Making the Metal Clarinet Playable Again

Bought an old metal clarinet a few weeks ago. 1930s-’40s. When I received it, it was semi-playable. Notes above a certain point would only squeak. After the trial/error process of pressing on certain pads and blowing into the mouthpiece, I discovered that air leaks in the left-hand region of the instrument kept those higher notes from playing. The pads are in decent shape, but I removed what I thought were the problem keys and inspected the springs. Increased their tension. Better, but could be better still. Applied key oil to the joints so the springs wouldn’t have to work so hard. Even better! Then I ordered a cork replacement kit. Replaced my first ever cork today in my burgeoning hobbyist’s career. Now with the clarinet having proper seals, its performance: *chef’s kiss*

A few lessons emerge from this experience. Find the leaks. Address them. Make the seals tight. Take your time, get it right. The overall playability improves significantly. I mean, it’s still a second/third tier metal clarinet from the World War II era, but it’s been fun working on. And it’s fun to play.

I said a few lessons can come from this. I’m sure the analogies will become clearer at a time that isn’t now. I’m tired today.

I’ll still take my wood clarinets to the shop for tune-ups and repairs.

Practicing Stravinsky Piece 1 in A

Clarinets have become somewhat of an obsession of mine during the pandemic. Last week I found a nice intermediate model of an A clarinet. According to wikipedia:

In modern times, the most common clarinet is the B♭ clarinet. However, the clarinet in A, pitched a semitone lower, is regularly used in orchestral, chamber and solo music. An orchestral clarinetist must own both a clarinet in A and B♭ since the repertoire is divided fairly evenly between the two.

I’ve noodled around a bit on the A, breaking it in slowly. The tone is really nice. In this photo, the A clarinet is on the left and the B♭ is on the right. You’ll see the A is a little bit bigger–longer body, wider bell. Because the brand is different, the pinky keys are situated a little differently, but the response is just as quick as the B♭.

Practicing Piece 1 of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces has been way fun. Since I’ve been practicing on the B♭ up to now, I’ve gotten used to hearing this work pitched in a particular way. As I’ve been practicing on the A, hearing the music a half-tone lower was a bit weird at first, but i’m getting used to it. I’ll post two different practice sessions here: First the B♭, and then the A. And as I mentioned on Instagram regarding these sessions: Similar tempos. Some different approaches/attacks of notes. Different areas needing smoother transitions between notes. And more dynamics. Still quite a bit of work to do.

Practice is good.

Throwing Back to 2009

Once there was a band called Mechanical Violet. They were a group of four ladies who loved the hell out of life. They covered a single song, “Postcards from Italy,” by Beirut. Becky had vocals and tamborine; Eleece had trumpet; Alicia had ukulele; I had clarinet. We had fun putting it together. A really fun memory from a much-cherished time.

The other day on Instagram I posted part of Mozart’s “Waltz Fantasy,” a piece I played on the clarinet in 9th grade, when I felt most in my prime. A friend from the Mechanical Violet days more or less commented on that post about hearing some Beirut for my next video.

So I got to work.

Found some sheet music for ukulele, flute, oboe, piano, and percussion. I also had to look up ukulele fingerings to convert from the tabs on the sheet music. (I also played lines from two strings instead of all four, because clarinets can only play a single line and not chords, and because this was already turning out to be a lot of work.) I kept everything in the key of C, since only I would be playing with…me. Me and my shadows.

Recorded the parts, put them together. Not perfect editing-wise, but definitely recognizable. As I rewatched this a small sob got caught in my throat. Damn you, nostalgia. Miss you, Mechanical Violet.