A quick summary and thorough guide to selecting gear that will help you thrive instead of simply survive
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Most of us can attest to having at least one bad experience with an auxillary clarinet (bass, e-flat, alto, contrabass, etc.) sometime during our years playing the clarinet. For me, I remember quite a few. My first e-flat clarinet was a school instrument that smelled like grape cough syrup and had a reed that had been used for 7 years by 11 people...yuck! I dared not even touch the school's bass clarinets, which until college I thought was just a poorly designed instrument that wasn't worth taking the time to learn to play. My first time playing alto clarinet was 10 minutes before the opening night of the spring musical, using a tenor sax reed that I peeled the sides off of to fit the mouthpiece. I now know that my first impressions of these instruments were horribly inacurate, and today I view each instrument as equal voices that expand our abilities and appreciation of music as clarinetists.
Most poor first impressions with auxillary clarinets have one thing in common: bad or poorly maintained equipment that prevents players of any level of experience from attaining the sound they expect or the enjoyment they deserve. If playing the e-flat clarinet neither sounds good or feels good, why would anyone want to keep playing it?
Here are a few pieces of equipment that I have used and trusted over the years that hopefully will turn your opinion of the e-flat clarinet in a positive direction, like they did for me.
Most people looking to start playing the e-flat clarinet for the first time will be borrowing an instrument from a school, and even if you are planning on buying your own instrument, it is important to have a good mouthpiece first in order to test the instrument before you buy it. The mouthpiece is a low-risk, high-reward investment, since you can get a high quality e-flat mouthpiece for about $100, while even student model e-flat clarinets are a few thousand dollars at a minimum.
While I have tried a few different mouthpieces, my favorite for many years was the Vandoren B44. It is relatively inexpensive compared to other professional-grade mouthpieces, and it is one of the most widely available. This is important in case something happens to your mouthpiece, since you may have long periods of time inbetween playing e-flat, during which your gear could become discontinued and hard to replace. Nothing sours a practice session like realizing your mouthpiece is broken and realizing that you can't replace it. Recently, I made the decision to switch to a Vandoren BD5, which I find allows for a more dense sound and a smoother tone color, with slightly less responsiveness than the B44. A younger player, or those who prefer a light setup, might prefer the B44.
The hardest piece of equipment to aquire on the e-flat clarinet is the instrument itself. On online auction sites like eBay, even poorly manufactured and damaged instruments sell for hundreds of dollars, while a professional model will set you back anywhere from $5k-10k. Luckily, many high schools and colleges own an e-flat clarinet, sparing you from this process. I personally use a school-owned professional model when I perform on the e-flat clarinet, and have an extremely cheap plastic instrument that I use to practice on when I don't have access to a better instrument. The most reliable e-flat clarinet that I have used is the Buffet RC Prestige. These come in greenline options as well, which can save you some stress worrying about a crack after long periods of rest. The Buffet R13 is another commonly found model, which is almost half as expensive as the RC Prestige. This is a good budget option, as is the Buffet E11, but many e-flat models suffer from poor tuning and a thin sound quality that cause further challenges with blending and producing a good sound. I personally use an $80 plastic e-flat clarinet that I purchased on eBay for my home practicing, as I do not currently have the money to make that investment. This instrument is great for me because it allows me to practice excerpts and retain my sound when I am between periods where I have access to other instruments via university or elsewhere. I would never use this e-flat in an audition, but any instrument is better than no instrument.
The first goal in choosing a ligature is to "do no harm" to your setup. The ligature you choose should hold firmly to the mouthpiece and allow you to use a mouthpiece cap that fits inside the mouthpiece mold of your case. Also, because the e-flat has a smaller mouthpiece, a large ligature is more likely to get in the way of your chin and cause discomfort than on the b-flat clarinet. I had a Rovner Versa X that I used for many years, but after changing the angle of my embrochure it started pressing into my chin and became difficult to use. My next ligature was a Bonade Silver Inverted ligature, identical to the model I use on b-flat clarinet. However, I found that the ligature would slip sporadically and cause my reed to shift, often causing squeaks or dropped reeds when taking my instrument apart after playing. I finally settled on a BG Traditional ligature that my teacher generously parted with, which has held sturdy since 2019. It is important to try multiple of each model, as each mouthpiece and ligature have slightly different dimensions. Stores such as Woodwind & Brasswind allow you to purchase a number of ligatures "on trial" and return the ones you don't want. If you find more than one that you are happy with, it is always a good idea to have a backup for when (not if) the unthinkable happens.
