Learning to play the clarinet isn’t all that difficult, either, and is a fairly easy transition from starter instruments like recorder. Most new learners can produce sound on their first day and play basic melodies within 1-2 weeks. This gives it a shallower learning curve than woodwinds like oboe or brass instruments like trumpet, whose more complicated embouchure can take weeks to form consistently.
Of course, there’s a difference between squeaking out a few notes and being able to improvise or perform advanced classical literature. Learning clarinet is easy, but like any instrument, mastering it takes time and dedication.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Clarinet?
This is a more complicated question than it might seem on the surface. For starters, it depends on what you mean by “learn clarinet”. If your goal is to play well enough to join a dance band or wind ensemble, most people will be able to do so within a year of picking up the instrument. However, it’ll probably be more like 2-3 years before you feel comfortable playing more advanced technical passages or soloing over chord changes.
Your existing music knowledge makes a difference here, too. Those who can already read music have a head start. If you already play another wind instrument, it’s likely to be an even faster process—a saxophonist learning clarinet to double can reasonably blow blues solos after a few months of consistent practice.
Can You Teach Yourself the Clarinet?
It’s absolutely possible to teach yourself the clarinet but it’s not the best approach for everyone. Again, your prior experience matters—someone with a basic grasp of music theory will be better able to learn on their own than a musical novice.
Be honest with yourself about your level of self-motivation. Are you the type of person who’s able to set and meet goals on your own, or do you need an external push to make progress? Time invested matters at least as much as talent when you’re learning an instrument, so if you’re not sure you’ll put in the effort on your own, setting up lessons can help you stay on track to your goals.
Pros of Taking Private Lessons
- You’ll likely learn faster. A private teacher helps direct your learning journey, establishing the building block techniques that help you make steadier, consistent progress. You can reach the same point eventually learning on your own, but more often than not you’ll take a bit longer to get there.
- You’ll learn the correct techniques. Problems with your finger placement, mouth position, and other aspects of playing clarinet may not be obvious at first, but they’ll make your life much harder when you progress to more advanced material. A teacher can identify and correct these issues from the start.
Pros of Being Self-taught
- It’s cheaper. Beginning clarinet lessons usually cost around $20-$50 a week. If this is more than you have budgeted for a new hobby, private lessons are likely out of the picture.
- You can learn at your own pace. Daily practice is the best way to learn quickly, but that’s not always feasible for adult learners with families, careers, and other responsibilities. When you’re learning on your own, you can step back when life gets hectic without rescheduling lessons (or feeling guilty that you haven’t practiced).
Tips to Learn Clarinet Quickly
1. Practicing often is more important than practicing a lot.
We think of musical instruments as artistic pursuits, but playing clarinet is also a physical act that asks your mouth and finger muscles to move in ways they’re not used to. Training those muscles is as crucial for playing clarinet as your musicality and creativity.
The more often you use those muscles, the faster they’ll develop. This is why a beginner will progress faster with 15-20 minute daily sessions than a longer 3-hour session that only happens one day a week.
2. Start on a closed-hole instrument.
Like flutes, clarinets come in open-hole and closed-hole versions. The difference is pretty self-explanatory. A closed-hole instrument has full pads on every key, similar to a saxophone. On an open-hole clarinet, the front keys look like rings and the player plugs the hole directly with their finger.
Open-hole clarinets are preferred by advanced players and professionals, allowing for more tonal nuance and smoother glissandi—you can’t play the opening to “Rhapsody in Blue” on a closed-hole instrument. They’re also cheaper to maintain since there are fewer pads.
Learning to cover the holes adds another level to the clarinet technique, though, the reason many beginner clarinets come with closed keys. Beginners will have an easier time starting on a closed-hole clarinet and upgrading to an open-hole instrument once they’ve got a handle on the basic fingerings.
3. Use the right strength of high-quality reeds.
Clarinet reeds are rated on a scale of 1.5 to 5 based on their thickness or “hardness”. A thinner reed produces a brighter sound and vibrates more easily. A harder reed takes more air to start, which can make it difficult to play at soft dynamics for beginners and can lead to faster mouth fatigue. A strength of 2-2.5 is a good place to start.
Most professionals prefer the tone they get with a thicker reed, though the mouthpiece and music style are certainly a factor, too. Ultimately, reed choice is a matter of personal preference, and you’ll get a sense for the nuance as you progress on the instrument. (If you’re annoyed by having to buy reeds all the time, just be grateful you didn’t pick the oboe or bassoon—most double-reed players make their own.)
A reed that’s warped or poorly made will make it harder (if not impossible) to play, so a good reed is important even for a beginner. You may feel a bit of sticker shock the first time you pay $25 for a box of Vandoren or D’Addario reeds but it’s worth every penny to avoid struggling with the $10 knock-off brand. Rico reeds are a good compromise for beginners on a budget—they don’t sound the best but they’re a bit cheaper than the top names, and are consistently playable.
So Is Clarinet Easy to Play?
As you can see, this is a more complicated question than it appears on the surface. Anyone can learn clarinet but you shouldn’t expect to be Benny Goodman in a week, especially if this is your first instrument. The more work you do in the practice room, the sooner you’ll be able to play clarinet like a pro. Good luck!