Obtaining good doubling instruments feels like a constant work in progress. However, the goal is to eventually settle on your “forever” instruments with equipment that works well. I’ll go through my experience (good, bad, and ugly) and hopefully steer some of you out of pitfalls that I fell into. Please keep in mind that this is my opinion (do with it what you will!)
My first clarinet was a Normandy 4. When I decided to major in music I thought to myself, “Gee, I need to get a new clarinet before school starts.” Sigh. I bought an overpriced R13 and a bad one at that. Who knew there were like 5,000 things you were supposed to look for when trying one out? I saw shiny newness, tooted on it a few times, and bought it.
Now I know better. I know the mouthpiece, barrel, and overall setup affect every horn. It’s complicated, but the way I test clarinets now is to take my setup (mouthpiece, ligature, reed), whatever it may be at the time, and start with long tones and a tuner. If I am satisfied with its tuning, I give it a good going-over. How is the grain–smooth or knotty? Are there chips in the wood? How are the tenons? Do the serial numbers match?How is the mechanism? Does it need repair? If it needs repair, is it something I can afford or want to mess with?
Some things I do not personally worry about on a clarinet is lacquer coming off the keys. However, I do not care for pitting and personally wouldn’t buy a clarinet with severe pitting unless it made me sound like Harold Wright.
I’ve been asked whether I think someone should get a Buffet E11 or R13 (or higher model) if they are just doubling. I can honestly say that there is a noticeable difference between the E11 and an R13. I find them hard enough to control as my primary, and I couldn’t imagine the difficulty if you’re working with it as your secondary. I would recommend buying a used R13 over an E11. As far as other brands, like Yamaha, Ridenour, Selmer, Patricola, etc., I do not have enough experience with them to confidently tell someone yae or nay, but if you are looking to go that route, look to their upper-level models. A word on Backun: they sound beautiful, but they do not project. If you are playing in a musical you will not be heard. If you are playing the Mozart quintet with strings, you’ll be fine. I don’t own one but I have heard many recitals with Backun artists and players and it’s tough to hear them.
Note: if you are a very casual doubler, like playing clarinet once a year at the church Christmas pageant, you can get away with a lower level horn and a good mouthpiece. My Vito bass clarinet served me just fine for my once-a-year graduation ceremony gig at a small college that needed a bass clarinet. I’m writing this blog for someone who will play (or teach) enough to warrant spending money for a higher-level instrument.
The “blown out” controversy: people are either completely opposed to the idea or absolutely certain. I personally think that instruments can get “out of whack,” but if it can be fixed, it’s not blown out. I play on horns from the 60s and 70s, one of which someone told me was “blown out.” However, after it came back from Mark Jacobi and this same person played it, they thought I had gotten a different horn. “Wow, this plays really well!” Heh. Same one. Just tuned up. So I don’t know about this, but I do know that if it works for you and makes you sound good, it’s probably fine.
Should you take a trusted friend/colleague/professor’s advice? Absolutely. Having someone other than the store clerk telling you that you sound “great!” on every instrument is helpful. If you cannot take anyone with you, ask if you can take it (and preferably one or two more) for a few days and play for your teacher/friend/whoever. If one gets the green light, get it.
A word about online auction sites. Although I have gotten a good deal exactly one time, the other four times I have tried to buy an instrument from that major auction site have been less than stellar experiences. You just don’t know how it’s going to play and you have all the shipping and hassle of returning if it doesn’t work for you. I highly recommend going and trying several in person. My source has dozens of consignment clarinets in the back office of her house. I spent two hours trying five horns before I picked the one that was just right for me. My clarinet teacher went with me and gave it a thorough once-over before I bought it. I was confident about the purchase then and continue to be pleased with it today. There is a lot to be said about trying before buying!
My first Eb clarinet was a plastic Laval. If you breathed on it wrong, you bent keys. I thought it’d be better than nothing, but it really wasn’t worth the $90 I paid. If you want to get your Eb chops up, buy an oldy-but-goodie wooden Noblet or wooden Bundy as your first one. If you dig it and want to continue on, then invest and go through the same procedure listed for Bb clarinets. Just keep in mind that unless you play this in a community band, it’ll mostly sit in the closet.
Although I have a fondness in my heart for this poor instrument, don’t bother. If you’re in a clarinet choir that absolutely needs one, I’d probably go the same route as the Eb clarinet selection above. If you want a nice intermediate one, I recommend Selmer. We bought one for my school district and used it for clarinet choir recitals and the better freshmen to try to make State.
If you have good gigs lined up and money burning a hole in your pocket, go for the wooden beauty with a low C. If you are like the rest of us who want to have one “just in case” but don’t play it often, go with a resin/plastic bass clarinet that goes to low Eb and get a really good mouthpiece. Keep a screwdriver and some rubber bands handy as they will only break on performance day. 😉
Best of luck to you! I’ll go into flute, oboe, saxophone, and bassoon purchases soon.