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Julian Bliss

Josh Harris • Archives • March 12, 2009

Wind instruments don’t lend themselves to the child prodigy paradigm. At the age of five or six, when some determined youngsters may already have two or three years of piano or violin study under their belts, the lungs in the human body usually just aren’t developed enough to sustain the breath control necessary to play reeded instruments. In fact, most children don’t have the physical capacity to play wind instruments until they are 11 or 12 years old. That, in part, is what makes Julian Bliss so special.

This quiet and unassuming young man, now aged 19, has already been playing clarinet for 15 years and, during that time, has graced some of the world’s most reputable concert halls. At the tender age of 12, Julian was invited to perform for England’s Queen Elizabeth II, at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of her coronation. The performance was broadcast live in over 40 countries. Julian has also already collaborated with many of the world’s top classical artists, including Joshua Bell, Steven Issalis, Misha Maisky, Steven Kavacavich, Elena Bashkirova, Julian Rachlin, Simon Trepceski, and Helen Grimaud.

School Band & Orchestra’s resident clarinetist, publisher Rick Kessel, caught up with the young phenom at the recent Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. Also present was clarinet designer and technician Morrie Backun, who currently serves as the director of product development for Conn-Selmer’s Leblanc clarinets. three chatted about Julian’s metoric rise through the classical music world, as well as some of the tricks for achieving a great sound on the clarinet.

Rick Kessel: You are one of the youngest clarinetists to become a major artist on the scene. Would you tell me a little about your introduction to the clarinet and some of your early experiences?
Julian Bliss: I started playing at four years old when I was given a plastic clarinet. I knew I wanted to play music but wasn’t certain what to play. I had absolutely no interest in string instruments, and even started playing when I still had baby teeth. Many people said I shouldn’t do that, but I persisted anyway. By the time I was 12, I had a management contract with an artist management company, and was asked to play for the Queen of England’s 50th anniversary.

I went on to study at the Indiana University Jacob’s School of Music, where I earned an artists diploma. My primary teacher there was Howard Klug. I also studied in Germany in Lubec, which is near Hamburg, with Sabine Meyer, who is a great soloist and the former principle clarinetist of the Berlin Philharmonic. At that time I was about 12 or 13 years old. This was very tough and I had a lot of hard work to do, but she is a great teacher with whom I learned a tremendous amount.

Morrie Backun: Julian also recently recorded a CD with Sabine Meyer, which included some great works for two clarinets by Krommer, Spohr, and others (released on EMI Classics, July, 2007).

RK: Were there any difficulties in studying with Meyer as she plays on a German system, Wurlitzer clarinet, whereas you perform on a French style Boehm system instrument?
JB: No, there were no real problems, as there are many clarinetists who go to study Sabine from around the world also play on the Boehm system.

RK: Do you play with a single or double embouchure?
JB: I play with a single embouchure as I prefer that feel over that of the double embouchure.

RK: Since you come from England, would you say that your sound has been heavily influenced by the British school of sound, or by any others?
MB: There used to be more differences in schools of clarinet playing in different countries, but this has changed over the years to become more homogenous. Recently, Ricardo Morales was offered the principle clarinetists job at the Berlin Philharmonic, which, in the past, was only offered to people who played on German system clarinets.

RK: Morrie, you have recently developed a clarinet in conjunction with Julian, and it bears his name. What was the background for the development of this instrument?
MB: The idea of the Bliss instrument is to offer an affordable clarinet that doesn’t restrict the player, and provides a certain ease of playability. It is manufactured with a unique composite which has never been used before. The instrument has the Backun scale, no body rings and the option of a Backun barrel. It comes with a hard rubber mouthpiece and a Bonade ligature. The instrument weighs less than a Grenadilla instrument and comes with several adjusting screws, including the crows foot. The bore has multiple tapers and is manufactured to tolerances of hundreds of thousandths of an inch. The right hand trill keys are moved above the gravity line, so that there is less of a chance of water getting into the tone holes.

RK: Julian, do you have any recommendations to help band directors get a better sound out of their clarinet section?
JB: Clarinets are a unique instrument as they are the only ones that tune in 12ths, which presents tuning issues. Most of the mouthpieces that students use have tip openings that are too close and use reeds that are too soft. The softer reeds can cause the instrument to play flat. Teachers should try to have their students play on hard rubber rather than plastic mouthpieces. This, combined, with a reed of 2

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