Nottelmann Music St. Louis

Where Have All The Clarinets Gone?

Curated from Conn-Selmer’s CSI Connect – by John Casagrande – 

Since the early 2000’s, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of clarinets in high and middle school bands. How this has occurred and the possible solutions to this problem is the focus of this essay.

What has caused this dearth of clarinetists? There are several factors that, combined, have been related to the numbers decline.

1. The most critical reason for this decline lies in the manner in which students select their instruments. Are they merely starting on the instrument they find most appealing or are they starting on instruments to which they are physically best-suited to play?

2. Teacher training on clarinet needs to be improved so that future teachers have adequate skills on clarinet to successfully teach the instrument.

3. Switching clarinet players to lower clarinets, horn, double reeds or tuba dilutes the clarinet numbers significantly. (Why not switch some of those saxophones to bass or contrabass clarinet?)

4. The huge emphasis on competitive marching bands has caused band programs to direct students to brass and percussion instruments to better fill out the instrumentation of the marching band.

5. The current crop of new band compositions stress instrumentations that make the band “sound better” by utilizing fuller band scoring than other color combinations that traditionally have highlighted more colorful textures. Programs that focus their attention on only the newest music have no need for a full-sized clarinet section.

How can the situation be corrected?

1. Student screening and instrument selection: Matching students to the instruments to which they are best physically suited is of the utmost importance to ensure success and retention. Programs in which students are screened individually and given an opportunity to try the instruments of their choice have long had the most success in student development, proficiency and retention. (Think about how discouraging it would be to not be able to get a sound out of a flute for two or three weeks. Would you want to continue?)

The one-on-one playing test is time consuming but it is time well spent if a student is to be successful.

Ideally, prospective beginners and their parents are met during an evening in the band area of the school. Registration is followed by the parent and student meeting with one of the pyramid band directors who interview and coach the student with trying the instrument choices. This is also a wonderful opportunity to establish a dialogue with the parents.

The process begins with the teacher observing the physical characteristics of the student in front of them. Observing the finger size, lip formation and overall physical size are the simplest characteristics to measure. Does the student play piano? Oboe or horn might be good choices. Do they have small, short fingers? Then clarinet or flute is not the best choice. Tall physique with long arms? Trombone is a strong contender. Full, wide lips? Trumpet or horn is not a good choice but a lower brass instrument may be ideal. Does the student aspire to be a percussionist? Physical coordination is a must for the successful drummer and a test for their hand/foot coordination will indicate whether their choice is wise or not.

Next the student tries only the mouthpiece of their first choice, then their second choice, then their third choice followed by a teacher choice based upon the physical characteristics and the relative success of the previous choices.

After it is confirmed that the student can get a sound out of the mouthpiece, they can be allowed to hold the entire instrument to once again measure physical characteristics to the instrument of choice.

Also factoring into the screening process is the salesmanship of the teacher. “You’re going to be a fantastic clarinet player!!!” may be all a student needs to hear to convince them that the clarinet should be their choice of instrument. A great method to inspire young clarinetists is to turn the instrument around backwards so that the student can blow into the mouthpiece and the teacher fingers the instrument. The teacher can then finger a familiar melody or a rapid technical passage and watch the student’s eyes light up.

In the experience of the author, most elementary students really have no preference for the instrument they want to play; they merely want to play in the band. They may choose an instrument because they like the way it looks, or their best friend has chosen that instrument or their parents have a favorite instrument. I have spoken with many exceptional musicians who ended up playing their second, third or fourth choice instruments only because they were physically unsuited for their first choice! It’s possible those talented musicians would have been dropouts on another instrument.

They one-on-one playing test can also be used to monitor and control the instrumentation of a program from elementary through the high school band programs. Teachers at the elementary, middle and high schools should share in the decisions of how many students should be started on each instrument. These numbers should be based upon need as well as past experiences in the school system. Of course, these numbers are not hard and fast and are based upon the best guesses of the professionals involved.

