There's a topic in the world of clarinets that I've never heard touched upon, so I'm going to chance it tonight - Clarinet Porn versus the "Good Enough" clarinet. I may not make any friends with this, but I think it needs to be said...to YOU! "Yes, you there with your $5000 Backun with gold plated keys, custom barrel, handmade mouthpiece, $100 ligature and reeds hand shaved on the thigh of a Cuban virgin!"
Now, all kidding aside...I've been on Instagram for months and the volume of Clarinet Porn has to be seen to be believed: there should be parental settings on that darn site! Yes, Backun, Selmer, Buffet, Patricola, et al make some really fine horns (for thousands of dollars) and if you are in the top 5% of serious clarinet players you'll be able to tell the difference...and so will your audience?
I'm sorry to tell you this, but... its the player, not the fancy horn. I know pros who like hard rubber clarinets (for volume and cheapness), who like metal horns, who use synthetic reeds...and even my buddy Glenn, who has a 1970's Bundy student flute...and he can smoke on that thing! If you're in school but not planning on a career in performance, if you're getting back into playing late in life, if you're doubling from saxophone - in other words, the other 90 something % of players - please just buy a Good Enough clarinet and spend the rest on that transmission noise and your student loans!
Ideally, a Good Enough clarinet would be an older wood instrument (like a Leblanc Dynamic, Penzel Mueller Artist, or Series 9 Selmer) in good condition, competently refurbished with good quality pads, played with a hard rubber mouthpiece made by someone with enough pride of craftsmanship to put their name on it, using a Rovner or Bonade ligarture, holding a reed not made in China! I'm not going to get too specific, as there are lots of good clarinets, mouthpieces and reeds - you need to TRY them and see what feels good in your hands and sounds good to your ears...
That's it - that's all you'll need. You'll make beautiful music, your bandmates will love instead of envy you and your tranny will shift like a dream!
Our topic for today is the search for the perfect mouthpiece and the rise of mouthpiece porn: the gleaming, moodily lit photo, the famous artist endorsements, the promises of great tone, easy low notes, singing altissimo and perfect intonation in between....and, of course, the high price-tag. Why do we fall for it?
My sax teacher years ago gave me the best piece of wisdom on the subject: "When you try a new mouthpiece, you're playing the piece. After a week, you're back to playing you." I think what he was trying to say is that a sudden change emphasizes the differing qualities of the mouthpiece. It takes time for your embouchure to settle down and adapt to it and, in that time, your playing habits, (good and bad) reassert themselves...often with a vengeance. Do you close your throat and pinch going for high notes? That squeak and thin tone will be back. Do you have a poor ear for intonation? A $250 hand faced Zinner blank can play just as out of tune as a $30 plastic Yamaha 4C.
Now, these are the things I've found that make a genuine difference, regardless of the mouthpiece you choose:
First and most important, tonal concept. What are you trying to achieve? Who's your idol and can you hear the tone in your head? When a high school-aged kid comes for a jazz lesson, I ask "Who's your hero, who do you want to sound like?" If they say "I dunno", I know I'm in for a lousy school band tone, regardless of their horn and setup. If you can't hear it, no $3k horn will get it for you! Regardless of what style you play, listen to the greats. If you're channeling Buddy DeFranco or Sonny Rollins now, fine. You'll find your way to you, if you keep playing...but you have to have a tonal concept.
Second, a decent setup that's headed in the right direction. If you're playing a vintage Buescher TrueTone alto sax with a Rascher mouthpiece and you love Reggae...you're in trouble. Likewise, channeling Debussy on a Yanigasawa with a screaming Dukoff mouthpiece will probably fail to enchant! I'm offering extreme examples, but I've seen choices just as bad. What do you want to play? What setup do prominent players of that style use? But, don't fall into the trap of paying $500 for a vintage Big B Brilhart ligature because Charlie Parker used one - he also used a bent spoon and a rubber band as a substitute key - but find something, vintage or modern, that's headed in the right direction. I love off-brands, like Dolnet saxes and Penzel Mueller clarinets. Lots of bang for much less buck...and that goes double for used mouthpieces on ebay!
Third, pick a good mouthpiece...and stick with it! It takes time to explore and master a mouthpiece and consistent results come most easily from a consistent setup. If you're constantly changing parameters, your embouchure, lungs and ears won't settle in to get the best from your 'piece. And you needn't spend hundreds: old Selmer and Portnoy clarinet mouthpieces, for instance, sell used on eBay for $30-50 routinely...and they can be great mouthpieces. Try a few before breaking the piggy bank for the latest shiny Uber-mouthpiece!
Last, practice practice practice...but intelligently. No mouthpiece, however fancy and expensive, is a substitute for daily, thoughtful practice! Now, scales and etudes are a good start, but playing a scale from the root to the octave and back, out of time and without a tuner, won't teach you the horn or the key...2 bar scale patterns, in time, all over the horn, with a tuner, will. Long-tones are great for your chops...but so are overtone exercises and I'm surprised at the players I meet who aren't familiar with them. There is so much good info online to help you with your growth, whether you have a teacher or not - use it! YouTube videos covering everything from breathing to improv are yours for free...wish we'd had them back in the 80's...
I hope some of these ideas are helpful, whether you are a beginning or advancing player. Save your money, try the above, and let me know what you think!
The Licorice Shtick Blog is the creation of the Vintage Clarinet Doctor, a Winston Salem, NC based woodwind instrument repair shop specializing in vintage and antique clarinets, saxophones, and the occasional flute.