Seventeen keys, six rings.
Anyone who has ever shopped around for a clarinet will recognise that phrase, for it is the hallmark of the standard Boehm system instrument and features in innumerable adverts and descriptions. That system of keywork has become so commonplace nowadays that it is all too easy to take it for granted and assume that it represents the height of clarinet-making achievement. But this is not the case, for the instrument that many imagine to be perfect actually has its fair share of flaws which have been frustrating players, repairers and manufacturers alike for many years.
But there is hope. Ever since the Boehm system was developed in 1843, instrument makers have been working to minimise these imperfections. Numerous people have worked on bore design, tone hole placement and key shaping to bring us clarinets that are excellent compromises between sound and playability.
That said, there is still further to go. There are still notes that sound poor on any clarinet and simple note combinations that are horrendous to try and play. No amount of bore design will take away these problems, because they lie in the actual mechanism that has remained basically unchanged for over 150 years. It is fair to say that if the clarinet is going to progress closer to perfection, there are a number of keywork changes that must be made. I have selected what I believe to be the seven most useful of these adaptations, all of which should be included on clarinets of the future.
However, there is no point in improving the instrument if you cannot then sell the new system. In the latter half of the 20th century a number of improved mechanisms were developed, but none of them managed to fully catch on. I will take a more detailed look at the reasons for this later, but probably the most crucial for some of them was the requirement for the player to adopt new fingerings. The Mazzeo system and the McIntyre system both used new fingerings for the throat notes, and anyone who has played any instrument for a substantial length of time will know that getting used to an entirely new fingering is usually too impractical to be worthwhile, even if it does come with acoustic benefits. So all modifications must not change the accepted fingerings.
Also, several new mechanisms are necessarily more complex than the original, which can be a burden for the player (who has to be careful to keep them in adjustment) and the repairer (who needs to negotiate the more complicated designs). Therefore, any modified mechanism must give enough of an improvement to warrant any extra keywork.
Finally, I have neglected any modifications that simply extend the range of the instrument, like the low E flat that was part of the Full Boehm system. The clarinet has a huge range, to rival any other wind instrument. It doesn’t need an extra semitone. If you really want your clarinet to play lower notes, buy yourself a bass.
So here they are. In no particular order, my pick of the best Boehm system modifications:
1. Left Hand E Flat Key
This has to be the most commonplace of keywork modifications, but it still is not standard on all instruments. It basically does what it says: provides an alternative E flat/A flat key for the left little finger and in doing so drastically reduces the difficulty of many musical passages. Without this key, the player often has to either slide his little fingers between keys, or swap fingering mid-note (which isn’t too easy at speed).
It might be argued that such passages are too uncommon to warrant their own key, but I would disagree. There have been many times when it would have made a huge difference to me and I have longed to have one on my instrument. To name but a few common examples, there are:
Weber – Grand Duo Concertant (mvmt. 1); Spohr – Concerto no. 1 (mvmt. 1); Spohr – Concerto no. 2 (mvmt. 3); Debussy – Première Rhapsodie; Messager – Solo de Concours (cadenza); Saint-Saëns – Sonata (mvmt. 2); Copland – Concerto.
The mechanism is devastatingly simple, and it is even possible make a version that can be retrofitted and removed by the player if desired.
It is true that this does introduce a new fingering, which takes time to get used to if it is to be used as fluently as the other little finger keys, and it may even get in the way or be accidentally knocked by the finger at first. Crucially, though, none of the original fingerings are altered, and the benefits the key brings are too great to ignore it.
2. Eliminated Crow’s Foot
This is purely a mechanistic feature that does not change anything from the viewpoint of the player, but it is something that many repairers would be highly grateful for. Anyone who has ever tried to adjust a clarinet will know that the most problematic area is the crow’s foot. The crow’s foot connects three keys, and so it must be in precisely the optimum position if the instrument is to work properly, which is easier said than done. Furthermore, it is fairly delicate so can all too easily get knocked or bent out of adjustment.
However, if the mechanism is changed slightly then it is possible to eliminate the crow’s foot completely. As a result, the mechanism is less prone to damage and much easier to adjust and repair. I see no good reason why this should not be made a standard feature.
3. Double Register Key
The worst sounding note on any clarinet is the throat B flat. The reason for this is that the same hole is used both for that B flat and as a register vent, which means that it is a compromise that is not optimal for either purpose. The solution to this is to have a double register key, which opens a dedicated hole when a B flat is played and a different dedicated hole when a register vent is needed. This allows both holes to be further optimised for their own purposes and produces a much clearer B flat.
