The Plateau System Clarinet
I just finished overhauling this late 1920's/early 30's French stencil plateau Boehm system clarinet and am wondering - why don't we see more of these? For folks who aren't familiar with the design, it has covered keys with pads like a saxophone, rather than open rings like a regular clarinet!
They sound great, are easy to play, are a real help for people with small hands, thin fingers, arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, and hand injuries. I've overhauled both Boehm and Albert system versions and both sounded great! They are a bit harder to work on, I admit, and I'm sure that manufacturing costs are a higher, but what a wonderful option to have available! I know there would be a demand as I receive requests on a regular basis. Does anyone know if they are still being produced by a major company in wood, ebonite or metal? Can they be special ordered? Why are they so rare? Feel free to comment....
After clarinet porn comes 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!
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 and 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!"
"Aren't you still in high school? NO! College? You look awfully young...How long have you been playing? Three years, huh? And those gold plated keys are really enhancing your upper register, you say? Lemme hear your high G....sure, I can wait while you look up the fingering...I'm in no hurry. What happened to that nice used Leblanc Noblet with the Portnoy mouthpiece that you used to play? Keys got dull? You mean they weren't even silver plated?! The nerve...and then you saw this one on WWBW.com, huh? Parents took out a second mortgage after you held your breath at the dinner table? Well, its always nice to see dedication in the arts..."
"Getting back into playing after 35 years off, huh? Yeah, community band has some tough 3rd parts, that's true...does the inside of your lip always look like that? Ow...You say the Backun bell really helps with intonation on the low notes? But...didn't you just have to shorten your barrel by 2mm because you were playing so flat? Well, yeah, long tones are pretty boring its true...especially with that tone..."
Now, all kidding aside...I've been on Instagram for 3 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 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, doubling from saxophone, etc. - 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!
I recently received a horn for restoration and was impressed with the look of the previous overhaul: cleanly beveled cork pads on the upper joint, and tan kid on the lower. The only problem was that it didn't pull anything close to a vacuum: Those beautiful cork pads had been laboriously installed on a 1920's Albert system clarinet, whose tone-holes were nowhere near flat or sharp enough to make a clean impression...and, hence, a good seal!
This got me thinking about the pros and cons of cork pads; many people request them in an overhaul, often without any clear reason for doing so other than that they heard it was the 'thing to do'. On a modern horn with crisp, flat tone-holes cork is a joy, giving a great seal and improving the clarity and projection of dull notes. On anything older than a couple decades, I will generally try to discourage them from full cork on the upper joint, and here's why:
A tone-hole is cut flat into a curved, wooden surface. Wood changes over time, flexing, swelling and shrinking with variations in temperature and humidity. A new tone-hole will be flat and sharp, if you're lucky - an old one is often anything but! Aside from changes in the wood itself, there is also the quality of the initial machining and subsequent overhauls to consider: Hasty/careless work will sometimes leave small nicks/dings on the edge, and sometimes you'll see evidence that someone has attempted to 'reface' a tone-hole, doing more harm than good.
In these circumstances, a cork pad is more of a liability than an asset! Its firm surface, well suited for taking a clean impression from a perfect tone-hole, won't contour to an imperfect one and the result is a poor seal. This can be hard to diagnose subsequently, as the ring that cork takes will fool a paper feeler with its bite, leaving you scratching your head as to where that leak is coming from!
On the 50+ year old instruments that I commonly service, I'll use cork on the register key (since its tube doesn't change with age) and maybe A/Ab if the throat is stuffy and the tone-holes look good: often they'll need a little 'touching up' to pass muster. Other than that, I stick with leather, which is long lasting, contours well to the aging tone-hole, and has a feel more similar to the fingertip for even response. I'd be interested to hear about other people's experience with cork on older horns....
A customer just wrote to ask : "What's a good set up for jazz on the clarinet? I've changed my embouchure a lot but I'd like to have the best set up possible also, any advice would be great! Thanks!"
I'd like to have the best setup possible, too! So, here's my answer:
" Well, that's a tough question...Its very individual. If you look at a list of famous players on any instrument (especially woodwind) the setups tend to be all over the place. Generally speaking, Jazz players use a more open tip and a lighter reed than classical, but a bigger part is having a 'jazz tone' in your head, and adjusting your timing, attack, phrasing, etc. to reflect a Jazz concept. Who do you listen to? Buddy DeFranco? Artie Shaw? Lots of listening and practicing with play-along tracks will help the most...
