If you still say “clams” for missed notes …

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… maybe you are getting old.

I have noticed something, confirmed by current students and a former student teaching at another school, the words used today to describe missed notes have changed.

Back when I was a student, in the 1980s, I recall people describing concerts where many notes were missed in the horns as being a “clambake” or “clamfest.” I have always referred to missed notes as clams; this was a normal, standard word in the horn world for me. Coming from that same world, they have for years had the “Clammy” award at the Kendall Betts Horn Camp, and we even have an award in Horn Matters called the Golden Clam, our highest honor.

However, what about out there in the real horn world of today? As far as I can tell, they are mostly called “cracked notes” or by the more straightforward (but less imaginative) term “missed notes.” I put together a quick Twitter poll, and the results are in the graphic below.

Cracked notes and missed notes are the leading terms, followed by clams, frack (a variation on crack), chipped notes, split notes, and spleaah.

Worth noting is that I learned after the survey that many players have separate meanings for cracked and missed notes. Cracked notes are the ones with a chipped attack but you were aiming at the right note, but a missed note is not even playing the correct note at all.

There are a lot of possible terms, really. I have also wondered if clam was more of a term used in American horn (and brass) playing. I know other languages use other terms. For example, my understanding is that in French a missed note is called a “canard” which translates as duck (which makes more sense than clam, in that ducks make a quacking noise).

And really, my horn students are correct, the term “clam” does not actually make sense. What did bivalve mollusks have to do with the sound of a missed note, or how it physically feels? Cracking, on the other hand, makes sense; part of the note cracked off into a different place than the correct harmonic. Chips, fracking, split notes, all are variations on this theme.

So there you have it. Probably not my next research direction, but I will be retiring the term clam from my lexicon.

[Article updated]

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