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So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the clarinet? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

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The Clarinet

Family: Woodwind
Cost: from £195 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
Best age to start: 10 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, very easy

The clarinet is a member of the woodwind family although the cheaper ones are made of a robust, heavy plastic. You hold it in front of you and blow into the mouthpiece to which is attached a reed (just a carefully-shaped piece of bamboo-like material). It is the reed which vibrates to make the sound, rather like blowing a blade of grass between your thumbs.
To make the different notes you cover and uncover holes with a system of keys operated by rods and levers. The system is known as the "Boehm system" after the man who invented it in the 19th Century. Before that, most of the holes were just holes. The advantage of the complicated Boehm system is that there are alternative ways of fingering many notes, so whatever the order of the notes you need to play there is always an easy way of doing it. If you are offered a second-hand clarinet, make sure it is a "Boehm" instrument - the old "simple" key system is a waste of time these days.
To play the clarinet you need to have arms strong enough to support the instrument which is quite heavy (one made by Buffet is significantly lighter than the others). It is common for children of 10 or 11 to start on the clarinet. We would think twice about starting before that. One thing to bear in mind is that you will be controlling the vibration of the reed with the pressure of your lips and teeth. Some teachers think this isn't advisable if you still have your milk teeth (and it's probably impossible if you have no front teeth at all!).
All ordinary clarinets are the same size - there is a small plastic "C clarinet" for younger pupils, but few clarinet teachers are keen on it and it could be difficult to sell when you want to move on to a proper clarinet. There are also Bass Clarinets (with a fancy curved bell and neck), Alto clarinets and E flat clarinets all of different sizes but these are rare and specialised instruments and not suitable for beginners. You occasionally come across metal clarinets which were made for use in military bands. They sound and are played exactly like normal clarinets, but make sure you know what key they are in - they may be C or E flat clarinets which require different music.
The clarinet is a "transposing" instrument. This means that when you play, for instance, C on the clarinet, the note that comes out is actually B flat on the piano or on most other instruments. For this reason, the ordinary, common-or-garden clarinet is often known as "the B flat clarinet". In practice this is no problem to a beginner, as all the music you buy for the clarinet has been adjusted accordingly. It does mean that you will not be able to play from the same piece of music as your friend who plays the flute. Well, you can, but it'll sound grim!
The system of "transposing" instruments is a bit of a nonsense, and has its roots way back in musical history. It would be far more sensible to do away with it so that all instruments could play from the same music, but this would mean (a) re-educating all the clarinettists in the world, and (b) re-printing all the music - so instead we carry on perpetuating this out-of-date and ridiculous system! Really good clarinettists buy their clarinets in pairs - one a B flat instrument (your C is actually the piano's B flat) and the other a very slightly larger A instrument (your C is actually A). This makes some difficult orchestral parts a little easier to play and is very expensive, but it is not something you need to worry about for several years.
As instruments go, the clarinet is particularly easy to start. You will be able to make some sound straight away, and will be able to play tunes in a couple of weeks. By the time you get to Grade 4 or 5 there is little difference between the clarinet and other woodwind instruments, though.
The clarinet comes apart into five pieces, and packs into a fairly small case - not difficult to carry at all, and the cases offer excellent protection. They're easy to lose, though. Put your name inside!
The clarinet can be used to play in orchestras, wind bands and jazz bands - in all three it is common for clarinettists to play the saxophone as well. This is known as "doubling on sax". So the clarinet would seem to offer excellent opportunities for group music-making. But it is a popular instrument (it sounds nice, it's easy to play, it's easy to carry and it doesn't cost the earth to buy); because so many young people play the clarinet, orchestras and bands can't fit them all in and the competition for places is fierce. It can be extremely disheartening to work hard for years and years, reach Grade 8 and be a really good player - and still nobody wants you! You need to think about this very hard before choosing the clarinet, but at least the situation is not quite so bad as it is for the flute.
Clarinets are quite robust in normal use. They do not like being dropped or knocked, though. Bent keys can make an expensive repair, and chipped plastic can be completely unrepairable. Every couple of years you will have to have the pads renewed (the soft pads fixed to each key that close the holes off) which can cost as much as £50 or £60. The reeds cost from £1.25, and can last several months. On the other hand, if you catch the delicate tip of the reed on your clothing and chip it, it could last only five minutes! You need to have a couple of spares with you all the time. Apart from that, there is virtually no maintenance to do.
A good "student" clarinet costs about £200 - 250. Alternatively they can be rented from some music shops for about £20 a month. There are not many bad clarinets on the market, but for the beginner three good makes are Boosey & Hawkes, Yamaha and Buffet. You can get coloured ones these days, which look wonderful although you'd better be sure you really want a red or blue one because once you've bought it, you're stuck with it. It isn't paint - the colour goes right through the plastic!
Probably the most highly respected and popular tutor book for beginners is "Learn as you play clarinet" by Peter Wastall. You can buy it at a discounted price by clicking here. Another is Abracadabra Clarinet. While it's always best to have a teacher, many people do try to learn the clarinet by themselves. A Tune a Day for Clarinet is fairly old and may no longer be the best clarinet tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable for lone students.
If you want to learn more about the clarinet and how to play it, try The Rough Guide to the Clarinet or The Clarinet and Clarinet-playing. To get an idea just how wonderful the clarinet can sound when skilfully played, try this CD.
Another website you might find interesting is Mr.Moors' clarinet site.
• Not an expensive instrument as things go
• Very easy to start
• Quite easy to find a teacher
• A versatile and useful instrument but it might be hard to find places in bands and orchestras
• Not particularly prone to damage, though repairs can be expensive
• Very easy to transport


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005