Buying a Clarinet Pt. I

I was told that buying a used professional clarinet is much better than buying a new intermediate one, is there any truth to that? and if there is, how old is too old? I’m playing at a high school level right now, but have plans to go further.

One of the many things one learns after a lifetime of playing and teaching within and without the University milieu is that both sides of any argument can be argued by any single person. What I mean here is that there are good and bad points for buying a used “professional” instrument and a new “intermediate” one.

For a while, a few years I think, I played on a Yamaha clarinet that was not in the strictest sense a professional instrument. (That term needs to be defined. What IS a professional instrument ? The highest price? One played by a professional? What does “professional” mean? That is a fun one. Someone should get a grant for that research. I mean there are “professionals” everywhere, n’est ce pas?)

Usually instrument manufacturers will call their highest price instrument a professional model, or their professional model. Within recent years, these companies have branched out on this high end stuff and issued several different so-called professional instruments. Then there are the bore differences, the extra key possibilities, and now even the German bore models. It fairly boggles the mind. (I think they should issue a special professional’s clarinet for works like the cadenza from “Peter and The Wolf” and from “Le Coq D’Or”, “Daphnes and Chloe” and a few other standard difficult works … this clarinet would have especially installed a i r b a g s for these most treacherous places in the repertoire.) The imagination knows no end of possibilities to safeguard the player … especially to be called a “professional” model.

The great conductor, Pierre Monteaux, said that the best played orchestra is the best PAID orchestra, which may be right, however I do not necessarily believe that the best professional instrument is the one that costs the most.

The original list price may be of some help, but is very difficult to find, especially as to taxes, what accessories etc. … (just like a car).

Intermediate instruments are not bad at all depending on what the word intermediate means to you, to the seller, to the store, AND what constitutes the guarantee; for instance the guarantee against cracking. And is there a guarantee against bad tuning? All of these instrument need substantial tuning before they are sold, tuning which is done in the last stages of manufacture … And by whom is this tuning done?

I remember that I was offered (in some context, a promise, a statement that I would be a terrific tuner) the job as tuner in the Selmer factory in Elkhart, Indiana. Had that happened would I have been a good tuner? … blowing on a different clarinet every few minutes and looking up at the scope and wondering why my idea of an octave seemed to be changing depending upon my diet or what have you.

All of this is not just verbosity. It is the firm idea that the final criterion of what is good, good sound, good tuning, good longevity possibilities, these criteria are unknowns until you the BUYER of the instrument, or your teacher, and/or both make the decision.

Teachers are notoriously hidebound when it comes to picking a good instrument. It used to be, “it had better be a Buffet”, but I think that the other makers, Selmer and Leblanc, have certainly equal input into the mix. Just for the record I play on a Leblanc Opus … most even and best tuned instrument I have ever had or heard. But I said that when I played the Leblanc L45 or some such marking. And I most certainly said it when I played a Selmer Mazzeo System or Selmer Recital or Selmer Series 10. I said it with them all, and believe me I have left out plenty, to say nothing of 3,000,000 million mouthpieces.

Ahh, the wondrous variables! They say that life is a series of endless choices, well almost endless. Each morning you awaken and there is a whole new arrangement out there for you to add to, to change, to repair, to ruin, or what have you.

In the concern over which to buy, the answer has to do with your ear: what it says to you about quality of sound, and intonation and ease of playing and resistance, and of course your physiognomy: key layout, your eyes: quality of wood, cracks, and, of course your teacher. Don’t be like all of us during some phase of our formative years. ASK for their advice; unless there is a commission of some kind, and there frequently is, the teacher knows more than you do. At least one does cherish that hope.

Teachers frequently have instruments they are selling for many reasons. I had a great teacher, who shall remain nameless, a teacher who controlled most of the clarinet “work” in a certain large city. He actually said, “Whoever buys the horn gets the work”. That is extreme, but it was given in a completely straight way. All of the players he offered the instrument were very advanced and gifted, so anyone getting the “work” would be capable. The money? Oh well, life’s like that. Or can be sometimes.

Intermediate clarinets can be terrific and every bit as good as the “professional” instrument. Perhaps even better. It depends upon who is making the judgement and what the needs are at the particular time of purchase.

Thanks again for your question. Good luck with your purchase and all of your musical endeavors

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