Clarinets for Conservation teaches students in Tanzania about music, their local ecosystems, and also helps them plant trees. Michele Von Haugg, founder and director of Clarinets for Conservation, will perform at the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts on Saturday, April 13.
PLATTSBURGH — Sometimes, music speaks louder than words.
When Michele Von Haugg established Clarinets for Conservation in 2010, it was the idea of letting her clarinet be her voice that was partly responsible.
The rest of that responsibility lies in her childhood.
“I spent a lot of time in the woods, really just being, in a natural environment,” said Von Haugg, founder and director of Clarinets for Conservation.
When Von Haugg wasn’t busy being in the woods surrounding her childhood home in East Berne, New York, she was reading books about nature and conservation, and found the work of primatologist Jane Goodall to be particularly inspiring.
Upon entering college, she shifted gears and decided to chase music.
After obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education at Ithaca College, Von Haugg entered the Air Force, where she played clarinet in the Air Force Band of Liberty for ten years.
And then her past caught up to her present when she saw the film “Mpingo: The Tree That Makes Music.”
“I had a lightbulb moment,” Von Haugg said. “I figured there must be a way that I can combine this dream of mine of being a child and wanting to have some sort of involvement with conservation in Africa and my passion as a clarinetist.”
The culmination of that dream is Clarinets for Conservation, a non-profit organization that strives to educate people in the United States and Tanzania about music and its relation to the Mpingo, or African blackwood, tree, which is used to manufacture many instruments, including clarinets, guitars, oboes, piccolos and bagpipes.
The documentary follows the process of manufacturing clarinets, starting with the harvesting of the Mpingo tree, which is commercially endangered.
“The Mpingo tree takes 70-200 years to mature, so it has to be at least 70 years old to harvest,” Von Haugg said.
The heartwood of the Mpingo—located at the innermost core of the trunk—is so saturated with carbon that it’s black, making it particularly resistant to damage and therefore extremely well-suited for handling the rigors of instrument manufacturing.
“This tree is not only an official music tree, it’s also beneficial to this global carbon initiative that we’ve got going on,” Von Haugg said. “This tree actually absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than 12 other trees combined.”
But Von Haugg is as much a realist as she is a conservationist.
She isn’t against using Mpingo for instruments, she just wants to educate people on the ecological importance of the tree.
Since most Mpingo is harvested in Tanzania, Clarinets for Conservation works with students in Korongoni Secondary School in Moshi, Tanzania.
The students, most of whom have never seen, or heard, a clarinet, are introduced to the instrument and taught how to play it.
After learning a specific musical program and learning about the Mpingo tree they go on a trip around the region to visit local schools, where they put on an assembly and teach other students about the sought-after tree.
Following the assembly, the students take trees that they brought, some Mpingo, some not, and plant them around the school.
Last year, about 500 Mpingo trees were planted. They will be worth millions of dollars once they mature.
“Those trees become an investment in those schools,” Von Haugg said.
In the United States, Von Haugg does similar programs around the country with Clarinets for Conservation.
Some of them are straight recitals with booths set up to educate about the organization’s efforts, other times Von Haugg lectures about those efforts and includes a discussion of alternative methods of manufacturing instruments that reduce the impacts on Mpingos.
One such alternative is Buffet’s Greenline Clarinet, which is made from throw-away scraps of Mpingo that are ground to a powder and combined with glue.
On Saturday, April 13, Von Haugg will bring the message of Clarinets for Conservation to the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts in a performance that will include information on the organization accompanied by a clarinet recital.
The pieces will include some traditional pieces as well as contemporary pieces, including an arrangement of the Tanzanian National Anthem, written by Brett Wery from Schenectady Community College, and a challenging piece by American composer Eric Mandat that requires circular breathing.
NCCCA Executive Director Janine Scherline will be joining Von Haugg in performing a couple pieces in the program.
For more information, or to make a donation, visit clarinetsforconservation.org