top of page

We Can Bulid a Better Clarinet

Herein, I shall argue that there are objective standards by which one can judge clarinet performance, and that equipment should be optimised to allow the player to meet such standards. I shall state my opinions on the current state of the market.

Section 1: Exposition, and statement of purpose for these articles.

Involving oneself in debates about the nature of artistic experience, or attempting to impose standards of merit on art or artists in polite company is imprudent, to say the least. Many artists, including musicians, justify their entire career by arguing that the audience is always right, in matters of taste. This is reason enough for avoiding the topic. Even so, there are principles held by all professional musicians, which expose contradictions in an argument for pure subjectivity when laid out clearly. At the risk of offending, though this is not my intention, I still feel the necessity to state my principles here, as they predicate all of my further arguments, and also because I believe that the instinct to resist the imposition of boundaries and restraints which is typical of great artists is being exploited to sell poorly optimised equipment to clarinettists. The following arguments from principle have been made before, and by better thinkers, so I will be brief. Further on, I will make practical rhetorical arguments that are obvious to any dilettante or master artist but may vex some of those in-between, but since many in this middle category are my close friends, I hope to convince them in the spirit of persiflage, i.e., lighthearted teasing among friends. I have named this blog Reednaissance as I am hoping to reinvigorate clarinet design from a conceptual level. Any disagreement I have with the design choices of current and defunct manufacturers should not be read as invective, as I would not bother to comment on a maker I did not respect. I am instead hoping to build rapport with those whom I admire for their artisanal expertise. In a Corinthian address to the Spartan Congress, the delegates tempered their words by reminding the assembly that accusations are reserved for enemies, but friends remonstrate with each other. I will not even go so far as to remonstrate, as I believe every maker in the current market is producing something of quality, and I consider some of the models currently on the market among the best clarinets ever designed. I simply want to make a case to change the course of clarinet design and convince at least one maker to take my advice on board and allow me to consult them on matters of innovation for a new generation of instruments. The following two sections establish the principles upon which all of my further writing is predicated. I consider it necessary to publish it here for several reasons, but you may wish to skip to Section 4 where I return to the discussion of clarinet design.

Section 2: I believe there is a common experience to art, and universal standards of merit applied to artists.

I assert, in agreement with popular opinion, that the evocative experience of art exists only in the mind of the subject, and there is no metaphysical property of an artwork that distinguishes it as a work of art. A sculpture of a goddess and an anatomical model like those used by medical students both depict the human form, and both are constructed from physical matter. Only the former is intended to be a work of art, and to most observers, only the former is apprehended as such, but no part of this apprehension exists independent of the subject.

In its vernacular usage, subjectivity is understood as being synonymous with individual taste, but this definition is neither correct nor useful when trying to establish a set of standards by which an artwork or performance can be judged. It is natural to take offense when a beloved work of art is critiqued, but defending the work on the grounds of individual taste erodes the entire project of artistry.

While art is indeed subjective, it is wrong to claim that differences in taste mean that the experience of a work of art is entirely different for each observer. Being the same species, we have much in common psychologically, and whether or not we claim to enjoy a certain work of art, our emotional response at a fundamental level is not so different. An individual may form associations with art from memories, or their understanding of the meaning of an artwork may vary, but these are superficial aspects of experience layered above a deeper and more fundamental experience, especially for art in its traditional forms. This is most clearly observed in music, where emotion is evoked immediately in the listener upon hearing a work, and no one needs to be instructed on what to feel. Great composers have specific devices at hand which can reliably evoke specific emotions. Movement toward the tonic is felt as a reassertion of order and comfort. Movement away from the tonic introduces uncertainty, and sometimes tension. A V to VI cadence or an augmented 6th reinterpreted and resolved as a dominant 7th both evoke wonder and novelty. Moving from a tonicised minor chord up a fourth to a major chord evokes a sense of mystery and magic, a cliché abused unremittingly by modern cinema composers. A composer intending to express sorrow and yearning would hardly write silly circus music by mistake, and no listener would misinterpret the music in such a way. This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised to read that many academics will assert the contrary principle.

The common emotional response to art aside, one may then consider whether there can be objective standards of merit. Too often the question is answered in the unqualified negative, and most emphatically too. If this is the case, why then is there any such thing as a school of art? If the work of an amateur painter cannot be said to be of any less quality than Botticelli's, then why did he waste so many hours studying colour, composition, light, perspective, and human form? Why sit in a practice room playing scales in thirds and advanced études all night for months as I did when studying clarinet? Arguing that there are no universal standards of merit in musicianship would be to say that this was all a waste of time and effort. Framing the argument in these terms is rhetorically effective for most, but fails to convince those who believe that all response to art is socially conditioned. Those sympathetic to such an idea might consider reconditioning themselves to enjoy sitting in silence in a dark room, as it is much cheaper than tickets to Covent Garden! Please forgive my reductive absurdity for that cheap joke, but my firm belief is that no response to art is a completely arbitrary construction of social conditioning, since all cultural constructions are themselves grounded in evolutionary psychology if you trace their derivations back far enough.

