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Origins of the Clarinéo

Graham Lyons's 40 years experience as a teacher of clarinet gave him the overwhelming conviction that the way the standard clarinet was designed was anything but child-friendly. "It was too heavy," says Lyons "and its holes were too large for young children. The standard clarinet comes out of its case in five pieces, which have to be carefully assembled. That's a disincentive to practise."

"Furthermore it can not withstand the lack of care that children often give their possessions. A large proportion of school clarinets were always at the repairers. What was needed was a clarinet for children, designed without these barriers to progress. After all, the whole point of the music lesson is to inspire and motivate children with a love of music, not put them through an obstacle course."

The result was the Clarinéo: lighter, easier to manage, ready to play straight out of its case and resistant to rough treatment.

"Well, actually it wasn't all that simple!" Lyons continues, "The research and engineering excellence required to produce the Clarinéo kept a team of dedicated musicians and engineers hard at work for four years."

Read an interview with Graham Lyons below to get an insight into the hard work and inspiration that resulted in the Clarinéo.


Why the name "Clarinéo?"

Well, it's obviously based on the clarinet– similar acoustic, similar Boehm fingering–but it's function in music education and home music making is different. The Clarinéo lets much younger children play a a proper, nice toned, in tune woodwind instrument that, being pitched in C, is fully compatible with all primary school instruments and instruments such as piano, small violins and guitars that are in many homes.

If a seven-year-old, who's learning the Clarinéo, brought home the music for the Wizard of Oz, then she could play it with the piano straight of the vocal part. Impossible on a clarinet  as clarinets are pitched in B flat. So both in school and in the home the Clarinéo has a different function than the standard B-flat clarinet. We wanted to give the new instrument a name that was connected to the clarinet yet showed that it was different– had a different function; most definitely not a rival to, nor a substitute for a clarinet.

What gave you the idea for the Clarinéo?

In my teaching I became very frustrated seeing countless children struggling with the clarinet, an instrument which was too big and heavy for them. It was obvious that they would learn faster with a lighter, smaller instrument, and enjoy playing it more.

What made you decide to take your idea further?

The encouragement I received from well-known musicians and people in music education such as Sir Charles Groves, Richard Addison, Humphrey Lyttleton, Peter Howes, John Dankworth, and many professional musicians and music teachers. Many of them had been thinking along the same lines for years - that a clarinet for children retaining the fingering and sound of a standard clarinet was an obvious development. So I produced not just a clarinet that children could play but the Clarinéo, which is a musical instrument with wider application than a clarinet.

What is different about the Clarinéo compared with a clarinet?

There are five main differences:

First of all the Clarinéo is smaller and much lighter. Young people - in fact, all beginners - are not put off by the strain of carrying the weight of the instrument, which is taken entirely on the right-hand thumb. Small fingers can now cover the tone holes and reach the little-finger (pinky) keys more easily.

Secondly, it is virtually child-proof and can sustain treatment that would destroy conventional clarinets. The body and key work are made of resilient materials (ABS and Delrin) that lasts indefinitely and survive extremes of temperature. The pads, being made of silicone rubber, are rot-proof and waterproof.

Thirdly, the body is moulded in two transverse halves, which are then ultrasonically welded. Undercut tone holes can therefore be incorporated into the design - a first for an injection moulded woodwind instrument. The ability to undercut the tone holes allows the acoustic designer to tune each note more precisely.

Fourthly, if any of the key work is damaged it can be removed from the body and replaced by a fresh key. Repair can be carried at a small fraction of the cost of a similar repair to the clarinet.

Finally, the Clarinéo is pitched in C, as I mentioned, making it compatible with Primary school instruments and, really, making it an 'all-purpose' musical instrument rather than one, like the clarinet, with its own specific role.

What is the tone like?

I am very happy with it. The low register, in particular, is rich and resonant, and the upper registers are clear and focused. It is immediately noticeable that young children make a better sound on the Clarinéo than on a B-flat clarinet because they can control it better.

