Excuse Me, What’s That Instrument You’re Playing?

October 28, 2010 at 9:00 am | Posted in Clarinet, Humor | 1 Comment

Frequently after concerts, someone comes up to me and asks me what my instrument is. They do this because it’s fairly visible, sticking above my head, and because they don’t recall seeing anything like it before.  So, I thought I’d make my instrument the subject for my initial blog post. And, it will more than likely factor into many of my subsequent posts.

I play…the giant paperclip.

OK, so it’s not a giant paperclip, or any kind of paperclip, but it looks like one. You might also think it resembles something from under your kitchen sink. But I certainly try to make it sound better than anything you’d find under there.

It’s actually a contrabass clarinet, the largest and lowest active member of the clarinet family.
Many may not realize that clarinets have a family, but they do. It’s a fairly large family, especially if you include the long-lost cousins. The Indiana Wind Symphony uses several family members: the E-flat and B-flat sopranos, the alto, the bass, and the contrabass. The B-flat sopranos are the ones commonly referred to simply as “clarinets.” The rest require qualifiers. For example, if a conductor says “Let’s hear the clarinets starting at Measure 21,” I know he’s not looking for me to play. When he does refer to my instrument, he usually shortens its name to where it sounds as though I’m a Nicaraguan rebel, possibly even one who is lousy at camouflage. “The contra needs to blend in more.”

My contra—er, contrabass clarinet—is wound up like a paperclip for no other reason than the fact that it’s made of about 8 feet of tubing. If it was straightened out, I’d have to sit on top of a ladder to play it, although I guess it could be held horizontally, in which case it would stick through the two rows of musicians in front of me. Contras do come in other, less amusing shapes, but they’re all basically the same instrument.

However, not all band compositions include contrabass clarinet parts, so I occasionally end up playing a bass saxophone part, if there is one of those. When neither exists, I play bass clarinet.

Well, now that I’ve introduced my instrument (well, one of my instruments) through this post, I realize it’s likely that fewer people will be coming up to me after concerts to ask me what it is, which is unfortunate, because I enjoy the attention. It lets me know they noticed my instrument—maybe not what it sounds like, but at least what it looks like.


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  1. I played contrabass in high school and I got asked all the time what it was. It’s a fun horn to play but when they see a giant paperclip, you get funny looks.

    I’m currently looking for a reasonably priced contrabass (paperclip) to play in my community band. Alas, I’m not having any luck. :-/

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