How to fix your clarinet section

a person playing the clarinet

Teaching a beginning or intermediate clarinet section? Here are some things to consider:

Favorite blog posts, December 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Review: ClariMate digital clarinet mute by Buffet-Crampon

Bottom line: the ClariMate is an interesting gadget with potential for various uses, but it’s a little rough around the edges. Consider buying one now as a tech toy if you’re an early-adopter type, or wait for a new-and-improved iteration if you need something that just works.

I recently got my hands on the “ClariMate,” a new electronic device from the venerable Buffet-Crampon, clarinet maker of choice for most Boehm-system players worldwide. “Play anywhere, anytime,” its marketing materials proclaim, “the gateway to silent practice and digital music.” It’s a surprising and intriguing offering from a company more associated with tradition and history than innovation.

Players of electric keyboards and guitars have long had the option of using headphones, and Yamaha’s “Silent Brass” digital practice mutes were introduced in the 1990s. But woodwinds are much more complicated to silence, since sound waves don’t just emanate from the instrument’s end—they come from the instruments’ many toneholes. Enterprising folks have marketed a number of questionable solutions, ranging from pieces of foam stuffed inside the instrument to molded containers that completely encase it.

Buffet is betting on a more sophisticated approach. The ClariMate plugs into your clarinet’s barrel on one end and accepts your mouthpiece on the other, and does some electronic trickery in between. Buffet’s sales pitch is that you can play on your own clarinet silently, without substantially changing the instrument’s feel and with a convincing clarinet sound in your earphones. Does it fulfill this promise?

Yes, kind of. But it’s a new technology with a lot of real-world variables to deal with, and it’s marketed to some of the most sensitive and finicky customers there are: musicians.

So, at a current price of $425 USD, as much as a handmade mouthpiece, is it worth it? Let’s take a closer look.

What’s in the ClariMate box

  • The ClariMate unit, a black plastic thing with buttons and lights. The tube part adds about 1½” (38mm) of length to your clarinet. The perpendicular part with the buttons is about 2″×2½” (51mm×64mm). The unit weighs about 1½ oz (45g).
  • A nice black nylon carrying case, about 6″×6″×3″ (15cm×15cm×7.5cm).
  • Two “active reeds,” like plastic clarinet reeds with some additional attached mechanism that fits inside your mouthpiece
  • Some spare O-rings for the ClariMate’s tenon, where it connects to your barrel
  • A few rubbery plugs that can be inserted into the end of the flexible tube, for customizing the blowing resistance to your liking
  • A fabric-jacketed USB cable, for charging the ClariMate and for connecting to a computer
  • A flexible tube that connects to the ClariMate and dangles inside the clarinet
ClariMate and accessories
ClariMate device in closeup
ClariMate installed on clarinet

What the ClariMate sounds like

There are a couple of questions to address here: what does the ClariMate sound like in your earphones, and what does it sound like to someone else in the room?

The ClariMate does effectively silence your clarinet (almost), since the “active reed” assembly does not vibrate. Instead, the ClariMate detects what pitch your clarinet would be producing, based on the fingering you’re using, and replaces that with an electronic clarinet sound in your earphones.

The electronic clarinet sound is a garden-variety synthesized clarinet, like the one from your electric keyboard or music notation software. You wouldn’t mistake it for a real instrument, but it’s recognizable as a clarinet. A contact at Buffet tells me an improved, acoustically-modeled sound is already in the works for a future software release (which will be installable on already-purchased ClariMates).

Here’s a short demonstration. I play two excerpts from the Rose 32 Etudes, first on “real” clarinet and then with the ClariMate (with the Windows app). The final part of the video shows the sound in the room (which is virtually silent).

The ClariMate unit does produce a very quiet but audible hum (Buffet calls it the “chirp”), which changes as you open and close toneholes. Here’s an up-close recording of what it sounds like. I’ve got the microphone right at the bell, and I’m playing some notes down to low E. The thumps are the pads closing, and should give you an idea of how much I boosted the recording volume.

In reality the chirp is quiet enough to be masked by typical room sounds like air conditioning.

Connections

The ClariMate can be used in “standalone” mode, in which you just plug in some wired earphones (not included) and play. It can also connect to computer apps via USB cable or smartphone/tablet apps via Bluetooth for additional features.

It can’t be used with Bluetooth earphones due to latency, a delay between when you play the note and when you would hear it in the earphones. The technological issue here is real and probably currently unavoidable at this price point, but it’s a shame to see this device hit the market just when many people are discarding their wired earphones and living in their Bluetooth ones.

