Learning to Play

How do I learn it? Can't I teach it myself? Are there books?

If you want to learn to play the clarinet - and more so if your daughter or son does - the most promising way is to find a good teacher and take lessons. Off course you can try to teach it yourself, and people say there are people who managed that, but I have never met one personally who succeeded. That doesn't mean it is impossible - you can even buy books on this.

NB.: I am neither a clarinet teacher nor a professional clarinettist. You will find that some of those do sometimes defend their opinions in a nearly fundamental way. All of these may have good reasons for their opinions. I will try to lay out what I found most useful, especially when you read this thinking about whether your own children should learn the clarinet and how to proceed.

What speaks for the clarinet as an instrument,
what against?

There are few reasons against a clarinet:

Learning to play the clarinet is challenging

Learning to play a musical instrument like the clarinet is more than an intellectual process, that you may manage by abstract learning. It is like skiing, but there nobody would try to buy a good book and then teach it himself - at least when you stand on a steep slope you'll find out quickly that was not such a good idea. Very much alike when learning to play the clarinet there are a lot of things (how to sit, hold the instrument, your embouchure, how to breathe and move relaxed, how to control a tone) to train simultaneously and these things ought to be checked.

The beginning can be difficult and you can do a lot of things really wrong (and get used to that). Especially for the first hours it is worth to have a good teacher.

If you want your child to learn playing the clarinet it is quite common to go and buy an instrument, then try to find a teacher. The other way round makes more sense: Find a good teacher, then, together with him or her go and lend an instrument and if everything goes well, maybe, you buy a good instrument maybe a year later.

Is there a minimum age?

There are hardly any theoretical limits, but there are practical ones. For one thing, the hands/fingers should be large and strong enough to operate the keys quickly - if you can't close them all, it just won't work. You don't have the problems with the small E-flat clarinet, but it is not at all a clarinet suitable for children, because it is much more difficult to play than, say, a B-flat clarinet.

On the other hand, the lungs have to be strong enough to blow, the pressure and the required volume are nevertheless much larger than for example with the recorder.

More importantly, then, is the jaw and the effect of the instrument on the position of the teeth: you should wait for the adult teeth, and they should be stable, because you put some pressure on the upper and especially the lower jaw with the mouthpiece.

All this means, that you are rarely likely to start before the age of 10 - 12. With string instruments, it's completely different: ambitious parents drag their kids to violin lessons as early as kindergarten age...

Should I buy my daughter an instrument yet?

This was a common question in the guestbook.... By the way, it is also common to give a child, who is supposed to learn clarinet, first to buy an instrument and then to look for a teacher. But the order should be the other way around; it would be even wiser to first rent a good instrument together with the teacher. a good instrument first. This is not at all uncommon and many instrument stores offer this. Above all, you should take into account how much cheaper a clarinet teacher can often get the instrument than you can, and how much lower the costs are. and how much smaller the danger is that the dealer will offer you a bad instrument! After a few months, you'll see (see also buying tips). On a reasonably good rental instrument you learn much better than on a cheap plastic part from the discounter. And if son or daughter then longer time really no longer want to practice, you just give it back.

Where do you find (good) clarinet teachers?

This can be quite different depending on the country you live in and the music education system this country has. Some states do have state-owned music schools. In some states musical education is something public schools do, and then again it can be a private service - there are private music schools like Yamaha's and there are private teachers. Often music students and orchestra musicians give lessons, too.

Amateur bands and orchestras often have startup bands and organise their own teaching, at least they can help you to find a good teacher.

Music shops should be able to help you, too.

What do you look for in a good clarinet teacher?

Off course you should have a serious talk with that person, especially when it is not you but your child who will be learning the clarinet - the kid will spend a lot of time with the instrument and the impact a gifted or bad teacher can have can hardly be exaggerated. Especially for kids it is rather the didactically and motivational abilities the teacher has than the fact, that she or he is a great artist (plays in an excellent orchestra) - at least for the beginning that does not help you much. It is a good idea to talk to good amateur players around where they learnt their skills (you can find them at concertos of local orchestras or wind bands in your neighbourhood).

If you or your child are not happy with the teacher (any more), just go there and talk about it, maybe cancel the contract and go find somebody better. Don't hang around for years with a teacher you don't like simply because you once started with her or him.

In the beginning: slowly!

Of course a beginner wants to know how to play the whole tone range - the upper registers, too. But the teacher should, as long as he or she is good, hold the beginner back. There is enough to study in the Chalumeau register and there are some problems to overcome and some bad habits to prevent. This phase should take some weeks - and it is proven to be the best way for most people! Once the first steps are mastered fully, you continue with the clarinet register, which is really tricky. It is rather a problem if your teacher is too fast here.

And: Of course you can easily play fast runs on a clarinet, even a beginner can. If you want to play not only fast but precisely one day, you'd rather learn to practice extremely slowly. The teacher should enforce this as good as she or he can. If you don't see this happen, one should start to think about the teacher's qualities...

And after two years I can go it alone, right?

After two or three years you have learnt the basic technique and musical abilities that you will need for playing - for example - the third clarinet in a band, but still a teacher will make sense (maybe not on a weekly basis any more, like for a beginner). A good teacher will look at habits you develop and weaknesses you might need to overcome. This costs time and money, off course. Think of it like a football coach, professional players nearly all have one. In an excellent band the conductor and lead players in your register (like the first clarinet player) might have this role, but then that needs discipline, too. You can also have peer group feedback with other players like in a clarinet quintet, where you meet frequently and rehearse together. But the more professional people get the more they frequently see a coach, for good reasons. There is nothing wrong with it to do it as amateur as well.