As we head back to school in Michigan, I find myself doing the yearly updating of my teaching syllabi to reflect any changes to curricula or student requirements. As I am doing this, I am struck by the fact that although the literature, methods and scales are different, the basic clarinet accoutrements that I require of my students remain identical whether they are beginners, high school or graduate students. Below is a listing of these items including the rationale behind their requirement.
Swab: We all know that playing the clarinet leaves a lot of moisture in the bore and tone holes of the instrument and it is important to not let that moisture pool as it can be detrimental to the bores of wood instruments and the pads on all. With students playing plastic clarinets, I recommend cotton “hanky” style swabs. They are affordable and do the job well. For students with wood clarinets, I recommend micro-fiber. This fabric is softer and less abrasive to the wood bore.
Cork Grease: Not only used to facilitate tenon and socket connections, cork grease can help protect the cork from drying and unnecessary wear (both of which will cause leaks and reduce the clarinet’s performance). As all synthetic cork greases are made by the same company and labeled for individual brands, I don’t get too worried about what to recommend. I do believe that organics are better but don’t require “designer” grease of my students.
Reed Holder / Case: Each student is required to have at least 4 reeds in his case at a time. To help protect them, a reed guard or case is required. For advanced students, I recommend the “Selmer” style case with the glass plate as I have found that reeds store better and last longer with this type of set-up. For younger players, I recommend a standard La Voz or Rico reed guard. I prefer these to the Vito versions because they offer a flat reed surface.
Pencil: Always needed for marking music for practice or performance notes.
Manuscript Paper: Granted . . . this likely won’t fit in most single cases but my students do need to have it at every lesson. We use it not only for keeping track of weekly assignments but I tend to write out a lot of specific warm-ups, fingerings and technical drills that the student needs to practice.
We’ve all heard the terminology when it comes to our mouthpieces. A player will declare “I prefer a medium tip piece with a longer lay” (facing length). Those further along the clarinerd trail will espouse the virtues of a “36-22-12-6-106” over a “36-24-12-6-106”. These terms and numbers soundabstruse and can be used to impress all of our clarinet friends . . . but what do they mean and why are they important?
Since it is the measurement with which most of us are comfortable, let’s start with the tip. The tip opening is the distance between the reed tip and the tip rail of the mouthpiece. It is generally measured in millimeters for clarinets and thousandths of an inch for saxophones. We already know that the more open (greater the distance) a mouthpiece is at the tip, the greater the resistance to and flexibility (softer) will be needed from the reed.
Basic Tip Definitions Terms and Measurements
Very Close = 0.95 mm – 0.99 mm
Close = 1.00 mm – 1.04 mm
Medium Close = 1.05 mm – 1.09 mm
Medium = 1.10 mm – 1.14 mm
Medium Open = 1.15 mm – 1.19 mm
Open = 1.20 mm – 1.24 mm
Very Open = 1.25 mm = 1.29 mm
Extremely Open = 1.30+ mm
Measuring the Lay
We know from previous articles that the lay begins where the facing begins to curve away from the reed table and ends at the tip opening. The means by which most mouthpiece craftsman measure the lay is the Brand method that utilizes prescribed thicknesses of feeler gauges and a graduated glass plate. When the zero point of the glass plate is set at the mouthpiece tip, the distance to where the paper thin .0015″ gauge falls represents the length of the lay. The numbers on the gauge represent the length in millimeters doubled.
Basic Facing Definitions and Measurements
Short = 15 mm (30 on gauge)
Medium Short = 16 mm (32 on gauge)
Medium = 17 mm (34 on gauge)
Medium Long = 18 mm (36 on gauge)
Long = 19 mm (38 on gauge)
Very Long = 20+ mm (40+ on gauge)
OK. So we have the two anchor points of our mouthpiece measurements. We know that in the mysterious sequence of numbers 36-24-12-6-106 that the 36 represents 18 mm (medium long) length of the lay and 106 is a medium close 1.06 mm tip opening. But what about the 24-12-6? Next we will get into the part of the mouthpiece where the real performance occurs . . . the slope.
It is generally accepted that at some point during your playing career, you will be on the hunt for a new mouthpiece. Though the reasons for your search may vary, it is important to arm yourself with some basic knowledge of mouthpiece geometry and how it impacts performance before you begin wading through seemingly endless supply of options. Below is a bit of a primer that will help guide you in the direction of the mouthpiece that best suits your needs. It covers the VERY BASIC aspects of mouthpiece design. I will be adding greater detail in the weeks ahead.
The Tip Opening: The more open a mouthpiece is at the tip, the greater the resistance to and flexibility (softer) needed from the reed.
The Facing Curve: Begins above the bottom of the window and ends at the tip opening. The greater the arc (shorter) of the curve, the greater the resistance.The shallower this arc (longer), the less the resistance.
The sidewalls of the chamber dictate the shape or “focus” of the sound. Generally, the more narrow the walls, the more focused the sound (and greater the resistance) while wider walls create a broader sound (and more free blowing). A – Frame sidewalls prove a good hybrid and provide good focus with warmth and flexibility. I use parallel walls for my Z series mouthpieces and an A for the JC series. My student JCII pieces feature a modified or slight A that allows for greater ease of blowing while still providing a good core sound.
As a general rule, the straighter and more shallow a baffle, the more brilliant the sound while deeper and more concave baffles produce richer and darker tones.
Breaking in your new clarinet can be the most important step you take in the prevention of developing wood problems over the life of your instrument. I recommend following the below procedure to ensure the best chance of a “slow change” that your clarinet will need to maintain optimum performance and lesson the chances of checking or cracks.
1. Play the instrument for only 5 minutes at a time for the first week. You can do this several times in a day but be sure to allow the wood to rest and air dry in between playings.
2. After the first week, add a minute of play time a day to each session until you reach about an hour .
General Care & Maintenance
1. Always swab to remove excess moisture from the bore of your clarinet. I recommend a microfiber swab as they are lint free and easy on the wood.
2. Avoid extreme and rapid changes in temperature. The optimal temperature for a wood clarinet is 65° to 75°. In general, always allow the clarinet to return to room temperature before playing.
3. Maintain a consistent relative humidity in between playing sessions. The ideal humidity for wood clarinets is 45% to 55%. There are several methods for this ranging from in room humidifiers to in case systems.
4. Occasionally, wipe down the keys after playing with a micro-fiber or other lint free cloth. This removes the acids and oils left on the keys by your fingers and will help prevent premature wear or tarnishing.
5. If you are to store your clarinet for a long period without playing it, place your case on end so the tubes stand vertically. This will help prevent the wood from settling into the bore which will cause the shape to become elliptical as opposed to cylindrical.