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The clarinet is a member of the woodwind family. It's sound is produced by passing air over a single reed causing it to vibrate. This vibration produces the sound which is also the same method used by the saxophone. The Clarinet also has additional similarities to the saxophone that make it a good starting instrument for students who may want to switch to the saxophone later on.
History of Clarinet
The forerunner of the clarinet is the chalumeau (the single reed type; there was also a chalumeau with a double reed called the shawm), which was a small and usually keyless cylindrical pipe. In the 17th century there were a number of strangely shaped instruments of this type. The change from chalumeau to the clarinet took place between 1690 and 1720 due to the work of Johann Denner of Nuremburg with the help of his son Jacob. Denner added two keys to the chalumeau and increased the range by more than two octaves. He also created a better mouthpiece and improved the bell. During the 1700s the clarinet saw many innovations and improvements and the cut and shape of the tone holes was experimented with; one notable name is Iwan Muller who created a 13 key version. In the mid 1800s the Boehm fingering system (developed by Theobald Boehm for the flute) was adapted to the clarinet by Hyacinthe Klose and Auguste Buffet and is the fingering system which remains prominent to this day.
How a Clarinet is Made
The best clarinets are made of African blackwood often called Grenadilla. The natural color of the wood is very dark brown or black and the wood is sometimes dyed black for uniform appearance. Clarinets are also made from hard plastics like resonite which can be made to have the appearance of wood. Beginner models are usually made of this material. New materials have emerged like the “Green Line” which uses Ivory powder and carbon fiber glued together with a special resin….or the LinE which utilizes the dust from the manufacture of Grenadilla wood instruments to eliminate waste. These instruments perform extremely well and are often chosen by professionals.
The wood is purchased in blocks and then sawed into smaller blocks and stored under standardized conditions of heat and humidity for a period of years (to prevent later cracking). Then bores are drilled into the parts and the wood is inspected again before the final shaping and tone holes are crafted. Keys are forged for the levers and pad cups, typically from German Silver (nickel and brass alloy), and finished with silver or sometimes gold.
Mouthpieces are usually hard plastic or hard rubber and there are many configurations, each of which contributes to unique tonal qualities and response characteristics.
Modern clarinets are comprised of a mouthpiece, barrel, first joint (upper joint), second joint (lower joint) and a bell. The mouthpiece should have a ligature (which holds the reed in place) and a mouthpiece cap (to protect the reed). Sometimes clarinets have two barrels, one being a little shorter to help the player adapt to pitch centers utilized by different orchestras. The upper joint has keys for the left hand and the lower joint has keys for the right hand. The bell is responsible for the sounds of the lowest tones. Separating the parts makes it easier to store the clarinet and if something breaks then there is a smaller part to replace.
So your Student wants to play the Clarinet, now what?
If your student will be joining the school band program check with the band director to make sure clarinet is an appropriate choice. Many schools have some type of instrument try-out procedures to help young students select which instrument to play based on physical characteristics, desire and the need to have a balanced instrumentation in the band program. An important part of learning to play any musical instrument is the desire and motivation to commit to the daily practice required to learn the skill sets and parents should help their child develop a regular practice schedule and encourage progress. Be positive and let your child know they are making good progress….never make fun of the odd sounds beginners will make in the early stages. Your encouragement and praise will be very meaningful to your child.
If braces or other serious dental work is being considered or in progress consultation with your dentist is advised. In some cases the clarinet mouthpiece can work adversely to what dental devices are intended for.
Also discuss with your beginner that learning to play an instrument is a long term commitment which will require consistent practice, but will be worth the effort and patience due to the life long enjoyment of music and the skill sets and study habits the student will acquire as part of the process. Learning to play an instrument can be so much more than just mastering the instrument. Volumes of research indicates the serious study of instrumental music helps students achieve in numerous other areas of academia as well. Be encouraging and help your student learn to master a large goal (playing the instrument) by accomplishing numerous smaller goals.
How to Choose a Clarinet
Select a brand and model that is recognized by music educators and experienced players. Be wary of numerous “knock off” models on the market made of inferior materials and craftsmanship. Always follow the advice of professionals and avoid the marketing ploys offered by those who are not primarily engaged in the music business and who market instruments as something other than their primary product. Beginner models offered by music retailers are usually plastic composites which is completely acceptable. These brands and models have been endorsed by music educators for decades and will serve beginner students well. Seek the advice of qualified professionals. Professional music educators and players can advise you on the brands and models that are quality, reliable instruments.
Recommended Beginner Clarinets
The Jupiter 637N is a very nice beginner model made of ABS resin material with undercut tone holes for improved tonal response, and forged nickel-silver keys. The Selmer CL301 is also a nice beginner model as is the Vito 7242.
Recommended Intermediate Clarinets
The Jupiter 737NTO is a very nice grenadilla wood clarinet with undercut tone holes and forged nickel-silver keys. This instrument is very similar to the Buffet E11 which is a popular model. The Selmer CL211 is also a nice grenadilla wood clarinet.
