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Cheat Sheet

Clarinet For Dummies

From Clarinet For Dummies by David Etheridge

Before you can begin your journey of mastering how to play the clarinet, you have to choose the best clarinet for your level of ability and style of music. You also need to choose a reed that works best for you. And as your talents really begin to shine, you'll want to make sure that you are properly cleaning and maintaining your clarinet.

Selecting a Clarinet

When you’re ready to purchase a clarinet, you have a lot to think about and many choices. You have to think about what materials you prefer, whether to buy new versus new, and much more. So when shopping for a clarinet, take the following factors into consideration:

  • Type of clarinet: Clarinets don’t all sound alike. You can find them in A, B-flat (most common), C, E-flat, and other keys.

  • Quality: When shopping for a quality instrument, the choice usually falls into one of the following three ranges: starter upper (for beginners), step up (for intermediate players), and “money is no object” (for professionals).

  • Material: A major factor to consider is the material out of which the clarinet is made. The choices boil down to three: plastic, wood, or greenline (resin). All three are good choices, depending on where you’re playing, how gentle you are in handling the instrument, and the sound you’re looking for.

  • Buying versus renting: The question of buying or renting a clarinet involves several factors, including budget, the likelihood that the person who’s going to be playing it will stick with it, and the actual condition of the instrument.

  • New versus used: A new clarinet is like a new car — as soon as you drive it off the lot, it loses some value — so you can often find good used clarinets at affordable prices.

  • Accessories: You can purchase custom parts for your clarinet separately to improve its sound and how well it responds.

Selecting a Reed for Your Clarinet

When shopping for clarinet reeds, you may get the feeling that you’re playing a numbers game. A reed’s hardness (or stiffness) is ranked by numbers ranging from 1.5 (soft) to 5 (hard). However, hardness is only one factor, and not the most important one at that. The cane of the reed, the player's level, the mouthpiece, and reed thickness are all important factors.

When selecting a reed, consider the following:

  • Cane: Even more important than a reed’s hardness is the cane it’s cut from. Ultimately, reeds are just like wine. Exquisite wine starts with exquisite grapes. The most vibrant, longest-lasting reeds start with excellent cane.

  • Player level/age: Beginners and young players may not be able to blow hard enough to make a hard reed vibrate, so they may want to start with a softer reed — 3.0 hardness or less (4 or higher is considered hard).

  • Mouthpiece tip opening: Mouthpiece facings with close tip openings require harder reeds because softer reeds close on them too easily. Very open mouthpieces, like those preferred by doublers, can use softer reeds.

  • Thickness: Reeds are manufactured from three sizes of blanks: traditional thickness, thick, and very thick. The thicker the reed blank, the harder the reed is to close with lip pressure.

Maintaining and Breaking In a Brand New Clarinet

When you get home with your brand new clarinet, the first thing you may want to do is play it night and day. And that would be wrong. First, you need to do a little maintenance and break it in properly. Here’s how:

  • Apply a little cork grease to the corks the first three or four times you assemble the clarinet.

  • If the instrument is made of wood, play it no longer than 45 minutes a day for the first two weeks. This is called the break-in period, and most new clarinets do require it.

The advantage of composite, greenline clarinets is that they don’t need to be broken in and the bore retains its original dimensions throughout the life of the instrument.

Taking Care of Your Clarinet

After the break-in period with your new woodwind instrument, you can relax a little and play your clarinet as much as you want. However, you still need to attend to some occasional maintenance duties, like oiling the keys an cleaning the key pads, to keep your clarinet in good shape.

  • Oiling the keys: A clarinet’s keywork is made of metal, and as we all know, metal rusts and wears down. To keep the rust at bay and reduce the wear and tear around the hinges, apply a small drop of instrument key oil on the joint near every screw in the key mechanism once a week.

    Keep key oil away from pads. Oil on a pad ruins it. Also, it’s possible to put too much oil on the keys. Just use a tiny bit.

  • Cleaning the key pads: Pads can become sticky, and you may find yourself having to press down on a key harder and harder to pull up the pad. If a pad becomes sticky, place a slightly moistened cigarette paper under it. Gently close the pad on the paper, and then gently pull the paper out from under the pad.

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