Beginning clarinet without breaking the bank

I received an enquiry today from a potential student who asked me “Do I actually need a clarinet of my own to take lessons?”

While the answer may seem obvious, it’s actually a very valid question. Theoretically, you could go for a lesson every week with your own box of reeds, play your teacher’s spare instrument and have a very nice time – but you probably wouldn’t get very far in the long run. While you may learn new concepts in your weekly appointment with your teacher, long term and incremental progress is made not in the lesson itself but in the practice carried out between lessons; the repetition and slow practice is essential in building muscle memory so your hands “remember what to do” without having to stop and think about it, and also in helping to build and fine-tune the muscles needed to successfully play an instrument, particularly your embouchure muscles. You can’t do that in 45 minutes once a week.

So yes, you do need an instrument. And not only do you needan instrument: all clarinets are very much not created equal, so you need a decent instrument. But the outlay involved in buying one can be daunting for many people. Good quality instruments are generally not cheap, and, with a couple of unusual exceptions, the reverse also tends to be true: cheap instruments are generally not good quality. With a decent student clarinet and mouthpiece running to around £500 before you’ve even factored in the cost of lessons, the expense of setting yourself up as a new player can be enough to put anyone off even starting in the first place.

Firstly: Let’s look at why it’s so important to begin your musical journey on a decent instrument.

“But I’m just a beginner! Surely any old thing will do! There’s no point having a decent instrument until I know if I’m going to like it!”

Imagine you’re a learner driver. Your instructor arrives at your house for your first lesson and gives you the choice of two cars to learn in. The first is a reputable brand, well maintained and built, and every bit of it operates smoothly. The second? A rusty old Austin Allegro with a slipping clutch and a badly-tuned engine that cuts out every time you try to put your foot on the throttle and actually get somewhere. Which is going to be the easiest to learn to drive in, and which will want to make you give up in frustration within the first week?

The same principle applies to learning an instrument. So many people give up discouraged at their lack of progress assuming they’re just “not very good at this”, when an unserviceable instrument – that they may not even know is unserviceable, if they’re a complete novice – is what’s actually causing their problems. Isn’t that a dreadful shame? And how are you ever going to like it enough to “deserve” a decent instrument if you’re trying to learn on one that isn’t up to the job?

Thankfully, there are other ways to go about it which will ensure you don’t either have to starve for a month or end up with the woodwind equivalent of your Dad’s sorry old Austin Allegro. So if you can’t justify splurging on a new instrument, what are your options – or at least the ones that don’t involve remortgaging your house?

1. Private second hand

Pros: Cheaper than new.
Cons: You may end up with a total lemon without knowing it.

Many instruments on the private second hand market are just what they say they are: almost unused by a child who’s given up after one term of lessons and in very good condition, but there are plenty that aren’t and, to continue the car analogy, may have been run into the ground without proper maintenance. If you’re a beginner considering buying a second hand clarinet from Gumtree/Preloved/Cash Converters/Insert Your Local Paper Here, how do you tell the difference? Try to take an experienced player with you who knows what to look for and who can try the instrument for you if necessary. Do your research about which brands and models are likely to be of decent quality and resellable if you give up. As a general guide for clarinets, unless in poor condition, Buffet or Yamaha student models (the B12 and 255 respectively) are usually fairly safe options which, when bought second-hand, will hold their resale value well.

Student instruments are generally plastic or ebonite, but if the instrument is wooden, do check carefully for any cracks in the wood – a cracked wooden clarinet, while it may have had a good quality “pinning” if repaired, will be unsellable and, if not pinned/filled, will to all intents and purposes be unplayable. Check the keywork – does it operate smoothly or is it noisy and  “clunky”? Look at the condition of the pads: if they’re overly worn or not sealing properly, air will leak from the clarinet in all the wrong places, making playing smoothly very difficult if not impossible especially for a beginner.

That said: pads can be replaced and keywork can be regulated, so bear in mind that you’ll probably need to budget for the cost of a service on top of the purchase price of the instrument – anything from £80-150, depending on the repairer – suddenly that £100 bargain may not be such a good deal. Ebay may work out cheaper, but it really is “buyer beware”: you can’t see what you’re buying until you’ve bought it and for a complete beginner I wouldn’t recommend it especially if it’s an unknown make from overseas – remember, there’s a reason these instruments are cheap! You may even end up with one with the wrong keywork system altogether: an old “Albert system” clarinet or one of the spate of cheap clarinets from India that were all over Ebay a few years ago like a nasty rash – look for red pads and red string tied around where the cork should be to spot those particular horrors. It’s generally safe to assume that teachers will not teach on these and you’ll have wasted your money entirely.

2. Second hand from a specialist music shop

Pros: A decent chance of a good quality instrument
Cons: More of a mark-up than private sales and the warranty may not be what you expect

Many specialist woodwind shops have a “second hand list” – instruments that have been part exchanged for new ones, or are being sold on commission for their owners. Since their second-hand instruments may not be displayed, you may need to ask to see it, though!

The good: More choice in one place. You get to try before you buy and most instrument shops have rooms where you can play away to your heart’s content in a degree of privacy without being embarrassed in front of everyone else in the shop. You may find some interesting and often times high-end instruments for far less than their new price points. Experienced staff – most likely accomplished players themselves – can guide you through the choosing process, especially if you’re a complete beginner, and help you to select accessories like a good mouthpiece, ligature (the bit with the screws that holds the reed on) and the right strength reed. Since most specialist shops have an on-site repair service, the instrument will likely be given a good once over by an experienced technician before selling, so it’ll probably be in good playing order and any repairs carried out prior to sale will be guaranteed for a period of time. You may even be able to take it “on approval” – ie, you get to try it out in the real world before deciding if it’s the instrument for you. You usually you have to pay a small fee for this which covers the insurance should anything happen to it while in your care.

The (potentially) bad: Do ask about the warranty. Some shops guarantee any second hand instrument they sell for several months, including those sold on commission. Others do not offer any guarantee on commission sale instruments at all, only on any repairs carried out to them before sale. In other words: if it develops a new problem, you’ll end up paying for the repair or worse still, if the instrument is beyond economical repair, you’ll lose your money.

Finally, my favourite and the almost risk-free option for a brand-new player:

3. Instrument rental

Pros: Lots!
Cons: You don’t own the instrument outright – at least initially.

Instrument rental is an absolutely brilliant idea for so many reasons it’s hard to know where to start. Firstly, rental schemes are usually run by very reputable music shops: Dawkes Music and Howarth of London in the South East, for example, both of which run excellent programmes. For a small monthly fee (around £15 for a student clarinet) and an initial agreement of three months, you will get a good quality instrument from a reputable brand on which to take your first musical steps. Your instrument will either be brand new and set up by the on-site workshop, or it will have been regularly serviced to a high standard if previously rented out. If it goes wrong, you can take it back and they’ll fix it and it won’t cost you a penny (unless you’ve thrown it out of the window, or something equally silly).

If you decide after the initial three months that you love your new instrument, you can either carry on renting it or buy it outright. If you decide to carry on renting for a while, any rental payments made from the three-month point onward can usually be offset against the cost of purchase, but check individual schemes for the small print. If you decide the instrument isn’t for you (or your child) you simply return it and the agreement is cancelled. All you’ve forked out for is the three month rental – probably less than £50 altogether. Win win!

So. To answer the question: Yes, you really do need an instrument, but obtaining one needn’t break the bank. A decent instrument is such an important part of any developing player’s musical journey, so make sure you choose the right option for you.