Common Questions About the Clarinet

If you’re interested in learning about the clarinet or if you’re thinking about taking it up as an instrument, you’re bound to have some questions about it. Here are some of the most common questions about the clarinet.

1. Are clarinets hard to play?

Clarinets are hard to play, just as the other wind instruments. Unlike the piano, the string instruments and the percussion instruments; besides using your fingers, hands and arms, you also need to use and develop your breath and interior organs to make a sound with any wind instrument.

Even so, if you search and find the right methods for your physical characters and for your learning ability, even a year or two may be enough to make it.

It is true that sometimes it takes time to create a beautiful sound, so the learning process may be discouraging for some beginners. It requires years of commitment and hard work to play the clarinet to perfection.

2. How many types of clarinet are there?

There are 18 different types of clarinet. This number is predicated on the historical developments of the instrument. The most commonly used clarinets for solo, chamber and/or orchestral repertoire are; the standard B♭, A, B♭ bass and E♭ sopranino clarinets.

As you can imagine, not all the clarinet types are commonly used. Some of them are mostly used in the wind bands and the clarinet choirs, some of them are used in jazz, Klezmer or Turkish and Balkanic music and some are made only for experimental purposes.

Principally, the determinant attributes of these 18 different types are their size and their register. Technically, if the size of the clarinet gets bigger, the register goes lower, and vice versa.

Soprano Clarinets are:

A♭ piccolo (the smallest one, very rarely used) ,

E♭ sopranino (commonly used in wind bands and orchestras) and D sopranino (very rarely used),

 B♭ soprano (the standard clarinet), A soprano (commonly used in solo, chamber and orchestral repertoire) and C soprano (rarely used in orchestra, mostly used in jazz music and Klezmer music),

G mezzo-soprano  (Turkish and Balkanic folk instrument, mostly made from metal), and also, clarinet d’amore (a Classical period instrument with a pear-shaped bell) which is a mezzo-soprano clarinet in G.

Alto Clarinets are:

Alto clarinet in E♭ (rarely used), and basset horn in F (mainly used for solo and chamber music written by Mozart and Mendelssohn as the standard clarinet in B♭ had not been developed yet in that era).

Bass Clarinets are:

B♭ bass (very commonly used, known as the standard bass clarinet), A bass and C bass (both very rarely used now).

Contrabass clarinets are:

E♭ contra-alto (also known as E♭ contrabass clarinet, sometimes used in clarinet choirs and wind bands),

B♭ contrabass clarinet (the standard contrabass clarinet in clarinet choirs, wind bands and orchestras),

E♭ Octocontra-alto and B♭ Octocontrabass ( both experimental instruments).

3. What type of clarinet is best for a beginner?

The standard B♭ type of clarinet is best for a beginner in case you are older than 12 years old. The weight, the length and the register of the B♭ clarinet are ideal for the learning process. Being considered as the standard type, most of the clarinet repertoire is written and/or transposed for the standard B♭ clarinet. So, you’ll mostly be playing the clarinet in B♭ in the long run, unless you become a bass clarinet artist later.

If you are under 12 years old though, a smaller type such as the C clarinet may be a better choice. In that case, you’ll be able to carry the instrument without hurting yourself or damaging your posture and besides, you’ll have the chance to play the songs or music written in C, without the need to transpose.

In addition, ebonite clarinets made from a certain type of plastic, are less heavy, slightly easier to play for children, and they are more affordable. Clarinet teachers highly recommend ebonite clarinets for the beginners.

4. What are clarinets made from?

Clarinets are made from African blackwood (Grenadilla wood), if we consider the traditional Western method for professional classical musicians. There are clarinets also made from ebonite. Jazz clarinetists commonly use the ebonite clarinets. Additionally, G clarinets used in Turkish and Balkanic folk music are mostly made from metal.

5. Can the clarinet be self-taught?

Clarinets can be self-taught these days, with the help of adequate sources such as digital clarinet courses of experts and clarinet method books. Nowadays, there is the possibility to find many helpful “how to” videos and/or blogs by professional clarinet artists and teachers on the internet. I personally find them very helpful to improve different techniques, not only for beginners but also for professionals.  

Besides all these, practicing with a clarinet teacher in person, may make it easier for you to see and solve the points that you struggle with.

6. How do clarinets produce sound?

Clarinets produce sound via the combination of a mouthpiece, a ligature and a reed. The reed stays in a stable position on the mouthpiece with help of the ligature. You blow in the mouthpiece and the air runs through the clarinet, by vibrating the reed. Later, by moving your fingers on the keys of the clarinet, you create different sounds. This is how clarinets produce sound.

7. What do clarinets sound like?

Clarinets sound like harmonica and organ because of their cylindrical form similar to a stopped organ pipe. This is an uncommon feature for a woodwind instrument, as the other woodwind instruments have a conical form. Clarinet sound is adequate to interpret many characters, creatures, and things existing in nature and also like industrial vehicles, depending on your embouchure, the pressure of air you blow in the clarinet, etc.

Forte-played low notes may sound like the grumble of a person or like a ship whistle. Slowly-played low notes may sound like the cat purring or the whining of a person. Flowingly-played middle notes may sound like running water. Slowly-played high notes may sound like a crying person or the meow of a cat. Flowingly-played high notes may sound like nightingales. By making glissando, clarinets may sound like door creaking, like a person who cries out or like an angry cat. By making staccatos, clarinet may sound like walking or dancing steps.

8. What clarinet reed is best for beginners?

1½ strength reed is best for beginners. 1½ strength reed is a very soft and easy option for someone who is just starting to play the clarinet. As you get better in time, you may play with 2 strength and/or 2½ strength reeds. The reed brands such as Vandoren (Juno), Rico (Orange Box 1½) and Royal by D’Addario, etc. have reeds for beginners in their catalog, besides for professionals.

