A guide to choosing a second instrument. Part 2: The Clarinet

Here is Barry Sullivan‘s second installment in his informative blogs about choosing a second instrument. After previously covering the flute, he now turns his attention to the clarinet. Barry is a very skilled woodwind player and teacher and is happy to discuss any questions that you may have. Feel free to leave him a comment on this article or you can find his contact details at the end of the article.

Part 2: The Clarinet

The clarinet is, like the flute, a woodwind instrument – there are a number of fundamental differences though.

Yamaha: YCL250SUK B Flat Student Clarinet

The clarinet was invented in 1690-ish, but wasn’t really extensively used until Mozart’s time (his Concerto is sublime!) : this means that Baroque music for clarinet is very limited. There’s a lot of clarinet music written since Mozart’s time, however.

Most professional clarinets are made of wood, so they fit the description of ‘woodwind’ more aptly! Most student clarinets are however made of plastic, though they still play in a similar way. The big players in the clarinet market are Buffet and Yamaha (Yamaha, of course, are also big players in the piano market too!). Both Jupiter and Hanson are becoming increasingly influential manufacturers, too. Like with the flute, Jonathan Myall do a good range of clarinets in their premises : prices start at around £300-375. With second hand instruments, check for excessive play in the keys, damage to said keys, and worn pads. With wooden instruments, you also need to check for cracks, but as most people start with plastic instruments, this usually isn’t an immediate issue.

Kinder Klari for younger students (reverse of instrument). £205. Click for more details.

Clarinets can be begun by children of about age 8 upwards – they are heavier than flutes. Unlike the flute, clarinets need to have a reed placed on the mouthpiece, in order to work : this reed also plays a vital role in tonguing (articulating notes), which I will talk about in a future entry to the blog. This reed needs to be looked after : it’s very easy to chip the tip of it, if you’re not careful. The note range is large, for a non-keyboard instrument : not the 88 notes found on a piano, but a professional could probably coax nearly 50 different notes from a clarinet, which is highly respectable. The sound is produced by breathing warmish air down the instrument, a bit like air that you’d use for misting up a mirror. Like with the flute, progress is often rapid, and grade 1 can be achieved fairly quickly (again, about 9-12 months on average). Also, like with the flute, only the treble clef is used, even generally on bass clarinet music (there is a whole family of clarinets, an illustration of the bass is shown here, but nearly everyone starts out on a standard B flat instrument, as also shown here).

The clarinet is a transposing instrument in B flat (that means when a clarinettist reads a C, they play what would be a B flat on the piano), but this shouldn’t cause any playing issues : however, it does mean if you want to play with, say, a flautist, that all the music needs to be transposed to fit.

Stagg: B Flat Böhm Clarinet, £199. Click for more details.

Tutor books again are many in number : ‘Cool Clarinet’, by the same author as ‘Funky Flute’, is a good publication for younger beginners, and ‘Clarinet Basics’, by influential clarinettist and education specialist Paul Harris, is well worth a look. The Cambridge Clarinet Tutor, also by Paul Harris, is excellent for adult beginners.

Clarinet names to look out for include Michael Collins, Sabine Meyer, Antony Pay, Emma Johnson and Mark Simpson : the latter two have won the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year competition, in 1984 and 2006 respectively. Clarinets are also extensively used in jazz as well as classical music : Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw are two of the biggest names in jazz clarinet history.

Once again, I could describe the sound of the clarinet to you, but it’s far better if I show you examples from the power of YouTube. Enjoy, and part 3, which will cover the saxophone, will be online soon.

The manufacture of Buffet clarinets, with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto as the soundtrack, played on a basset clarinet.

The great Artie Shaw in action, a-jazzing.

The first movement of the Leonard Bernstein Clarinet Sonata (the man behind the musical West Side Story). I’ll be playing the whole sonata locally later this year, watch out for more details.

Barry can be contacted by email : barry8000@hotmail.com

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