The ClariMate website suggests the USB mode can be used for MIDI, but the user manual doesn’t provide any information about this, and Windows did not detect my ClariMate as a MIDI device. A Buffet representative confirms that although this functionality is mentioned on the website, MIDI features are “not publicly available yet.”

Operating the ClariMate unit

The ClariMate has four buttons and four LED lights. Two of the buttons operate as simple volume-up and volume-down buttons, but you have to use an app to get any visual feedback on how much of the available volume you’re using.

There’s also a power button for starting the unit in standalone mode, or you can turn the power on while holding any of the other three buttons to start in USB, Bluetooth, or reed calibration mode. I find this a little fussy and non-intuitive; you have to read the manual to figure out how to turn the device on correctly. (Although I will allow that a clarinetist ought to be able to handle pressing more than one button at a time.)

Playing the ClariMate

Playing a clarinet with the ClariMate feels pretty natural to my embouchure. The non-vibration of the reed, which feels shiny-smooth but otherwise pretty reed-like, is different but not difficult to deal with.

The latency of the note tracking is slight and mostly manageable, but noticeable to an experienced clarinetist.

A contact at Buffet explained that the ClariMate requires a fair amount of finger precision, maybe even more than actually playing the clarinet, in order to correctly recognize the pitches you want. This was a purposeful choice, as the ClariMate team wanted to make sure the device was useful as a practice aid, and not something that would allow you to develop bad playing habits. I found the ClariMate mostly identified my intended pitches without difficulty.

Failure to detect the intended notes can be due to imprecise finger placement, or due to differences between your clarinet and barrel and those used in developing the ClariMate (apparently a Buffet E11). This can be fixed by “training” the ClariMate to recognize your individual instrument’s quirks. My Buffet Festival B-flat mostly worked pretty well without any training for playing simple things, but I did do a full training regimen, which took about 5 minutes, to get the device to respond well to faster passages and short staccato notes. The training consists of the app showing you a sequence of notes, which you play on your instrument.

You can adjust the ClariMate’s breath sensor “threshold” to match your accustomed reed response (in other words, will the ClariMate start playing with the slightest breath, or will there be a bit of cushion to blow against?).

The “active reed” has a simple non-electronic device that sits inside the mouthpiece to detect pressure on the reed. As I understand it, this pressure is supposed to affect pitch, but I was unable to get the reed properly calibrated, so I wasn’t able to test this. I got an error message from the apps over and over during the calibration process. A Buffet representative kindly walked me through several potential solutions, including trying ligatures other than the one I usually use, but we were unable to solve the problem.

I’m not convinced that mapping volume to breath pressure and pitch to reed pressure accurately reflects real clarinet playing. Intentional adjustments to pitch on the clarinet are best accomplished with voicing rather than changing the pressure on the reed. Pressure on the reed is, however, tied to volume in “real” clarinet playing, and breath support should generally remain constant. In this way, the tone-production aspects of the ClariMate may not be a direct match to real-world clarinet playing, though they will be familiar to players of electronic wind controllers.

The extra length and weight added to the instrument by installing the ClariMate is not bothersome. It’s not much more than the difference between playing a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet.

Use cases

Buffet’s primary push for the ClariMate seems to be as a device for practicing silently. After fully “training” the device to recognize notes on my instrument, the note tracking is probably good enough for most practice applications, but still has a just-noticeable lag that would be problematic for artist-level playing.

And, of course, the tone production aspects of practicing (tone, intonation, response) are lost or substantially changed when using the ClariMate. This may limit its usefulness to developing players.

Buffet’s marketing materials also suggest the device can be used for digital music-making. It does at least theoretically provide a way for a clarinetist to control MIDI devices or other electronics using their own instrument, pending future software releases.

A Buffet representative described their conception of the ClariMate-plus-clarinet as wind controller as a “Reversible Hybrid Instrument (RHI).” I do think the addition of electronics to a woodwind instrument suggests some future possibilities for digitally-augmented performance, perhaps blending electronic sounds with live instrument sounds. But this isn’t possible with the ClariMate, which prevents the clarinet from producing its natural sound.

And if you want to play a wind-controlled synthesizer, then I still think the best way is to make the effort and learn to play a purpose-built one, my favorite being the Akai EWI series. Some other instrument makers (Roland, Yamaha) have introduced digital saxophone-style instruments, which are easy for saxophonists to play out of the box but which fully embrace the problematic aspects of saxophones, like palm keys and pinky rollers.

Digital saxophones at least have the ability to expand their tessitura with relatively intuitive solutions like additional octave keys, but this would be more complicated on the clarinet (whose registers aren’t an octave apart). The ClariMate brings to the table the possibility for clarinetists to play an electronic instrument without learning new fingerings or significantly new tone production techniques, but, like the digital saxophones, brings the limitations of an “acoustic” instrument into the digital world.