Now that, being said, its harder to get a Jazz sound on Vandoren M13 mpc with #4 reeds - that's a pretty closed, stuffy setup. I've used Bernard Portnoy mouthpieces on my horn and with students and had good results, either the BP02 or more open BP03 facing. These can generally be found on ebay for about $40 used. Also, an older Selmer HS** (2 stars, not one) gives a nice tone and is open enough to give some flexibility. If you're interested, I have some good mpcs on my site right now, as a retiring player parked a bunch of stuff with me to sell.
Also, don't forget reeds! I'd try a Fibracell 3.5 synthetic, or, if you really prefer natural reeds, look at a non-classical cut from Alexander: they make some really nice reeds cut specifically for a Jazzy sound."
How's that for an answer?
With the holiday shopping season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to repost this blog entry, for the sake of unwary clarinet shoppers!
I buy most of my horns on eBay and have learned, through long and expensive experience, to examine every instrument with a fine toothed comb before purchasing! I've received cracked clarinets, plastic instead of wood clarinets, broken clarinets, clarinets with damaged or missing keys or rings, and even a clarinet that was made of pieces of 3 different clarinets! So, based on my experience and some of the customer horns I've been seeing lately (also purchased on eBay) I'd say its time for an eBay buying tutorial!
First, I'd restrict my buying to the US and Canada unless you are fluent in another language and can afford to risk the high shipping. Mistakes can happen with overseas communication, and it can be much harder and more expensive to force a return if things aren't as represented!
Second, look at feedback: while feedback can't tell you everything (with one negative, ebay's current policy of basing it on only the last year's transactions can make a small seller look worse than he/she is) it is a good place to start. Numerous negatives/ neutrals and unflattering comments about misrepresented condition, poor communication, and high shipping can be a tip off that you aren't dealing with someone who is professional or honest - best to move on; lots of fish in the sea.
Third, what does the ad show and tell you? Is it full of sharp pictures and copious details or a few badly taken pictures and a very skimpy description posted from a mobile phone? Is the person obviously knowledgeable and informative about the instrument, or just a garage sale picker looking for a quick sale at the highest price?
Fourth, is there a return policy? Honest, knowledgeable sellers know that mistakes can happen, especially if they are selling something that they are not familiar with - I had to return a clarinet just a few weeks ago, as the ad failed to show or mention that the upper half of the bridge key was broken off and missing! Luckily, she was honest and pleasant about it, but I haven't always been so lucky...
To be continued!
What Is A Stencil Clarinet pt.2
Where these are of interest and, indeed, come into their own, is for the player on a budget! The internet and Craigslist abound with old wood clarinets of low price and unknown provenance and many of them, after restoration, are good to excellent players.
Some are brands lesser known in America, like Couesnon, Malerne, Moennig or Rampone - good players all, when properly restored. Others are the true stencils, many made by the same companies or even by Buffet, Selmer, or lesser known workshops of high quality (like Thibouville Freres).
Some can be identified by comparison with keywork: Buffet and Thibouville in particular have easily identifiable keywork, if you know where to look. Some can't be identified at all (like the aforementioned Nameless Albert system) but are fine players nonetheless, especially if they have pro features like extra keywork, post lock-downs, metal lined tenons, solid alloy keys, and leaf springs.
Generally, they can be purchased for $25-85 and overhauled for $300-400. A good playing, wood clarinet for a final price of $485 or so tops? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus! I've restored dozens of these for satisfied customers and purchasers worldwide, and there are lots more out there. Go find one and spend the other two grand on something useful!
What Is a Stencil Clarinet?
I receive a lot of requests for valuations, and many of them are for 'stencil' instruments. I've explained it often enough, so I might as well explain it to you, too!
A stencil clarinet (or sax, trumpet, or other band instrument) is one that is manufactured by one maker for sale by another, or by a music store, catalog, or wholesaler. Some, like this old Albert system, have no logo at all. Others will have a made up brand name: Silvertone, Vocotone, American Professional, etc.
