Intermediate or Professional Clarinet: Which Do You Choose, Why and When?

Stacey McColley • April 2024Wind Talkers • April 8, 2024

The journey from a novice to a skilled musician is paved not just with practice and passion, but also with the proper tools to let your talent shine. Whether you’re a young beginner, an aspiring artist, or a seasoned professional, the instruments you choose will play a significant role in your musical growth.

Choosing the right clarinet for each stage of your musical evolution can be a daunting task, with a confusing number of variations available. This article will help you make these choices while considering stages of development and expense.

Young clarinetists typically begin their journey with a plastic clarinet, accompanied by the standard mouthpiece that comes with them.  These are most often obtained from the band’s inventory or rented from a local music store. These are fine for this stage of developing their fundamental skills.  I remember carrying my first clarinet, a plastic Vito, back and forth to school every day. However, please be aware if purchasing a plastic clarinet, you need to consult with a trusted seller of these instruments. There are some truly terrible plastic clarinets being sold now. A beautiful picture on the internet does not necessarily translate to a quality instrument.  Brand matters. The Buffet Prodige is a wonderful example of a quality plastic clarinet.

However, as their musical skills develop, students may find themselves limited by the basic capabilities of beginner equipment. These instruments and mouthpieces cannot deliver the rich, resonant sound or precise articulation expected of more advanced players.  Eventually, an upgrade becomes essential.

The initial upgrades should be the mouthpiece, reeds, and the ligature. I recommend the Vandoren M-13 Lyre or M-15 as ideal choices for a first mouthpiece upgrade.  These are affordable professional level mouthpieces most students can sound wonderful on. Once this upgrade occurs, the next step is a wooden clarinet.

For serious budding artists in middle school or high school, a wooden step-up model is essential. A step- up model clarinet is one made of better materials with a bit more attention to detail.  Wood is the important factor because its resonance gives the clarinet its warm and complex sound. All the major clarinet manufacturers make an intermediate model. Of these, I always recommend the Buffets, specifically their E-11’s, a long-standing favorite that can aid in the transition towards a higher level of performance. However, a serious student who aspires to the professional level will eventually need to upgrade from an E-11. At this point, looking for the option that makes the most long-term sense involves an honest assessment of the possible future plans of the student or artist.

There are alternative options such as the Serio line from Lisa’s Clarinet Shop, crafted from Grenadilla and featuring double plated silver keys. While slightly pricier than the E-11’s, they are still quite affordable and are designed for advanced students and professionals in need of a budget-friendly choice. An advancing student who purchases a Serio model may find they will be able to delay the purchase of a more expensive clarinet. The sound produced by the Serio clarinets is a warm, rich, professional sound. If a parent suspects their student may be interested in a long-term commitment to excellence in clarinet playing, the Serio would be a great upgrade choice.

For the true connoisseurs or serious students contemplating a top-tier upgrade, Buffet clarinets are the epitome of excellence, providing an unparalleled complexity and beauty of sound. Buffets produce all the colors of the clarinet rainbow. When a student is seriously considering continuing their music in college, and beyond, I suggest investing in a professional Buffet clarinet, if financially feasible. College level studies demand a professional level instrument. The R-13 is the instrument most of my college students play.  It is the most affordable of the many excellent professional models offered by Buffet and is a reliable and outstanding choice. I also have students on the wonderful Tradition and Prestige clarinets from Buffet.

Let’s be honest, professional clarinets are expensive but are well worth it. However, not everyone is able to obtain one right away. Used Buffets, or the Serios, can be affordable and quality choices for dedicated clarinetists. Although purchasing a used instrument requires very careful vetting, as they do not come with warranties of any kind, they are absolutely a viable option.

Developing a strong concept of a beautiful clarinet tone is often the first step a student takes before realizing some new equipment is required to achieve it.  Once that happens the genie cannot be put back into the bottle.  Seeking a qualified private teacher can be a great resource for information and guidance concerning upgrades. Also, studying privately is the most efficient and reliable way of developing the skills of a serious student of any age.

The first step in upgrading a clarinet will often be to an intermediate clarinet.  But there are options to explore, as discussed, that could postpone the expense of a top-of-the-line professional model or provide an intermediate student with a more fulfilling experience.

Examples of beautiful clarinet playing can easily be found online.  Having students do extensive listening is the quickest way to develop an appropriate concept of sound. Live concerts are always the best venue for this, but our electronic world makes it easy to find wonderful examples.

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