Recommended Professional Clarinets
The Jupiter 931S features select granadilla wood, undercut tone holes, and forged nickel-silver keys finished with pure silver. This instrument is in many ways comparable to the Buffet R13 which is a popular, but expensive, professional quality clarinet. Selmer and LeBlanc manufacture a large line of professional clarinets and prices range from $3,000 to $14,000.
Clarinets can be customized and professional players often have very particular and discriminating choices that pertain to the barrel and mouthpiece selection, type of wood or composite wood/resin material used, ligature choice, and key finishes (silver, gold, or silver alloys).
Buying a Clarinet vs Renting a Clarinet
Renting prior to purchasing allows for the return of an instrument which is an important consideration with beginner students. Credible rental sources will apply rental payments towards the purchase price. Rentals are usually only available for beginner instruments. RentMyInstrument.com is the only source we are aware of that also offers intermediate and professional level instruments on a rent to own basis.
Types of Clarinets
The most common type is the clarinet in Bb which sounds a whole tone lower than written. There is also the clarinet in A which sounds a minor third lower than written and is often preferred in orchestral playing, particularly in the sharp keys which are easier to play on this instrument. The bass clarinet is pitched in Bb and is an octave lower than the clarinet in Bb. Due to its length the end of the bass clarinet is curved upward and ends in a metal bell section while the upper end (the neck) is curved downward to bring the mouthpiece within easier reach for the player. There is also an Eb clarinet pitched a perfect 4th above the clarinet in Bb, and alto clarinet pitched in Eb a fifth below the clarinet in Bb and the contrabass clarinet pitched in Bb and sounding an octave below the bass clarinet. These instruments are commonly found in bands and occasionally called for in orchestral scores.
Here are some basics to consider when selecting a clarinet mouthpiece. The space between the tip of the mouthpiece and the reed is called the Tip Opening. A narrow tip opening is resistant to air flow, easier to play and produces a darker sound. A wider tip opening is free blowing, brighter and louder and requires more control. The Facing is the distance of the mouthpiece curve from the tip of the reed to where the reed first touches the mouthpiece. A longer facing produces a big tone while a shorter facing is brilliant and clear, but requires more control. The size of the mouthpiece Chamber affects the brightness of the mouthpiece. A high baffle (reed is closer to the roof) results in a smaller chamber and creates a brighter tonal quality where a lower baffle (reed is further from the roof) creates a darker tone. Qualified music store personnel can show you these considerations and measurements.
Plastic mouthpieces are inexpensive and durable and recommended for beginners because they are easy to play. Hard Rubber mouthpieces produce a darker tone and are more expensive. They, however, yield a consistently good tone and are good all-around mouthpieces because they help the player blend well in all registers within an ensemble. There is a fairly large price range for hard rubber mouthpieces and the most popular configurations retail for more than $100. Metal mouthpieces produce a very bright and penetrating tonal quality and are sometimes selected for jazz playing.
How to take care of your clarinet.
After playing the clarinet should be swabbed out to remove moisture created by the condensation from blowing air thru the instrument. There are several clarinet swabs manufactured that will have a piece of chamois or soft cloth attached to a string which is weighted at the opposite end so it can be dropped thru the parts of the instrument and then the chamois or cloth portion can be pulled thru to remove the moisture. It is best to disassemble the clarinet and swab the parts separately. Once this process is completed many clarinetists like to use pad savers which can be inserted into each section and will help draw any moisture from the pads. A soft polish cloth can be used to remove finger prints from the keys and outer portion of the clarinet parts.
If you have a wood clarinet, occasionally bore oil will need to be applied to the interior of the instrument to keep the wood from drying out. This is done by utilizing a separate swab to apply the oil and care must be taken to not apply too much oil or to apply it too frequently. Wood clarinets are also sensitive to rapid temperature shifts which could cause the wood to crack. For instance, if a wood clarinet is brought indoors from cold temperatures and placed next to a heating vent the rapid shift in temperature could cause a split in the wood. These considerations are part of the reason that beginners do not have wooden instruments…the other part is cost since wood clarinets are considerably more expensive than resonite clarinets.
Clarinet mouthpieces can be cleaned with a mouthpiece brush specifically designed for this purpose. Hard plastic and rubber mouthpieces can be cleaned with warm water but care should be taken to protect the cork on the mouthpiece tenon so it doesn’t absorb water.
There are several tenon corks which will need to be lubricated with cork grease to keep them soft and supple. Tenons are portion of each section that are inserted into another section to hold the instrument together. Cork grease comes in small tubes and looks like chap stick. A small amount can be applied by rubbing it onto each cork with your fingers. Simply observing the cork and touching it will indicate when more cork grease is needed. Beginners should be admonished to not over apply cork grease since the cork will become too soft and peel off of the tenons.
