A little about legacy and responsibility

Donald Ambler in Studio, (c) M. Sloss

Welcome to the inaugural post for our re-booted PWIC blog. I felt it was fitting to make the first post about the artist and teacher who was the first to truly inspire me as a performer, and to ultimately start our business.

For a performing artist there is almost always that transformative experience or teacher that anchors a lifelong passion for and understanding of the arts. I was very fortunate at a critical juncture in my development as a young musician to have met and cultivated a long-term mentorship relationship with a terrific artist and an amazing human being, Donald Ambler.

This May marks six years since his passing. On my last visit to Colorado I had a bit of time to sit and reflect on the tangible and intangible gifts he gave me, and how he shaped my future (now my present). His inspiration led to me majoring in music, organizing and playing in small and large ensembles, and starting Professional Wind Instrument Consultants. But there are a few more elusive things that much more profoundly defined my experience with him and to which I try to do justice as much as I can but probably still not as much as I should.


I think everyone appreciated that Mr. Ambler (and I and many of his other students never stopped referring to him that way) never charged enough for his services. If memory serves, the whole time I was in high school and well into college his price was $16 a lesson.  Even in 1980’s dollars that was not much for what he provided, but seemed like all that he needed. More importantly, the lessons never stopped at an hour of instruction. We would often run over if there was not another student waiting. He would give me reeds if he thought I was playing on garbage. He changed my barrels and mouthpieces and when I would offer to pay for them he would give me a sly look and say “No, no, it’s just a loan. Give it back when you are done with it.” If I did try to return something he would insist on what he described as horse-trading and give me something else in exchange – for the item that was his in the first place!

And then, there were the audition and competition prep sessions. Sometimes he charged and sometimes he did not, because “this is important”. He would set me up in an adjacent studio while he taught other lessons and have me play for 6, 8, or sometimes 10 hours, sticking his head in periodically to tell me to do something or change something. No question he was listening. This could go on for days and in a few instances weeks.

Integrated artistry

This was a legacy from his teachers, some of whom ultimately became my teachers as well. Sure, we would spend a lot of time on the mechanics of playing, pitch, articulation and airflow and how to shape a line and turn a phrase.  That was all in service of the music. He made sure I did not just focus on the excerpt though, but took in and understood the whole symphony. He made sure I knew how the symphony fit into the full canon of the composer’s works, where the same musical language appeared in other pieces, what the historical context was for the work, what paintings and sculptures he would have been looking at and who would have inspired or performed the work. He made sure I was not playing notes on a page, but actively participating in a piece of art.

Steward of history

Oh, the stories. Anybody who knew Mr. Ambler knew about the stories. You needed to pay attention though to discern between history and having your leg pulled. His career followed the arc of the American symphony orchestra in the second half of the 20th century. When he would retell his experiences in Indiana, in Chicago, in New York, and ultimately in Denver, with anyone from his high school music teacher to luminaries like Daniel Bonade, Anthony Gigliotti and Clark Brody, I knew I had a documentary responsibility to remember them and learn from them. He was not just telling his story, though. He was recounting the stories of the people that influenced him and handing me the responsibility for the oral history of our instrument and playing tradition to pass on to my students.

Success through succession

For all the great playing that Mr. Ambler did, particularly on his big-belled Buffet bass clarinet, he measured his own success more through the achievements of his students. Students went on to the Boston Symphony, to the President’s Own, even to the Denver (now Colorado) Symphony Orchestra. They took positions in big and small ensembles, as teachers in their own rights, or simply took their clarinets and went and lived full lives doing other things having had a rich musical experience under his tutelage. He talked constantly in lessons about those students, holding them out as benchmarks for real achievement toward which to strive.

There is much more to say, but it will suffice to leave it there. I have tried to imbue my own teaching and this business with Don Ambler’s generosity, his artistry, his stewardship and his focus on the future, and welcome our woodwind community to join me and join us in caring for that legacy and creating new opportunities for the next generation of performing artists.