Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Picking up the Clarinet

What was your 'thing' when you were a child? Did you play sport, dance, act ...? My thing was music. I began learning the recorder at primary school and then moved on to the piano. When I was about ten or eleven I started going to a weekend music school where everyone played in the orchestra as well as their normal lessons. Funnily enough, the orchestra didn't need lots of pianists but there was only one clarinet player. So, I started learning the clarinet too.

During the years since then I've always played the piano and have developed my recorder playing to include alto and tenor recorders as well as my original soprano. But ... the clarinet has been neglected. I'm enjoying learning the violin and I started wondering if I should get my clarinet out again ... which is when I discovered that clarinets don't like being left in their cases for decades. The foam lining of the case had disintegrated all over the place and lots of the pads were dry and cracked. I have to say it reduced me to tears.

Then I pulled myself together and emailed my local music shop Presto Music who suggested I take it in for them to have a look at. Fast forward some months and look what I've just collected ...

One working clarinet, complete with a brand new case (no nasty foam this time), reeds. grease and cleaning thingy. That last was a revelation to me; when I last played, we still used those brushes on a stick to clean our instruments. Now there are things called 'pull throughs' which are basically cloths with a weighted cord on the end. You feed the weight down through the clarinet and then pull the cloth through after it - very clever.

So far, so good. Now was the time to wonder whether I'd be able to play it after all this time (40 years). Having decided I needed to start from the beginning again, I got some soft reeds and fished out my original books.

My very first book was this one, A Tune a Day for Clarinet Book One which is still in print (although they've updated the cover just a bit). My copy cost 40p too, rather than the £6.99 it would set you back now.

Anyway, this book takes you through the notes, one by one and also has detailed instructions on putting the instrument together and the embouchure - that's how you position your mouth to make a sound.

I was relieved to find that I remembered how to assemble the clarinet and how to put the reed on. The embouchure was fine too but ... it took me ten minutes to be able to play a single note. I'm not sure if it was me or the reed that needed warming up but, eventually, it all started to work. 

I can now play about a dozen notes and it's starting to come back to me slowly. Each new note is vaguely familiar and my breathing is getting better too. I'm hoping that, at some point, it'll all suddenly 'click' into place. I think I'm probably progressing more quickly than I would if  I'd never played and I'm enjoying the challenge. 

The clarinet is a beautiful instrument; I'd forgotten how much I loved its sound. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, here's Dimitri Schenker playing Norbert Burgmuuler's Duo for Clarinet and Piano, written in 1834, just two years before the composer's death at the age of 26.


  1. You'll have to post some of your own playing after you've been at it a bit, please?
    I played clarinet in school, but gave my instrument back to the school years ago. Sometimes I miss playing an instrument, but then remember that there just aren't enough hours in the day to do everything I want to as is. If only we could all do a Groundhog Day and have all the time in the world to learn [or re-learn] something.

  2. It'll be a long time before I'm willing to share my clarinet playing I think! I did wonder about trying to fit in another instrument but, as my Mum used to say, you find time for the things you want to do.

  3. Impressive Frankie, is there anything you can't do? lol I've always wanted to play the guitar and now my 8 year old grandson is taking lessons. Who knows.......

  4. I think it's a case of doing lots of things not very well! Have a go at the guitar, you never regret the things you try and find they aren't for you, only the things you always wanted to do but never did. I felt like that about the violin for years. I started learning a couple of years ago and it's actually changed my life. I'm so glad I did it.