Breaking up with my Selmers

Yesterday I made the difficult decision to stop playing the Selmer Privilège model clarinets that I loved, and which only last Spring I considered to be the next best thing since sliced bread.

My reasons are complex, and I'd like to share them with you.

I have recorded myself playing the Selmers a number of times, and they usually win over my Buffets on that measure. I have also played them in my orchestra (Columbus Symphony) numerous times over several months. In that context I occasionally had the feeling of pushing up against some barrier in their sound, which, if I tried to exceed it, would render the tone more spready, even "honky".

The Selmer Privilege instruments are beautifully made, well crafted, and have a meaty tone. They tune well (with a few notable exceptions) and have a very even scales tonally. In many ways, they are superior in design and craft than my Buffet R13s.

However, I have developed as a player around the Buffet model R-13's famous poly-cylindrical bore, with its particular feel and resistance (designed by Robert Carrée for Buffet in 1955). For 30-some years of playing, I have responded to that particular resistance and shape as my cue how to play and sound my best.

With the Selmers I had to blow a little differently, but they took that and made it sound beautiful. So I didn't mind. However, over time I realized I couldn't get "into" the sound and "spin" it (a very slight vibrato I occasionally use to create a vocal feeling, to warm up a note). And I had trouble getting as much of a "pear" shaped tone with the Selmer as I can with the R-13. (The pear-shape image was used by Robert Marcellus, and perhaps other teachers to describe and ideal core shape of the clarinet sound, slightly bulbous at the bottom.)

I found with the Selmers that at the bottom of the pear-shape I attempted to create with my air, I would hit a limit in what the bore would allow me to do, which prevented me from shaping the tone as I wished. I wanted a bigger room to dance in! It was for this reason I decided to stop playing them.

At this point I don't think I will sell them, at least not yet. I want to try them again in a few months and see if I come to the same conclusion. If I still feel the same after that I will try to sell the set. (let me know if you might be interested)

It has been a very interesting learning experience and I have come to love my Buffets even more, with their complex poly-cylindrical bore and slightly more open feeling. I am now even more sensitive to "tightness" in Buffets. I am careful to look for enough openness, enough give, enough play in the sound where I have freedom to shape my tone, and I can get the bottom of that "pear" with enough ring and roundness and fullness.

While I was in the throes of re-examining my equipment, I tested out all my current barrels and bells with my two sets (Bb and A) of Buffet R13s. I also re-considered the various "tightness" of each of my Buffets to be sure each set matched well. (When switching from Bb to A or back in orchestra, it's nice when the instrument switched to feels as similar as possible)

I matched up barrels and bells to individual instruments, again (I have done this before, but had the Selmers in mind as my primary instruments then). I found that certain Backun barrels (for more on Backuns, see Backun Fever and Backun Fever 2) went better with certain instruments, and the Morales-Backun (MoBa) barrels with the other set.

The grenadilla "Fatboy" Backuns seemed to sound best with my chosen orchestral instruments (first set) with their more solid core of tone, with the MoBa bells for those, since they add just a touch of roundness and softness to the tone to balance the directness of the Fatboy barrels.

I chose the MoBa barrels, with their slightly softer wood and more rotund shaped tone, for my second set of instruments, my solo/chamber music instruments, which I will also use for practicing at home.

My newest R13 A clarinet, which I bought last year, and which has a fantastic sound, became my choice for my home instruments (second set), while my older A, which is a bit more open, with that larger, rounder "pear" shape, was moved to my orchestral set (first set).

This decision felt right, for my current orchestral Bb has a very extroverted and flexible tone, and the older A, purchased around the same time, matched its tonal shape well. My second Bb, which is also a beautiful, but slightly tighter feeling, will now pair very nicely with the newer A and its similar feel and resistance.

Enough shop talk for now. If you made it this far, I hope I have opened your eyes to the subtleties of tone and equipment and their intrinsic relationship to the personality of the player.

