What’s in an age?

An article by Andrew Roberts in CASS magazine, Winter 2011

What is in an age? What age should children begin playing the clarinet?

For many years the accepted practice was for children to start by playing the recorder in class music lessons. Sadly, this is rarely the case now. Few children are able to read a note of music or gain early experience in playing an instrument, which may help foster a future interest in music.

Playing the descant recorder gives the player the chance to learn the basic fingerings for the upper register of the clarinet. When the child is big enough to cover the holes they can move on to the treble recorder, which has the same fingerings as the low register of the clarinet. This provided an excellent, and appropriate, introduction to allow them to move on to learning the clarinet.

This is not a new argument or discussion and various solutions have evolved. So why ask the question now?

On a recent open day at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall there was an instrument ‘petting zoo’ where children were encouraged to get their hands and mouths on various instruments, including the clarinet. With the right encouragement most were able to make a sound on the clarinet. However, rather surprisingly, several quite small children announced that they were already playing the clarinet in school.

In addition, my 8-year-old twin daughters were recently offered the opportunity to take up an instrument of their choosing at their junior school. However, I was surprised by what was on offer for 7-year-olds. The list included the flute, clarinet and most worryingly, the alto saxophone. Children vary in size greatly and no generalization can be made as to the appropriate age for one to start playing clarinet or saxophone. Nevertheless, the latter is clearly not a good idea if the instrument is as big as the child!

To check the suitability of the clarinet, see if the child can completely cover the third hole on the bottom joint with the ring finger of the right hand. This hole is the largest on the instrument and many younger people find this hard to cover because their ring finger is simply not wide enough. This problem is made much worse when the thumb-rest has not been raised to the correct position on the clarinet. This rotates or twists the right hand away from the holes, especially the ring finger. This makes it nearly impossible for the player to produce the lowest notes without distorting their hand position and often their shoulders and neck. Having observed many children struggling to play a clarinet that is too big for their hands, too heavy and with the thumb-rest too low, it is not surprising that so many give up relatively early on.

One of my daughters is really quite a big 8-year-old but she cannot manage to cover this hole on my B-flat or smaller C clarinet. Given the possibility of divorce if she were to play on the E flat, I found an alternative. She has been using a Pocket Clarinet made by Hohner for about two years, although sadly this model is no longer available. The B-flat or C clarinets can be altered to make it possible for the younger player to manage them, but this requires the assistance of a knowledgeable technician.

There are alternatives. For some the E-flat might be an option but some of the cheaper models are very unlikely to work well or produce a sound that will encourage children to continue. Any clarinet that can be bought new for under £300 is unlikely to work well or reliably for very long. There are many Chinese-made cheaper instruments on offer from well-established retailers, so it is difficult to convince parents to spend more. Is this not a case of a short-term saving costing long-term development? Of course, the cost can be reduced by initially renting a better instrument. Other possibilities include the Graham Lyons original C clarinet or his Clarineo, (www.clarineo.co.uk). These have the advantage of being lightweight with a smaller mouthpiece, although they can be rather fragile.

It will take a separate article to cover why many players, children and adults, have difficulty in producing a sound easily. In short, the correct use of air will mean that the volume (of air, not sound!) required is much, much less than many attempt to use. Combine that with the excessive bite pressure that many players use on the mouthpiece/reed and hand position or posture-related problems. One could be forgiven for thinking that playing the clarinet should carry a government health warning! Martin Beeston’s article in this magazine (Winter 2010) highlighted the problem caused by the use of too open a mouthpiece for beginners, yet another barrier to easy and comfortable progress. In fact the reality is that incorrect usage of the mouthpiece and clarinet can affect the teeth, the posture and cause a great deal of discomfort and, potentially, damage. If we were in good old US of A, we, as teachers of these “instruments of torture”, might find ourselves facing a libel suit.

This is not a laughing matter. Having spent many years helping people who have ‘hit the wall’, it has become something of a personal mission to educate and solve some of these issues. BAPAM, the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (www.bapam.org.uk) is one of the avenues that musicians can turn to for help in resolving both long term and acute problems. There is growing interest in their work, with their enlightened views and advice aimed at prevention, not just cure.

Sports medicine is well established and accepted. Earlier articles in this magazine (read again at Athletic Musician) drew meaningful comparisons between sports people and musicians. The effects of the wrong instrument interface and poor technique have a major effect on professional and amateur players alike. Two of my former college year, both previously in professional positions, have been forced to stop playing as a result of problems caused by issues similar to those discussed above. Many of the major Conservatoires are now accepting the need for such advice, offering Alexander technique lessons and/or lectures in avoiding injuries. They do, however, face the challenge of many students arriving with deeply engrained problems with technique and posture. And we all know how hard it is to give up bad habits!

The responsibilities for such problems do lie with teachers. Part of our duty is to offer the best and most up-to-date advice for the sake of our students. Therefore, we cannot afford to keep ignoring the “elephant in the room”. Clearly one could argue that not all beginners will be affected in this way. But can we honestly say we know at the start which of our talented beginners will continue their playing to a higher level?

The key is education and prevention. Both of these are possible and, one must argue, essential. We live in enlightened times, so it beggars belief that all clarinet manufacturers insist on placing the thumbrest, adjustable or not, too low. Their justification is not based on cost or good practice but, simply, tradition. Some manufacturers have argued that no one has complained about this………. Form an orderly queue please!

Back to the question then, given the right equipment, technique and introduction it is possible for children as young as 5 or 6 to play a smaller version of a clarinet. The size of the saxophone clearly dictates that it should be left until much later. Perhaps the Simpsons have much to answer for!

Teachers may well face demands for the instruments to be made available to young children. There may also be pressure to keep numbers up to maintain peripatetic teaching positions in the increasingly difficult economic climate.

Perhaps a better solution lies in re-establishing the descant recorder as the first step to playing a woodwind instrument. Should we see this not as a backwards step, but as a move in the right direction for the future of music in general?