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The clarinet is both a family of instruments and a single instrument that belongs to the single reed group of woodwinds, which also includes saxophones. Clarinets are used in both orchestras and bands, and featured in Klezmer music, woodwind quintets, wind ensembles, and woodwind choirs.
The single reeds that are members of the clarinet family are as follows, arranged from lowest to highest.
All the clarinets, regardless of their size or transposition, have the same fingering system. They also all have a “break” – where the transition in fingering can present a problem for the player who is not expert.
The clarinet was invented by Johann Christoph Denner at the very end of the 17th century and based upon the chalumeau, a single reed with eight finger holes and a range of about an octave. In the 18th century, the instruments were made of wood or ivory and had three or four sections and two keys – Denner’s innovation.
Today, there are two keywork systems – the French and the German - and five parts. The first part is the mouthpiece, to which the reed is held by a ligature. Next comes a barrel joint that attaches the mouthpiece to the upper joint of the instrument, where the left hand plays. After that comes the interconnecting lower joint for the right hand, followed by the bell.
There are many well-known clarinet passages, including the opening theme in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and Ivan the Cat’s theme in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. There are many noted clarinetists, whose numbers include Woody Allen, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Richard Stoltzman, and Evan Ziporyn.
You were judged in band by how quickly you could get your instrument out of the case and have it ready to go (by the other students, that is). One problem that always irked me was when I had to get the cork grease out and really work the corks over so I could get my clarinet assembled. I had a really nice Leblanc wooden clarinet that had a lovely sound. Or it would have with anyone but an 11-year-old making squeaking noises with it. I did learn to read music in band, however, so that was a skill that has served me well.
The other thing I learned about having a clarinet was cleaning it after every class. The cleaning cloth had a weighted string you dropped through the barrels and then pulled out the other end. Clarinets don't have a spit valve like trumpets do, so you have to clean them after every practice or performance.
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