If you are intrigued by the fame of Buffet's R-13 tone, please read the following testimonial from an oboist in S America:

I write after hearing a moving concert of the Mozart clarinet concerto played by an ex-colleague (Jose Botelho), who is older than Drucker and plays... in the opinion of many out here at least, almost if not just as well as the great NY Phil clarinetist.

In any case, he is still performing on a Buffet, with a new type of mouthpiece and ligature. giving it a round and big sound --in contrast to years ago. Nevertheless the Buffet clarinet, at least out here in Brazil, seems in a declining period as most young instrumentalists are purchasing a lovely clarinet made in Chile by an Argentine called Rossi. [Luis Rossi Clarinets are beautiful. I have played one, and loved it, but feel quite content now to stick with my sweet Buffets]

But still, to these aging ears there is no clarinet sound like the Buffet. For me not even Selmer comes close to it. And the sound of the clarinet is important to double reed players...

I can only imagine my own reaction to the decline of the Buffet clarinet, is similar to those who were opposed to the great changes in the oboe,when it converted to a full key system after the top of the top many moons ago was an open hole system.

Any reaction is always appreciated, updating this observer how the Buffet clarinet is doing in your part of the world.

Regards,

Harold Emert

There you have it. Mr. Emert brings up an interesting point: the decline of Buffet in some musical cultures, where a slightly different concept of tone, led by different clarinet makers, is replacing that famous sound of older players.

Even in the US, a change in tonal culture is taking place, led by the Morales Backun collaboration with Leblanc, and the slightly more "bulbous" tones produced by their equipment. (My Backun equipment, carefully chosen to match my needs, adds a mellower color and more rounded shape to my "pear".)

I can't pretend I haven't been around awhile. Robert Marcellus and Harold Wright still emit the ultimate clarinet tones to my ear, and they played Buffet clarinets.

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20 comments for “Breaking up with my Selmers

  1. John Peacock
    December 12, 2009 at

    Dear David,

    Firstly, many thanks for this blog, which has a lot of very interesting and helpful insights. You're doing a great favour to players everywhere by writing this.

    I was particularly interested in this post about the "pear-shaped" sound and Selmer vs Buffet. I play on R13s and recently tried a switch to Selmer !0s-II's (I don't know if these are at all similar to the Privilege). This didn't take: although at first the Selmers seemed more resonant, in the end there was somehow a greater depth of sound in the Buffets.

    But finding the right words for these differences is hard. Take "pear-shaped". It sounds like a statement about frequency balance: enough high harmonics so the sound has life, but tapering off so the low harmonics dominate and the sound isn't thin. But I have trouble relating this idea to actual sounds. To be explicit, I looked for on-line clips of Harold Wright, which can be found in an Amazon search at http://tinyurl.com/yebutfu . Consider track 3 in that list: to my ears, the sound is just thin – as if it needed a stronger reed and/or a more open mouthpiece. Now compare the same passage as track 14 of http://tinyurl.com/ydn5z6w : to my ears, this is undoubtedly more pear-shaped in the above sense. It's smoother, warmer, and simply more beautiful.

    Now, I'm a Brit and grew up with Jack Brymer as a hero. Let's not get sucked into arguments about whether Brymer or Wright was better, but stick to the sounds in these particular examples. Wright probably plays much better elsewhere, and I've certainly heard Brymer sound much less nice at times. But just of those two examples, which should one prefer? My frustration with the clarinet is that it too often wants to sound thin: the reed won't let you play as loud as you want to without the sound quality degenerating. So when I listen to that Wright example, I hear analogues of some of the deficiencies that I feel I'm always fighting to overcome in my own playing.

    A briefer way of putting it: of these two examples, which do you prefer, and why? What words can we use to describe the difference? I'd be very interested in your opinion.

    • December 12, 2009 at

      Hello John. Nice to meet you. And thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      You bring up some interesting points and questions.

