Clarinets Should Come With Earplugs

“I’ve made my decision,” my 10-year-old daughter said proudly. “I want to play the clarinet.”

Squeaky clarinet

Squeaky clarinet

The clarinet. Just what every parent wants to hear. Or really, plug their ears and pretend they can’t hear. My daughter is in fifth grade and our school district makes it mandatory for fifth graders to play either a string or band instrument. I’m sure there are all sorts of studies on how music helps budding young minds. Or soothes their tween angst.

I think it is really just a conspiracy to make parents lose their minds.

“Clarinet. Are you sure?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “I tried one in class and I could really get a sound out of it. I couldn’t really make a noise with the flute.   I made a really loud sound with the saxophone. Maybe I should play the sax?”

NoNoNONO. The clarinet was just fine, thanks very much.

I admit I have no experience with band instruments. I was a string player myself. I started off with the violin in fifth grade and proudly screeched my way through 50 versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (thank you, Suzuki Method). I had tiny yellow tapes across the fingerboard so I knew where to press. I didn’t even have a shoulder rest, but a kitchen sponge held on with a rubber band. My father called it “a squeak box”.

In middle school, I started playing the string bass. The bass was much taller than me and didn’t fit on the bus (which didn’t thrill my mother who had to drive me on “bass days”).   But the low notes were smooth, I loved the tone and probably thought I could be a bass player in a band some day. I even dragged that silly bass to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in the summer. Hiking through the woods with a bass on your back was not the most fun. (Right now I’m painting a pretty cool picture of my adolescent self, huh?) By high school, I was interested in theater and big hair. I gave up my orchestra dreams.

photo-22With the big decision made, I found myself at our local music store asking the guy behind the counter for a clarinet.  He hesitated for a moment and said, “Well, I don’t recommend buying one of those. You should just probably rent and see if your child really likes it.” Not a strong endorsement from a music store guy.   Then he went on to say, “Kids in the band are crazy. Orchestra kids are much better behaved.”

Thanking him for the unsolicited music/behavior observation, I left with my rented $26.50/month clarinet.

My thrilled daughter couldn’t wait to play it. She slathered cork grease on the insides, walked around with a reed sticking out of her mouth and wiped the clarinet with a cloth. Then she put it together. And…


The sound was unlike anything I’d heard before. It was like a dying whale. A forlorn honking mixed with a high-pitched squeak and whistling air. A deafening tone like testing the emergency broadcast system. Click here if you dare:

And she was so proud. I told her we’d have to set up her own special practice area. In the basement. Or at her grandparents’ house.

Maybe she’ll be a professional clarinet player and nail that solo from Rhapsody in Blue. “That’s my girl!” I’ll yell from my seats at Orchestra Hall. Heck, I’ll be happy if she ends up playing a few notes in a row without a squeak by the end of the year. Whatever she ends up doing, I know there will be a lot of practice between now and then.

Earplugs in.