While we all were sleeping …

posted Apr 29, 2014, 7:10 PM by Phil Pedler   [ updated Aug 2, 2015, 3:16 PM ]

the world has changed again.

Did we assume that musical instrument manufacturing and sales would keep on following the old patterns while everything else was changing?! Let me illustrate what I mean by using personal computers as an example. In the early days of the computer revolution (the 1980s), computers were expensive. My first computer came with tools to open it up. People were expected to fix them or upgrade the parts. And little computer stores to help us do that sprang up even in little towns across America. Not anymore. Computers are now considered throw-away items. The little stores have disappeared. When you buy a computer you hope that it will last for a couple of years, and then you will buy another one. And when that time comes, it will be a better one.

Instruments and other ‘durable goods’ used to be treated more like those early computers. They were expensive. Every home town music store had a repair department. Not anymore. Many of my reconditioning customers tell me that they no longer have good access to an instrument repair shop. Reconditioning a clarinet (except when I do it for you) now normally costs $200-230. But new Chinese-import student-model clarinets cost between $130-250. Welcome to the days of throw-away clarinets.

Being a nostalgic person at heart, I don't welcome this change. I liked the friendly face of the good-old days, with the warm smile of the person behind the counter at the local music store. But certainly the musical instrument business will not be the one hold-out as the whole world changes around us.

Let's compare a parent's options when shopping for their child's first clarinet:

 $130-170new off-brand or used Chinese clarinet I don't recommend clarinets in this category. Do not buy used Chinese clarinets at all, as the improvements have come fairly recently (around 2013). You might have 50/50 chance of getting a usable instrument when buying in this price range.
Getting a garage sale Vito or Yamaha plastic clarinet and getting it reconditioned
is the best way to go in this price range.
not so good 
used and reconditioned wooden clarinet  

Bad news: Most used student-level wooden clarinets and even older semi-pro wooden clarinets do not have as good of intonation as modern poly-cylindrical bore instruments.
Good news: Wood produces better tone than plastic, but not better tone than hard rubber.
So with a reconditioned wood instrument you have a trade-off: There is the potential of better tone, but the intonation cannot be improved.
And this category has a major disadvantage: It is much harder for parents to shop for clarinets in this category! 
For this smart shopper who does research and plans ahead, there are great choices in this area.
Use this site to help you find the best intonation.
 $250plastic Hutchen CL3 or similarThe Hutchen (and some other similar brands) are seriously good instruments. The Hutchen is very well in tune— even to a professional level! It has very high quality keys, and good mouthpiece and case. An upgrade option would be to simply add a hard rubber or wooden barrel. This would add excellent tone to this clarinet's native excellent choice 
 $340-600better brand plastic or hard rubber clarinet In many cases, all you are getting at this level is a better brand name. Most of the better-brand name instruments are now produced by the same factories in China. more money but not better than the line above 

Intonation is crucial. If you have good tone but play out of tune, no one will want to listen to you! 
People like wood instruments. It's traditional, and we don't like to change. But consider these two things:
1. Modern ABS plastic sounds better than the older brittle plastic clarinets.
2. A plastic instrument will sound wooden if you put a wooden or hard rubber barrel on it.

This new state of affairs changes many of my recommendations about vintage clarinets in these ClarinetPages! Many times I rated vintage clarinets with 2-3 serious intonation problems as ‘intermediate intonation’. But now I would say that instruments that have a low C-Bb-A that are way sharp, plus problems in the throat tones, and/or a sharp upper register should just be turned into lamps. Yes, a smart player can make adjustments, but only if one has time to pull out or push in before important exposed passages. And frankly, most students are not ‘smart’ enough to play such instruments in tune. Please understand: I love fixing up vintage clarinets, and it is so neat to recondition them up when they hold sentimental value for someone. They often have lovely wood. But if they don't play in tune up to modern standards, they are not really going to be useful in our modern world— where now a throw-away-priced clarinet (depending on the model and if you get lucky) can have professional intonation.

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