      The clarinet is a \”treble\” instrument which has half its overtones missing, making it difficult to focus without sounding bright. Clarinetists are caught between wanting a ringing tone which carries and resonates, and wanting a mellow, round shaped sound. The dangers are that a mellow round sound can begin to sound hollow and devoid of overtones. And a resonant ringing tone can easily begin to sound bright.

      Then there is size of core. A small dense core offers the clarinet a chance to have ring without too much brightness, at least from a distance. It seeks lots of overtones, but not a lot of volume. I think a less dense core is more likely to sound bright at higher volumes, where shrillness outshines shape.

      The pear shape, as you noted, is an attempt to balance the two, some overtones for ring (the small dense core, top of the pear), but a bit of \”belly\” in the sound for roundness (bottom of the pear). Each player has their own concept and ideal.

      The sound I seek is dense and bright at the core, but my theory is that it sounds resonant and ringing in the hall, not bright but not dead either. I think of it as a diamond core. The Selmers helped me get the density, but prevented me from getting the little \”belly\” I like in the tone. (The jury is still out on the final decision- I believe the mouthpiece/instrument chemistry needs to be considered, but that's for another post.)

      I think Harold Wright sounded better live, but I agree with you that his tone leaned toward thin. He sought a very small, resonant tone, which carried without effort. I think Wright's tone, on a good day, is quite flutey, very vocal and light, with a nice ring.

      Brymer, in the snippet you sent in your link, has a nice shape with a little bigger core than Wright, with perhaps a bit less ring and less density. I always thought the Brits sought something appealing, but in the process became ensnared in the \”hollow\” trap, losing ring while seeking a mellow round core. I call it a bit \”flabby\”, or \”open\” in tone. In my opinion, if Brymer tried to play any louder, he would lose the focus of the sound.

      Marcellus had a dense, small sound with lots of highs as well, and though he sounds great on recordings, I have heard that he also sounded better live. I think he had more volume in his sound than Wright. Since Marcellus was my ideal, I believe I strive in that direction.

      In America, there has been a school which seeks to eliminate any brightness at all from the clarinet tone, and to sound like a French Horn. Frank Cohen created this school, with the help of James Pyne mouthpieces. Many players in the US now are brought up with that sound in their ears.

      Ricardo Morales and Backun schools have come back to a bit more ring in the sound, but with very little brightness.

      I may consider getting a set of Cocobolo clarinets, so I can play a bright, dense sounding mouthpiece and reed, and the softer wood will mellow that into a nice tone. I almost bought a Rossi after trying it, but then learned the price and couldn't justify it at the time.

      The Backun barrels ad bells have helped me move in that direction. I am quite happy with the balance of brightness and rounded I can achieve with them on my Buffets.

      I may put all this into a post. Thanks for stirring my thoughts.

      David

      • John Peacock
        December 13, 2009 at

        Dear David,

        It's very nice to get your thoughts on this at length – thanks. Regarding the general characteristics of the older English 1010 school of playing, I would have tended to use the term "hollow" for the less good practitioners – but not in the same sense as you used it (i.e. purely low overtones). When driven too hard, the 1010 could make quite a brittle sound – not thin, so much as hard. In your pear analogy, perhaps this means concentrating too much of the sound just above the top of the core. In the Brymer example I sent (track 14 of http://tinyurl.com/ydn5z6w), I hear this tendency in the opening arpeggio. Brymer didn't do this when playing at his best. But the following legato line seems pretty well ideal to me. I think I interpret your last reply as saying that it would be a good goal to play with that sound, but to keep the same quality at louder volumes – would you agree?

