The clarinet is a very popular first instrument because it is fairly small, easy to transport and musically versatile.
Beginners often start clarinet around age 9-10 in a school band or at any age with a private teacher. Some online learning programs are also available.
As with any woodwind instrument, is important to develop good breath control and a good embouchure (the shape of the mouth around the mouthpiece).
The clarinet has five parts: the mouthpiece, the barrel, the upper joint, the lower joint and the bell. The joints that hold the pieces together are lined with cork to ensure a snug fit. The clarinet is played by blowing into a reed that is clipped to the mouthpiece. Different pitches are produced by covering and uncovering the holes in the body in different configurations, which changes the length of the column of air vibrating inside.
In addition to being played as a solo instrument, the clarinet is played in orchestras, concert, marching and jazz band and wind ensembles.
Clarinetists read music on the treble clef.
The clarinet is a transposing instrument. That is, music written out for clarinet is transposed – raised or lowered – to a different “key”. Because of this, the note played sounds as a different note than the note written on the page of printed music. This is done so that the fingerings can be the same on different sized instruments of similar design. Players of these instruments, then, can switch between similar instruments without learning new fingerings.
The clarinet is a B-flat transposing instrument. When a clarinetist reads a “C” on the page of music and fingers the note as “C” on the instrument, it sounds as “B-flat”, a step lower. Clarinetists and players of other transposing instruments get quite used to this. What this means, though, is that a flutist or pianist or violinist (all non-transposing instruments) cannot play along with the clarinetist using the same piece of printed music. Because the clarinet music has been transposed to another key, their music would appear different, even though the notes would sound the same.
Clarinetists often find themselves playing several instruments. In addition to the standard B-flat Clarinet, clarinets come in a few other sizes, such as the smaller, higher E-flat Clarinet and the larger, lower bent-necked Bass Clarinet, which uses the same fingerings as the standard clarinet, but sounds an octave lower. Some orchestral pieces require the clarinetist to play more than one type of clarinet within the same piece. There are also many similarities between clarinet and saxophone, so clarinetists often play that as well.
Where To Buy A Clarinet
See “Where To Buy Musical Instruments” for general buying advice on:
- Buying in a Specialty Store vs. “Big Box” Stores
- Buying Online vs. In-Person
- Renting vs. Buying
- Buying Used Instruments
How To Buy A Clarinet
Most clarinets are made of wood, however some beginner models are plastic. The wood provides a warmer, better tone, but plastic is less expensive and more durable, which may make it a good choice for a younger beginner. If you buy a less expensive instrument, consider upgrading to a better mouthpiece, as that will make it easier to play.
If possible, have a teacher or experienced clarinetist check and play the instrument (using their own mouthpiece) before you make a final purchase. Check to be sure none of the keys are bent, no joints are loose, and that no pads are loose or missing. Listen to the tone in both the high and low registers.
Sample Clarinet Prices
$300 – 700
$800 – 1,500
If you are buying your instrument from a specialty music store, inquire about a trade-in policy. When you or your student are ready for a larger or higher quality instrument, they will often give you a good portion of the original instrument price back when you trade it in.
What Else You’ll Need
A good case, music stand and metronome are recommended for all instrumentalists. Clarinetists will also need reeds, a reed guard, a cleaning swab and cork grease.
Reeds come in different grades according to strength. Higher numbers equate to stronger, harder reeds. Most beginners use softer reeds, such as a “2” and then move to stronger reeds, which produce a better tone, as they progress.
Clarinet Care and Maintenance
Tune the clarinet first when playing with other instruments by pulling the mouthpiece out or pushing it in to increase or decrease the length of the instrument.
To avoid damage, it’s important to assemble the clarinet carefully. When needed, use cork grease to allow the parts to connect easily. Apply a small amount and rub it around the cork. Never force the parts together. Learn to assemble the clarinet without putting pressure on the keys, which can bend or damage them.
After playing, use a clean cotton cloth to wipe the mouthpiece out. Then, remove the moisture inside the instrument with a pull-through cotton cleaning swab. Wipe each joint. Remove the reed from the mouthpiece and place it in a reed guard so that it will lie flat.
Keep your clarinet in the case. To prevent damage, don’t keep music or anything other than small accessories in your case with it. Wooden clarinets are sensitive to temperature and humidity changes, so keep yours out of direct sunlight or extreme temperatures. If it has been in the cold, let it warm up in the case before playing. In dry climates or during the winter, keep a humidifier, such as a “DampIt”, in the case. To prevent cracking, wooden clarinets may require a break-in period of light use so it can gradually absorb the type of moisture that occurs with playing.
If you have problems, such as corks that are too tight or too loose, bent keys, cracks, or pads that need to be replaced, take the clarinet to a reputable repair technician for servicing.