The cost of relearning to play the clarinet

in Musings

This started as an idea for a Billfold pitch, but then I thought, maybe I should try to update my own personal blog at least once a year, so I wrote it here instead.

As a child I played some instrument or another continuously from the ages of 9 to 21. I started out on viola for two years, switched to piano at 11, and then added clarinet. Piano was fun because I could play whole, complete-sounding pieces all by myself, but my true love was the clarinet. I love the sound of it, I love the intimacy of using my own breath to make the sound, and especially I loved playing in a group, making something beautiful together.

Then, I quit my college orchestra after my junior year, and I didn’t touch the clarinet for nine years, which I have just realized is almost equal to the time I did play it consistently. I kept it with me through multiple moves, including one across the country from Pittsburgh to Seattle. Now and then I thought about picking it up again, but I never did anything about it until this October, when a conversation with a co-worker who plays regular small concerts with a chamber music group reminded me just how much I used to love making music.

But the clarinet is not a simple instrument. There are a lot of little things you need to play it well, and they add up. Here is an account of all my costs so far, in my quest to relearn it.

Starting capital

The clarinet

In high school I played clarinet in concert band class, marching band, and the yearly spring musicals. I was doing a lot! So, when I won the first chair clarinet position in my high school’s “advanced” band that you had to audition to get into (mostly because my friend the musical prodigy who definitely played clarinet better than me could only attend class three days a week, but still) I convinced my parents to buy me a wooden clarinet, and relegated my resin student instrument to marching band.

On a road trip to visit colleges that summer before senior year, we made a stop at the Woodwind and Brasswind, an enormous instrument store in South Bend, Indiana. I sat in a practice room trying out different models for as long as I wanted, and picked the one with the sound I liked the best.

I don’t remember how much my parents paid for it then, but it’s a popular, professional-quality model that sells today for close to $4,000. Obviously that is a major startup cost I don’t need to worry about, and the size of that investment is at least some part of why I have felt I needed to hang on to it throughout the years.

Music stand

I have a standard cheap fold-up music stand, the very one I started out playing viola with at the age of 9, that I packed up and shipped across the country with me when I moved to Seattle. It probably cost less than $10 new and is still going strong.

Clarinet stand

This is a little rest that you can put the clarinet on during breaks in playing. When I was a kid I was lazy and left my clarinet assembled on the stand between practice sessions on weekends and over school breaks. I remember it being especially useful during musical rehearsals, when I might spend long periods of time waiting through other parts of the show before needing to play myself. Similar models appear to cost about $15 online.

Miscellaneous accoutrements

There’s a bunch of other little things you need to care for your instrument properly, and I still had them all hanging out in my clarinet case: a swab to dry out the instrument after practice, reed cases, drying papers to soak up spit that sometimes bubbles up in a tone hole and makes the sound all wonky. When I said playing the clarinet is intimate, I meant gross. Altogether it might be $30-$40 worth of stuff.

Total value: ~$1500

A quick ebay suggests similar used models go for ~$1500, so we’ll call that the current value of my initial assets, the other things being insignificant compared to the cost of the instrument. If I were going to sell I’d probably throw in the other stuff anyway.

New Purchases

Synthetic reed: $26

The reed is a little piece of cane wood that vibrates to produce the actual sound in reed instruments like the clarinet. They come in different strengths or hardnesses. The harder the reed, the more air you need to blow and the stronger your mouth muscles need to be in order to play a note. I used to play on strength 3.5 reeds, which is a nice middle-of-the-road strength that gave me a rich and stable sound while still being relatively playable.

I actually still had an unopened box of my old reeds (Vandoren V12s for anyone keeping score at home), but the first time I pulled one out and tried playing on it was a truly humbling experience. It took me several solid minutes of effort to get any sound out at all. Some of this was purely a technique issue, remembering how to position my mouth properly on the mouthpiece, how to move my tongue on the reed to start a note cleanly. But a lot of it was not having the diaphragm support or the mouth strength to play on those reeds. As a student I started out playing softer 2s and worked my way up to the 3.5s over time. Clearly I would need to do so again.

The tricky thing about reeds is that in any given box of 10, a few of them are going to be useless. Sometimes more than a few, in a particularly bad box. The natural variation in the wood means some of them just don’t vibrate right. Most of the others will need a bit of work before they sound their best, and probably you’ll have just 1 or 2 favorites per box that sound exactly the way you want. I have a some bits of sandpaper in my case for sanding down uneven or too-thick reeds. I also have a pencil for marking the best-sounding ones so I could save them for performances because even the best ones wear out after so many hours of playing. You can accidentally wreck a reed with just the lightest brush the wrong way on the tip, then it chips and sounds like crap. If you don’t store them properly and they dry out warped, they sound like crap. Reeds, in short, are a pain in the ass. So when I realized I would need to buy more, I decided to look into the possibility of plastic reeds.

What I learned is that there have been recent advances in the materials for synthetic reeds, and one brand in particular got a lot of good reviews for clarinet reeds. Reviews said they played consistently, a single reed can last for months, and they’re sturdy. You don’t need to soak them before playing, and they don’t chip if you look at them cross-eyed. One synthetic cost more than a cheap box of 10 cane reeds, but a cheap box might only have 6 or 7 playable reeds, none of which would sound truly great, AND they would wear out fast. $26 is close to the price of a box of V12s, which are more expensive but also more consistent in quality, and even that box would probably have 1 or 2 unplayable reeds. One synthetic reed could potentially last me two or three times as long as the whole box of ten. Of course I hope to move up in strength over time, but assuming it doesn’t wear out before then, I can store it for potential future use without worrying about it warping or cracking or giving up out of boredom or any of the other bullshit that makes cane reeds go bad.

