I’ve been a clarinetist for just four years, so I’m no expert. But every clarinet player knows that getting a good tone out of a clarinet depends upon two things: skill and a good instrument. The skill part comes with practicing almost every day, putting your heart and soul into the instrument, and just enjoying it. But getting a good instrument might not be so easy. I have been a clarinet player for four years; now, most clarinetists go out and buy a plastic clarinet during their first or second year playing, but I have never owned a clarinet of my own. I’m still a high schooler in the lowest ensemble of my school, the Concert Band, so I’m not a prodigy clarinet player. But I guess I’m not that bad either. Recently–in fact, for the first time in my life–I got first chair. That, for me, is a big achievement; for my first year of clarinet playing I was a third clarinet, and for my second, I was a third clarinet, and for my third year, I was a second clarinet. Very confusing. But anyways, first chair is the highest ranking clarinet in my entire section. I am the best player out of NINETEEN PEOPLE.
Well, my entire clarinet-playing career, I have always wanted a clarinet of my own. Well, when you’re in middle school and you’re pretty much last chair ALL of the time (that’s the worst player), your parents really don’t want to buy you a four thousand dollar instrument. My mom had always told me, “When you get first chair, I’ll buy you a clarinet.” So we rented a clarinet for THREE AND A HALF YEARS. That’s a lot. And then finally, this year, for the first time, I got first chair. And I’m holding my mom to her promise. So today we went to our local horn store (a horn is a type of musical instrument category that clarinets fall under) to try and pick out some clarinets.
–CLARINET FACT FLASH/MY HISTORY WITH CLARINETS–
My current clarinet, which I rent, is a plastic Yamaha clarinet made in Japan. The best clarinets are Buffets (no, not a food buffet!), which are made of sturdy African Blackwood with German silver keys. Unfortunately, these Buffets are pretty expensive–you won’t get a wooden Buffet for under $1,000 bucks. The second clarinet I ever played on during my first year was a plastic Buffet. It had excellent tone for a plastic clarinet and I practically fell in love with it. However, Intermediate or Advanced clarinet players need wood clarinets to produce a better tone. Plastic Yamahas have a pretty good tone as well, but the French clarinets are usually the best.
The top four makers of clarinets in the world are: Buffet (Paris), LeBlanc (Paris), Yamaha (Japan), and Selmer, though there are other makers of clarinets whose clarinets work just as well as any Buffet. The best clarinet reeds are also manufactured in France. (If you’re not familiar with the clarinet, view my post on the Clarinet).
Anyways, we ended up settling on a wooden Normandy 4 by LeBlanc (Paris). It has a beautiful, hearty sound that only comes with wooden clarinets, and was only $500, which is pretty cheap for a wooden clarinet.
Well, I’m pretty sure there are some of my fellow clarinetists out there are reading this post, so here’s the part we’ve all been waiting for (even me, I admit it!): how to select a clarinet.
HOW TO SELECT A GOOD CLARINET
The first step towards having a good tone is to have a good clarinet. You may want to consider learning how to play the clarinet on an inexpensive plastic Yamaha before purchasing a good clarinet, as I did. You can either buy a plastic clarinet from your local music store, or consider renting it from there. I’d recommend either buying or renting, as, when you rent-to-own, while it may seem you are paying less for the clarinet, you can actually be paying up to double the price value for the instrument. When you’re learning, a good tone isn’t very important, so a good clarinet won’t help much. In fact, such clarinets may hamper some students, as wood clarinets take a bit more air than plastic ones do.
STEP 1: Contact your music or clarinet instructor. Once you think you’re ready for a good clarinet, you should definitely contact your clarinet instructor. Bring a tuner with you, as some clarinets can be naturally flat or sharp on some notes, or in general. Try to get a clarinet that’s naturally in tune. Your music teacher will probably be able to select the best-fitting clarinet for you specifically. Be sure to pick the clarinet with the best tone and/or make, not the one that’s most comfortable (unless your fingers can’t reach all the holes; then that’s a problem). Each clarinet is different, even ones of the same exact make and model, manufactured on the same day at the same place at the same time by the same people or machines. Clarinetists have amazing muscle memory in their fingers, and once your fingers learn where the holes on the new clarinet are, your muscle memory will come back. Even so, it’s recommended not to sell your old cheap plastic clarinet right away or return your rental, because you may want to keep it to play in your ensemble while you get used to playing the new clarinet.
STEP 2: Set yourself a budget. Prior to going to a music shop, be sure to name a budget (up to $1100 is a pretty good one for intermediate wood clarinets), and try not to break the bank. Keep in mind the top-of-the-line intermediate Buffet R-33 comes in at a staggering price of $4,000 – $5,500. You don’t have to go broke buying a clarinet; buy one that fits your needs. If you’re buying for a marching band or a pep band, consider a hardier instrument, such as the Selmer Bundy or the Normandy from LeBlanc. The more expensive the clarinets are, the easier they are to break; be sure to buy one that fits your needs. If you plan to pass the clarinet on to or share it with your kids, definitely buy a hardier one. New or used? Used clarinets are definitely cheaper, and you don’t have to “break them in”. At our local music store, we saw a Buffet R-13, $4,000 new, listed for half the price. For somebody buying their first wooden clarinet, or their first clarinet, I’d definitely say buy used. (If you do buy used, however, make sure the music shop you buy from is ready to inspect the clarinet and fix any damages it may have acquired sitting on a shelf before selling it to you.)