Can a musical performance be judged on its merit? Assuredly so. Numerous aspects of technique set apart the amateur and professional musician, and this is self-evident given any thought whatsoever. If evidence is required, try auditioning for an elite conservatoire on an instrument you barely know how to assemble. This may seem uncontroversial, but this actually contradicts with the stated principles of many contemporary artists.Modernist artists of the early Twentieth Century sought, admirably in my opinion, to push every boundary in service of their art. In poetry, T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats employed new techniques to elevate their verse and capture ever more specific feelings in words. In painting, Klimt and Picasso discovered new ways of achieving beauty through a change in perspective and by introducing abstract elements in a manner not seen, arguably, since medieval painting, and both developed entirely new styles in their own right. The operas of Strauss best exemplify this spirit in music, and the late works of Rachmaninoff, Puccini, Walton, Scriabin, and Ravel expanded the palette of musical expression more than any other school of composition in the history of music as a sophisticated art. We should be willing to, (in the spirit of Schönberg in the opening chapters of his of his Theory of Harmony), sort wheat from chaff when it comes to old conventions, and not to assume that all conventions are completely arbitrary impositions on an art-form that should have no limitations. I am a categorical Dionysiac, though not an unrepentant one. Like many of those reading, I delight in approaching and sometimes overstepping the line, but I believe that the aims of all creative and practical art can only be effectively achieved by having at least one toenail cautiously hovering over the side of order and restraint. This presupposes you are creating art to uplift and enlighten others, or to challenge them in an ultimately philanthropic way, and I sincerely hope that you are. How does this have any relevance to a discussion on clarinet design? It is because I believe that our industry is disoriented and disordered through an inversion of fundamental principles. I shall explain my reasoning. Jochen Seggelke, the owner of a small workshop in Bamburg making historical and modern clarinets, inscribed a quote by Gustav Mahler at the top of one of his webpages, which is roughly translated as: "Tradition is the tending of the flame, not the worship of the ashes". No doubt he chose this quote as part of his marketing in response to the core marketing strategy of other major clarinet manufacturers. The love of our rich musical tradition drives our commitment to preserving the compositions and other writings that have been passed down through the centuries to us by respected artists and musicians. Naturally, an appeal to tradition is a good selling point for a clarinet manufacturer, but a commitment to never change the manufacturing process for modern instruments can only be a detriment! Historical clarinets are best made in the traditional manner, but for instruments being used by professionals in symphony orchestras, there is no reason for not taking advantage of the recent advancements in manufacturing technology. We love old music, not old technology!

Section 3: I believe that the quality of clarinet playing can be judged in several ways, which I will enumerate.

Nicolas Baldeyrou, Sabine Meyer, and Ricardo Morales are each admired for their tone quality, and each is a good representative of the style of playing characteristic of their respective countries. While there is evidently more than one way of hitting the mark, there are many more ways one can miss. I think I have made a fair amendment to this classic Aristotelian aphorism for my purposes.

It is universally accepted that for clarinettists playing European art music, a clear tone is superior to a foggy tone. To all listeners, correctly voiced notes are better than grunting in the high register or losing control in the lower register. A resonant sound is better than a dull sound. Playing in tune is preferable to playing out of tune. Control over dynamics is better than a lack of control. Clean articulation is preferred to messy articulation. Beauty is preferred to harshness. Some rare exceptions are made to express particular emotions in music, but if all playing was harsh, non-resonant, unclear, poorly articulated, and out of tune, you would be describing an unskilled clarinettist. In jazz, blues, or Latin music, it is appropriate to deliberately eschew many of these techniques, at least partially, to create a relaxed mood, but the result is still a pleasing sound within the context of the style. A clarinettist may use flutter tonguing or growl with the throat to add style to a note in a phrase, but it would be inappropriate to do so for every note in a tune. Baldeyrou plays with a compact and careful French tone. Meyer produces a classic German tone, which is dark and smooth. Morales’ tone is powerful and direct, in the American style. It is difficult to say which, among them, is the best clarinettist, but all three are very good, because they each play with a clear, resonant, pure, and beautiful sound, and they each play in tune, most of the time. (The clarinet has its limits.) Having established the principles of good clarinet technique, it follows that an instrument can be judged by the consistency and ease with which a player can perform with good technique. The fundamental good at which clarinet playing aims is the production of beautiful music that can be enjoyed by audiences and fellow musicians, not the mere display of technical virtuosity through compensation for the deficiencies of the instrument. The latter good may have secondary importance, for example in a competition, or in an audition, but a clarinet maker should design instruments to assist the player. I was present in a conversation where the principal clarinettist of a major orchestra told me that he was trialing a new mouthpiece in rehearsals. He recalled the other players noticing an immediate improvement in his tone quality, but he returned it on the grounds that he was not responsible for the change in sound, and that he felt like the equipment was doing the work for him. While I find his thought process amusing, I cannot agree with his conclusion, and I would happily allow my equipment to assist me in any way while on stage! This principle will be relevant in future articles when discussing proposed changes to clarinet design.

Section 4: I believe modern clarinets, though better than any that have proceeded them, are unsuitable for the demands of modern professionals at the highest level, and that accessories may be making these instruments even less suitable.

