Upgrading From Plastic to Wood Clarinets: A Guide for Band Parents
Clarinet parents have to put up with a lot – unrelenting squeaks, endless requests for more reeds, and seemingly never-ending equipment upgrades. The biggest and most daunting upgrade is when and how you should switch from a plastic to a wood clarinet.
Unless you have previously gone through this process, upgrading from a plastic to wood clarinet can be stressful and confusing. You want the best for your child, but it’s tricky when there are so many brands, models, price ranges, retailers, and other factors to consider.
Let’s start with the basics.
Plastic clarinets vs. wood clarinets
Plastic clarinets are great for beginners. Plastic is a resilient and durable material, capable of surviving the inevitable drops, bumps, and general wear and tear young students incur. Producing clarinets from plastic allows for consistent uniformity from clarinet to clarinet. These are easier for beginners to immediately produce a sound. Plastic clarinets are inexpensive (generally less than $500) and require no special weather-related care.
Wood clarinets are used by more advanced students and professionals worldwide. Prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the company and model. Most wooden clarinets are made of grenadilla wood, which is now protected under CITES laws. This wood produces a much darker and richer sound than plastic clarinets. Most wood clarinets come with additional benefits, such as more precise tuning, adjustable thumb rests, and other upgrades. Because wood is sensitive to temperature and humidity, wood clarinets require greater upkeep than plastic clarinets. Additionally, wood clarinets require a break-in period to prolong the life of the instrument.
When should I upgrade from plastic to wood?
- At the recommendation of a private instructor or band director
- If your child wants to begin playing and competing at a higher level (All State band, state Solo & Ensemble, local concerto competitions, summer festivals, etc)
- Between middle school and high school. This can be a graduation present, and your child can continue to use their plastic clarinet in marching band.
- Between high school and college, especially if your child is majoring in music. Ask the clarinet professor for any recommendations or requirements.
Some questions to consider before upgrading to a wood clarinet
- Will my child continue in band, or will they lose interest and wish to pursue other activities? Wood clarinets are an investment, so make sure your child wishes to continue in band for the foreseeable future before purchasing an expensive wood clarinet.
- Is my child responsible enough to take proper care of a wooden clarinet? Wood clarinets require greater care than plastic, so make sure your child is willing to take on the added responsibility of caring for it.
- Do I want a student or professional model? Student clarinets are great for musicians in high school, but if your child continues music into college or beyond, they will need to upgrade again to a professional model. If your child is considering continuing music past high school, it might be worth it to buy a professional model now to avoid having to upgrade again in a few years. Regardless, properly maintained wood clarinets, whether student or professional, usually have a good resell value, should your child decide to quit.
- New or used? Clarinet parents on a budget can save some money by buying used or overhauled, but make sure that the clarinet plays properly before purchasing. If you’re not sure, have a private clarinet instructor or other professional clarinetist test the instrument to check for any problems.
How to select a wood clarinet
Wood clarinets are considerably more expensive than plastic clarinets. You are making an investment, so be patient and don’t be in a rush to make a final decision.
- Do your homework. Research different brands and models online to narrow down your search. This will also help you learn general price ranges for different models.
- Look locally. Visit all of your local music stores to see their selections and try different makes and models to find the ones you like best. Search for local or regional clarinet events, such as Clarinet Days at colleges or universities. Vendors bring several clarinets for participants to try, and they can answer any questions you may have.
- Shop online. Many online music retailers will allow you to order a few trial clarinets, which you can test, choose your favorite, and return the rest. Just make sure to abide by the return policy, lest you wish to be stuck with a few clarinets and a hefty credit card bill!
- Search social media. There are dozens of clarinet groups on Facebook, which many renowned and professional clarinetists use to sell new and used clarinets. If you purchase a clarinet via social media, just make sure that you are receiving what was advertised. Clarify all the details with the seller beforehand to avoid any confusion.
- Find a hand-me-down. If your child needs a wood clarinet but you’re on a budget, ask local high schools, colleges, churches, or other local organizations to see if anyone has a clarinet that they no longer use. Many older wood clarinets are actually very valuable and sought after. Make sure to take it to a qualified repair technician for any repairs it may need.