Many schools also restrict the types of instruments that are started due to time considerations, space and instrumentation goals; many choose not to start saxophones, percussion, horn, double reeds or lower clarinets until a later grade.

(If you attend the CSI Institute, be sure to attend Erin Cole’s clinic called “Make Me A Match” to see the screening process in action.)

2. Teacher Training: Undergraduate students must be held to a higher standard of proficiency on their secondary instruments. In some teacher-training institutions, they are required to only study one or two woodwinds, one or two brass instruments and, in many cases, a short course in percussion. While brass instrument embouchures are very similar, the embouchures for woodwind instruments are vastly different from each other and need very specific elements to produce a characteristic tone.

A good clarinet embouchure is probably one of the more intricate embouchures to form and must be in place if the intermediate and advanced clarinetist is to be successful. Forming a good clarinet embouchure is a process that will take weeks, or even months, to master. And then will take constant reminding for the teacher.

The question frequently is asked “When do I have time to do this?” The beginning warmup exercises of the day are the most obvious time to work with clarinet players on forming a proper embouchure. Students having difficulty can be helped after school. (The warmup period should always be the time where directors get off the podium frequently to visually assess how their students’ hand position, instrument angles, posture, etc.)

No student teacher should ever be allowed to teach without being able to form a proper embouchure on each instrument, display good hand position, play 26 basic drum rudiments, play a study on a keyboard percussion instrument, play at least nine major scales on each instrument and sight-read a study from an elementary method book. These requirements have been a staple of the most successful collegiate music education departments for decades.

3. Switching clarinet players to other instruments: The clarinet section has been the section that directors look to for switching students needed to balance the band’s instrumentation. That practice has somewhat diminished even though it is still quite common in the era of overloaded saxophone sections who have now become the area to find lower clarinets, horns, tubas, etc.

The counter argument to this practice is found in the number of students that are switched from horn or trombone or any other instrument to the clarinet section in middle or high school? In the author’s experience, the answer is zero.

4. The current emphasis on competitive marching bands: Except for the cursory “Woodwind Exposure” caption on most judging sheets, the clarinets have been relegated to an accessory role in the modern marching band.

There is little to be done to remedy this situation given the clarinet’s acoustical weakness in comparison to the brass and percussion sections other than the director’s and staff’s attention to whether the clarinets are producing an acceptable concert sound on the field and providing adequate exposure to the woodwinds in the scoring of marching band musical repertoire. When clarinets try to match the brass and percussion sections for volume, the result is improper embouchures and damaged concepts of tone. Yes, clarinets should be encouraged to use their air columns more in marching band but anything else that alters sound playing principles (including holding the instrument in an almost-horizontal position) should be attended to immediately.

While the DCI corps have had a significant and meaningful impact on the marching band, the woodwinds, and the clarinets, in particular, have not been the beneficiaries of that influence.

Also, if the clarinets are to be heard, they cannot be constantly scored within the staff and below. Upper register and altissimo playing can never be improved if it is never encountered in the band music.

5. Current band scoring practices in concert music: Many of the newer band works in the grades 1-4 range have leaned almost exclusively on full band or full woodwind or brass scoring.

When performing repertoire that is scored to be “safe”, not only the clarinets but also every other section in the band is deprived of the opportunity to be featured. The great transcriptions of the past exposed each section and thereby forced directors to be more cognizant of improving the playing skills of each section. The current trend of almost continuous full band sound allows playing problems to be hidden. This is something which is a dis-service to the students who are led to believe they are performing properly as well as the listener who is constantly subjected to the same timbre and sonority to the exclusion of exploring the many color possibilities of the wind band.

The other issue in this full band scenario keeps the clarinets’ tessitura either within or below the staff, relegating the unique tonal colors that clarinets can achieve when they are scored above the staff to a non-factor. Again, this is the “safe” method of scoring. (Flutists: you may now enter the argument of this same issue.)

In closing, directors at all levels of music education must continue to be vigilant in their attention to the clarinet section and return it to its rightful place as an important contributor to the overall wind band sound.


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