Best Clarinets for Beginners: What to Look for When Buying a New or Used Clarinet
Buying a Clarinet
The clarinet is one of the most commonly played and taught woodwind instruments. Clarinets appeal broadly to students, and can be played in a variety of band and orchestra settings. With its characteristic dark, earthy tones and broad range of notes, the clarinet can be a wonderful lifelong instrument choice.
Buying a clarinet can be a bit of a conundrum for parents of first-time and student musicians. Faced with so many choices, knowing just which instrument to choose can be a bit of a challenge. Most students begin playing on the Bb clarinet. This instrument is played in school bands and orchestras, and ports easily to the marching field. The advice offered in the article applies to all instruments in the clarinet family, including the alto clarinet and the bass clarinet.
Student Clarinets for Beginners?
Many parents decided to purchase a new student clarinet for their beginning students. Student clarinets are the least expensive option, and when parents aren't sure how long a student will continue to learn to play an instrument, the student option is a good one. But a student clarinet will not be suitable for very long as a student progresses in their musical career.
Student instruments are usually made of plastic, and the materials from which the instrument is made are of a synthetic nature. Since traditionally, clarinets have been made from hardwoods, primarily from Africa, student clarinets produce a sound that is harsher and less mellow than the timbered tones that result from playing a wooden instrument. Clarinet players produce sounds by blowing constant, focused air down the shaft, or bore of their clarinet. When playing properly, clarinet players combine a proper embouchure (or positioning on their mouthpiece) with forced air from their diaphragm muscles. Correct posture, High quality reeds that aren't chipped, and a decent instrument are crucial to the success of young players. There are few things more frustrating than having to play on a poorly-made student instrument when you are trying to master difficult scales and fingering exercises.
In my opinion, student clarinets will not suit a dedicated student for long, and in my experience, the student-level instrument creates problems for the player. One of the first skills a new clarinet player will have to master is "going over the break". This is the transition from A to B about midway up the full range that the clarinet plays. Going over the break is much more difficult on student clarinets. Clarinetists who trade up to better instruments are often shocked by the ease of mastering this skill on their new instruments, and lavish in their newfound musical control.
Student clarinets offer an affordable way for young clarinet players and their families. However, they are at the bottom of the clarinet food chain.
Elements of a Quality Clarinet
A quality clarinet has the following features:
Keys that cover the clarinet holes completely, but without sticking. Each silver key should have a keypad that is thick and not worn down.
Joints that come together smoothly and completely. Each connecting joint should be covered by a thin layer of cork.
A bore, preferably made from wood, that is clean and dry, and smooth.When a musician plays a clarinet, a signicant amount of spittle travels from the mouthpiece and through the bore. Clarinets that are improperly cared for and not cleaned will show signs of deteriation through the bore. In dry climates, the bore may even crack. The condition of the keys and mouthpiece will be a good sign of the clarinet's wear and tear. Especially if the keys are worn, it is a good idea to have a clarinet inspected by a music professional.
A bell that isn't chipped or cracked on the inside or outside. The bell is the fluted bottom piece of the clarinet and is the last area where sound travels across the instrument. cracks and chips can dilute and distort the sound, so avoid instruments that show signs of abuse and wear.
Pay for Quality Now or Later? Pros and Cons
Buying a new student instrument can seem like the best choice for parents who don't feel comfortable purchasing a quality used instrument, or for very young or very new players who are just starting lessons and learning the fundamentals of fingering and reading music.
If a student progresses with clarinet lessons or plays in a symphonic band or school orchestra setting, owning a student instrument may act as an impediment to their progress. A possible compromise for the budget conscious buyer is to purchase a high-quality used instrument, possibly from a graduating high school senior, or at a local college's music department. Used instruments can also be purchased online. If you go this route, follow the age old advice of caveat emptor. Remember buying a used musical instrument can be a little bit like buying a used car. You may get a great deal, but you might have to fix a few things (like replacing key pads) at a surprising price to you. Another option is to rent a quality used band instrument until you can purchase one yourself.