Reed instrument players have emotionally complex relationships with our reeds. Double reeds like oboe and bassoon are even worse.

So, I bought a strength 2 synthetic reed, and so far I’m happy with it. It’s certainly easier to get a sound response, and if early on I was inclined to blame tone quality issues on it being synthetic, as I’ve played I’ve realized that in fact most of the problem is me. I’ve only been playing again for about a month, and while I am progressing quickly, you don’t regain 10 years worth of playing skills overnight. Some issues are inherent to a softer reed, but a skilled player should be able to compensate. I really loved the kind of sound I could get with a good V12, and there are subtle characteristics of the sound that I don’t like as much with this reed even when I’m playing well, but it’s good enough to practice with. At any rate I’m sold on the value of synthetic reeds for someone like me who doesn’t need an exceptional performance-quality sound. Who knows, maybe I’ll like the tone quality of a harder synthetic reed better, when I’m ready to move up.

Cork grease: $2

The parts where the pieces of the clarinet fit together are covered in a layer of cork, to ensure a snug fit without scraping or damaging the wood. Cork grease lubricates the cork so the pieces go together smoothly. Cork gradually compresses with use, and I remember this clarinet being difficult to assemble when I first bought it, but soon settling into being a bit tight, but workable. Not so after sitting untouched for years. In particular, the upper and lower joint of the clarinet - the two pieces with all the keys and the holes and generally the delicate and complicated bits, were nearly impossible to push together and even harder to pull back apart, even after an extremely liberal application of cork grease. It was clear that the remains of the 10-year-old tube sitting in my case would not last long at all.

Incidentally, while the internet assured me that lip balm could not be substituted for cork grease, the tube I ended up getting smells exactly like classic Chapstick.

Mouthpiece cushions: $10

When you play the clarinet, your top teeth rest on the top of the mouthpiece. With proper technique you don’t bite down, most of the pressure should come from the corners of your mouth and a firm but not tense lower lip, but you can still get tooth marks on the mouthpiece over time. Mouthpiece cushions are little pieces of soft plastic you can stick on to protect the mouthpiece. They also make it more comfortable to play for long periods of time, and if you are clumsy in weird ways like me, less painful to accidentally knock the mouthpiece against your teeth. I knew that I would need to replace the cushion I currently had relatively soon, as it was close to wearing out even 9 years ago. What I did not know was that in the intervening time the plastic had gone brittle and after just a few cumulative hours of playing, would start flaking off into my mouth. I don’t recommend the experience.

I scraped the remains of that one off, and quickly ordered a 6-pack of new cushions. they should last me for years, assuming they don’t go brittle in the package waiting to be used.

Books of scale exercises and technical studies: $24

As I said, what I love most is making music as part of a group. I love hearing a whole room fill with music, and fitting myself into the sound. I don’t love playing solo. I was, of course, not particularly diligent about my scales. I did practice consistently, if nothing else to avoid the shame of being unable to play my assignments in front of my private teacher. But I spent a lot more time and effort practicing “real” music, fun things, than foundational scales. After I left for college and stopped taking private lessions, I basically didn’t play scales at all, except sometimes as a warmup if an orchestra piece was in a tricky key.

Thus the wise and foresightful 24 year old that I was, preparing to move to Seattle and permanently clear out the last of my posessions from my parents’ home, having already gone three years without playing, decided to pack the fun books of clarinet music I liked playing, and let the exercise books go to Goodwill.

Of course, the first few weeks of picking my clarinet up I could not even make a sound on fully 2/3rds of the notes the clarinet is capable of playing, only squeaks. The first week I couldn’t even play a full octave. I occupied my time just building up the range of notes I could successfully play at all and refamiliarizing myself with fingerings. Once I got up to consistently being able to play through the first register I needed more structure, and I needed scales because I still couldn’t play enough notes to bother with anything else. I’m still having trouble with a few specific notes, right in the clarion range that every piece of music ever written for clarinet uses extensively. So, I am playing 30+ minutes of scales and variations a day, which is far more time than I ever spent on them as a child.

I also bought a copy of the Rose etudes, famous clarinet technical studies that are also very musical and enjoyable to play, but still didn’t make the cut when I was packing. I look forward to being able to play out of it again someday.

Total cost so far: $62

Not a huge amount, but not nothing, either.

Is it worth it? Well, I’m still not ready to join a community band or local clarinet choir, which is my ultimate goal. But I am practicing almost daily, and I’m not tired of it yet. It feels good to reconnect to something that was so much a part of my life. It feels good to play, even if it’s just scales, to listen to the sound of this instrument that I love. I started playing again just before Halloween, and I have to say, right after the election it was really good to have an activity I could do each day that took my total concentration, that I could make noticeable progress in, that had nothing at all to do with politics.

I guess this post is another check-in on resolutions I’ve set for myself. It could even be a new year’s resolution, for those whose new year begins the day after Diwali.