There have been a number of variations on this mechanism over the years. It can be an exchange mechanism where an entirely different hole is used for B flat (as described above) or it can simply open an extra hole when B flat is played. These two options both have their pros and cons, but one thing is clear: some sort of double register key is required.
I am breaking my own rules here a tiny bit because a double register key does require a small fingering change, in that the player mustn’t put his other fingers down for resonance as he does on the standard mechanism. But this really is a very minor change and should take little time to get used to.
It is also worth noting that this mechanism is standard on the bass clarinet. So why not make it standard on soprano clarinets?
4. Wraparound Register Key
Continuing along the theme of register keys, I would now like to introduce the wraparound register key. The standard register key can occasionally cause problems when its hole becomes waterlogged due to its position on the underside of the instrument. The wraparound register key eliminates this problem by allowing the hole to be placed on the top of the instrument.
The only disadvantages are that the pad slightly slides onto the hole rather than coming down completely flat, and the longer keywork required makes it a little more prone to being bent out of adjustment. In practice, however, these are very minor issues and are unlikely to cause problems. With a little thought it is even possible to design a double wraparound register key.
5. Articulated C sharp/G sharp
Continuing along the theme of waterlogged holes, I would now like to introduce the articulated C sharp/G sharp key. On the standard Boehm clarinet, the C sharp/G sharp hole is even more prone to becoming waterlogged than the register key hole, again because of its position on the underside of the instrument. The articulated mechanism allows this hole to be placed on top of the instrument so it never gets blocked and saves a lot of frustration.
But that’s not all it does. The standard C sharp/G sharp is a heavily compromised tone hole as it is actually too high up, in order to allow the upper and lower joints to separate at a convenient place. To compensate for this and to correct tuning the hole is made smaller, but this in turn gives a note that can be prone to stuffiness. With the articulated mechanism, the hole is brought to an acoustically better position on the instrument. This allows it to be made larger giving a clearer tone. Of course, this does require that the two joints separate at a different point, and it also makes it necessary to have a tone hole drilled through a tenon, making assembly slightly more tricky. But overall those are small prices to pay.
But that’s still not all it does. Perhaps the greatest trick of this mechanism is that it allows a B to C sharp (or F sharp to G sharp) trill to easily be played in tune and with a good tone. These particular trills are in my opinion not common enough to make the mechanism necessary, but when you combine all three of the above benefits it becomes clear that this is an exceedingly useful feature to have.
It is also worth noting that this mechanism is standard on saxophones. So why not make it standard on clarinets?
6. Adjustment Screws
Adjustment screws do not affect the sound or playability of the clarinet. Like the eliminated crow’s foot, they are purely there to enable easier regulation. They allow the player or repairer to make very fine adjustments to key heights, without having to painstakingly sand tiny pieces of cork to exactly the right thickness.
Most clarinets already have one adjustment screw on the throat A key, and screws are also included on double register key mechanisms, but in my opinion they should also be present on the link between the two joints, and on the crow’s foot because these are the areas where fine adjustments are most crucial. Even better would be adjustment screws on the eliminated crow’s foot.
It is also worth noting that these are standard on flutes and bass clarinets. So why not make them standard on soprano clarinets?
7. Automatic Low E/F Vents
Two of the most problematic notes to play in tune on the clarinet are low E and F. This is because the position of their tone holes is again a compromise – moving them too much would cause middle B and C to go out of tune. It is possible to construct a clarinet that has two small vents – one for low E and one for low F – that open up when their respective note is played, bringing it back in tune.
For this to be completely automatic (and it must be, to present the minimum inconvenience to the player) it needs to connect to the register key. Unfortunately this requires a long mechanism and another bridge key between the two joints, which may make it slightly more prone to being bent or going out of adjustment. But then again, bassoons have several long rods, so with a little persistence it must be possible to design reliable long rods for clarinets.
So there you have it: the seven keywork modifications that I believe all Boehm system clarinets should have. The only question that now remains is why don’t they? Why is it that so many clarinettists are still playing on the same flawed system that has been prevalent for 150 years? Who can we blame for this?