The Clarinéo is designed for beginners, but can it also play more advanced music?

There is hardly any limit to what it can play in both jazz or classical music.

The range is from E below middle C to three and a half octaves above – or even higher for advanced players. Every note of Mozart's or Weber's clarinet concertos could be played as easily on the Clarinéo as on the clarinet. It is also ideal for Baroque sonatas originally written for violin, flute or recorder, at a time when clarinets didn't even exist! I have often played it in a jazz setting. The other musicians in the band assume it is a perfectly ordinary clarinet from the way it sounds. When they see it they are amazed!

If pupils start on the Clarinéo, will they be able to switch to the B-flat clarinet later?

Yes indeed – and nearly as easily to the saxophone.

This has already happened thousands of times. The Clarinéo has the same basic fingering as the clarinet. The transition is immediate provided the child is big enough for a B-flat clarinet and it's well known that clarinet players quickly add the saxophone to their repertoire of instruments.

This brings up two important points: children too young for the clarinet can change instantly from the Clarinéo to the clarinet but they don't have to. The fact that they have played a serious, fully chromatic woodwind instrument with a large range of notes for three or four years means that those years of instrumental training can be applied to the oboe and bassoon, for example, or even to brass instruments. Just the same, if they later choose to play another instrument, there's no need to put away their Clarinéo. There's plenty of use for the Clarinéo in later life; and indeed, many of our sales are to professional and advanced amateur musicians who wish to add the Clarinéo to their collection.

You mentioned earlier that the Clarinéo is an "all-purpose instrument".
What do you mean by this?

90% of music is written in standard pitch, which is C. That doesn't mean music is written only in the key of C! just that if you play the note C on a piano, guitar, flute, recorder, violin, accordion, or if a singer sings the note C, it will sound like C. Well, you wouldn't expect anything different, would you! But if a clarinet or trumpet or tenor saxophone plays the note they know as C it will sound like B-flat.

Imagine you are playing the tune of 'Greensleeves' on the piano, reading from music and someone with a B-flat clarinet was playing with you from the same music; it would sound awful! The clarinet would be playing different notes. The Clarinéo is pitched in C so it can play normal music straight off the part. B flat means B -flat, E means E, C means C. For a clarinet, which is pitched in B flat, B flat sounds like A flat, E sounds like D, and C sounds like B flat. Clarinet music has to transposed for it before it can be played. That doesn't bother a Clarinéo player.

You're probably going ask me why the clarinet is in B flat. Well, please don't. It just is! Probably for historical reasons.

What has happened in music education with your clarinet as regards acceptance?

There are many pockets of enthusiastic teachers whose pupils are achieving unprecedented progress with the Clarinéo. The incontestable fact is that young children have 100% more chance of making fast progress on the Clarinéo than on the clarinet.

Don't forget the Clarinéo looks different and feels so light that those who have grown up with the clarinet with metal keys simply cannot believe that it can sound good. They are also worried that it may damage easily. I can reassure anyone reading this that they have nothing to worry about. The tone is exceptional and the instrument is far harder to damage than a conventional clarinet.

Clarinetists from leading orchestras and music colleges have played the Clarinéo. They speak about the tone and tuning in glowing terms. They wouldn't dream of making those comments unless they were convinced of its merits.

I think the Clarinéo will in the future become accepted as a preferred first instrument of choice amongst many beginners.

The Clarinéo helps children, it gives them a 'grown-up'-sounding instrument that they can make progress on. The Clarinéo's good for teachers – provides them with more pupils and makes their teaching of young children more rewarding. And good for the music trade, they can sell Clarinéos to children too small to buy any wind instrument and later sell clarinets or saxophones to the same children when they're bigger. The Clarinéo successfully fills a gap in music-making. Teachers and the trade everywhere will soon realize it's in their own interest to promote and sell Clarinéos.