        One further point, if I can test your patience, is to wonder where other schools of playing fit into this. If pressed, I would have to say that the best sound I have ever heard is not English, but Viennese: Alfred Boskovsky. Amazon has only one track of him, but it's consistent with others I've heard (http://tinyurl.com/yajth8u). This has no hint of thin-ness or edge, but still seems to have life and richness. The quality doesn't change as he gets louder. Is this pear-shaped? Do you know anyone who can play like this on French instruments? From your description, I wondered if Frank Cohen's sound might be similar, but this isn't so on Amazon's examples. It's interesting that the Viennese sound is rather different to the German one. A lot of people rave about Sabine Meyer, but I find her sound much less appealing than Boskovsky – and also, like a lot of German players, her sound seems not very "clean". I hope you know what I mean here: I don't think it's an issue of harmonic balance as in the "pear" analogy.

      • December 13, 2009 at

        John- I think the word brittle is a good description of the downside of the English sound. De Peyer could sound that way at times.

        The Boskovsky link you gave was not valid. But I know the sound you mean. The best Viennese and German sounds have taught me a lot about maintaining ring in a round sound. But I lean towards an American ideal, as personified by Burt Hara (Principal Minnesota Orchestra) and Loren Kitt (Principal, National Symphony) and of course, Robert Marcellus. Dense, ringing, lots of highs, a tiny, tight belly. (a small, diamond pear?)

        Cohen's sound did not have enough sparkle and ring for me.

        Here is an Amazon clip where you can hear Marcellus. http://bit.ly/4zEIRg Unfortunately, the only track which has him playing is 6, or the very end of either slow movt. tracks. (don't know who edits those, but they don't know what a concerto is)

        Also, here's Burt Hara with Minnesota http://bit.ly/4DLJ9a

        David

      • John Peacock
        December 14, 2009 at

        Dear David – thanks for the Marcellus link. I'd heard that before, and also been frustrated that Amazon just gives you a snatch. I certainly like it much more than Wright, although the sound does seem on the small side – I wonder how it would cope with something like the adagio in Rachmaninov's second? Anyway, you've prodded my curiosity enough to order the CD, so I'll get a fuller impression of Marcellus soon. But this seems to be his only solo CD. Isn't it odd how widely respected names from the past can be so poorly represented? It's a similar problem with Brymer: just a handful of CDs, when the BBC must have hundreds of hours of him in their archives. Frustrating.

      • December 15, 2009 at

        John, I hope you like the Marcellus. If you don't, keep if to yourself. I'm kidding, of course, but I still see him as setting a certain standard in the US, which is rarely exceeded, at least in the category of dense ringing quality.

        I think that the discussion of clarinet tone often centers around size. It is my belief that \”size\” of tone is more a perception than a \”fact\”. In other words, I think a tone which is perceived to be large, and full, is more often ringing and shimmering close up, and may also sound smaller than far away.

        I think Wright and Marcellus had sounds which carried effortlessly to every ear in any hall, and could cut through the largest tutti, whereas a sound which is \”large\” close up, often lacks the ring to carry it on silver wings.

        I don't think you can have it both ways. At least I have not heard anyone really succeed. As we discussed, the English attempts fail at higher volumes. The sound becomes \”brittle\”, as you described it.

        My goal is a ringing, dense sound, with incredibly well balanced overtones which don't stick out as \”bright\”, but instead buoys the sound up and away with \”resonance\” or what can also be described as \”hiss\”, an extremely high pitched \”sizzle\” in the sound.

        The tricky part is this; that resonant quality is not really something you can \”buy\” with any equipment. You have to find it in the relationship between your air and the particular setup you have. Loren Kitt sounds fabulous on Selmers. I think it can be found on any decent setup, mouthpiece, reed, clarinet.

        David

  2. December 12, 2009 at

    Keep checking back Barbara. I will write a more extensive article on Legeres soon.

  3. Barbara
    December 11, 2009 at

    He transposed bits on his A – very quietly! A good sort, you might say! Those are all huge changes – you're very brave! Have to admit that double tonguing and circular breathing are completely beyond me, and certainly on the setup I have. Luckily I haven't had to do anything (yet!?!?) that's required them. I've heard people talking about the Legere reeds – mostly positive, but I haven't got around to trying them. Am always curious to hear about other people's experiences though. Will look forward to your reports on how it's all going!

