As a student in the 70s and 80s I had never seen nor heard of a clarinet player using a neckstrap. Oh how things change! Today more and more student as well as professional players have begun to use a neckstrap or other similar device to help support the weight of the clarinet.
Purpose of Neckstraps
The primary reason for using a support is to relieve some of the weight of the instrument from the player's right-hand thumb and arm. Some players begin using a support after experiencing serious physical problems in their arms and hands resulting from overuse or misuse. Others simply want to make playing more comfortable.
In my teaching I have come to believe that the root of many hand-position problems stem from the clarinet being too heavy for a young student to hold properly. After all, if it's heavy enough to cause problems for an adult, it's going to be even heavier for a young person who has less than half the physical stature and strength.
In retrospect, this seems so obvious that it's hard to figure out why clarinetists have not always used a neckstrap. It is possible that many of the arm and hand maladies occurring in today's players result from greatly increased demands or perhaps some modern nutritional deficiency. However, it is more likely that the problems have been around as long as serious players have been.
Until recently, musicians tended to remain quiet about career-related physical problems. Performers feared that word would spread and that a player who publicized a physical malady might be labeled unreliable and not get called to work as often. Attitudes have changed
drastically, though, in recent decades, and musicians are now much more open about such issues. The recognition has caused a whole slew of new solutions and inventions.
When I made my first experiments with neckstraps, I had to improvise because there was no off-the-shelf equipment to buy. Using saxophone as the example, I had a ring welded onto my clarinet's thumb rest and attached to it a standard saxophone neckstrap.
This caused as many problems as it solved, though. My hands somehow seemed to hit the strap, which was distracting and annoying. It was also completely un-giving and very difficult to position comfortably. When the strap was tight enough to actually support the instrument, it felt as if were being forced too far into my mouth. If I made it loose enough so that the mouthpiece fit comfortably in my mouth, then the strap didn't hold enough weight to make it worthwhile.
This has all changed with the Claricord, an elastic neckstrap manufactured by DEG (I don't mind shamelessly plugging a brand name item when it does a truly good job). The Claricord costs about as much as lunch for two at a local burger joint. Unlike that sax strap I tried, the Claricord stretches so that it supports without locking the player into a static position. It can be easliy adjusted--fitted--to the individual player to accommodate adults and young people alike.
While using a saxophone strap requires adding a ring onto the clarinet, the Claricord uses an ingeniously simple idea that works like a button and button hole. The strap terminates with a leather strip which has two slits in it. Just about any clarinet thumbrest will fit through one of these slits when the strap is turned sideways. When the strap is upright, the thumb rest is locked in securely with seemingly no chance for it to slip out. The two slits are just far enough apart so that the strap can be fitted to hold a B-flat clarinet in one slit and an A clarinet in the other without re-fitting the strap. With Claricord there is no need to weld a loop onto the thumbrest or alter the instrument in any way.
That is the extent of my experience with commercial supports. However, I would be remiss not to at least mention some of the other solutions that are available. Other methods of supporting the instrument include:
- long, thin peg that attaches to the clarinet at one end and rests on the floor
- short peg that rests on the chair
- short peg that rests inside a small cup attached to the player either near the belt or chest
- elaborate variation on the thumbrest that helps transfer weight from the thumb to the arm
- harness that straps around the chest and shoulders as opposed to the neck.
Not having tried any of these solutions first hand I simply don't feel qualified to evaluate their effectiveness. Generally they are more expensive than the Claricord and for that simple reason I would try the Claricord first. If it does not provide the desired results, then experiment with the more involved options. Not wanting to downplay these alternatives, I have seen players use them, apparently with positive results.
Personally, I have used one other type of support that deserves mention: a two by four piece of wood laid across my lap. Again before the Claricord was available, I was experimenting with home-made supports. Resting the clarinet on something worked well to relieve the weight, but created other problems. Some things I tried blocked the bell and muffled the sound too much. Items that left the bell open didn't hold the instrument securely in place.
My crude solution was to rest the clarinet on a two by four laid across my lap. This worked OK except for the fact that the clarinet kept slipping off the front edge of the beam. To overcome this, I glued a thin strip of molding to the edge of the two by four. This provided a stop to catch the bottom edge of the clarinet bell and prevent it from slipping off the front of the beam.
As stated, this was a crude, nevertheless, effective solution. It held 100% of the instrument's weight and got me through some fairly tough times I was having with arm pain. While I never used it in public, it helped tremendously in practice. One additional note on using the two by four, the height of the clarinet on the beam just happened to work out for me (I'm 6'). The method does not have much room for adjustment and therefore, may not work height-wise for some players.
The Claricord is an effective, easy-to-use, inexpensive support. However, it is not perfect, and it is not the end-all in clarinet supports. It relieves some weight from the right hand. But, as anyone who has taken high-school physics can point out, there is both a vertical AND horizontal component to the clarinet's weight on a player's thumb. The Claricord only addresses the vertical component of weight, and may actually exacerbate the horizontal component. Perhaps one of the other items mentioned does a more comprehensive job, or perhaps the perfect support has yet to be invented.