Clarinet Mouthpieces - Vandoren, Yamaha, Selmer, David Hite, Pomarico
The clarinet mouthpiece is in many ways similar to the saxophone one. There are as many variations, perhaps, but somewhat fewer arguments about baffle, facing and tip opening, and the interior of the mouthpiece tends to the narrow with a square cross section visible through the throat. Unlike the saxophone mouthpiece, it has a cork ringed tenon at the base which fits into rather than over the barrel of the clarinet. The smallest clarinet is the Eb, then Bb and A (which can usually use the same mouthpieces as they are very similar in size), the alto and bass clarinet and even the contra-bass clarinet. Most students begin on the Bb (B flat) clarinet.
Clarinet Mouthpieces - The Choice
The Bb clarinet is probably the most versatile and prolific of the clarinet family, and a very good lead-in to other woodwinds, especially the saxophone - though the embouchure is significantly different, the fingering is very similar.
Excellent student/intermediate Bb clarinets include the Buffet B10 and B12, the Vito, and the award winning Jupiter JCL-631II. Not so many years ago these were the staples of the student market, along with a valuable trade in second-hand instruments (Boosey & Hawkes and Bundy), particularly through schools and music teachers. Now the choice is infinite. So many improbably cheap Chinese clarinets (variable quality, though some, arguably, are very good) make it possible for any child (or adult) to start learning on a reasonable instrument, while parents (or spouses) can be easy in the knowledge that if they haven't sired the next Benny Goodman or Acker Bilk, it is not a total financial catastrophe.
Instrument quality aside, there is a strong chance that the mouthpiece will not be up to the task. Generic mouthpieces may be unmarked (have no identifying facing/opening number), although most aim to sit around a "4" or "5" (taking Yamaha as a benchmark). Many such mouthpieces are manufactured from insubstantial, moulded plastic rather than hard, lathe and hand finished vulcanised rubber (ebonite), thus forgoing the longevity and precise specifications of many branded models. Mould production without proper quality control can lead to lop-sided end and side rails, as if the plastic didn't reach the mould extremeties, or perhaps an air bubble got in the way. This will almost certainly mean that the reed can't seat properly - one of several causes of the "squeak". A badly made mouthpiece may offer considerable resistance to being blown - gasping for breath at the end of each bar is a great hinderence - breath control is a vital part of the learning process. Timbre may be lacklustre, notes shrill, range limited and pitch imperfect (or just plain unpleasant) and the practice shy may become even shyer - making a nice noise is a great boost for any player, and a considerable plus for co-habiting family/pets.
Even a clarinet with a better quality mouthpiece will benefit from an upgrade. Student clarinet mouthpieces historically have a fairly narrow opening, as they are easier for a new player to control and play. This may be fine at the outset, enabling the teacher to assess the player's embouchure and individual needs, it may also be limiting in terms of volume, sonority and expression as a narrow tip opening restricts reed vibration.
According to Vandoren: "The mouthpiece is the motor of an instrument, which gives it its overall timbre and pitch. The quality of the mouthpiece is vital for it allows artists to display the full range of their expressiveness. Ulysse Delecluse, a clarinet teacher at the Conservatore de Paris from 1949 to 1978, was fond of saying that whatever the level of musicians, they could not afford to play with a second-rate mouthpiece." This is, of course, part of their sales blurb. But it is hard to overstate the importance of the mouthpiece.
Vandoren offer a vast range of mouthpieces of which the B45, B40 and 5RV (".... so popular for over half a century among professionals as well as beginners"). are just some of their (very) popular high quality student models. Selmer's C85 mouthpieces are also considered to be some of the best. They are not cheap - and both Vandoren and Selmer mouthpieces will require ligatures and caps in addition, but they can lead to dramatic improvements in timbre, pitch and ease of playing, which in turn could make the difference between happy, rewarding progress and miserable perseverance or desertion.
Yamaha or David Hite mouthpieces (the latter only comes in one standard opening) are probably the least confusing (and least expensive) for a relatively new player looking to upgrade, again, both need ligatures and caps.
The choice of mouthpieces for other members of the clarinet family is slightly more limited - fewer people play them and they are less well represented in bands and orchestras. Having said this most brands (eg. Yamaha, Vandoren, Selmer) do make mouthpieces for the Eb (E flat), alto and bass clarinets, though the choice of facing/tip opening may be reduced.
Ligatures and reeds are the other vital bits of the clarinet playing equation: for instance, the Rovner 1R and L5 Bb clarinet ligatures (fabric lig, cap included) will fit virtually every rubber Bb clarinet mouthpiece imaginable. They can also assist with playing, as they hold the reed more evenly and firmly than some metal ligatures, without dimming vibration. The reed needs to be selected in relation to the specification of the mouthpiece and the needs/ability/wishes of the player.