Not every piece a clarinetist plays has to be full of technical fireworks.
Easy to intermediate pieces can be equally fun. For the beginner, intermediate pieces would be challenging.
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For this list, let’s consider a beginner to be someone who has progressed past the basic tenets of a beginning band method, perhaps with a year’s experience.
The following pieces are all good choices for someone of that level.
They offer pleasing melodies, and they reinforce several techniques that clarinet students will learn in a beginning band method.
Intermediate students may have progressed to the second volume of a band method or to an intermediate solo method book.
1. When the Saints Go Marching In
This famous jazz standard is arranged for just the first five notes that all clarinet players learn whether they start in the school band or with a private teacher. They are the notes C through G and are played exclusively with the fingers and thumb of the left hand.
The performance notes on this song indicate that the player can alter the rhythm slightly to be “in style” with the New Orleans jazz medium. The player can also change the tempo to speed up and slow down as preferred.
2. Swan Lake
Tchaikovsky’s masterwork ballet comes to life in this charming arrangement for clarinet and piano. This piece falls into the easy intermediate category. The tessitura is high, so the player will have to voice the parts properly by controlling the shape of the inside of the mouth and the arch of the back of the tongue. The higher the notes go, the higher the arch of the tongue in the back of the throat must be.
The technical demands are not overly difficult, but the player must pay attention to the accidentals. These are notes that do not appear in the key signature of A minor. Examples include the F#s and C#s that appear throughout the piece. There is a theory among clarinet teachers that says, “There are two kinds of music: songs and dances.” With this piece, the player gets to “dance” in collaboration with the pianist.
3. The House of the Rising Sun
This piece is quite simple on the notes, but it challenges the budding player to stretch to understand the complex rhythms of compound meter. The student must count the six beats of each measure in two equal groups of three to get the famous song’s rocking feel.
In some of the measures, there are clearly marked duples where the student stretches the time to play two notes in the same time that it would normally take to play three. Whereas “Swan Lake,” being a ballet, is a dance, this famous traditional piece is a song. Many popular music single artists and groups have recorded this song.
4. Für Elise
This is perhaps Beethoven’s most well-known piece. Every piano student learns it at one time or another within the first two years of studying the instrument. Here, the clarinet takes the lead in playing the melody. The player has a good challenge when it comes to the technique.
The movement from F# to E#, or F-natural, requires the use of two different fingerings. In fact, this is a terrific piece for the advancing beginner to use to learn the alternate fingering for the F# in addition to the normal fingering. The requisite patterns repeats several times throughout the piece, giving the playing ample practice at this important skill.
5. Cool Blues
This song is a swing tune, meaning that the eighth notes aren’t played “straight.” They “bounce.” The song introduces the concept of blues harmony, the aforementioned swing rhythm, and improvisation. For several measures during the piece, using the notes provided, the player gets to play any desired rhythm or pattern. Making it up as one goes along is fun!
The best part is that the player can do it differently each time. Every person who improvises has a distinct style. Some players emulate others while others craft their own sound. Beginners who have spent a lot of time learning notes and patterns will be able to let loose and put their own stamp on this tune.
6. Moonlight Sonata
The Sonata No. 14 in C# minor is almost as famous as Für Elise. This arrangement simplifies the key considerably for the beginning clarinetist. This tune is longer than the first five on this list. The idea is to strengthen the student’s breath control and sense of phrasing.
The student must pay great attention to the spots where a breath makes sense. One shouldn’t breathe in the middle of a phrase. A good policy is always to strive to play four-measure phrases. If the student has above-average breath control, then eight measures are possible.
7. Dallas Blues
Another swing tune using blues harmony. This one offers another chance at improvisation but uses chord changes that present the student with different groups of notes upon which to improvise. “Dallas Blues” doesn’t have an accompaniment for piano, though, so it is a true solo.
Players will be able to hear the chord progressions of the standard 12-bar blues as they improvise on the given notes. They can then compare those sounds with those in the sections marked “play as written.” Despite the apparent complexity of this song, it is not difficult to play once the student has a thorough understanding of the concepts therein.
8. Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy
It’s not a coincidence that we keep coming back to Beethoven. He wrote some of the greatest themes for the symphonic stage of anyone ever. The “Ode to Joy,” set to Schiller’s famous poem, speaks of the brotherhood of everyone under the spread, comforting wings of an all-powerful Creator. The student should strive to achieve that kind of sound throughout.
The melody of this piece uses higher notes than the others on this list all the way through. Beginning students should take care that their embouchures are strongly and correctly set and that they play with proper breath support and correct tongue position within the mouth.
9. Mexican Hat Dance
The “Mexican Hat Dance” is more difficult than the other tunes on this list, but it’s not impossible for an intermediate player to learn it. Like “House of the Rising Sun,” the piece is in compound meter. As a reminder, that means that each beat is split into three eight notes that are played equidistant apart in the space of that one beat.
This tune is faster than the others on the list. Presto is one of the two fastest tempo markings. Only prestissimo is faster. Presto is about 176 counts, or beats, per minute or faster. Beginners who work on their technique up to the intermediate level will be able to play this piece quite well, and their hard work will be worth it.
10. Amazing Grace
This beloved hymn sits just right under the fingers of the clarinetist. It’s a soulful prayer about how God’s grace uplifts the singer or player. The beginning player should play it with the same feelings to be musically true to the piece even if the person is not a believer. “Amazing Grace” is also very well-known, so when people play it, others might sing along!
These songs should be a starting point for the students who want to branch out from exercises in their method books. As the students progress, they can move on to easy pieces from the classical literature, such as Karl Stamitz’s clarinet concertos. Also, students should explore world music from many cultures and countries.
There is a whole world of countries with extensive musical traditions that go beyond mere folk songs. All clarinetists, from beginner to professional alike, should avail themselves of all that the world has to offer them musically.
Charles Dalmas is a professional Clarinetist with over 20 years of experience and holds a Master's degree in Music Performance and Music Education from Crane School of Music. He also has a Bachelor's of Science in Music from SUNY New Paltz. He is the Music Director of Sarnia Sea Cadets and also the former Principal Clarinetist in the International Symphony Orchestra.