9. How long should clarinet reeds last?

Clarinet reeds should last a maximum for 6 months. The best way to use the reeds for the longest time possible is to have at least 4 good reeds and to use them by turns every 2-3 days. Even in this case, using reeds for more than 6 months is risky for your embouchure technique. Because the ongoing changes of temperature and hydration, may have a negative effect on the reed and the sound quality gets unsettled. Forcing or changing your embouchure to be able to create the same old good sound with the old reed may damage your technique in the long term.  

10. Should you soak clarinet reeds?

You shouldn’t soak clarinet reeds in water. Clarinet reeds are not double-reeds or not as thick as oboe and bassoon reeds either, so, soaking them in water may damage them. You should wet clarinet reeds in your clean mouth (washing the mouth before playing is important!) for 1 minute or 2, or you should buy a reed case which provides the ideal humidity for reeds. In both of these ways, clarinet reeds soften and get ready to vibrate easily to create a sound.

11. Can I play the clarinet with braces?

Yes, you can play the clarinet with braces. If you play a heavy clarinet, it is highly recommended to use a brace. Even only when you get tired and/or you have pain because of long hours of practicing, braces may be helpful to prevent any injury.

12. How many keys are there on a standard B♭ clarinet?

There are 17 keys with 6 rings and one open tone hole on a standard B♭ Boehm-system clarinet. Depending on the brand and the model, there may be 18 or 19 keys with the addition of A♭/E♭ lever and low-F improvement.

While on a standard B♭ German-system clarinet, there are from 17 to 22 keys and 5 rings and two tone holes. On the German-system clarinets the numbers of keys, rings and tone holes may change, depending on the brand and the model.

13. How often should clarinet pads be replaced?

Clarinet pads should be replaced approximately every 5 years. Actually, there is no exact time to replace all the pads. A complete servicing may be needed in 5-8 years, depending on the instrument’s quality. Basically, clarinet pads don’t wear down all at the same time. You need to check if they burst, if their color went too dark, and if there is an air leak, every time you clean the clarinet. Some of the pads will probably get damaged quicker than the others and they’ll need to be replaced more often.

14. Can clarinets play chords?

Clarinets can play chords, in case you highly improve the multiphonics technique. Playing chords is not one of the main features of the clarinet. Principally, the clarinet is a monophonic instrument. Still, the recent advanced blowing and fingering technique called multiphonics, makes playing chords possible for clarinet. Multiphonics are used especially in the contemporary repertoire.  

15. How much does a clarinet cost?

A clarinet for beginners mostly cost between $200 and $700. The price may go up to $1500, depending on the materials and the quality of the instrument. Anyways, the cheaper clarinets may be more convenient and preferable for the learning process.

16. How do I clean a clarinet?

You clean a clarinet by swabbing it out with a cleaning swab. It is necessary for each time you have a pause during practice or performance and also before putting the clarinet back into its case.

The warm air, running inside the instrument while playing, turns into moisture and in a few minutes, water fills up the note holes. This may cause unwanted sound deformations or squeaks during the performance. So you better have your cleaning swab with you for every occasion.

If you leave the clarinet outside without swabbing out, the wood may crack because of the temperature and humidity changes.

In case you put your clarinet back into its case without swabbing it out, the moisture may quickly damage the pads, the cork and the wood of the instrument.

Another important point is to swab out the mouthpiece constantly and to sterilize mouthpiece and reeds using hydrogen peroxide or diluted vinegar (only for a couple of minutes!) every week.

You will also need to clean the accumulated dirt off the holes with cotton sticks (do not use water!), by demounting all the keys once or twice every year.

17. When was the clarinet invented?

The clarinet was invented between 1698 and the first years of 1700. It was invented by a German instrument maker, Johann Christoph Denner (1655-1707), in Nuremberg. Denner invented the clarinet by developing the medieval French instrument, chalumeau.

18. Where is the clarinet in an orchestra?

The clarinet is in the woodwind section in an orchestra, which is situated behind the string instruments and in front of the brass instruments and percussions. It exactly takes place behind the flutes, next to the bassoons and in front of the French horns.

19. What are the best brands of clarinets?

Buffet Crampon Premium, Selmer SCL201N, Odyssey OCL400 Premiere and Jean Paul USA CL-300 Student Clarinet are the best brands of clarinets for beginners, in the Boehm-system clarinet industry.

Yamaha YCL-255 is also one of the best beginner clarinets but it’s way too expensive. In addition, Mendini by Cecilio Bb Beginner Clarinet is an affordable and yet a good brand for beginners.

Besides, Amati and Yamaha may be considered as the best brands of Oehler-system clarinets for beginners.

20. Can children learn the clarinet?

Yes, children can learn the clarinet, ideally at the age of 9 or 10, after having the adequate physical capacity. Still, some parents or children may prefer starting at the younger ages (7-9). Actually, it depends on the growth rate of children.

The best way to understand if a child can learn to play the clarinet before 9 years-old, may be considering these physical criterias; having the adult teeth for the ability to place a steady embouchure, having developed lungs for the capability to blow without choking, having developed bone structure for being able to carry the instrument without injuring the wrists and having long fingers for being able to cover all the holes. 

Arda Tuncer

Arda Tuncer

Arda Tuncer is a music producer, composer, songwriter, arranger, and performer. She releases music as part of the music duo, Kronik Leila. She has worked and collaborated with some prestigious orchestras around Europe, while also holding University positions as music theory professor and music research assistant. Arda studied music theory and clarinet at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and completed her degree at the Conservatory of Strasbourg in France.

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