Many people ask why clarinets and clarinet parts are so expensive. The answer lies in the rarity of the wood used to make them and their complex construction.
Clarinets are typically made of one of three materials: wood, plastic, and ebonite. Ebonite is a specially made hard rubber. Wooden clarinets are generally constructed from grenadilla wood, African hardwood, or African blackwood.
An inexpensive beginner clarinet may last for about 10 years. But it could last much longer with proper care.
I own a wood bass clarinet that’s 10 years old. This instrument plays like new because I’ve taken care of it over the years, fixing any mechanical issues that have appeared. And I haven’t had to replace any parts.
Here is an overview of the many parts of a clarinet, specifically a B-flat or soprano clarinet. You can apply most of this information to the other members of the clarinet family as well.
The mouthpiece is the removable part that the reed is attached to. Mouthpieces are shaped differently on the inside and can have different effects on the sound of the clarinet.
A good mouthpiece should last several years. Mouthpieces can be easily replaced, and many clarinetists experiment with different styles.
The reed creates the sound of the clarinet when it vibrates. Cane reeds, the most common variety, are made from the Arundo donax plant, a cane growing in damp soil. Reeds must be cut, aged and shaped.
Some clarinetists choose to buy blank reeds and shape them themselves using knives and other tools. Most clarinetists buy commercially produced reeds instead.
Reeds can also be made from plastic. While plastic reeds didn’t produce good results in years past, the newest polymer reeds can produce an excellent tone and sound quality. Some musicians prefer polymer reeds to cane reeds because they don’t absorb water and are much more durable. A quality polymer reed will last as long as a full box of cane reeds.
Expect a cane reed to last anywhere from a few weeks to a month under normal conditions. New players are much harder on their reeds because they’re learning how to be gentle with them. Make sure you have plenty of extra reeds if you’re just beginning to learn clarinet.
The ligature is a metal or leather device that holds the reed on the mouthpiece.
Having a well-fitting ligature is a must for creating a good sound on a clarinet. The ligature that comes with a student-quality instrument often needs to be replaced right away because it doesn’t hold the reed well.
Ligatures are inexpensive, most costing between $25 and $50. Though some professional ligatures can cost as much as $250.
The barrel is the piece that connects the mouthpiece and the upper joint of the instrument.
Barrels are highly important to the sound of the instrument. And many clarinetists choose to experiment with replacement barrels rather than staying with the original barrel that came with the clarinet.
The barrel rings are metal rings attached to the instrument. They help protect the barrel from splitting under the pressure from the corks inside. Some clarinet barrels are constructed without rings.
Loose barrel rings are often a sign that the wood of your clarinet is drying out. Take your clarinet to a qualified repair person if this happens.
Optional barrel rings can also be placed between the barrel and the upper joint of the instrument. These rings help with tuning the instrument by lengthening the barrel. This can help to combat the instrument’s natural tendency toward being sharp or having a pitch that is too high.
Clarinet upper joint
The upper joint of the instrument holds keys and tone holes that create the sound of the clarinet, especially in the upper register.
The upper joint of the instrument is typically played using the left hand. A tenon cork is found at the top of the upper joint. Make sure there’s a tight, but not too tight, connection between the parts of the clarinet.
The register key is located at the back of the upper joint. It’s a paddle-shaped key typically played by the left thumb.
This key is responsible for raising the pitch of the instrument into the upper register. Unlike the saxophone and flute, whose octave keys raise the pitch of the instrument by an octave, the clarinet register key raises the pitch by an octave and a fourth, or nineteen semitones.
The register key is quite durable. But as with all keys, players must be careful to avoid bending or breaking them. If a key becomes bent, the tone holes will not seal, leading to an inability to play the right notes.
A qualified repair person can almost always fix a register key without having to replace it.
Tone holes and keys, when covered and uncovered, change the resonance of the air being blown through the instrument, and by doing, so change the pitch. Without tone holes and keys, the clarinet would only be able to play one note.
The tone holes are precisely cut into the instrument to allow the pitch to be raised and lowered. An “airy” tone will result when the tone holes aren’t properly sealed by the fingers.
Sometimes a clarinet’s tone holes will need to be adjusted by an experienced repair person. But most of the time they need no alterations.
Clarinet lower joint
The lower joint of the instrument is typically played by the right hand. It contains all the keys and tone holes necessary for the lower range of the instrument.
The arrangement of the keys on the lower joint of the instrument can confuse a new player. And getting both hands working together may take some time.
The bridge key is a mechanical connection between the upper and lower joints of the instrument and is one of the most important parts of a clarinet. The bridge key raises and lowers to help the keys connect to the proper tone holes.
Players must be taught to put their instruments together properly. If the two components of the bridge key are not lined up properly, the instrument will not be able to play any notes on the lower joint.
Take care of all the keys, especially the bridge key, so they don’t become bent. Never leave your instrument on the floor or allow it to be handled by someone who may be rough with your instrument.
If a key like the bridge key is bent or damaged, it must be repaired or replaced by a qualified technician. A school band director may be able to make a few repairs on their own in some cases.
All keys are important to the functioning of the clarinet. As with the bridge key, they must be kept from becoming bent or broken. The keys enable the player to reach notes that would be impossible without them.
One of the most interesting functions of keys is that they can enable a player to make alternate fingerings for certain notes. For example, reaching an E below the staff is possible using a key pressed by the little finger on either hand.
Learning where the keys are is part of becoming a good clarinetist. And achieving muscle memory takes some time.
Keys cover the tone holes with air-tight pads. Early pads were made from leaky felt until they were replaced in 1812 with more reliable pads made from fish bladder or leather (related:A Short History of the Clarinet). Today’s pads are typically made from leather, cork or synthetic material.
Pads are another part of the clarinet which may fall off or become worn during normal play. This is normal and expected after a certain period. And getting new pads is an easy repair.
The bell of the clarinet is at the lowermost end of the instrument and flares out.
Many people believe the bell amplifies the sound of the clarinet. But it’s actually responsible for creating a uniform tone for the low notes in each register. Experiment with taking the bell off and playing the instrument without it if you want to see this effect for yourself.
The bell has a metal ring at the top. This ring is meant to contain the force from the tenon cork. It’s also decorative.
Bell rings may be too loose, which can cause them to fall off. This is mostly a result of the wood becoming too dry. But a rough younger player can also loosen this ring with poor handling. The bell ring is generally not a part of the instrument that requires much repair or maintenance.
Corks connecting all the clarinet parts
The mouthpiece, joints and bell of the clarinet are joined by tenon corks. These corks are sometimes too loose or too tight to fit the instrument. It’s normal for corks to wear out and need replacement. Corks generally last up to ten years.
Corks can be replaced or sanded down by a qualified technician. In most cases, applying a bit of cork grease will help the instrument come together smoothly.
Avoid using too much cork grease. This can cause corks to wear out prematurely and make it possible for the joints to slip out and fall to the floor, causing damage.
Here we’ve explored the basics of how a clarinet is constructed and how all its complex parts work together to create a beautiful sound. Most parts can be repaired, but a few can be replaced, including the barrel, bell and mouthpiece.
Taking care of a clarinet is a great responsibility. For this reason, plastic and ebonite clarinets are generally more appropriate for younger players. Wood clarinets have extra requirements including keeping the instrument at the right temperature and humidity.
The most important thing that any clarinetist can do to make sure their instruments stay in good condition is to properly clean them at the end of each playing session. Run a swab through the barrel and all the joints. Wipe the mouthpiece as well. Proper maintenance will keep your clarinet looking and playing like new.