Would you like to play a simple, versatile instrument with a good clarinet sound that’s light and easy to carry around and works great for playing jazz and folk? Yes?- then you need a chalumeau. This isn’t, as you may think, some newfangled instrument but, rather, a very old one. The chalumeau seems to have been the forerunner of the clarinet. It is a a recorder-like instrument but played with a single reed. It was essentially a diatonic instrument with a range of a ninth and came in various sizes, each producing the notes of a different scale. Some chalumeaux have pairs of half-holes for the lower notes, as do recorders, and this allows for some chromatic notes. Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with adding one or two keys and, eventually, this led to the instrument we recognise today as a clarinet.
Early music afficionados have often had reproductions made of chalumeaux and early clarinets. Naturally, these were expensive to produce and so were available only to a small circle of people. Then, a few years ago, a British firm created a chalumeau tailor-made for the “Wider Opportunities” scheme introduced in UK schools. This was a very modestly priced instrument in one piece and virtually indestructible. I blogged about it in my post “Chalumeau Clarinets and Wider Opportunities” There are now several thousand of these instruments in use in UK schools. It is not only children who can benefit from these instruments, though. Anyone who wants to achieve a clarinet sound without the weight and complexity of the modern instrument will appreciate this alternative.
Having no keys and rings, the chalumeau responds much more readily to pitch modifications as practised in jazz and many folk music styles. Several instrument manufacturers have created their own versions, with or without one or two keys to extend the range. Online stores for folk instruments are good places to look for them initially.
To whet your appetite and demonstrate its versatility, here’s the response of clarinetist Heribert Eckert when he encountered one at a trade fair: