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Kinder Eb clarinet

Kinder Eb clarinetOrigin: Taiwan
Guide price: £170
Weight: -
Date of manufacture: 2005
Date reviewed: February 2008

A simplified Eb clarinet for young beginners

"Start 'em young" goes the popular quotation - and in terms of learning to play a musical instrument it's a phrase that makes a great deal of sense.
The biggest problem, however, is making musical instruments accessible to young, and therefore small, players. Violin students have long since had the luxury of being able to start on smaller instruments, such as the 1/4 or even 1/8th size violin, but this system of scaling doesn't work quite so well when it comes to wind instruments. A smaller Bb clarinet is no longer a Bb clarinet - it's a C clarinet or an Eb clarinet...and the smaller the clarinet gets, the more removed it is from the sound of the Bb - and thus the sound we associate with the 'traditional' clarinet. It's much the same with saxes...the smaller soprano sax is a very different instrument from the larger alto sax.

But smaller instruments are great for kids - they weigh less and the keys aren't so far apart. They're not so great for parents though because they often sound rather shrill, and they tend to cost quite a bit. For example, an ordinary Eb clarinet could cost you anything from £500 to a couple of grand - which pretty much makes them an impractical proposition for the very young player.

Enter the Kinder Clarinet.
This is what's known as a 'simplified' clarinet. What simplified means is that it has fewer keys than the standard clarinet.
Now, this might sound like a bit of a drawback but there are number of keys on a clarinet that aren't commonly used by beginners - and their purpose is either to provide alternative fingerings for existing notes or to extend the range of notes available (typically at the upper end of the scale). There's also some small mileage in the suggestion that having fewer keys makes the instrument appear to be less complicated, and thus perhaps less daunting - and that might give a young player an initial advantage for a short while. Of course, these benefits are secondary to the main point - which is that it's far cheaper to produce such an instrument, and thus far cheaper to buy.

The body is made from a tough resin composite - standard material for many student clarinets. It's tough, light and durable - and will easily withstand the rigours of student use and won't need much (if any) maintenance. Build quality isn't quite as slick as you'd find on a Buffet or Yamaha student clarinet, but it's more than adequate.
The main body is one piece with a separate bell, barrel and mouthpiece. The instrument is small enough to fit into the supplied semi-soft rucksack-type case which can be easily carried by a small child.
The thumb rest is a simple affair - non-adjustable...but with the smaller distances between the keys on the lower section I don't think this will present any problems.

So far so good, but when it came to the action, things took quite a turn for the worse.
I found excessive play in the rod screw key barrels - far more than would be accounted for with even quite intense wear and tear. This means it was there from new, and is caused by poor manufacturing. Such a loose action never feels responsive and can cause seating problems with some of the larger key cups.
The keys were powered by short, thick stainless springs - which didn't do the action any favours at all. The small keys, the excessive play in the action and the heavy springs all combined to make the action feel terribly sluggish and imprecise.
It could be fixed, of course, but it wouldn't be a cheap job...taking up free play in keywork is very time-consuming, and that would still leave you with needing the springs sorting out (they're too short and stiff to be adjusted with any degree of success, they'd have to be replaced).
I also noted the larger keys were quite soft. This is a considerable drawback for an instrument specifically aimed at very young players, who are more than capable of bending such keys when handling the instrument with less care than that of an older student - and when I say 'less care' I don't mean bashing the instrument about...just assembling and dismantling the instrument prior to and after playing.

Kinder Eb clarinet Ab keyOne very curious 'feature' is the placement of the Ab key regulation screw.
When an A is played the Ab key must also lift, and for a great many years now it's been standard practice to fit a small screw to the Ab key which can be adjusted (once the pads have been set) so that there's little or no play between the two keys. It might not sound terribly important, but nothing nags like a little 'clunk' when you press the A key.
But have a close look at the position of the adjuster screw - it's almost right on the tip of the A key arm.
It completely misses the small flat that's purposely cut into the A key arm, and it looks to me like it's been fitted to the wrong side of the Ab key arm (there's plenty of space for it on the other side).
Then again, the keys are quite small, and it might be that having the adjuster fitted to the other side of the key arm would make the action feel even heavier than it already is (it's all down to leverages)...but you'd think they could at least extend the flat on the top of the A key.
As it stands it's practically impossible to fit any buffering for the screw (to prevent those annoying metal-to-metal contact noises) and the only good thing that can said about it is that it wouldn't cost you that much to have your repairer file a flat under the screw.

In terms of playability the Kinder does quite well. It's any easy blow - the mouthpiece is adequate for the purpose, and I doubt many youngsters will have any problems getting a note out of this clarinet.
Tonewise it's obviously quite a bit more shrill than a standard Bb clarinet, and whilst I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's unpleasant I would nevertheless warn parents that an Eb clarinet in the hands of a beginner might set your teeth on edge from time to time. With the supplied mouthpiece the tone tended to get more shrill the harder the clarinet was blown, but this isn't going to be an issue for beginners who're going to be using softer reeds. A better mouthpiece would sort this out, but that will be more of an option for the advanced player who's looking for an Eb clarinet on the cheap.
The tuning was fine, thankfully. It gets a bit tricky at the extreme top end, but then this clarinet wasn't designed for players who can whizz about in this range (although many a pro has bought one of these on the basis that it's good enough for occasional use...and a 'proper' Eb clarinet costs an arm and a leg). For average use (i.e. anything but serious orchestral work) it's well within expectations.

So, if you're considering starting a young child on a clarinet, should you go for the Kinder?
Well, "Dead man walking" is a rather macabre turn of phrase that describes someone or something whose usefulness has or is about to come to an end (it's often use to describe politicians who've been caught with their hands in the till, etc.) - and I'm inclined to feel that it's a description that could be applied to the Kinder Clarinet.
To be sure, it has a lot of things going for it - the small size, the simplicity, the convenience...but it comes at a premium price.
In recent years the advent of decent Ultra-Cheap instruments from China has made a very significant impact on the market, and there is now available a fully keyed Eb clarinet for a shade less than £100. That's half the price of the Kinder Clarinet. I played one quite recently and was extremely surprised at how good it was, both in terms of build quality and playability.
You could argue that fewer keys on the Kinder makes it easier for youngsters to get started, but compared to a fully keyed clarinet I would say that's an advantage that wears off pretty quickly once the player has got used to handling the instrument (perhaps a few months at best?).
You could still just about make it work with the Kinder in economic terms - if you sold the instrument on once your child was big enough to progress onto a Bb clarinet you'd probably get around half the original purchase price back...but you'd be down a clarinet - and as more of the Chinese Eb clarinets hit the market you might find the secondhand sales potential a bit tougher.
I think given the build quality issues, the sluggish feel of the action and the cost of the instrument - coupled with the arrival of some very real competition from cheap Chinese Eb clarinets, I can't really recommend the Kinder clarinet.

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