An Introduction to the Bass Clarinet

Key Items for the Bass Clarinetist

Music Stand Shop Now >
A music stand is a must-have for all musicians. I have seen plenty of students try to use a desk or instrument case to hold music, but all this accomplishes is bad posture, bad playing habits and discomfort. The bass clarinet is a large horn that should be played sitting down on a sturdy chair in front of a music stand.

Reeds Shop Now >
Most bass clarinet mouthpieces are designed for use with fairly light reed strength, usually a 2.5 or 3. A reed will not last forever. They get chipped, broken, warped by everyday use and even the weather can affect them. Even if the reed escapes those grizzly fates, they will simply wear out over time. There is no hard and fast rule about when to change out a reed. The student will need to learn what to look out for such as difficulty playing, a reduction in sound quality and an increase in squeaks just to name a few. Reeds need a lot of playing to be broken in, so a good habit is to start playing a bit on a second reed before the first one dies.

Reed Case Shop Now >
I am not a big fan of most reed cases because they are made out of plastic, just like the reed holder that the reed came in. However, they do help somewhat in keeping everything organized in the instrument case.

Swab Shop Now >
Buy one and use it after every time you play! This is the most basic and routine maintenance you’ll have to perform on your horn on a daily basis. Swabs are like a toothbrush in the fact that you will need a new one every so often.

Cork Grease Shop Now >
The corks on your instrument need to be maintained. Cork grease comes in a tube that looks just like chapstick. Cork grease is applied by using your finger to massage the grease around the entire cork. If the cork feels dry to the touch or if the parts of the horn are difficult to assemble, you’ll need to put more cork grease on. When an instrument is new, you will have to apply cork grease often (probably every day), but as you use the instrument, the corks will become broken in and will need to be greased far less often. Make sure to wipe any excess grease off of you hand before playing your instrument!

Neck Strap Shop Now >
When practicing with a bass clarinet, you should sit down in a sturdy chair that allows for the peg on the instrument to support the weight. However, sometimes you might be required to perform while standing up. You cannot hold a bass clarinet while standing and play it at the same time without the aid of neck strap.

Metronome Shop Now >
Metronomes are great tools to help students develop a good sense of rhythm. But like any good tool, they only help if you use them regularly. I teach my students to use them when playing scales and other technique work at a minimum.

Chromatic Tuner Shop Now >
Tuners are another useful tool for students, and they’re often conveniently paired in the same device as a metronome! Tuners are used to help a student learn about intonation, which is the idea that one player’s note sounds exactly like another player’s note of the same pitch. Alas, this is not always the case, and woodwind instruments are amongst the most difficult instruments to deal with this fact. Checking one’s notes against a tuner is a good place to start in mastering this concept.

Mouthpiece Shop Now >
The absolute best upgrade for the sound for any woodwind instrument is a good mouthpiece. The stock mouthpieces that come with the horn are of poor quality, making the instrument more difficult to play and to sound good.

About the Bass Clarinet

bass clarinet

The bass clarinet is a larger version of the standard clarinet. Because most players start out on clarinet and switch to the bass clarinet in middle or high school, the anatomy of the instrument should be very familiar.

There are, however, two key differences. A bass clarinet has a neck instead of a barrel, and the bell of the instrument has a slot for a peg on the back of it. The peg is there to support the weight of the instrument on the ground while player is sitting.

Another difference on some bass clarinets is that the upper and lower joints are sometimes formed in one piece instead of two. I recommend that a student builds the bass clarinet from bottom to top––bell and lower joint first, then the peg, add the upper joint, add the neck and finally, add the mouthpiece. Make sure to assemble the reed, ligature, and mouthpiece before putting it on the horn.

Reading Music

It is important to learn the name of the note, its fingering and place on the musical staff. A lot of students settle for two out of three. This leads to slower learning and communication problems with other musicians. After learning how to play most of the notes on your instrument, a good goal for any aspiring musician is to learn the 12 major scales. There is no better way to become a better player than to play though your scales every day!