As the maker is not identified on the horn, serial number lists are often inconsistent or non-existent, and one brand name will be produced by different makers in different countries over a period of time, so attribution is uncertain! This can be bad news for the yard-saler who picks up a neat old wood clarinet for $30...only to find that, in its current, unplayable condition... it is worth about $30. Collectors rarely have interest in these horns, preferring famous makes and models, or oddities of construction, fingering, or decoration.
To be continued...
Caring for your Vintage Clarinets
With the change of seasons, I thought it might be a good time for a vintage clarinet care post - I've been seeing a lot of dried out, neglected clarinets here in the shop!
An older wood clarinet is going to need more care than a new one for best performance, and quite a bit more than that student plastic horn you used to abuse, so let's get to it!
1 - Swab it after you play, but avoid inserts. You want to get the moisture out - not put it back in! Those fuzzy inserts absorb moisture from the body and pads, with regular use, and then it goes...right back in the clarinet! Just swab from both ends and put it away.
2 - Bore oil is your friend. I'm amazed at the number of folks I meet that don't use it and the number of horns I receive that desperately need it! Buy a good quality brand that has some natural oils (not just petroleum distillates) and a fuzzy clarinet bore swab. Put a few drops on the swab and run it through all 4 pieces of the body until you see a light 'sheen' in there: don't soak it! If the horn is really dry, it may be necessary to repeat this a few times in the first week. Eventually, once a month or so will be enough to keep it looking healthy: this will protect it from cracks and warp-age and extend the useful life of your instrument!
3 - Humidify. While you don't want a damp insert holding moisture right next to your pads, you do want a little humidity in there, especially during the winter or if you live in an arid part of the country. Take a tip from the old pros and put a couple pieces of orange rind in the bell: it will make the case smell nice and protect the bell in particular from the shrinkage that loosens rings and causes cracks.
4 - Oil the mechanism. A lot of the looseness in old clarinet keys is the result of un-lubricated dirt between the key and the post being rubbed back and forth, thousands of times, until metal gradually wears away. A good way to improve movement and arrest wear is to buy a little bottle of key oil (I like Hetman's) with a needle fitting and hit the contact points at each end of the key with a drop, about twice a year.
5 - Watch that thermal shock! Wooden clarinets don't like dry heat, direct sun, or sudden temperature changes. Don't leave it in a car on a hot day, or march with it, or set it near a heat source. No company guarantees their horns against cracking, and I can't either!
Ironically, your old clarinet will probably withstand the rigors of use better than a new one: its wood blanks were aged longer before cutting, and it has had years to stabilize since then. I see many clarinets 80+ years old that look and play great! If you take care of yours, someone might be playing it many years from now, as well....
Recently, in a fit of bravery, I've been purchasing some no-name clarinets, mostly Albert systems. These golden-oldies have gotten harder to find, lately, and the big names are commanding big prices: a $1000 or more for a Buffet or Selmer in good, un-restored condition, which puts it out of my 'can-risk' range!
I don't buy blind, of course: I look at wood, key-work, and condition and I ask questions. And you would be surprised at some of the nice old horns that I come across! There are a number of reasons: most no-names were made by reputable manufacturers for stores, catalogs and big distributors. If it says 'made in France' and its from the 20's-50's, chances are good that it was a Buffet, Thibouville Freres, Selmer, Couesnon, Malerne, or SML. If it was 'made in Italy', a Rampone or Orsi. If 'made in Germany', a Gebr. Moennig or one of a host of excellent (if lesser known) makers from Markneukirchen - not a bad pedigree!
Also, this was the Era of the Clarinet and a poor make didn't stand much of a chance against the flood of reasonably priced, quality instruments on the market. Compare this to today's spate of First Act, Borg, and other marginal junk instruments - they wouldn't have stood a chance 80 years ago! Even some of the old French and American stencil hard rubber or metal instruments play surprisingly well, with a good overhaul and decent mouthpiece.
So, don't be scared of an inexpensive old no-name for personal use. Compare key-work for similarities to known brands (hint: the shape of the lower stack bridge key is a giveaway to at least 3 makers), look for dark wood with a tight grain and pro features (like post lock-downs) and ask Ask ASK questions : are there cracks, ugly repairs, frozen/rusted keys, etc. With practice and a little luck, you can have a fine horn for practically the cost of the overhaul and save another piece of craftsmanship from the junk-pile....
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.