One of the most important things to know when purchasing an instrument is that the process will take some time and research. Instruments are an investment, and the effort will pay off in the long run. Start by asking several musicians, including band directors, instrument sales associates, and local professionals, their opinions on brands and models. Even if they are not clarinetists, they will likely have general advice and know of major brands. The Internet is also a good place to do research, but when purchasing an instrument it is best to go to a reputable retailer.
Clarinet makers generally divide their instruments into three main categories: student, intermediate, and professional.
Student level instruments are almost completely machine-made and are designed to take a little more wear and tear. When trying out a student level instrument it should be fairly easy to make a sound, and it should have good mechanics, meaning that the keys should move freely.
Intermediate level clarinets are usually made of wood and are more hand-made. As there is more attention paid to detail the intonation (in tune versus out of tune) and tone should be better.
Professional clarinets are much more hand-made and are produced with higher-quality materials. This produces even better intonation, tone, and response, and also causes each instrument to be more individual. The higher the quality of the instrument, the more important it is to try many, including multiple instruments of the same brand and model, to find the right one for you.
Though they are sometimes made to look like wood, student level clarinets are made out of resin, allowing them to be less expensive and require less maintenance.
Most intermediate and professional instruments are made from grenadilla wood, though other types of wood are also used. The better the quality of wood, the better the clarinet can sound, which is an important reason to try multiple instruments. Wood clarinets require more maintenance than resin, as it is important to keep the wood from drying out and cracking. There are several different ways of doing this, so ask your sales associate or private instructor for recommendations.
Clarinet keys are most often made of silver or nickel, though gold is an option on some clarinets.
The parts of the clarinet, from bottom to top, are the bell, lower joint (or section), upper joint (or section), and barrel. The final three parts are the mouthpiece, which connects to the barrel, the reed, and the ligature, which holds the reed onto the mouthpiece. These are the most important parts, as they generate the sound and thus have the biggest effect on response and tone. With a good mouthpiece, reed, and ligature, a player can make an average instrument sound great and a great instrument sound brilliant. It is also worth noting that, in most cases, the quality of the mouthpiece and ligature provided do not equal the quality of the clarinet, so trying other mouthpieces, reeds, and ligatures can be a very worthwhile upgrade. The barrel can also be changed, generally with the advice and assistance of a private instructor.
Other Important Features
The most common clarinets, from highest to lowest in pitch, are the E-flat clarinet, B-flat clarinet, A clarinet, alto clarinet, and bass clarinet. Students begin on the B-flat clarinet and may play others based on interest of the student and need in the band or orchestra.
Most clarinets have the Boehm system with 17 keys, though it is possible to get them with the full Boehm system of 20 keys. This extends the range down by one half-step and also provides more alternate fingering options.
About the Author
Scott Sandberg is originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota. From 2005-2007 he held the positions of Instructor of Saxophone at the Bloomingdale School of Music in New York City and Instructor of Woodwinds at Wright Music Studios in Port Washington, New York. He was the Adjunct Instructor of Jazz at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, during the 2003-2004 academic year. Sandberg has performed with the Dubuque Symphony, the Waverly Community Orchestra, the Greater Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra, and the Dick King Classic Swing Band. He has performed at several conferences of the North American Saxophone Alliance; toured Europe, including performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival; and was a finalist in the 2000 National MTNA Competition. He received his Bachelor of Music in Music Education degree from the University of North Dakota and his Master of Arts degree in Saxophone Performance from the University of Iowa, and he is currently a Doctorate of Musical Arts candidate at the University of Iowa.