Perhaps the repairers are the ones we should accuse. After all, they would have to get used to new, more complicated mechanisms and learn how to adjust them. A repairer ideally would prefer the simplest possible mechanism, both because it would be easier to regulate and less likely to go out of adjustment. It is understandable that they would resist any changes that made their job more difficult.
But there are plenty of instruments with much more complicated mechanisms that regularly find their way into repair shops. Bass clarinets, bassoons, oboes, even saxophones have mechanisms much more complex than the clarinet’s is ever likely to be, yet a good repairer has little problem with adjusting them. And at the end of the day, repairers don’t have an influence over which clarinet their customers buy. They have to try and fix whatever comes into their shop, so it’s not as though they can have much effect on which instruments become popular.
Surely the people who are holding back new innovations are those who actually buy the instruments. In other words, the players are the ones who refuse to change from the standard Boehm system that has served them so well for so long. They take a lot of convincing if they are to spend more of their hard-earned cash on an improved system.
This is a difficult obstacle to overcome, but it is not insurmountable. Most clarinettists are constantly searching for the perfect combination of instrument and setup, so if they were to come across a new system that they felt was truly superior to their previous clarinet they are likely to give it consideration. The key here is that players must be open-minded and willing to try things that are a bit different to what they are used to.
Another argument that a player might give is that such keywork improvements do not solve any problems that can’t be managed anyway by a good player. In some cases this is just plain wrong – no matter how long you practise, you will never be able to control whether your C sharp/G sharp key becomes waterlogged. But it is also a short-sighted view. Surely the best clarinet should present the minimum possible barrier between the player and artistic expression? If the player has to make extra effort just to bring particular notes in tune, then that is going to detract from their ability to interpret the music. In other words, anything that makes a player’s life easier is worthy of serious consideration.
However, we can trace the problem back even further. People stick by the inferior standard Boehm system because they have been playing it all their lives. If a student learns on such an instrument then they will be understandably reluctant to change in the future, even if they do come across a better system. Therefore, they must be introduced to improved mechanisms early on in their clarinet education by their teacher. Of course, this requires the teacher himself to appreciate the modifications, but let’s assume for the moment that he does. It is now the teacher’s responsibility to introduce him to improved systems and encourage him to buy an instrument with superior keywork, even though he may not appreciate it fully at first.
In practise, though, this runs us up against another wall. Improved keywork systems have always in the past come with very high pricetags. At the time of writing, a single Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm clarinet will set you back around £6500. (!!!!!!!!!!!!) No student can afford to pay thousands of pounds for an instrument, and any teacher would be insane to recommend that they do. A student must start on a reasonably-priced student instrument. Currently such instruments are only widely available in the standard Boehm system, so that is what people learn on and get used to and seldom think of deviating from.
And it is here that I believe we hit the biggest obstacle to innovation in clarinet keywork. Basically, any clarinet with an improved system has almost always been sold as a luxury item. Only professional models are ever given mechanistic improvements, and so these are only available to a handful of players who can both afford such instruments and actively decide to seek them out. It is the manufacturers who are to blame for this. They are reluctant to deviate from tried and tested mechanisms, and when they do they only make improvements available to the clarinet-playing elite. It is obvious that if improved mechanisms are ever to become widespread they must first become widely available.
Manufacturers need to re-kindle that spirit of innovation that led to past innovations. They must not be put off by such systems as the Full Boehm, the Mazzeo and the McIntyre which failed to succeed for reasons already discussed. They must not be afraid to challenge the status quo when there is so much to be gained. But above all, they must take pride in their work and aim to produce the best clarinets possible at a range of price levels, available to all.
Yes, this will mean changing designs and manufacturing processes. But that is required for any new model of clarinet. They simply need to spend more time looking at keywork innovations.
Of course, there is another challenge here, for improved mechanisms take time, effort and money to develop and manufacture and it may be difficult at first to bring the prices down to levels that can complete with standard Boehm instruments. But surely it can be done. It just takes more thought (and possibly a little experimentation) on the part of the manufacturers.
If manufacturers can design and produce a whole range of good-quality clarinets, from student to professional models, with improved mechanisms, then it could signal the start of a revolution. With appropriate promotion people will start to convert to new systems. Teachers will see the possibilities and recommend their students to try them. Other manufacturers will have to follow suit to keep up with the trend. Before long we will see a change, and the standard Boehm system that has frustrated players for too long will finally reach a new incarnation, one step further on the road to perfection.
All it needs is some guts from the manufacturers. And that is the gauntlet that I lay down today.