The biggest choice that you will make when selecting reeds is whether you will buy reeds designed for the e-flat clarinet, or use b-flat reeds by either cutting the ends off or using barrels with a cutout.
There has been much debate in the clarinet community over which works better, with many strong opinions and few universally respected solutions. While I have tried both methods, I personally prefer the e-flat specific reeds due to the more exact fit on the rails and because I don't have to waste time cutting reeds or money on a more limited barrel selection (discussed later on).
One of the main arguments for using b-flat reeds is that it will save you money from having to buy two boxes instead of one. The issue with this logic is as follows: your box of b-flat reeds has a finite amount of "good reeds" in the box, say 3 out of 10. If you simply grab new reeds indiscriminately for both the b-flat and e-flat, you will use them twice as fast, and not save any money. If you use the reeds that you didn't want to play on your b-flat as your e-flat reeds, the chances are that you are sacraficing your tone and response on the e-flat, which will leave both you and your ensemble with a sour taste. If you choose good reeds for both instruments, you will have half as many good reeds for each instrument, and you will need to buy 2 boxes off the bat. The last option would be to use the same reed for both instruments, which while the most tempting, is the least beneficial option. This is because the reed can't adjust to the mouthpiece, you are still using each reed twice as fast, and quick switches between instruments become impossible, which for playing in many ensembles is a necessity.
That all said, many people prefer the feel of b-flat reeds when playing the e-flat, and there is nothing wrong with that decision. E-flat reeds can be hard to come by, and knowing how to cut a b-flat reed to size is a very handy skill to have. Just be sure to give yourself the opportunity to try both methods so that you know what works best for you.
I have had the best luck with Vandoren "blue box" strength 3.5 reeds, which was originally suggested to me by my teacher, an e-flat clarinetist in a major US orchestra. He and I both use Vandoren V12 reeds on b-flat clarinet, so you might be wondering why the blue box, and my answer is only speculation. I think that the best quality cane is used for this model/strength, and since the market for e-flat reeds is much smaller than normal clarinet reeds, less of the highest quality cane goes (and should go) to the e-flat production in order to provide good quality reeds to as many people as possible. This isn't any poor practice on the part of manufacturers, it simply is that the cane used to make reeds is not unlimited (just like grenadilla wood), and companies have to choose which products are most important to as much of their audience as possible.
I find that the two most important things to consider when choosing a barrel is the intonation and ease of articulation. The barrel often acts like a magnifying glass, enhancing what already is set up by a good mouthpiece/reed combination. If you aren't in a great place above the barrel, the sound is already in a bad place before the barrel even can make a difference. Personally, I use a Paulus & Schuler Zoom Barrel on my e-flat clarinet (I don't on my other clarinets). I like this barrel for two reasons. First, it is extremely heavy due to the metal ring and larger width. I find this gives me a more dense sound that removes some of the shrill buzz that often is negatively associated with the instrument. Second, the adjustable length via the metal tuning ring makes for fast and precise intonation adjustments across a wider range, all without creating a gap between the joints. Unfortunately, this barrel is extremely difficult to find and can be quite expensive. A great budget option is to get two stock barrels of various lengths, between 40mm and 45mm, that allow you to have a wide range of comfortable intonation options.
Beginning your journey on the e-flat clarinet can be an exciting experience. If you invest your time, money, and consideration into the equipment that you bring with you on this journey, your destination will be much more enjoyable. If you would like to learn more, have any questions, or would like to set up a lesson to get your bearings on the e-flat clarinet, feel free to contact me.