Recently I played the 2nd e-flat clarinet part in Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Calgary Civic Symphony. The part I played is a sort of typical “auxiliary” clarinet part that Mahler liked to employ in his symphonies- there were four other clarinet players who played (much) more than I did. My part often doubled the principal e-flat player’s part, or the 3rd clarinetist/ bass clarinetist’s. You can imagine that I had a lot of time to myself, and I used much of the time to experiment with my set up.
Now, here is where it got kind of crazy for me. I chose a very dumb time to send both my b-flat and e-flat clarinets for adjustment/ overhaul, so I had to use a back up b-flat and a borrowed e-flat clarinet (actually, two different ones). Why is this crazy? Well, each instrument is different in timbre, resistance, and intonation. This means varying kinds of air velocity/ volume is required for each instrument, and varying mouthpieces and reeds. Basically each week I had a different e-flat clarinet to play on, and that was not so easy to get used to with limited time with section and etc. I guess in the end if you are constantly playing, there is never a good time to send your instruments away, but in any event this experience forced me to be very flexible and confident.
1. e-flat clarinet set up
I used two different borrowed Buffet e-flat clarinets, both vintage, and they played very similarly: flexible, not too strong, but blending very well. I didn’t have too much trouble blending with the principal e-flat clarinetist on these instruments. My own e-flat clarinet is a vintage Conn Elkhart Indiana that is about 80-90 years old according to my research. It has amazingly never cracked and the wood is really fantastically dense. The first time I tried it the natural resonance and the sheer volume and the ring of the sound blew me away. I had bought it in a small music store during my time in NYC, and got it overhauled by one of my absolutely trusted clarinet technicians, Michael Manning (now resides in San Francisco). Mike specializes in not only building handmade custom cases for all woodwind (and some brass) instruments that are super protective and compact, but also does impeccable repair work and customizations as well. He is definitely one of my favourite people in the industry.
**It’s interesting to note that two other clarinetists of my section also did the same with their e-flat clarinets (bought instruments with good potentials at low prices, then got them overhauled by experts). So that is something to think about if you are looking for an e-flat clarinet.
Before I even get to the mouthpieces and the reeds, I have to say the Conn is vastly different from the Buffets, to a degree that it made me very nervous (I got my instrument back just days before the concert). Honestly I think it would be a fantastic instrument in a wind ensemble, but my god, it is so loud I was consistently worried about drowning my kind and ever-patient principal e-flat clarinetist colleague. Of course with the volume comes difficulty of balancing and tuning. Anyway, let’s talk about some gear.
2. mouthpieces (e-flat)
5RV (closed tip opening, short facing, most free-blowing)
M30 (open tip opening, longer facing, medium-free-blowing)
Hawkins B (med-open tip opening, thickest tip and side rails, med-short facing, least free-blowing but not too bad)
I own four e-flat clarinet mouthpieces. An old Vandoren B44 I had inherited a little while ago, a Vandoren 5RV, a Vandoren M30, and a Richard Hawkins B. I test-drove the latter three for in the rehearsals for this concert. Sadly the M30 was kind of dull in the Jack Singer Hall and same for the Hawkins B. It is important to note that while the Hawkins tunes exceptionally well, it is lower than Vandoren mouthpieces and when played cold, it is hopelessly flat.
3. playing cold
Which brings us to the next very important topic of playing cold. I think the Mahler Symphony is about 90 minutes long, and by my calculation I would be surprised if I play more than 10 minutes. Anyway, my point is that I needed set ups for my clarinets that would most definitely work for me when I just grab it and play it after having sat in the cold rehearsal space for literally an hour (the A clarinet actually doesn’t get played at all until the last page of the final movement). Back to the Hawkins. Now, I don’t actually think the Hawkins is a dull mouthpiece. But one should know that usually Vandoren mouthpieces (especially the ones with short facings) are very loud and have a terrific ring. The principal e-flat clarinetist plays a B44. So you can already assume that in intonation and sound already this combo of B44 and Hawkins B will have a difficult time to blend, or at least will take time to get acquainted with each other. I unfortunately didn’t have this luxury of time since my part was very sparse. Now you might think, hey so did you use your B44? The answer sadly is no. If you remember from my previous posts, the B44 is a very old mouthpiece (at least the one I have) and is very inefficient in that it is painfully resistant and has that “vintage” knife edge to the sound (but the principal e-flat clarinetist sounded fine…). So I just didn’t bother; and I regret it. I should have at least tried it, I certainly had the time to. I ended up playing the concert on the 5RV because it seemed to speak the easiest and could blend the easiest with the principal e-flat clarinetist. It is also crucial for the mouthpiece to have a certain ping and the volume to the sound, because when you blend and tune with others, it is important for others to actually hear you. I think this is especially true in orchestra, where there are so many instruments and lots of different sounds and timbres.
Vandoren 3.5 Traditional e-flat clarinet reeds
Vandoren 3.5 V12 e-flat clarinet reeds
Vandoren 3.5 White Master b-flat clarinet reeds (bottom cut and sanded to fit the mouthpiece and the barrel)
Vandoren 4 V12 e-flat clarinet reeds
Lately I have been using the Vandoren Traditional cut reeds on all of my clarinets for their “honest”/quick response. However both the V12 and the Traditional 3.5 reeds were too soft after the first time of playing.
This is why I drove to the store and got a box of 4s (V12). I never thought I would play on 4s in my life because I don’t usually like closed mouthpieces for their tendencies (or my conception for them) to have thinner sounds in halls.
I opened five 4s and sure enough 2 were impossibly hard. However the rest three were playable so I played the dress rehearsal and the concert one one (actually, on the same reed for both, which I don’t normally do).
3.5 White Master was also way too hard (which is annoying because it was fine yesterday at home…) in the hall so I just gave up them up for today. I think 3 might have been good.
Charles Bay Baroque ligature (b-flat and A)
Rovner Dark (b-flat and A)
Rovner Dark (e-flat)
I found the Charles Bay Baroque ligature on my soprano clarinet was by far the best for rehearsals and the concert. I wish I owned one for e-flat and bass clarinet. This ligature did not warp the reeds when my instruments were sitting for a long time. However, the Vandoren Optimum always warped the reeds, every time. Rovner Dark was also decent for all the clarinets I used, but this ligature is not as free-blowing or resonant as the Bay, I find. I think this free-blowing character is important when you are switching between mouthpieces of different sizes, because often, you do not have too much time to get adjust to each every time you play it.
6. mouthpieces (e-flat and b-flat)
Which brings me back to mouthpieces. A couple of days before the concert, I again realized that short and ringing mouthpieces are the best in producing sounds immediately and this trait should be put to priority. This was hard for me to accept because I don’t necessarily love playing these kinds of mouthpieces because I find their sounds are usually more laser-beam-like and not very dynamic in phrasing compared to longer-facing mouthpieces. Anyway, my set up for the concert was:
B40 for b-flat and A clarinets
5RV for e-flat clarinet
I hope this is somewhat useful for your next rehearsal/ concert. I personally learned a lot by “not playing a whole lot,” and I really mean it. I needed very special/ specific types of set up for the concert. I assume my set ups will be different for the concerts I play a lot more in. One reason being when the tonguing gets very fast, I find it is a lot less easy to control it on shorter mouthpieces than it is on longer facing mouthpieces. I imagine I will use harder reeds because they have to last longer and let me project a lot more if I am playing for instance the principal clarinet part.