I frequently see this kind of question asked on online message boards:
I have a Nabisco clarinet with a Palmolive C43 mouthpiece and Marlboro 3¾ reeds. I am 30 cents flat all the time. What piece of equipment should I buy to solve this problem?
The answers are always varied (harder reeds, softer reeds, someone else’s favorite brand of reeds, an expensive mouthpiece, an abnormally short barrel, a specific model of clarinet) and generally completely off base.
On further prodding, the clarinetist with the flatness problem invariably turns out to be self-“taught,” sometimes with some degree of prior achievement on another wind instrument. This is a huge red flag that we are dealing with operator error.
The correct solution to this problem is to take at least a few lessons with an excellent clarinet teacher. A good teacher faced with this problem will review the fundamentals of tone production with you: breath support, voicing, and embouchure formation. With some dedicated practice, you will almost certainly see your pitch improve (as well as your tone, response, and more).
On the rare occasion that I do see this course of action advised, the poor flat clarinetist often has a number of excuses at the ready:
- “I don’t have money for lessons.” (You should be able to get at least one and probably several lessons for what you would have spent on that new mouthpiece or barrel.)
- “There aren’t any teachers near me.” (Have you really checked? The world, sadly, is full of very talented musicians who are underemployed and very much available for lessons. Check in with your nearest university music department, consult a school band director, or even try “Skype” or other online live-video lessons if you must, which are being offered more and more frequently by qualified teachers.)
- “I already play a different instrument really well, so I’m pretty sure I can figure the clarinet out by myself.” (Learning a new instrument requires much more than a fingering chart and brash confidence. In particular, the clarinet’s voicing technique is unique among the major, modern wind instruments, and doing it wrong will result in—you guessed it—significantly flat pitch.)
Message boards and other text-based communication methods (even books) have their uses, but they aren’t a viable substitute for having a real, experienced clarinet teacher diagnose the problem and make some suggestions. Even if it does turn out that an equipment purchase is in order, do it under a teacher’s guidance—the money you spend on lessons is an investment in avoiding mistakes that are much more expensive.