Today, clarinets are usually played in bands, orchestras, dance bands, and woodwind ensembles. It is often featured as a solo instrument. Clarinets are usually made of African blackwood (grenadilla), but can also be made of ebonite or plastic. Most bands need a large clarinet section to play many different parts and be heard above the louder brass instruments.
The clarinet family includes clarinets built in many different keys and sizes. Each uses basically the same fingerings, allowing clarinet players to transfer from instrument to instrument with ease. The most common clarinet is the soprano, usually pitched in Bb, but sometimes also in A or C. The alto clarinet is pitched lower in Eb. The bass clarinet is pitched an octave (eight notes) lower than the normal clarinet in Bb.
The clarinet has a mouthpiece and a single reed. The ligature holds the reed in place. The reed is made of cane. When air is blown into the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates and the sound is made. The clarinet's sound is mellow and quite soft.
The history of the modern clarinet dates back to the 1600's when the chalumeau (pronounced shall-yu-mo) was a popular instrument in Europe. The chalumeau had two keys and a single reed. Its range was low and limited. In memory of the chalumeau,t he low range on hte clarinet of today is called the chalumeau register.
Around 1700, a German instrument maker named Denner invented the clarinet by improving the chalumeau. By 1750 it had 5 keys and soon became part of the orchestra. Keys kept being added so that more notes could be played.
In 1844, two French musicians named Buffet and Klosé applied the Boehm flute key system to the clarinet. This consisted of two steps. First, they placed each hole so that each note would have the same tone quality. Then, they made a key system to cover all of the holes. It was a success, and the Boehm system clarinet became popular around the world.
The first alto clarinet was built in France around 1810. At that time, it appears to have been used regularly in the British military bands. It was eventually replaced in these bands, however, by the alto saxophone, invented some 30 years later by Adolphe Sax.
The first bass clarinet was built in the 1770's. However it was used very little by composers until the 1830's. It was around this time that Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, improved the bass clarinet. Further improvements came a decade later when Buffet and Klosé applied the Boehm flute key system to it.
Before you play: When possible, avoid touching the keys when you are putting your clarinet together. When joining the upper and lower joints, you must press the rings of the top joint. Do this carefully so you do not bend any keys. the joints of the clarinet should twist together easily. If you have any difficulty, grease each of the tenon corks.
Tuning & Playing: The clarinet is tuned by adjusting the length of the instrument. To lower the pitch, lengthen the instrument by pulling the barrel out slightly, leaving a small gap between the barrel and the upper joint. To raise the pitch, push the barrel in (and young players may also need to firm up their embouchure). Lower register notes can be tuned by pulling out or pushing in between the lower and upper joints.
Cleaning: Moisture left in the clarinet after playing with cause pads to deteriorate. Swab the inside of the clarinet after playing. Use a cloth to wipe off moisture and finger marks. Remove the reed from the mouthpiece and place it in a reed guard. This will extend the life of the reed. Swab out the mouthpiece. Under each key is a pad that seals the tone hole when the key closes. If pads stick, they are dirty. To clean the pads, place a clean cloth (or dollar bill) under the pad, close the key, and pull the cloth through.
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