When to switch students?
The second year of playing seems to be the ideal time to switch students. It can be done at the very beginning of the year or around November, after seeing how students respond to advanced band.
In general, I would not recommend starting a beginner on bass clarinet unless there is an extenuating circumstance. It is also fine to switch older kids as the need of the student or the band program change, just realize it often takes a few months for students to ‘settle in’ to the new instrument.
Two “Requirements” for a switch:
The student must be capable of taking care of an instrument responsibly.
The student must be excited about playing bass clarinet and want to work hard to be successful.
Two “Strong Preferences” for a switch:
The student physically fits the instrument, specifically the finger length. Height can be considered as well, but this can be adjusted for by sitting on books or sitting on two chairs. Remember, students at this age grow quickly, so if a student has a true passion for an instrument, a smaller child can succeed. That’s why this is a strong preference, but not necessarily a requirement.
The student uses massive amounts of air, sometimes to the point of over-blowing their Bb clarinet. However, some students who struggle with the resistance on clarinet thrive on the bass clarinet.
Specific issues that suggest a switch may be beneficial:
The student has long term issues with pitch and response on notes above the staff. This internal voicing problem is detrimental on clarinet, but not on bass clarinet.
The student has an unresolved spread tone, specifically if it results from corners not being firm enough or not gripping their mouthpiece enough. Sometimes the larger mouthpiece and more relaxed embouchure of bass clarinet can be a better fit.
The student has a large lower lip that causes tone or response issues on clarinet. Larger lower lips do not cause a problem on bass clarinet.
Create demand for bass clarinet
I recommend you “recruit” bass clarinet players by having veteran bass clarinetists perform for your beginners. On years where I’ve done this, the beginners are often fighting to play bass clarinet. You can then have ‘tryouts’ where any interested students get a chance to play on it for either a few minutes or a whole class period. They can see if they like it and you can see how they sound.
If you don’t have an older student that can play well enough to “wow” your beginners, you can show the students your nicest bass clarinet (they seem to be impressed with the size) and play recordings on youtube. You can also talk about what an honor it is to play such an elite and expensive instrument.
Who NOT to switch a student to bass clarinet
Notice that nothing I have mentioned has to do with putting a student on bass clarinet because they can’t hang with the clarinet music. I don’t believe that is a legitimate reason 99% of the time. An exception might be if you have a student that is a responsible and dedicated child who is slower or maybe has special needs and can’t read music well enough to play quickly. In that situation, or in similar unusual circumstances, you may want to consider it.
Bass clarinet certainly shouldn’t be your “go to” for struggling students. As students advance into high school, they will be required to play the same level of music as clarinets for auditions. Do your best to put leaders on bass clarinet just like you would on any other instrument.
CLARINET PODCAST & RESOURCE WEBSITE
A 1999 music education graduate of WTAMU, Tamarie Sayger held band director positions in Plano and Odessa, TX for 5 years. As a private clarinet instructor in Texas for 16 years, she has taught hundreds of students from grade 6-12 in classes, sectionals, and individual lessons. Mrs. Sayger has presented at district in-services and co-presented at the Texas Bandmasters Association convention. Her podcast, Crossing The Break, can be found on iTunes. This website, CrossingTheBreak.com, provides resources for clarinet teachers around the country.