Recommending gear for beginners

Photo, sekihan

A beginning instrumentalist needs good equipment. For young woodwind players that means instruments, mouthpieces, reeds, and probably a few other accessories. They aren’t cheap, and the array of options is bewildering. Where can students and their parents turn for solid recommendations?

The ideal situation is for the student to connect with a qualified, conscientious private instructor before making any purchases or signing any rental agreements. In my private teaching experience, this has happened exactly 0% of the time. It’s a nice dream.

For many young beginners, the best counsel they’ve got is the school band director. But what, exactly, do school band directors know about, say, clarinet mouthpieces? I have the greatest respect for school band directors. But I think that scenarios like this probably happen pretty often:

  • A fine, talented, studious young man or woman, who plays, let’s say, the trombone, signs up for the woodwind methods class required for their music education degree.
  • The brilliant and respected professor, who plays, let’s say, the flute, and who is doing his or her level best to teach several instruments in which he or she does not have any specific training, puts in phone calls to some colleagues and picks their brains for their best recommendations for clarinet mouthpieces. Several of them mention one particular model. The professor types up a class handout, listing that specific mouthpiece as an affordable and high-quality option, suitable to most beginners.
  • The young aspiring music educator accepts the handout, studies it, successfully answers a test question about good student clarinet mouthpieces, and files the handout away for future reference.
  • Ten years into the educator’s career, the mouthpiece company merges with another company. Decisions are made by non-clarinetists wearing expensive suits in a well-appointed conference room. The mouthpiece makers are laid off, and mouthpiece production moves to an overseas factory. The mouthpieces look much the same as before and bear the same brand name and model number, but the quality drops significantly, as does the manufacturing cost. The suit-wearing non-clarinetists get large bonuses.
  • The educator, who has recommended this mouthpiece for ten years with great success, is not notified of this change. Nor is he or she made aware that a new company has started producing a mouthpiece that is better and cheaper than anything previously on the market. The new company promptly goes out of business.
  • Twenty more years go by. The distinguished educator, grizzled, battle-scarred, and in demand as a clinician, addresses a group of admiring young band directors at a conference. During the question-and-answer session, one of them asks what clarinet mouthpieces to have his students buy. The aged educator nods sagely as the young band directors await, poised to take copious notes.

You can see the problem. My feeling is that there are a number of instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds that may once have been good recommendations, but which are no longer the best options. I expect them to continue to be top sellers.

It’s a problem that I haven’t yet solved for my own woodwind methods classes. I find myself making sort of broad generalizations about the characteristics of instruments, mouthpieces, and reeds would work well for beginners, and trying to avoid naming specific models. From the blank looks on my students’ faces, I can see that this is not enough information. I think that it’s a good idea for a beginner to stick to a pretty middle-of-the-road clarinet mouthpiece: not too open, not too closed; not too long a facing, not too short; and so forth. But even among trained clarinetists, who can flip through a retail catalog and make sense of all the names, numbers, and advertising claims?

The best semi-usable advice I’ve been able to give my students is to cultivate relationships with the best private teachers in their area, and pump them every now and then for up-to-date recommendations of what’s good among the current models. Realistically, I think many of my students will Google it and use a specific but unsubstantiated recommendation from some other professor’s syllabus, or take the recommendation of the commissioned salesperson at the local franchise of a chain music store.

I welcome your suggestions on training non-woodwind-playing future band directors to make reliable equipment recommendations.


6 responses to “Recommending gear for beginners”

  1. Mr. (not Dr.) Ogg Avatar
    Mr. (not Dr.) Ogg

    Buescher + Caravan. How can you possibly go wrong?

  2. I teach my students the relationship between the length of a particular facing/tip opening, the quality of sound/flexibility they can expect from that relationship, and then offer suggestions for reed strength based upon what they have chosen. I try to keep the list of brands to two or three, and then also suggest high-quality mouthpiece makers for advanced students. I always give my suggestion for what I consider the most appropriate medium facing that a beginner should use for each brand.

    I also make sure to take my students through the differences between the following saxophone mouthpieces, and usually keep one of each on hand to show them the slight variations between them:


    That being said, you can’t really control whether or not a company will be bought out and move overseas, and most band directors that don’t play clarinet as their primary will probably buy a clarinet mouthpiece on someone’s recommendation and use it for 50 years until they retire.

    Of course, this could also work to their advantage. My first cooperating teacher was playing on a Kaspar.

  3. I suppose I’m almost an anti-gear-head. Sometimes you’ve just gotta make due with what’s available, and for a beginning student with limited time or resources, the choices may be very few. I think you’re spot-on in emphasizing the fundamentals rather than which logo stamped into plastic, metal or hard rubber is the best. I suggest whenever possible, play test everything, and buy what feels & sounds best.

  4. Thanks, Michael and John, for your input.

    @Michael: I think you can make some broad generalizations about facing, tip opening, etc., and how they affect proper reed choice, but for me recommending certain reed strengths (or even ranges) doesn’t work well because they vary so much from maker to maker, and are also subject to change at any time. And naming brand names just gives educators enough information to be dangerous.

    I have tried to teach some basic reed-diagnosis skills, with which they might evaluate an individual reed with an individual mouthpiece and make some hazy conclusions about “too hard” or “too soft.”

    @John: Play-testing everything is obviously good advice for skilled players of the instrument in question, but there’s still a big problem for beginners and their band directors.

  5. There are certainly salesmen at the local music store who will steer you to a particular brand or model based only on their short-term benefit. However, if a band director will cultivate a relationship with the local store manager or roadie, they have a great resource. I call on a couple dozen schools each week and make it a point, especially this time of year, to check with folks about what’s working for them and what isn’t. I know what mouthpieces are recommended by the directors who actually play clarinet vs the directors who play low brass (or haven’t actually played an instrument in a decade). I can tell you what brands of instruments are in the shop every week because they don’t stay together and what brands are built so solid that I never see them, and I know when production has been moved overseas and quality suffers (or when it’s moved to France and the clarinets no longer fit together). My directors know that it’s in my best interest to keep their best interest in mind.

    My recommendation, for the record – Vandoren M13 if you can afford it. Vandoren 5RV is very common and still serviceable. Fobes Debut is a good cheap option for a beginner.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. Your solution is an excellent one, assuming you can find such capable and conscientious people to do business with; unfortunately such is not always the case. Here in small-town Mississippi our options are somewhat limited—it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive in any direction to find a music store large enough even to stock things like clarinet mouthpieces.

      I’m tempted to edit all these comments to eliminate specific brand recommendations (even ones I agree with), to make sure that I’m not contributing to the exact problem I was complaining about..

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