  4. Barbara
    December 11, 2009 at

    Hi David. I play on Buffet R13s – had them since I was 11. For years I'd worried about what I would do if something happened to them, then one evening, as I was about to play 1st in Dvorak 8 I knocked my Bflat over on its peg (pre-gig nerves I guess). The throat A key bent and the instrument was unplayable. The only option was to use the 2nd clarinettist's Yamaha. It worked!
    It was the MOST useful lesson because it made me realise that perhaps the most important thing was the mouthpiece. Then I was playing on a mid 1980s Hite. Now I'm on a Clark Fobes (2L) which I really like, because it's slightly less hard work and gives a bigger sound, which I find particularly useful in chamber music, funnily enough (I think because I can relax a little).
    The only thing that concerns me about trying other stuff out is that your ear and embouchure can get so confused that it's impossible to make a confident decision. Sometimes, it's just best to go with what you have and try to make the very best of it. Also not to be swayed by what other people think is a good sound. Reproducing the sound in your head is the ultimate goal, after all.

    • December 11, 2009 at

      Hi Barbara- What did the clarinetist play on for that fateful concert when you broke your Bb?

      You are right about trying out too many things, at least at once. I have recently changed clarinets, mouthpieces, thumb position (moving thumb rest), reeds (from cane reeds to Legere, a big change). I have also changed my embouchure to help with my circular breathing and double tonguing. It will be healthy to get used to the Legeres now before changing to much else.

  5. December 10, 2009 at

    As a young student in the UK I was bought up on various models of Boosey and Hawkes and grew used to a wide bore sound. When it came to studying seriously at the RCM in London, I chose Buffet RCs with a crystal mouthpiece which for me seemed to reproduce the same round sound and have stayed with that set up ever since. My current instruments are RC Prestiges. Until I started reading your posts, David, it has never occured to me to experiment with equipment apart from reeds and mouthpieces – a bit naïve perhaps!
    Now that you have reached your conclusions, and returned to your orignal instruments, would you consider that the exercise has been worthwhile or in retrospect, unnecessary angst?
    The reason I'm asking is that I'm thinking of testing Leblanc but now questioning whether the hard work is really worth it in the end.

  6. Leese
    December 10, 2009 at

    David, what a fascinating post. Thanks so much for putting it up. I am nowhere near the calibre of player that you are (nor do I have such nice equipment!), but I've been struggling with a similar Buffet/Leblanc issue over the past few weeks. so it made for interesting reading. With much hard work and concentration I can produce a similar sort of tone on my Buffet as I can on the Leblanc, but the Leblanc tone is just – a part of me, if that makes sense? It seems like an extension of me, more natural, like the tone is flowing out of me rather than the instrument – and I really don't know whether I want to expend all that energy with the Buffet trying to do something that on the Leblanc comes so absolutely naturally. But at the same time, the Buffet fits under my hands better and certain notes just fall under my fingers better and speak more clearly. So it's been a bit of a struggle to decide what to do. This is possibly not helped by the fact that I really wanted to dance to a different drum and *not* automatically play a Buffet – and admitting that it might work better for me has been a bit of a struggle, psychologically.

    So now I'm in a sort of chopping and changing phase. I use the Leblanc for every day stuff, and dig out the Buffet when I know a passage I have to tackle will be benefited by using it, which is probably a very cack-handed way of going about it, but it's working for me right now in the ensemble situations I find myself in.

    • December 10, 2009 at

      Leese. Interesting story. I don't know how you play, or what mp and reed setup you use, but often I find that issues with response are something the player can \”rise\” to improve. You are welcome to describe the specific issues to me, and perhaps I could offer some advice to help your Leblanc be the ultimate one for you.

      I like your wording about the instrument and sound just feeling like \”you\”. It sounds like your Leblanc is good and natural for you. Since you own both, perhaps the Buffet will come around, or you could try a different barrel. Moennig and Chadash barrels are mass produced, so you have to try quite a few, but they can really improve response and resistance.

