Many experienced clarinetists are curious about playing the saxophone. The two instruments seem fairly similar at first glance, but some measure of a learning curve is necessary to learn to play both instruments well.
If you start on the clarinet, there are several points that you need to keep in mind when transitioning, but people who want to “double” on clarinet and saxophone shouldn’t be intimidated by the process.
I’ve doubled on saxophone in the past as a clarinetist and I’m excited to share what you need to do in order to transition from the clarinet to the saxophone and give hints and tips for doubling on both instruments!
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Key Factors When Transitioning From Clarinet To Saxophone
It’s important to know that when you decide to start playing saxophone after first learning clarinet, you’ll need to learn a different embouchere and a different set of fingerings featuring a simple octave key versus the register key on your clarinet that raises the note by an octave and a fifth.
Buying a new saxophone will also cost you more money than if you bought a brand new clarinet.
1. Why Might You Want To Transition Between Clarinet and Saxophone?
Clarinetists may want to try the saxophone because they are interested in taking part in a different type of musical ensemble like a jazz band.
While jazz clarinet is a classic art form, it is harder to find parts for a clarinet in basic jazz band literature.
Clarinetists who want to play the saxophone may also be interested in switching because they want to get better parts in a marching band.
It is much easier to play the saxophone while walking/marching than it is to play the clarinet, so many high school students choose to play the saxophone in the marching band.
- The bass clarinet, as its players know, is not much good as a marching instrument because of its size (in my opinion), so the tenor or bari sax may be more appealing to them.
2. Are There Major Differences in Embouchure?
The clarinet and saxophone embouchures are quite different, but it is not overly difficult to learn to switch between them.
It will take some practice and time, and maybe a few lessons from a teacher or experienced friend to properly form the embouchure for each instrument.
The reason why the clarinet and saxophone embouchures are different boils down to the size and angle of the mouthpiece. Clarinets should be held close to vertically, while the saxophone mouthpieces should be held close to horizontally.
When transitioning to the saxophone, some clarinetists make the mistake of thinking that their embouchure doesn’t matter because it is significantly easier to make a passable sound on the saxophone.
This is misleading information.
On both clarinet and saxophone, an adequate seal around the mouthpiece must be maintained but the embouchure needs to be loose enough to allow the reed to vibrate properly.
For the saxophone, the top teeth need to be placed on top of the mouthpiece while the reed rests on the “pillow” of the lower lip.
This final point is completely different from the clarinet embouchure, where the lower lip needs to be rolled over the teeth.
If you try to play the saxophone with a clarinet embouchure, you will clamp down far too hard on the mouthpiece and you will get a squeaky, stifled sound.
Can You Use Clarinet Reeds On A Saxophone or Vice Versa?
No, not in general. A bass clarinet reed will fit a tenor saxophone mouthpiece in a pinch and vice versa.
The match will not be exact, but it is good enough to get you through a few rehearsals if your reed breaks and you haven’t had a chance to buy more.
3. Is It Difficult To Switch Between Clarinet and Saxophone Fingerings?
There is one major difference between the fingering systems for the saxophone and clarinet.
The saxophone has an “octave key” played by the left thumb, while the clarinet has a “register key.” The register key raises the pitch of the note by an octave and a fifth, from C to G for example.
The fingerings in the lower register on the clarinet are very close to those on both octaves on the saxophone. However, in the upper registers, they are completely different.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take that long to train your ear and your fingers for which system you should be following.
You should plan on a learning curve of a few months to get accustomed to the octave key. Once you experience it, you may not want to go back to the clarinet’s register key!
Play scales and etudes to become accustomed to the new fingerings. If you take the time to practice daily, you will be well on your way!
4. Is It Necessary To Transpose While You Play?
No, it’s not necessary at all. You do need to understand that the pitch that you hear will be different if you have switched from your accustomed Bb instrument to the Eb alto or baritone saxophone.
Differences in Concert Pitch
When you are in a band rehearsal, you will often hear your conductor refer to the “concert” pitch.
You will already be familiar with the notes you are playing on a Bb instrument in concert pitch, (A concert = B natural on the clarinet, etc) but you will need to familiarize yourself with concert pitch for Eb instruments if you are on alto or bari sax (A concert = F sharp on the alto saxophone).
5. Is There An Optimal Saxophone for Clarinet Players?
Clarinetists generally find it easiest to transition to the alto saxophone. It has the most similar mouthpiece size, and it has a more forgiving embouchure.
Be aware that while the soprano sax looks like it is the closest to the clarinet, looks may be deceiving.
- If you want to play the soprano sax, I recommend that you develop your embouchure on the alto sax first to avoid problems; I did a helpful comparison of the soprano sax to the clarinet in another article on this site.
Bass clarinetists may find it easiest to transition to tenor or baritone sax since the mouthpiece sizes are closer.
Bass clarinetists already have excellent air capacity and breath support so they can easily handle a larger sax.
6. Does Doubling On Saxophone Help Your Clarinet Playing?
Not really, though any new experience helps you as a musician.
Playing the saxophone will not improve your clarinet playing but it will give you an exciting new perspective on playing an instrument.
7. Is There A Cost Difference Between The Clarinet And The Saxophone?
Yes, saxophones are in general more expensive than clarinets.
A good-quality beginner alto saxophone starts at about $800 and goes up to $2,700. Compare this to a beginner B-flat clarinet that starts at $500 and goes up to $1,200.
When it comes to musical instruments, I always stress that you shouldn’t focus on a rock-bottom price above all other considerations.
Cheaply made instruments will not last long, and they may not be repairable if they break.
Buy from a reputable brand, and if you can’t find what you want at your price point, look into buying something used!
8. Three Great Beginner Saxophones For Clarinetists
These alto saxophones are excellent options! They are priced fairly considering the years of wear you will get from them.
Also, if they are well-cared-for, their resale value should be high if you decide to trade them in.
Prelude By Conn-Selmer AS711
This student model alto saxophone costs about $1,060 new on Woodwind & Brasswind. Selmer is a legacy brand that has been producing excellent student instruments for decades.
As of this writing (early 2022), Reverb.com does have a few used Prelude by Conn-Selmer saxes for $550-700 that have fairly normal wear and tear.
The YAS-280 is a solid beginner alto sax that starts at about $1,000 on Thomann Music’s website. Yamaha is one of the best saxophone brands at all levels of play. This instrument has a bright tone and durable construction.
Cannonball Alcazar Student Model
The Cannonball Alcazar student alto saxophone costs a little more at $1,500 on their website.
Cannonball is a brand that makes outstanding jazz instruments and professional-level products.
The Alcazar can sometimes be found on eBay or Reverb.com in used condition for as low as $600 if you don’t mind a few scratches.
Final Thoughts And My Experience
Doubling on saxophone is a great way to add some spark to your musical career.
As an experienced clarinetist, you may find yourself in a situation where you would be asked to play the saxophone, as in a pit orchestra for a local musical theater show.
You may be interested in playing in a standard jazz band or big band but not want to wait for the occasional clarinet part to appear.
Finally, you may be looking for a new musical challenge!
I started out on clarinet at the age of 10 and the bass clarinet at the age of 13, and have played ever since. I was always curious about the saxophone and thought it sounded great.
I had the opportunity to play the saxophone starting in high school, where I soon started playing alto sax in the jazz band and baritone sax in the marching band.
I still play the saxophone today along with the B-flat and bass clarinets (bass clarinets having some similarities with tenor saxophone).
While staying with just the clarinet would have been fine, I’m glad that I began doubling. It has given me a range of new musical experiences and allowed me to develop my talent in different ways.
I hope that you enjoy your clarinet to saxophone journey!