Strangely, the bass clarinet is a treble clef instrument! It plays and reads just like the B-flat clarinet, though it sounds an octave lower. This is a good thing because if you have played clarinet, you can pick up a bass clarinet and jump right in to playing it without needing to learn a new clef.

Learning to read rhythm is equally important to learning the notes on your instrument! You must learn to count the beat (or a subdivision) while you play to ensure that your notes are the proper length and are in proportion to each other. I recommend to my students to practice rhythm by counting out loud (1, 2, 3, 4 – and later 1&2&3&4&) while clapping the beginning of each note. Counting out loud and clapping forces the student to do two things at once while building the habit of always counting.

clarinet scales

Practice time and good practice habits

Making music is fun. The better you become at making music, the more fun it becomes. To become a better musician and to have more fun as a musician, you need to practice. In order to be effective, practice time must be goal-oriented. It is okay, even encouraged, for a student to have multiple goals for a practice section. Most productive practice sessions last at least 30 minutes. 30 minutes can seem both like an ocean of time and a blink of an eye. To make the most of this time, I teach my students to partition it into at least three smaller sections to work on specific aspects of learning to play their instrument. These are tone and technique, etudes and literature. I find a roughly even distribution of time amongst the three categories to work well at first.

During the tone and technique section of practice, the student should work on doing exercises that increase their ability to play the instrument well. An example of a tone development exercise is the long-tone. For this exercise, the student plays a given set of notes for as long as they can. Once bass clarinet students have learned the lowest note on the instrument, they can perform the register key exercise (also known as 12ths). To do this, they start a long-tone played on a low note, hold it for 6-8 beats, add the register key to fingering and hold the new higher note another 8-12 beats. A good example of a technique exercise is a scale. A top priority of any serious music student should be to learn to perform all 12 major scales. The better a student plays their scales, the easier time a student will have leaning to play everything else they will ever want to play.

The second practice area is etudes. Etudes are pieces of music that are designed to teach something or challenge a student in a specific way. Most beginner books are filled with short pieces of music designed this way. A good beginner book will have pieces that force the student to play in many different time signatures and keys. Ultimately, we practice etudes because they help us learn and apply new musical skills.

The last practice area is literature. This includes the music that we either play for our own enjoyment or what we intend to play in a public performance. The music for your band concert, a book of Star Wars or Frozen tunes, an instrumental part to play with your church choir or a piece for solo and ensemble all fall into this category. As a student advances, they may add more areas of interest to their practice schedule such as sight-reading. Playing a piece of music well the first time is a skill that has to be practiced for a student to be good at it!

One last note about practicing. I encourage all players to take a few minutes at the end of their practice session to play something that they really enjoy. Whether that is their favorite tune, a piece of music they learned four years ago or if they just want to make something new up, take a bit of time and just play the instrument.

Maintaining Your Instrument

About your bass clarinet
Most bass clarinets are made out a plastic or a composite material. Only the top line professional model horns are made out of wood, and even a lot of pro horns are composites these days. Neither temperature nor humidity will have a major impact. That being said, do not let the instrument get overly hot or cold as the pads can come unglued. This usually happens if the instrument is left overnight in a cold car or all day in a hot one of if left in an attic.

Basic Care
Basic care for a bass clarinet involves two things. First, make sure the corks are greased when putting the instrument together. Second, swab the instrument when you are done.

Remember to use cork grease if your oboe is not going together easily. Store your reeds in a reed case, not in the plastic tubes that store-bought reeds come in. Be sure the oboe is properly in its case before closing the case. Never force a case closed.

Once a Year Tune Up
It is a good idea to have your horn serviced once a year. Going on vacation? Send the horn out to have a once-over. Bass clarinets have a lot of moving parts, screws, and springs and pads. Any of these parts can wear out over time and need to be replaced.

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