      • Leese
        December 11, 2009 at

        Hi David,

        Thanks so much. My set up is as follows: Leblanc Esprit, Portnoy BP1 piece, Grand Concert Select 3.5, BG soloist lig. I know there's a bit of a mismatch going on with the instrument and mouthpiece (it played very slightly flat compared to the 5RV Lyre I used to have and it took me quite a while to bring it up to pitch, but sadly I chipped the 5RV, the Portnoy was something I already had, and finances won't allow a replacement right now so I'm stuck with it). I'm having fuzzy bell-B issues and airy throat tone issues on the Leblanc, which I'm sure a proper set-up would assist with (it was an end-of-line instrument that'd been hanging around in the shop for ages). I'm also having squeaking issues around the break on the Leblanc (possibly tied in with the fuzzy bell B issue?) and difficulty voicing a few notes in the altissimo, particularly F#6, which pitches consistently with a B5 undertone. These can be remedied slightly by switching back to the metal lig which seems to hold the reed on better, but then I lose a degree of warmth from the sound.

        Buffet is an E11 (told you my equipment was subpar!). and doesn't exhibit any of these problems – the mouthpiece matches better, for one thing, and there's no fuzziness. But I just can't get that lovely rich sound that I get from the Esprit – it sounds thin in comparison, and I get frustrated with that really quickly.

        As for what I play: I'm very much an amateur, grade 8ish standard, involved in a lot of community music. I play in a jazz orchestra, for which I use the Esprit with the metal lig as it seems to cut through the rows of saxes a bit better with the slightly improved brightness the metal lig gives, and 1st in a symphonic wind band, for which I switch back to the Soloist lig to get the warmth of sound.

        Most of this is financially driven, sadly, but the chopping and changing act gets a bit wearing sometimes!

      • December 11, 2009 at

        Sounds like you have thought a lot about it. As soon as you have $80, buy another 5RV, or try an M15 or M30. Be sure to try 3. Usually 1 out of 3 is quite good. I don't know the Portnoy, but even if a great mouthpiece plays flat, I cannot bite and play well!

        Try clipping your reed a tad, or getting some 4's and sand them down.

        For fuzzy B try rotating your bell a quarter turn, 3 o'clock, 6, 9 and 12, and see if any position is less fuzzy than where you have it now, presumably 12.

        Hope that helps.

      • Leese
        December 13, 2009 at

        Many thanks David, that's all really useful. What's the thinking behind the bell rotation trick? Not heard that one before, but I'll certainly give it a try.

        Re the reeds: 3.5 is about as hard as I can go on that mouthpiece without it being just too difficult.

        The M30 is one that I'd hoped to try previously, so I think we're thinking along the same lines.

        Thanks for the advice!

  7. bill
    December 10, 2009 at

    No question: My 1967 Buffets (a Bb and A) are the best clarinets I have ever played (out of many, many, many). My opinion is that Leblanc's latest campaign with Backun, like the Ridenour one before it, is just another good but short-lived fad. Selmer hasn't made a good clarinet since the Centered Tone (or maybe the Series 9 "star"), although the Recital was quite good; however, its pinched Bb was pure air, no tone (but the altissimo was in tune). One slight observation: Selmer has ALWAYS made their model clainets to play best with Selmer mouthpieces. That's not an idle obervation. You may wish to give your Privledges (or whatever they are called) another trial with their specific mouthpiece (for instyance, the C85 was "the" mouthpiece designed for the Selmer Recital model). I got an old 1940s Selmer mouthpiece from Morrie Backun's wife. I assume Backun had done the refacing. It's killer-diller.

  8. December 10, 2009 at

    Wow. You've been through a lot, but it was worth the struggle to come to such a crystal clear decision. You're smart to hang on to the Selmers though; you may find a use for them someday. (Desk lamps?)

  9. December 10, 2009 at

    LOL!

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