One option is to purchase an older instrument that needs to be re padded. If the bore is good condition, cork and keys can be repaired and replaced. Noted that re padding an entire instrument can be costly, and will require that you find a musical store that can offer this service to you.
Whatever you do, purchase the best quality mouthpiece you can afford. I would buy a new mouthpiece even for a nice used clarinet. Remember the spit factor!
Quality Clarinet Makers
- Buffet Crampo, LeBlanc, and Selmer. These clarinets are quality and a trusted name for high end clarinet purchases. Buffet produces both a student and intermediate instrument, so be sure to find out which one you are getting.
- Van Doren, Suzuki, and Yamaha. These companies make great mid-range clarinets. Look also for clarinets made by the "high end" makers in this category.
Vito comes as a highly recommended student clarinet model, and is made by Vandoren.
What to Look for in a Used Clarinet
- Bore. The bore should not be cracked. I strongly encourage you to ask a professional to check out any high-quality used instruments you are considering for purchase. A good music teacher or band instructor may able to help you in this area, or if they are not a woodwind specialist, you may need to rely on the advice of the professional at your local music store. Purchasing a clarinet with a cracked bore is kind of like buying a car with a shot transmission. I don't recommend it.
- Mouthpiece. Purchase a new mouthpiece and a large box of clarinet reeds. I personally prefer the sound of real reeds to plastic reeds, and prefer the sound of the high quality Vandoren reeds. Though for practicing, plastic reeds can offer a cost savings. New clarinet players have a tendency to bite down on their mouthpiece. It is one of those unavoidable facts of learning to play this instrument.
- Keys and pads. Tarnished keys aren't pretty, but they don't really affect the sound of the instrument. If you are lucky enough to find an instrument with real silver keys and a wood bore, you may just want to snap it up! Pick up the instrument and work through the fingerings. Play a scale or two, with or without the mouthpiece. Can you feel the keys sticking? This may be a sign that the pads need to be replaced. Look at the pads. Are there tell-tale brown rings on the pads. This is a sign that the instrument wasn't cleaned often, and may indicate a distressed instrument.
- Joints. The segments of a clarinet are usually connected through cork-covered joints. Check that the cork isn't badly warped or completely missing.
- Bell. Make sure the bell isn't badly scratched on the inside. Scratched bells are common because clarinets are often used in marching band situations and subject to the abuses that arise from travelling on buses and getting knocked around during marching.
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Must Have Clarinet Accessories
- A New Mouthpiece is an essential purchase, whether the rest of your clarinet is new or used. A mouthpiece has some of the same personal qualities of a toothbrush, and is not an extremely expensive purchase.
- A Large Box of Reeds. New clarinet players have a tendency to bite down and break reeds. Reeds can become brittle over time. A large box of replacement needs is a must for your new clarinet player. Reeds always break before chair tests, tryouts, and, band concerts. I recommend Vandoren reeds. They are the best quality brand and are available for purchase online. Rico clarinet reeds are also an affordable options, but spring for the Vandorens if you can afford it.
- Brushes and Cleaners.You will need to buy a soft brush or cloth to clean the clarinet. The clarinetist should use a cloth to remove saliva from inside the bore of the clarinet every time they play.
- Bore Oil is used to treat the interior and occasionally the exterior of the clarinet.
- A polishing cloth for cleaning the keys of the clarinet will help reduce the wearing effects of the hands' oils on the clarinet keys.
- A sturdy hard clarinet case with a compartment for storing music and practice books. Make sure to label the clarinet case with distinctive stickers after you purchase. All those black cases can start looking alike and this can be a big problem in marching bands that have to travel for away games.
- A collapsible music stand for practice at home. Collapsible music stands fold up on themselves and can be stored inside the clarinet case. They are portable and lightweight. Depending on your music program, you may be required to provide your own stand for use in the classroom, too.
- A metronome. A metronome is a wonderful aid for music practice. It isn't necessary but as any music teacher will tell you, is very nice to have, particularly for practicing solo pieces that must be played with precision to a piano accompanist.
- A pair of earplugs. Quietly and discreetly purchase these for yourself. Listening to a first year band student doesn't have to be grating on your ears.
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© 2009 Carolyn Augustine