Working from the Inside-Out: Insight from a Clarinet Technician

with Audrey Denny

Audrey Denny is a Vandoren Artist-Clinician. The goal of the Vandoren Artist-Clinician program is to enhance the quality of the music experience in your school. This is made possible by Vandoren and a network of woodwind professionals around the country with a passion for music education and performance.

VandorenUSA: How did you get started as a clarinet technician?

Audrey Denny: I graduated with a degree in Clarinet Performance from DePaul University and spent the first 5 years or so playing and teaching in Chicago. In 2005 I took a position with Conn-Selmer in the Leblanc Division as a clarinet tester. My job was to play all the clarinets that were assembled in the factory. This included all student clarinets up to the professional clarinets. Throughout my time at Leblanc, making sure the clarinets were in top notch condition really piqued my interest in assembly and repair. My goal was to eventually learn how to assemble and then repair clarinets.

In 2010 my family moved to Vancouver, Canada to work for Backun Musical Services. Here I started to do a bit of training at the repair bench with Morrie Backun and Elaine Ward. My time at BMS was brief but it wasn’t long before I was hired to work for Saxquest after moving to St. Louis in 2011. My job at Saxquest started off pretty small and has grown ever since. I began training with my colleagues, George Bunk and Chris Funck, in addition to a lot of self-teaching.

What does a typical day look like at Saxquest?

AD: Saxquest has been in business since 2000. It is a shop that is dedicated to new and vintage saxophones and clarinets. We specialize in trading and selling saxophones and clarinets and also have a full service repair shop.

I love coming to work every day, with each day being a bit different. It sounds cliché but it’s true! My job title is Clarinet Specialist. There are days where I am always at the bench, setting up new Buffet R13’s or overhauling vintage clarinets. There are other days where I spend part of my day at the bench and the other part with customers. I will often help customers choose that “perfect” clarinet.  

*Now Saxquest has opened a clarinet division called Clarinetquest!

When testing clarinets, what are some key properties that make for a solid clarinet?

AD: Testing clarinets is one of my favorite parts of my job! I look for clarinets that have a lot of core to them and something that will project easily. Resistance is a factor for me as well. I don’t want a clarinet that has too much resistance but I want something that will allow me to work just a bit. Color is also something I look for. I want a clarinet that has a lot of color in all ranges of the instrument. Not necessarily bright but it has to have that ping to the sound. Last but not least, pitch is extremely important. I don’t want to have to do aerobics with my embouchure to make a clarinet play in tune.


Do the standards and criteria change while testing student and professional model instruments?

AD: For a student clarinet, you want to look for a clarinet that is in good working condition – good pads and good key fit. You want to make sure the bottom joint of the clarinet is regulated. This means that a student should be able to play an open G to a low B without difficulty. This is often the main flaw with student clarinets. When this happens, it is very hard for young students to know if it is them or the clarinet having the issue.

For professional players, you want to look for good, even pitch throughout all ranges of the instrument. You don’t want to have to change your embouchure too much to get the instrument in tune. I always suggest to players that they look for a clarinet that has a warm tone quality yet still has some color. Additionally, you want a clarinet that has a good deal of projection.  

Could you tell us what the differences are between Grenadilla and Cocobolo wood?

AD: Grenadilla is the wood that a majority of clarinet players prefer, you could say, and it is the most common. There are different tonal characteristics in both grenadilla and cocobolo. Grenadilla has a certain color quality to its sound which many clarinetists call the ping. Cocobolo tends to be a bit warmer in sound. I have always thought cocobolo is great for a chamber music setting.  

For colder months of the year, what are some ways clarinetists can help prevent their wooden clarinets from cracking?

AD: There is no sure way to prevent your clarinets from cracking. However, here are a few basic pointers to help any clarinet player.

  1. Make sure you oil your instrument when you feel that it is dry. I oil my horns with almond oil twice a year or at least when I feel the wood is dry.
  2. Prevent dramatic temperature changes.
  3. Make sure you have your clarinet in a good case! Mike Lomax makes a wonderful case called the HumidiPro that helps protect the instrument with proper humidity but also temperature.


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