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John Ainsworth ARPS

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Photography - Video - Clarinet - Computer - Woodturning


The clarinet is a transposing instrument in Bb, ie. When you play a scale in the key of C major, the sound you hear is a scale in the key of Bb - one tone lowerClarinet

The clarinet has three registers - the lowest is the CHALUMEAU (low E to A, an eleventh above), the middle range, obtained by opening the speaker key with the left thumb, is the CLARINET (B to C a ninth above) and the highest is the ALTISSIMO (D to C a seventh above)*. The total range therefore is approximately three and a half octaves.

* Note: Professional players can achieve even higher notes.

Sound is produced by a cane reed vibrating on the mouthpiece as the result of the flow of air across it.

The instrument consists of seven elements - the bell, the lower joint, the upper joint, the barrel, the mouthpiece, the reed and the ligature (the device that holds the reed on the mouthpiece).


                    Bell                                     Lower joint                                                                          Upper joint                                                     Barrel          Mouthpiece



Start by greasing the cork that seals the joints - I use Lipsyl - then place the bell on the lower joint and push into place with a gentle twisting action.

Take the upper joint in the left hand, palm upwards, and hold down the middle key - the one that has a cover, rather than a ring. This lifts the link action between the upper and lower joints so that when you bring the two together there is no danger of damage. Now place the upper joint into the lower, twisting gently until the link mechanism coincides accurately.

Now place the barrel onto the upper joint, again with a gentle twisting action.

Finally place the mouthpiece into the barrel so that the reed face coincides with the thumb key on the upper joint. If the barrel and mouthpiece are stored together they may be assembled as one unit.

Moisten the reed, in the mouth, then place it flat side down onto the mouthpiece taking care that the tip of the reed coincides with the tip of the mouthpiece and that the reed is positioned centrally across the lay (the flat surface) of the mouthpiece. Position the ligature centrally and tighten in place - do not over tighten.


The way the clarinet is held in the mouth is called the embouchure, to achieve this: Draw the bottom lip lightly across the bottom teeth and place about 15mm of the reed into the mouth, resting on the bottom lip. Allow the upper teeth to rest lightly on the top of the mouthpiece and close the lips around the mouthpiece. The lips should be firm, but not too tense, with the corners of the mouth drawn up as if in a smile.

Breathing is controlled by the diaphragm, so breathe in without lifting the shoulders, allowing the diaphragm to expand. Then the sound is produced by placing the tongue against the underside of the tip of the reed pronouncing the letter "t" or "d" and allowing the breath to flow through the instrument. Keep the throat relaxed otherwise the tone produced will sound thin and strangled. You don't blow into the instrument, you breathe into it!

The clarinet is capable of producing beautiful tones when played well. Such a tone is achieved by practising long notes, starting quietly, gradually increasing the volume and then letting it die away again, gradually, until it can't be heard. Being able to control a quiet start to a note is particularly important if a musical performance is to be achieved. Stand, or sit, in an upright but relaxed position with the clarinet held at a comfortable distance from the body - usually at an angle of about 45 degrees.


After use it is important to dry out the inside of the clarinet before it is put away, particularly if it is a wooden instrument.

Take off the mouthpiece, then pass a pull-through (a cloth or chamois leather attached to a cord weighted at the end) through the instrument from bell to barrel. Make sure the cloth is not tangled, before use, otherwise there is a danger of it becoming lodged in the bore. Then take the instrument apart carefully - using the same technique as explained in 2 above - and dry out the inside of each joint.

I also recommend that you wash the mouthpiece and reed using water and a mild soap. An old (soft) toothbrush is useful for this but be careful when washing the reed not to damage the fine tip. The lay of the mouthpiece is also critical so do not use any harsh abrasives or hard objects to clean this.

Not many clarinettists wash their reeds or mouthpieces but my reasons are twofold, one to remove the acid saliva and prolong the life of them, the reed particularly, and two to make them more pleasant to return to your mouth the next time you play.

Three or four times a year oil the key mechanism pivot points - sparingly.


Reeds are the bane of the clarinettists life!

The hardness of reeds is graded, usually 1 to 5 in half value increments. A "1" reed is the softest and a "5" the hardest. The choice of hardness depends on the design of the mouthpiece (the length of the lay and the extent of the tip opening) and the experience of the player. Beginners usually start with a grade 2 or less i.e. on the soft side, until their embouchure becomes established. Thereafter a harder grade is usually preferable. Unfortunately the grades of one reed manufacturer do not necessarily equate with the grades of another. Reeds can be adjusted and particularly important is to ensure the back of the reed is flat either by sanding on fine abrasive paper placed on a sheet of glass or using a tool such as the excellent ReedGeek scraper.

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