Top Clarinet Brands
Selmer, LeBlanc, Buffet, Yamaha, Jupiter
How to Play the Clarinet
After the student can successfully place the reed on the mouthpiece and crow the reed then the student can learn proper left hand position by assembling the mouthpiece, barrel and upper section. With some clarinets the bell will also fit onto the upper section tenon. With this half assembled clarinet the young student can hold onto the barrel or bell with the right hand while placing the left hand in place over the upper section. Only having to manage half the instrument helps young students focus on proper embouchure and left hand placement. The notes A, G, F, E and D will sound perfectly normal and allows the student to master these notes in the left hand. Once the student has mastered left hand position the lower section of the clarinet and bell can be added. The student should now be very comfortable with embouchure and left hand position and can focus on right hand position which always includes proper thumb position on the thumb rest and not allowing the right hand index finger to rest under the side keys. Once the student learns the basic left and right hand positions and notes they are ready to progress to the little finger keys of each hand and to utilize the register key. Having firmly established these basic hand and finger positions by breaking them down to smaller tasks is immensely helpful in eliminating typical bad habits which often occur because young students have too much to handle if the entire instrument is introduced at the outset.
Young students can learn to play over two or more octaves within their first 6 months of playing with good teaching and there are many method books that address each level of ability (beginner, intermediate and advanced).
How to make your first clarinet sound
The first thing beginner clarinet players must learn is to correctly place the reed onto the mouthpiece. Basic steps are: (1) moisten the reed (2) loosen ligature screws and place ligature on mouthpiece and position mouthpiece so that the flat surface faces the player and adjustment screws on the ligature face the player (3) place thick portion of reed under the ligature from above (4) align tip of reed with tip of the mouthpiece (5) align reed horizontally with mouthpiece (6) tighten ligature screws just enough to firmly hold reed in place. Many teachers will have the mouthpiece attached to the barrel while students learn this procedure.
Once the moistened reed is in place on the mouthpiece then students learn how to place the mouthpiece in the mouth and “crow” the reed (the first sound with the mouthpiece only creates a unique sound). A general embouchure description is: (1) chin pulled downward (flat or pointed) (2) upper teeth touch top of mouthpiece approximately ½” from tip (3) lower lip covers lower teeth slightly and reed rests on lower lip approximately ¾” from the tip and, generally speaking, at point where reed and mouthpiece begin to separate (4) lips are drawn inward (drawstring) around mouthpiece which is at a 30-45 degree angle downward. Student then blows air to vibrate the reed and create the first sound. Again, many teachers will have the mouthpiece attached to the barrel so students have more to hang onto while learning to crow the reed.
See the section on “How To Play The Clarinet” for the next steps.
How to find a teacher for Private Clarinet Lessons
Teachers can be located by contacting local school band directors, music stores, and colleges and universities. They will have clarinet teachers/specialists on staff or will usually know contact information for recommended teachers.
How to Tune a Clarinet
On the clarinet the pitch of a given note is determined by the distance from the tip of the mouthpiece to the first open hole. Therefore, the pitches of two successive notes on a clarinet (i.e. C and Bb) which are one tone hole apart is not determined by the distance between the two tone holes but by the ratio of the distance from each of the tone holes to the tip of the mouthpiece. For this reason the ratios between the tip of the mouthpiece and the various first open holes of each part of the clarinet must be maintained as close as possible when tuning adjustments are made. If the general intonation of the clarinet is going to be remain good over its entire range tuning adjustments must then be made in three places on the instrument: at the barrel joint, at the middle joint, and at the bell joint. The clarinet also needs to be tuned in that order: barrel, middle joint, bell joint. The three pitches utilized, in order, should be 2nd line G, low C, and B natural (concert pitches of F, Bb, and A). If all three pitches cannot be tuned perfectly then distribute the difference between them and the remainder of the intonation is dependent upon the player.
Dangers of starting with a Used Clarinet
Is the clarinet clean and sterile and are all the pads, corks and springs in good condition? If not, a complete re-pad and/or overhaul could cost several hundred dollars. Clarinets which have not been played regularly and kept in storage for extended periods often have serious issues with pad deterioration. Used clarinets should be inspected for needed repairs by a qualified expert (music educator, music repair person, professional player) prior to purchase.
There are also a large number of poor quality instruments which have been imported during the last decade and many of these have been discarded by the original owners and are in the used instrument marketplace. Buyers should be very wary of and avoid these instruments which can be easily identified because they are not acceptable brand names to music educators or professional musicians due to their inferior materials and craftsmanship.
Cautions with Pawn Shops and Ebay
Pawn shops and on line auctions are not in the business of music education or instrument repair and are simply interested in selling merchandise at a profit. The merchandise sold is most often sold in “as is” condition. Buyers should know exactly what they are getting with regards to brand, model and condition of the instrument and have written warranties certifying same. There are a lot of poor quality instruments and quality instruments in poor condition for sale from sources who do not specialize in musical instruments…..buyer beware!
Benny Goodman - American Jazz Band Leader
Artie Shaw - American Jazz Band Leader
Woody Herman - American Jazz Band Leader
Julian Bliss - Great Britain solo artist
Sabine Meyer - Germany solo artist
Richard Stoltzman - Grammy Award winning solo artist
Larry Combs - former Principal Clarinet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Eddie Daniels - Classical and Jazz artist
Pete Fountain - New Orleans Jazz Artist