The apps are able to provide some real-time visualization of aspects of your playing, such as breath pressure and reed pressure, and there is potential for these, used judiciously, to become useful diagnostic or pedagogical tools.

Reliability

My ClariMate worked upon first opening the box, but I quickly ran into some issues that made the device inoperable. With assistance from Buffet’s support staff, I was able to resolve these. An ongoing problem is that I am unable to complete the reed calibration process, getting a persistent error message in the apps. That means I can’t alter pitch by applying pressure to the reed.

I experimented with the Windows and Android apps. There are also apps for Apple devices. (As a Linux user, I’m experiencing the familiar disappointment that my preferred platform isn’t supported.) The apps feel buggy and unreliable—I find myself often restarting them and the device to try to solve various technical issues. My conversations with Buffet suggest that they are hopeful about frequent and significant software improvements, including updated firmware that you install on the device itself to improve its future functionality. (Long-term software development will no doubt depend on the financial success of the ClariMate project.)

It’s worth bearing in mind that this is in some ways a whole new class of device, so some birthing pains are to be expected. If you enjoy tinkering with the newest gadgets and have the patience or tech savvy to work around some bugs while waiting hopefully for software updates, then I think the ClariMate is usable. If you are a more reluctant tech user, it may be wise to wait for the ClariMate’s software and/or hardware to mature more fully.

How the ClariMate works

I’m not a scientist or engineer, but here’s what I can gather:

The ClariMate uses an air pressure sensor to detect how hard you’re blowing, and translates that into volume (or silence if it detects you aren’t blowing).

The reed bite sensor works by way of a small mirror, a light, and a light sensor. The light shines on the mirror (part of the “active reed” assembly) and reflects back to the sensor. Biting on the reed moves the mirror and affects how much light is reflected.

The ClariMate unit produces a quiet hum (the “chirp”) inside the bore of the instrument. Opening and closing toneholes affects the pitch of the chirp. A microphone detects the pitch of the chirp, compares it to a stored database of pitches, and plays back the corresponding note from the electronic clarinet sound.

As a side note, the pitch of the chirp isn’t necessarily the same as the pitch of the note that is produced in the earphones. You can hear it change, and the device can match that pitch to the intended note, but you can’t necessarily hear the tune you’re playing just from the chirp.

Also, the ClariMate doesn’t directly detect your fingerings—for example, it can’t tell if you are playing low E with the left or right hand pinky. But it can recognize some alternate fingerings that produce detectably different chirp pitches.

The flexible tube allows for drainage of condensation, and also directs your breath out the instrument’s bell rather than letting it linger inside the instrument’s bore, where it would affect bore temperature and interfere with the ClariMate’s pitch detection.

Additional observations

The name “ClariMate” is cute but fails to describe the product in a useful way. I imagine “ClariMute” must also have been discussed, but another product with that name already exists. Here’s how the packaging justifies the name:

The box reads: 
Mute: Play silently
Acoustic: Hear your instrument digitally
Technology: Use your clarinet for digital projects
Easy-to-use: Switch from acoustic to digital and back again

I have heard rumors that the ClariMate has been in development for 10 years. If that’s true, it’s odd that the release of the product feels like it was kind of rushed. There are some rough edges on the technology, and also on the product release. The demonstration video on the product website failed to actually demonstrate the product being used. It didn’t include any audio of the instrument’s sound in the earphones or in the room, the two things that I wanted and expected to hear in a media clip. (I’ve hopefully helped rectify that with this review.)

I was provided by Buffet-Crampon with a ClariMate unit at no charge, with the possibility but not the promise of a review. I have done my best to keep my review unbiased. I use some other Buffet products but have no official relationship with the brand.

What college professors don’t know about their music department colleagues

hands playing the golden saxophone

I’m a music professor, and I find there are sometimes disconnects between the music faculty and the faculty in other departments. Of course not every institution is the same, and even areas of concentration within music can have differing roles and expectations, but here’s what sometimes surprises my non-music colleagues about my particular job:

  • Most of my teaching is one-on-one. In my “applied” music teaching, students (mostly music majors) come to my office weekly for private lessons in playing their instrument. One side effect of that is that I put in a lot of contact hours with students for the amount of teaching load credit I get. (I once had a colleague in another department ask to schedule a meeting on one of my “non-teaching” days, a luxury I do not have.) A flip side is that I’m grading these lessons as they are happening, so I rarely have stacks of papers or assignments or exams to grade.
  • I’m pretty specialized. I have the expertise to teach an instrument (actually, in my individual case it’s a few, but that’s unusual), and I wouldn’t be a very effective teacher of most of the other instruments, which I can’t play much or at all. Well-staffed music departments often have a separate teacher (or even more than one) for every instrument (including voice). For that reason, music departments tend to have a fairly high faculty-to-student ratio.
  • Much of my value to my department has to do with my “studio,” the group of students who I teach one-on-one. To be seen as contributing appropriately, I need to maintain a full and vibrant studio. At a small school like mine, that means it’s an ongoing priority to find and recruit prospective students, often by traveling to high schools and community colleges in the region. I’m not just looking for music majors in general, but particularly for students who play what I teach. Failure to keep my studio full could ultimately result in the value of my position being called into question.
  • The students in my studio take lessons from me not just for a semester, but for the duration of their degree programs. That means I get to know them well, see them at their best and their worst, and see their development in detail over the course of several years. It can be a close teacher-student bond, or sometimes a more strained relationship. Since at my institution I’m also the academic advisor for my studio, I’m monitoring most aspects of their academic progress, professional development, and even personal wellbeing pretty closely.
  • I don’t work directly with some of the most publicly visible aspects of the music department, such as the marching band. The musical groups that have broader audiences (especially because of their association with university athletics) sometimes seem to take on outsized importance in the public’s minds, relative to the arguably more academically important performances by student soloists and concert-hall-type ensembles.
  • Publishing scholarly papers isn’t how I prove my academic bona fides. Music professors with some more academically-oriented specialties like musicology or music theory might do that. But since my area is music performance, I build my reputation by, well, performing. My annual faculty recitals, presented on campus, are a major component of that. Things like playing in a nearby symphony orchestra count, too.
  • Performance is a serious, rigorous academic activity. I spend months practicing for multiple hours a day before putting on an hour-long solo recital. To make it a worthy academic achievement requires playing challenging music, generally mostly or entirely music I’ve never performed before. Even selecting the music requires a great deal of expertise, including consideration of factors including overall theme, variety of styles and historical periods, pacing, performance factors like fatigue, and inclusion of music by a diversity of composers. And the printed sheet music provides only skeletal instructions for performance—I will have to make thousands of interpretive decisions, weighing historical performance practices, traditions specific to the instrument and to the individual pieces being performed, the interactions and balances between separate pieces of music, the approaches of any collaborating musicians, the response of the audience, and my individual performing strengths and weaknesses.
  • Similarly, the music and performance opportunities I select for my students and student ensembles are part of a larger educational purpose, which doesn’t always align with public tastes. (I direct the university jazz ensemble, and I have gotten comments from audience members who want to hear Glenn Miller on every concert, and who are unflinchingly candid in their opinions of the “modern” big band music that I also generally include. For educational reasons, I want the students to study and perform in a variety of styles.)
  • I work a lot of weekends and evenings. Not so much grading papers, but performing, and attending and evaluating my colleagues’ and students’ performances.
  • And, finally, because what we do in the music department is so different from what our colleagues in other disciplines do, we spend a fair amount of time justifying it. Administrators, tenure and promotion committees, and others might look at a spreadsheet of academic journal publications or credit hour production, and assume we aren’t getting much done, or might view a recital performance as just playing some music for fun. There’s an ongoing need to explain the importance, value, and academic rigor of our work.

Check your music department’s website, and stop by to hear a colleague perform or teach!

Favorite blog posts, November 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

What kind of ligature should I get?

I’m on record as believing that clarinet and saxophone ligatures make little if any actual difference in how you sound. You’re welcome to disagree, but you might want to watch Michael Lowenstern’s video about it first.

So, assuming the ligature has little direct influence on sound, what is the best kind to buy?

Consider the humble fabric-type ligature:

Fabric-type clarinet and saxophone ligatures

They can be made of fabric or various other flexible materials. Fake-leather materials are popular.

Here are their advantages over most other ligatures:

  • Generally inexpensive, although there are pricier versions available if paying more makes you feel better
  • Relatively easy to fit to even unusual mouthpieces and reeds, since they are flexible
  • Durable: I still have and use one I bought in high school
  • Not easily damaged: can be dropped, stepped on, or otherwise battered with little if any ill effect
  • Won’t dig into or otherwise damage reeds or mouthpieces
  • More expensive than an actual shoelace, but quicker and easier to install
  • Ambidextrous: many of the popular inexpensive ones can be switched for left- or right-handed screw tightening
  • Usually just one screw to tighten, so 50% less tightening/loosening time than the many other kinds of ligatures that have two screws
  • Available: no waiting lists or custom-building, easily purchaseable from just about any brick-and-mortar or online band-instrument retailer

I have a number of fancy and expensive ligatures that various teachers required I buy over the years of my education, including some plated in actual gold. They don’t outperform my fabric-type ones in any meaningful way. You may still see them in my performance videos, etc., as I am still trying to get my money’s worth out of them. When they break or wear out, I’ll replace them cheaply and easily with good reliable fabric ones.