NOTE: Your clarinet instructor will be able to advise you on clarinets better than an online source, though. Always: never buy a clarinet online. The only exceptions to this rule is buying a clarinet on a manufacturer’s website (Selmer’s website, Buffet’s website, Yamaha’s website, etc.). NEVER buy an instrument on Craigslist or E-Bay. If you DO buy online, however (ex. if you can’t afford to buy a brand-new or used clarinet from a shop; they are generally cheaper online) make sure the instrument comes with a warranty or return policy so if it breaks right away (as some do) or isn’t what you thought it would be, you can send it back to the seller and get your money back or exchange it for credit. Always take the clarinet to your local repair shop, instructor, or band conductor for inspection prior to any use, just to see if the clarinet is even playable. Return it immediately if it is not.
STEP 3: Identify your level of playing. Identify any specific brands you’d like and your “level” in terms of playing the clarinet. If you’ve been playing for three or four years, and plan to continue (which you probably do if you’re interested in investing in a good clarinet), it’s probably best to go with an intermediate-level clarinet. These clarinets are pretty moderately-priced (ranging from $500 to $3,000 dollars), with the Buffets being more on the expensive side. If you have been playing for less than three years, a plastic clarinet will do. These are pretty cheap, from about $100 to $700 dollars depending on brand, model and make. Of course, if you’re planning to major in your instrument in collage and become a professional musician, it’s probably best to get a professional clarinet. This way you’ll avoid spending money on an intermediate clarinet before a professional one. These get pretty pricy, though, and most people don’t look at them. And if you’re just starting out, don’t buy a clarinet at all. I have been in my school band since middle school, and I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen buy fancy cases and wood clarinets… and drop out their second year. I myself never really bought anything unless forced–I had to achieve something in order to earn something in return–and this acted as a huge motivator for me, as I have always wanted a clarinet ever since I started playing somewhere in middle school. So, as a lesson, if you’re just starting out, rent for the time being. NEVER EVER BUY an inexpensive clarinet from Amazon. Ever. (The below list is from ClarinetCloset.com)
- For Beginning Players: The Buffet B10 & B12/Buffet Accent, Vito 7242, 7214, or Vito Reso-tone 3 (7212 or 7213), Selmer 1400, 100 or 300, or Armstrong, Artley or Bundy, or the Yamaha 20, 24, 26, 250 or Advantage
- For Intermediate Players: Buffet E11/International, Yamaha 34 or 450, LeBlanc Noblet 40, 45, or Normandy 4, or Selmer 200, 210, 211, or Selmer Signet (make sure you buy a WOOD clarinet)
- For Professional Players: Buffet R-13 or Buffet pre-R-13, made by Buffet before 1950
STEP 4: Try out the clarinets. You really need to get a feel for the clarinets before you buy one. For example, we looked at an $800 Noblet and a $500 Normandy 4. We ended up liking the Normandy’s tone better, and it was also way cheaper. Always remember, A HIGHER PRICE DOESN’T ALWAYS MEAN A BETTER CLARINET. Once you finish this, you’re pretty much ready to select and buy a clarinet. Keep in mind the cost of the clarinet! Don’t tempt yourself with something way out of your price range.
Selecting a clarinet isn’t all that there is to the process. A majority of clarinets don’t come with a good mouthpiece or ligature, or any at all, so it’s important to buy one. Reeds are important as well, but we’ll come to that later. A good intermediate mouthpiece is the Debut. It’s made out of good material and very sturdy. Most mouthpieces don’t come with a mouthpiece cap or ligature (these usually come together separate from the mouthpiece). Even if you do get a ligature with the mouthpiece, you’ll consider buying a better one. A good mouthpiece can very slightly improve your sound, but a good ligature can make you sound like a pro overnight. I currently play on a Rovner ligature. This ligature is made of leather, and lets the reed vibrate more, creating a much better tonal quality than the standard metal ligature, even on plastic clarinets. It’s also important to obtain cork grease. Cork grease comes in sticks looking much like lip balm (It tastes horrible. I made that mistake once. Never again.) and is useful for rubbing onto the corks of your clarinet. It’s really essential, especially with wooden clarinets, which crack easily and whose corks swell if not greased. Also buy a swab; not the ones that sit inside the two joints of the clarinet, but a cloth swab that you can drag through the clarinet to get spittle out.
Reeds are the most important item: you can’t play a clarinet without them. The most popular reeds are Vandourens and Ricos or Rico Royals. These are very nice companies, but myself, I prefer the Vandournens, and so do most professionals. By the time you are an intermediate player, you should be playing on Vandournen threes, three and a halfs, or fours. I play on Vandouren threes (though I really should play on 3 1/2s). The denser reeds produce a better tone on the upper register and higher notes, but require more air than the smaller ones. You may also want to consider a mouthpiece patch, which supports your teeth, preventing them for denting the mouthpiece if your jaws clamp down too hard.
I feel like this has been too long a post. I’ll be posting another um,… post… on how to get a good tone out of the clarinet you’ve bought.
Good luck on your clarinet needs!
PART II: Getting a Nice Tone Out of a Clarinet (will be published soon!)