Extensive practice and expert guidance lay the groundwork for high level playing, but good quality equipment is equally important. Decades of working with inadequate equipment have convinced many older players that obsession over instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds is the mark of an undisciplined, amateur player seeking to compensate for poor technique, and it is difficult to argue with such wisdom, but argue I will. Every other woodwind instrument has undergone continuous experimentation and improvement since their invention. Still, since 1843, when Auguste Buffet and Hyacinthe Klosé adapted Theobald Böhm’s excellent flute fingering system to the clarinet and made playing in flat keys as easy as sharps, (thanks chiefly to the first finger F natural with the right hand), innovation in clarinet design has stagnated. The original Böhm system clarinet from the mid-nineteenth Century is essentially identical, mechanically, to a modern Böhm system clarinet manufactured today. Robert Carrée’s poly-cylindrical bore made substantial improvements to the intonation of modern French clarinets, and further refinements were made to the shape and placement of tone holes, but no substantial innovations have been made since the R13 began production.

It is a shame that interest in finding the ideal setup seems to be inversely correlated with standard of playing. While amateur musicians might have real jobs and can thus afford to waste money purchasing new barrels every other week to find the one that improves their tone, expecting equipment to compensate for poor technique is a futile endeavour. Conversely, professionals have learned helplessness from years of manufacturers choosing to focus their efforts, and allocate expenses, toward their non-professional customers. This is to be expected, as professional players account for a small minority of clarinet sales, even from the best makers, and it is a prudent business decision for which these makers cannot be reproached too harshly.

Clarinettists today may not realise, but other wind players can select from a variety of professional-grade instruments, each with unique mechanical optimisations.

Flutes can be ordered with feet of different lengths, a split E, additional trill keys, the amusingly named gizmo key, a variety of different metals or wood for the body construction, and a choice to offset certain keys for smaller hands.

Oboes can be ordered with an automatic register mechanism, or manual for players that want more control over the intonation of certain notes, with different arrangements and functions of the left thumb keys including an additional third register key, the Philadelphia key for high D, a low Bb venting hole, extensive options for trill keys and articulated trill keys, and a left handed F. Marigaux offers oboes with a detachable head joint which can be switched for a synthetic or shorter joint. Several makers such as Howarth and Yamaha offer synthetic upper joints, or rubber bore linings for professional instruments.

Horn players have the option to have a descant horn attached for high playing, otherwise known as a “triple horn”, or to reverse the function of their thumb trigger, and it seems like there are as many bassoons as there are players, with the number of mechanical options available on new instruments.

As for clarinets? We now have the special privilege of choosing an instrument with a left-hand Eb/Ab lever if we so choose, but the absence of such a key was unacceptable to begin with. You may also have the option to correct your low F, although not by much, and your second register C will still be sharp. It saddens me that an instrument in desperate need of extensive redesigning and mechanical optimisation has not substantially improved since the 1840s, except for the tapered bore, while superior instruments like the flute, oboe, and bassoon continue to be improved. It should also be noted that I am discussing French style clarinets in these articles, though I will make reference to German system clarinets where appropriate.

Now that players no longer feel obliged to play on instruments from the big French brands in professional settings, dozens of smaller manufacturers have seized the opportunity to steal a share of their market. Inexplicably, these new makers are selling near exact copies of the standard R13 style 17 or 18 key/6 ring clarinet. Every month I discover a new brand, and it is always the same product down to the smallest key post, only with a different logo at the top.

Where optimisation could have been achieved, many current manufacturers are instead selling accessories for clarinets which may actually be pessimising the instrument, though this is obviously not the intention of the sellers. Barrels and mouthpieces are being sold as interchangeable units, and marketed as being universally compatible with any clarinet make or model, but I am suspicious about this claim. Typically, switching to a barrel that was not supplied by the maker will affect the intonation of an instrument, or change the resistance, feedback, or tone quality. This may indeed improve intonation, as reverse tapered barrels tend to do in combination with specific bore types, but they may have the opposite effect in other cases. I believe that it is unhelpful for customers to be experimenting through trial and error, and I seek to achieve a more technical understanding of the specific effects of barrel and mouthpiece design so that there is no risk of mismatching bore shape and size, which may have deleterious effects on intonation, resistance, and tone quality. This is partially why I began this article by emphasising the importance of setting universal standards for players and manufacturers, so that customers can make informed decisions on how to spend their money, especially since musicians are not always rolling in it, so to speak.

In subsequent articles, I will attempt to diagnose the most urgent problems affecting modern instruments and present some potential solutions. Having little knowledge of acoustics or engineering, I am sometimes limited to speculation. Prototype instruments will need to be produced to know with certainty whether specific optimisations are possible or practical.

I am confident in my belief that the clarinet can be improved and that modern professionals deserve a better quality instrument. Do not assume that the clarinet was perfected in a time when the steam locomotive was a novelty! I would relish any opportunity to speak directly with a designer of clarinets to improve my understanding of the instrument. There are many skilled artisans today who take the art of clarinet making seriously, but lack vision. Allow me to lend you mine, and together we can create the clarinet of the 21st Century.



Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page