the US for a whole generation of performers. As of March 18, 2019 I have hand finished more than 12,450 professional mouthpieces covering the full range of the clarinet family.
Performing regularly with the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet is a testament that playing is an important part of your life. How do you find the balance in running a business and performing at such a high level on a regular basis?
It’s tough! It was a lot more difficult when I was raising my son as well, but now that I live alone I have a great deal of flexibility. However, my business has grown so much that even with two part time employees it sometimes is a struggle to keep up. What has allowed me to be successful at both careers is that I have always considered my performing career to be the most fulfilling and thus the most important of the two. I will always prioritize practicing and preparation above mouthpiece making. I stay organized and have become good at delegating responsibilities in the shop. I try to be good to myself by getting regular sleep and eating properly. I am too busy to get sick!
Since its inception in 1985, your business has grown to include not only finely crafted mouthpieces, but also solid wood barrels, bells and extensions for clarinet and auxiliary clarinets. What is your outlook for Fobes clarinet products in 2019 and beyond?
That is a great question! I am 65, and even though I am not ready to retire, I am thinking about the future of my work life and my legacy. Moving forward I will start to pare down our product list a bit in order to focus on the most popular items and to increase efficiency in production. We have one new Debut product coming on line that I am very excited about. This is an alto clarinet mouthpiece that we will be able to retail for about $70. I am very proud of the Debut mouthpieces. There is no company producing hand finished student mouthpieces at the quality and quantity level we are, and I hope to expand that market. The 10K series of mouthpieces is my most ambitious project ever, and I believe that computer milling is the necessary future for professional level mouthpieces. After over 3 years of development we are still working on tweaks to create the best mouthpieces possible. It is my hope that I can create a path for my products to survive and succeed well beyond my lifetime.
Virtually every summer you travel to the Burgundy region of France for vacationing and wine tasting. We’ve seen first-hand your impressive wine collection and have had the pleasure of accompanying you on some wine tasting adventures in San Francisco wine country. How did you become such a wine connoisseur?
I love good wine, and I drink a lot! Living in San Francisco I am very close to some of the great wine growing regions of the world. Wine tasting trips to Napa, Sonoma, Russian River and Dry Creek appellations are easy day excursions for me, so my interest in wine started back in the early 80s, shortly after I moved here. Around 1994 a group of friends, mostly musicians, started a wine tasting group. We would meet monthly, alternating houses and have blind tastings accompanied by dinner. We met regularly for 13 years, and in that time I received a very broad, practical education on wine regions and varietals. In 2006 I made my first trip to Burgundy with two very dear friends and fell in love with the landscape, the ancient villages, the food and of course, the wine. I have been visiting Burgundy nearly every summer since then, and we have added short jaunts to the Southern Rhône as well. Drinking wine in the same village where it was grown and vinified while eating the local cuisine is a life-changing experience that I highly recommend!
Art is also an important part of your life. Aside from being an art collector, you are also an accomplished artist, creating wonderful drawings and sketches. How did you discover your passion and talent for this?
I came to art in a rather roundabout way. I have a twin brother, David, who is a very fine artist living and teaching in San Diego. My younger brother, Steve, is one of the principal architects at the San Diego Zoo and is also a talented artist. My mother (who still paints at age 93!) has always been a creative inspiration for me. So although I never took an art class in high school or college I always loved art, and I knew I had the genetic predisposition towards drawing. Because of my love for contemporary art, I became a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992. I gave tours every month for five years which greatly increased my knowledge of art history in general. I suppose being around so much great art germinated the thought that I should learn to draw. I took a course in basic drawing at San Francisco City College in the Spring of 1992 with the intent of eventually taking up life drawing. It was too difficult to find enough time to draw while being a single father, developing my business and practicing the clarinet. So I gave it up until 2004 when I enrolled in life drawing courses at City College again. A year later I was invited by a friend to join a group of professional artists to draw from the figure every week. For the past 15 years I have tried to draw nearly every week from live models. Drawing is very much like music in that you have to be absolutely in the moment to achieve something beautiful. I am very much an amateur artist, but I enjoy the creative release of drawing and absence of the strict formal structure of classical music. As an artist I am free to explore and create whatever I choose. I am only limited by my imagination. I intend to continue to draw and paint well after I stop playing the clarinet!
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