Issue #51

Last Update May 5, 2007

Arts The Lyons Clarinet by David Katz February 19, 2007  Learning to play an instrument as a child has lifelong benefits. Parents and schools have many choices to make: at what age should a child begin lessons; what is the best beginning instrument; private or group lessons?  Many schools in the United States maintain an active band program, and grow their own band members by providing instruments and instrument instruction. The instrument selection decision, whether made by a parent or a school, though, has many dimensions. 

Although many children are given piano lessons, the piano has distinct disadvantages as a starting instrument: it is expensive, difficult for small hands to manage, non-portable, and unlikely to be available in quantity at any one location. Recorders and similar fipple flutes, while small, cheap, portable, suitable for small hands, available in quantity and relatively easy to learn, are not taken seriously as an instrument in the pop, jazz or band worlds. Many parents and schools, therefore, are drawn to band instruments (trumpet, clarinet, sax, drums, trombone, flute) as a way of delivering mass instruction and musical experience at an affordable price. 

Band instruments themselves, despite the obvious advantages, pose problems for younger learners. They tend to be somewhat heavy, require a finger spread that is uncomfortable for small hands, and are often transposing instruments; that is, they are pitched in a key other than C and require music written for that key in order to play with other instruments. In addition, they require professionals to repair and maintain them, which can be costly. Graham Lyons has come up with a new concept clarinet that removes all of these stumbling blocks to early facility with a real instrument: the Lyons Clarinet. 

Available in the UK and Europe, the Lyons Clarinet is a plastic instrument, extremely light in weight, and pitched in C instead of the usual B-flat. A C clarinet has two advantages: it can play with guitars, pianos, recorders or flutes without transposing, and, being smaller than the B-flat clarinet, is easier fingering for small hands. It is also specifically designed to be repaired and maintained by the nonprofessional, a real saving for school bands and music programs. These qualities have made the Lyons Clarinet popular with British elementary school music departments. 

Many beginner clarinets are made of plastic, but they often lack warmth of tone. The design of the Lyons Clarinet, with thinner walls to the body of the instrument, provides surprising richness, especially in the lower, chalameaux register. A simplified key system eliminates all trill keys (which beginners rarely use anyway) and a few other duplicate keys. Otherwise, fingering is the same as on a normal clarinet. 

Regular clarinets disassemble into five pieces. The Lyons Clarinet remains in one piece except for the mouthpiece, which is detachable. The mouthpiece uses E-flat clarinet reeds, and can be replaced by any standard E-flat clarinet mouthpiece if desired. Instead of a flat case, this instrument comes in a cylindrical plastic tube with a top that locks in place. Attached shoulder straps make this a light weight and comfortable way to carry the clarinet. 

The keys can be popped off for easy replacement if damaged, and the pads (which provide a firm seal between the key and the hole) are easily replaceable.  

Up to now, the Lyons Clarinet has not been marketed in the United States, but a U.S. marketing relationship is being developed and U.S. marketing will begin soon. In the meantime, internet orders can replaced. 

This instrument provides good value. The sound is good, it is very light and easy for a young musician to hold, key spacing is convenient for youngsters, it's pitched in C, the simplified fingering makes it easy to learn and at the same time makes it easy to graduate to standard B-flat clarinet later, it's self-maintainable, and it's easy for a child to carry.  

Marketing in the U.S. will face some problems, however. At BP178 (approximately $340 at a current exchange rates), the instrument is not inexpensive. It will be competing, on price, with much cheaper standard plastic clarinets, and even some low-end wooden ones. Its appearance is a problem, too. When you first take it out of its case, the thin plastic body with plastic keys the same color makes it look like a ten-cent toy. In this case, appearances are deceiving; this is a serious, playable, rugged instrument. Small cosmetic changes could have a big impact on U.S. sales. Finally, although the ring keys move easily and have a good feel, the lever keys (those long bars that allow a distant hole to be closed) are flexible, allowing the lever to continue its travel after the hole is covered, which is a somewhat uncomfortable feeling, though it does not compromise accuracy or playability. Stiffening those keys will help a parent or school-system instrument buyer better evaluate the clarinet's sturdiness and playability.

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