- Try before you buy. Test as many clarinets as possible. It’s not always feasible to try every make and model before reaching a final selection, but your child should try enough clarinets to make an educated decision. Avoid buying a clarinet without trying it first.
- Keep an open mind. At first, many students prefer their broken-in plastic clarinet over more advanced wood models because they are familiar with their instrument. Each clarinet’s fingerboard and key mechanisms feel slightly different, and some professional models even have additional keys. Remind your child that a clarinet is not necessarily “bad” just because it feels and sounds different.
Here are a few of my recommendations for wooden clarinets:
- Student models: Buffet Crampon E11; Buffet Crampon E12F; Yamaha YCL-650; Selmer CL211
- Professional models: Buffet Crampon R13 (or any other professional model from Buffet Crampon); Selmer Privilege (or any other professional model from Selmer)
Wood clarinet care
Congratulations! You’ve made your decision and now have a beautiful wood clarinet! Here’s how to break it in and care for it:
- Break it in. If your clarinet is new, you will need to allow a break-in period for the wood. For the first few weeks, your child should only play on the wood clarinet for 30-45 minutes a day, swabbing frequently (every 5-10 minutes). Make sure to use ample cork grease, as new corks can sometimes be tight.
- Avoid sudden temperature changes. Cold wood + warm air = cracking. If your clarinet feels cold to the touch, let it warm to room temperature before playing.
- Monitor humidity levels. Whether you buy or DIY, make sure the wood doesn’t get too dry, especially in colder climates or winter months.
- Never leave clarinets unattended in cars. Besides the possibility of theft, temperature changes can affect the wood. Always carry your clarinet with you, even if you are only planning on being inside for a few minutes.
- Make sure your child brushes their teeth and washes their hands every time before playing. They should do this whether they play on plastic or wood clarinets.
- Keep your plastic clarinet. Plastic clarinets are great for marching band. Never use your wood clarinet for marching band, as it will quickly break down in the extreme weather conditions (not to mention the possibility of someone accidentally trampling it on the field!).
- Get a new mouthpiece and/or ligature. The stock mouthpieces included with most clarinets are not as high quality as the clarinet itself. Purchasing a professional mouthpiece will make your new clarinet sound even better! Vandoren is my mouthpiece, ligature, and reed maker of choice.
- Invest in a quality case and case cover. Find a case that will protect your new clarinet and also offer storage for accessories. Case covers offer additional storage and insulation.
- Use pad or cigarette paper to remove water from the keys. After swabbing, have your child use these papers to remove spit from under the keys. This will prolong the life of the pads.
- Schedule regular check ups with qualified repair technicians. Find repair techs that are familiar with your clarinet’s manufacturer to make sure that it continues to perform at its optimal condition.
I hope this article helps you during your search for the perfect wood clarinet! As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
What tempura variation Should you play a wood clarinet? I live in a old house that has no humification. The Tempters ranges from 70% to 36%.
I am interested in one of your comments toward the end about improving the sound with a new mouthpiece. I am not yet ready to invest in a wooden clarinet for my kid, but I am wondering how much of an upgrade a new mouthpiece will be. He has a Yamaha Vantage clarinet and a Yamaha Debut mouthpiece. Will a new mouthpiece make his sound more crips?
Hi Tim, thanks for your comment! A new mouthpiece is a great way to affordably upgrade a clarinet, especially for younger players. I recommend Vandoren mouthpieces – they’re wonderful quality and very affordable for all ages. I use the M13 model, but I suggest having him try as many models as possible (whether at a local music shop or through try before you buy online merchants) so he can select his favorite model. I hope this helps!
Regarding tonal properties of materials, one metal clarinet enthusiast made a blind test with two wooden models and two metal instruments made from different metals: http://www.theclarinet.net/History/metal-clarinet-test.html
My first advice to parents would be to never ever buy anything without consulting the actual player (and their teacher) first! If were any positive sides of starting with clarinet in my twenties, full control over gear acquisition from the start is one of them.
Also, a tip for parents who want to postpone the upgrade: require that the kid can play four E’s. By the time they can, they’ll likely know what they want from the upgrade too. ;)
Thanks for your comment and sharing your advice. You’re right – never buy anything without consulting the player and teacher first. And spot-on about the four E’s!