Purchasing an auxiliary clarinet can feel like a big commitment, as these instruments are often considered to be mostly for ensemble playing. However, specializing on an auxiliary clarinet can make you a more versatile performer and teacher - and owning your own instrument certainly helps!
So, what do you need to consider when you’ve decided you’d like to purchase an E-flat clarinet? Like many elements of E-flat clarinet, most of the things you’d test on a potential B-flat clarinet purchase also apply to E-flat. There are a few things that need some special consideration, so here are my thoughts on what I look for in a good E-flat clarinet (as well as a list of my equipment at the end of the post).
First Things First
Have you played an E-flat clarinet before? If you don’t already have an idea of what mouthpiece, ligature, and reeds you like, it may be in your best interests to work that out first. Most students can use a school instrument and are often supplied with a ligature and mouthpiece, but serious performance students should invest in their own accessories.
Have you played any ensemble parts or solos for E-flat clarinet? Learning a new piece or excerpt just to try an instrument isn’t the best way to test for qualities that you will want from an instrument. Ideally, you should have a couple things in contrasting styles, as well as an awareness of the challenges presented by performing those pieces/excerpts.
Have you ever worked on intonation on E-flat clarinet? This isn’t entirely necessary, as each instrument will have its own intonation tendencies to work through. Knowing how to test and improve intonation is necessary though, since it is most often the largest challenge to playing the E-flat clarinet well.
Things to Consider When Testing an E-flat Clarinet
While you may want the feel of your B-flat and A clarinets to match, you might like a slightly different response on E-flat clarinet. Think about challenges you’ve had with any E-flat parts in the past - do you wish some of those notes would be a bit easier? Were some registers too easy to play, and ended up sticking out a lot? I tend to like my E-flat setup to be just a bit more flexible than my B-flat/A setup, but that’s certainly personal preference!
If you feel like the response is good, test the intonation. Different models (even of the same brand) have different intonation tendencies, in my experience. Areas that tend to need to most attention: throat tones, upper clarion, and altissimo. Do you have fingerings that can help with any intonation issues? Can you adjust for these issues without sacrificing good tone?
Some instruments just sound better than others. Even if you know what brand and model you want, try to play at least a few instruments of that model. Some people want their E-flat clarinet to get as close in tone to a B-flat as possible, while others are more accepting of the slightly brighter tone more characteristic of the instrument. Keep in mind the situations you plan on using the instruments as well - will you be playing in clarinet choirs, bands, orchestra, chamber groups, as a soloist, or perhaps all of these?
Now that you’ve tested the basics, notice if the instrument is consistent across the registers. Do certain notes stick out when compared to the overall tone quality and intonation of the instrument? (Aside from the couple expected stuffy notes due to clarinet design!)
How does it feel to play the instrument? Can you manage technical passages without major keywork issues? Are you constantly bumping or missing certain keys? If you haven’t played E-flat clarinet much, it may be difficult to tell what issues could be fixed with practicing and what is an actual problem with the instrument.
* A note about keywork: check the placement of the trill keys. My current clarinet does not have this issue, but I have played other horns that do have this problem. The bottom side key on some brands/models hits the rods in just the right spot so that the cork is constantly falling off (pictured on the left). It can cause intonation issues, and interfere with some of the other keys in that area of the instrument, especially during fast, technical passages. The placement shown on the right has not had this issue.
Price vs. Use
Of course we would all love to have the very best instrument possible! Be realistic about how you plan on using the instrument. Will you be depending on adding E-flat to your regular playing in order to get more freelance opportunities, or audition for professional ensembles? Will you be playing in a clarinet choir or community group? Is this an instrument for your students to use? Luckily, many clarinet companies are producing really decent intermediate models. I have had high school students come in with intermediate Yamaha E-flat clarinets that are fantastic instruments.
There are so many accessories to choose from on any clarinet! Similar to other soprano clarinets, you’ll often see players switch out their E-flat clarinet barrels and bells. If you’re looking into accessories for an E-flat clarinet, stay tuned for a post next month!
Clarinet: Yamaha 681 E-flat
I like that it is fairly light, and overall feels great when switching between E-flat and my pair of SEV clarinets. My clarinet is very responsive, but not so much that I feel like I have to work too hard to control the sound. I do like to have some flexibility with my tone color, since I do a lot of solo and chamber music playing on E-flat in addition to more traditional orchestral playing.
Mouthpiece: Vandoren M30
Good response and even sound with this mouthpiece. I happen to like the M30 on my B-flat/A as well. I have also had good luck with some of the Hawkins mouthpieces.
Ligature: Silverstein Cryo 4
I tried both the E-flat size and the German size, and ended up going with the German. I believe the newer Silversteins might not need to be sized quite so precisely. My second choice ligature would be the Vandoren MO.
I like playing with the Fobes E-flat extension primarily because it reminds me to really use my air! It does seems to help with the long tube notes.
Reeds: D’Addario E-flat
I used to cut B-flat reeds exclusively (my favorite was V21 3.5). After testing the D’Addario reeds, I switched over to their E-flat reeds. I play V21s on my B-flat, and both Vandorens and D’Addarios on bass - so remember, play what works for you!
If you already own an E-flat clarinet, what do you like about it? I’d love to know what it was about an instrument that convinced you it was ‘the one!’