Get a good, reliable, no-nonsense ligature to hold your reed in place, and happy practicing!

Why doesn’t my new mouthpiece work?

a person s hand holding saxophone mouthpiece

So you bought a new mouthpiece! How exciting. But wait—it’s not playing as well as you hoped. Maybe it squeaks, or some (or all) notes don’t come out very well, or the tuning is weird. Let’s consider some possible reasons why:

  • First, it’s always a good idea to review the fundamentals of tone production: breath support, voicing, and embouchure. Those things probably didn’t really change when you got a new mouthpiece, but maybe the old one was more forgiving of some weaknesses in your technique, and the new one is revealing those issues.
  • A new mouthpiece is likely to require a different reed than the old mouthpiece. Try some harder or softer reeds and see if your results change. In general, a mouthpiece with a larger tip opening tends to like a softer reed, and a smaller opening works better with a harder reed. But it’s more complicated than that, and the only way to really know which strength, cut, brand, etc. will work best is to try them out. (Some mouthpiece makers do suggest reeds that go well with their mouthpieces, but your results may vary.)
  • Also: even if your new mouthpiece is compatible with the reeds you have been buying, ones that you previously used on the old mouthpiece may have kind of molded to the old mouthpiece. Try some fresh ones.
  • Not all mouthpieces are created equal, even mouthpieces of the same brand and model. This can be due to hand-finishing or other manufacturing variables. It’s possible that the one you got isn’t as good as the one that your friend or teacher or favorite professional player uses. If possible, it’s worth trying several before you pick one. And especially with older or used mouthpieces, they can warp or otherwise change shape in small ways, and that can change their playing characteristics and ability to mate well with a reed.
  • Let’s consider one more hard truth: if you bought a mouthpiece never having played on it (or at least one like it) before, you may have picked something that just isn’t going a good match for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the promises in advertising copy or on product websites, or to assume that your favorite player’s mouthpiece will be suited to your equipment and playing style. Some mouthpieces are made for extreme or unusual reed choices, embouchures, or playing situations, but most players benefit from a relatively middle-of-the-road mouthpiece. And, of course, some mouthpieces just aren’t as good as advertised at all. Your best bet might be to return or sell the new mouthpiece, and invest instead in lessons with a good teacher who can either guide you in a better-informed purchase, or help you get the results you want out of a mouthpiece you already have.

A good rule of thumb is that a mouthpiece can’t give you skills, talent, or creativity. It can only remove, or add, obstacles to tone production. Pick a mouthpiece that makes it easier for you to do what you do, and get some help from a qualified teacher if needed. Good luck!

Playing at professional volume

stressed black girl covering ears

One thing I notice about a lot of my younger university students is that they play softly. Sometimes they seem reluctant to play above what I might consider about a mezzo piano.

If I ask, many of them reveal that they spent their formative years in school band programs getting The Hand from their directors. Beginning oboists and saxophonists in particular can make rather pungent and conspicuous noises. And band directors, understandably anxious to produce a well-blended ensemble, give the traffic-cop “stop” sign of the raised palm to hush the worst offenders. Those young musicians learn quickly to play in a restrained, timid way, and that anything louder than a murmur is a faux pas.

I can’t really blame the band directors, who have a set of concerns different from mine. (When I have taught beginners in a private lesson setting, I have encouraged them to play loudly from day one, and treated softer dynamics as an intermediate-level technique.)

But much of college-level music study is about students’ development as soloists. In that context, they need to play with authority, and, well, volume. And they may find that college ensembles have different demands than their high school groups, too.

Fixing the problem usually doesn’t involve teaching much new technique, perhaps a review of proper breath support. The rest is encouragement and example from me.

Over the course of a few weeks or months, I play for them in lessons, showing how I can fill up the room with sound. I ask them to imitate that sound, and urge them on to louder volumes. If I ask them to play their very loudest, and then ask them to top that, they usually can—they are just afraid to, and warn me that if they get any louder it will sound bad. But surprise! It doesn’t.

If you aspire to play at a professional level, or teach students who do, explore the louder part of that dynamic range, and make yourself heard!

Favorite blog posts, October 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Common woodwind-playing myths

Watch out for these woodwind myths: