Tom Ridenour and one of his clarinets
ATG, or “against the grain,” is an acronym for of one of Tom Ridenour’s clarinet products, and it pretty much sums up the way Ridenour does business. In an industry where exotic woods dominate upper-end clarinet manufacturing, Tom’s instruments don’t just run against the grain. They run against its very existence. You see, they’re made of rubber.
“I chose hard rubber because of how it sounded and played,” Ridenour explained from his Dallas home business, a far cry from the major factory where he had been chief designer.
Skeptical at first, Ridenour’s initial experience trying out a batch of imported models for a store wasn’t exactly favorable.
“They were terrible,” he laughed, “especially the tuning.”
But then something unexpected caught Ridenour’s attention – the surprising tone and how precisely the material had allowed for exacting dimensions – even if they happened to be the wrong ones. Experimentation followed, and to his total surprise, hard rubber allowed for a more consistent product.
“It was much better than can be achieved with wood or plastics,” he said.
Despite his lengthy design experience with traditional woods plus an international reputation at stake, Ridenour was sold. The more he experimented with hard rubber, the more encouraged he became.
“Eventually I worked with a factory to produce prototypes of my own with advanced acoustics,” he said. “The supplier had the model tested by some excellent players. After that I got a lot more willing cooperation, and things developed from there.”
What developed was his personal line of clarinets and related products, plus his own production facility.
“We turned my large double garage into an enclosed shop,” he said. “I also have two rooms completely dedicated to the business in the home. It’s all craftsman-like work, requiring skill, time and specialized tooling, but it doesn’t actually take a lot of room.”
Ridenour’s system is unique. In a state where latex doesn’t flow as freely as oil, Tom imports the rubber parts from Asia. Then he hand-builds, regulates and tests the finished product one clarinet at a time.
Contrary to the term “Texas sized,” Tom’s facility has a work force of three and a half: Tom’s son Ted, who handles paper work and helps with shipping, his wife, who does organizational work, and his son, Will.
“He helps at times with whatever needs to be done,” Ridenour explained.
Because Ridenour’s cottage factory is based on old-fashioned American thrift, it also happens to be “green.”
“There is little or no material waste with hard rubber, and comparatively lots of waste with, say, Grenadilla wood,” Ridenour explained. “Hard rubber requires no expenses for the time, storage and ovens required in pre-processing and final curing.”
Ridenour’s setup is free of unions, white-collar management, CEO bonuses, advertising, dealers and paid endorsers.
“All those costs are factored into the final price of big-name clarinets, and not one of them makes the instrument play the least bit better,” Ridenour said. “Of course what they do improve are the bank accounts of the MBA’s and bankers who wouldn’t know a clarinet from a glockenspiel.”
Change has come slowly to an instrument dating from the 1600s, and some teachers have been almost as slow to accept hard rubber clarinets, even if it means the instrument is less likely to crack, costs less, spares the owner of a year’s breaking-in period and lasts longer. But even that is changing.
“I’m knowing more and more who judge an instrument on its actual playing qualities rather than its label, the material it’s made from or where it is made,” Ridenour said. “We’re now selling clarinets to some top players in symphonies as well as to young students. We don’t make any distinctions. We serve whoever comes to us as best as we can.”
Combine a Masters in clarinet performance from Yale with an attitude that runs against the grain, and what do you get next? Answer: A series of educational videos on YouTube.
“I just try to give information to help players get through many of the difficulties quickly that took me years to figure out. I get a lot of good comments, and some of the videos have thousands of hits,” Ridenour said.
Of course, any opinion online can generate opposition.
In one Q&A session, a viewer identifying himself as “Perplexed” wrote, “Dear Tom, my clarinet teacher says that because you’re getting old, everything you say is going to be wrong.”
“Dear Perplexed,” Tom answered in a matter-of-fact tone. “He says this because he is young and everything he says is going to be stupid.”
Laced with humor, sometimes vitriolic, Tom’s videos cross a line many teachers consider taboo. He has several do-it-yourself repair and maintenance videos on YouTube as well.
“Absolutely. I always believed clarinetists should be as self sufficient as possible,” he said.
Perhaps what runs most against some people’s grain is Tom’s links and his own blog, which openly endorse religious principles, constitutional government and limited federal involvement in the affairs of states, an ideology best expressed in his pet name for the nation’s capital, “Mordor-on-the-Potomac.”
At a time when being too big to fail seems the only way to survive in a rocky economy, Ridenour’s mom-and-pop philosophy truly runs against the grain, but Ridenour remains optimistic.
“Remember, small businesses can compete with large companies by offering what they can’t: niche products, unique knowledge and expertise and after-point-of-purchase support, all packaged with personalized treatment and service in mind,” he said. “American customers are hungry for the personal care and service most large companies don’t provide.”
Tom’s website is RidenourClarinetProducts.com.
A music critic and former orchestra teacher, James Thigpen owns and plays a Ridenour clarinet.