The long cylindrical tube of the clarinet makes one of the warmest and most soothing sounds you will hear. A lot like it’s sister, the oboe, it is traditionally made of wood. Although, the most common medium you will find today is plastic. The clarinet is usually found to be black or brown with the shiny contrast of nickel plating, or silver keys.
The History of the Clarinet
The modern day clarinet evolved from an instrument called the chalumeau. (pronounced Shaloomoh). The chalumeau was one of the first single reed instruments that resembled a modern day recorder and was believed to be a European ancestor of the clarinet dating back thousands of years ago. It was mainly known as a shepherd’s instrument. The chalumeau did not have a universal scale that was fit to be played alongside other more traditional instruments of its time. Therefore, the chalumeau was a lost interest and eventually forgotten amongst the early Europeans.
In Germany around the 1700’s, C. H. Denner picked up the chalumeau once again and was one of the first to experiment with it by adding a few key (no pun intended) tone holes to create a wider range for the instrument. The instrument that looked like a recorder was taking shape to look more like a modern day clarinet.
Not until 1812 did Iwan Müller add spoon keys with more reliable leather pads to the clarinet to create a more consistent sound and added comfort to the instrument.
The 1830’s is when it all came together. Frenchman, Hycainthe Klosé, used the Boehm System for the flute and adapted it to the clarinet. This new clarinet that could now be played alongside other instruments was accepted (except by the Germans) and is still used to this day, save a few modifications.
The picture to the left is what today’s clarinet looks like. The clarinet generally comes in five pieces. Usually, each piece is separated by the silver/nickel tenon rings located in various places down the length of the instrument. The very top piece is the interchangeable mouthpiece. Moving down you have what is called the barrel. The upper joint and lower joint look similar, they both have tone holes and lots of keys. The last part is called the bell. When pulled apart you’ll find cork, known as the tenon cork, to keep any air from escaping through those joints when it is being played. Air passes through the mouthpiece, down the body and depending on which holes you cover, it will make different pitches.
The clarinet uses what is called a ‘reed’, it is an external part of the clarinet that you have to continually purchase.The reed is a very precisely tapered piece of cane that is thicker at the bottom and about the thickness of a piece of paper at the top. Different thickness and materials are available in different styles and preferences for players looking to adapt their sound. Reeds can be expensive. A box of 10 reeds at the 2 ½ size run at an average of $22.
The reed, itself, is held in place by what is known as a ligature. Common ligatures are made of nickel or leather with 2 screws to evenly distribute pressure so as to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece without the reed moving around.
The clarinet is played by placing a moistened reed, flat side down, on the mouthpiece. Being careful, place the ligature over the mouthpiece and reed with the tightening screws facing towards you.
Buying A Clarinet
Renting a clarinet is a great option for a beginning student. If renting isn’t an option, purchasing will also be a good option. Here are some tips in what to look for and what not to look for in a clarinet.
Clarinets can be cheap or really expensive, anywhere from $100- $10,000. Generally, but not all the time, the more expensive clarinets tend to be solid wood. Wood clarinets are generally used for concert band. If you’re student plays in the marching band, they will not want a wood clarinet. Wood clarinets tend to expand and contract when the weather changes. It can also crack when it is too dry. Most beginners stick with a plastic clarinet because they tend to be more affordable and resilient to the weather.
There is a variety of clarinets but the only kind you will have to worry about is a B flat (Bb) clarinet. As far as brands, you should research the brand name of your clarinet to see if it is well made and has been successful among consumers. Unfortunately, every clarinet (like all instruments) is definitely not created equally. Here is a list of brands that tend to be reliable.
-Artley (discontinued, but can be found in used stores)
All of these are great brands and they sound great. In the long run, they will also make it easier on your wallet when your clarinet will inevitably need repairs. If the clarinet does not have a brand or serial number, we suggest putting it down and walking away.
It’s best to hold the clarinet in your hand to see if it is in playable condition. Good, playable condition would mean that there are no missing pads, keys or corks. There should be no cracks in the length of the body, very few scratches and all of the pads should look nice and smooth.
Clarinet repairs can be costly if you aren’t prepared. A full repad for a clarinet can roughly cost anywhere from $180- $500 (depending on location). A repad is when all of the pads and keys are taken off and the repair tech replaces the existing pads and corks with new ones. The instrument is then put back together. Then your clarinet should be playing flawlessly.
Keep in mind when purchasing a clarinet, they may be selling it at a good price but if it doesn’t have a serial number, brand name, if it has a crack, missing pieces, or if the pads are torn and rough looking then you possibly will end up having to spend more than the actual cost of purchase.
Lastly, don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by information. Owning and playing an instrument is truly rewarding and worth the time and effort you put into it. I hope that this can be helpful to you in your future endeavors when it comes to purchasing or simply learning more about the instrument you love.
By Leah Houston