Bass Clarinet as a college major?

I got a letter from someone today that brings up something I hear often: Why aren't there more Bass Clarinet majors? The letter went like this:

I have just found out that i will not be accepted for Bass Clarinet [in college] because it is believed to be a secondary or auxiliary instrument.

This has been upsetting and a big shock to me as Bass Clarinet is my Primary instrument and passion. Do you have any encouraging advice for a fellow Bass Clarinet player and musician?

So here's the deal as I see it.

Yeah, that's a disappointment, but it is still rare for there to be a bass clarinet "major" at most schools. Why? Well, I think there are several reasons, in no particular order:

  • Most schools do not have a teacher who can teach bass clarinet at a college level. Sure, most can play bass clarinet, but can they teach it at a high level, especially to someone who wants to major on it?

  • Supply and demand. There just aren't enough bass clarinetists who want to major in the instrument. Once there are, you bet your ass schools will follow suit. Because money.

  • Schools still are moving away from the "orchestral" mindset, in terms of which instruments they plan to allow people to major in. Yes, many have guitar programs and jazz programs, and of course all have piano and voice programs. But when you look at other instruments that they allow people to focus and major on, they still look to orchestras as the arbiter of what can and cannot be considered "viable" as a career. Running the risk of offending a few people out there, why else would a school possibly allow there to be a harp major, and a tuba major but no bass clarinet major? I mean, there are the same number of harps and tubas in an orchestra as bass clarinets (usually only one) — but the difference is that those two are not traditionally doubling instruments. This is also why you don't see contrabassoon or english horn majors.

But here's the other thing: I feel very strongly that any bass clarinet player must be able to play clarinet at a high level if they plan to have a career as a musician. It simply is not possible to only play bass clarinet and make a living at it. I sure as hell don't.

And yes, there are exceptions: Harry Sparnaay got rid of his clarinets in the 1970s (or so he claimed!), and Henri Bok doesn't play clarinet to my knowledge. But there must be something in the water in Holland, because that is a total anomaly.

Anyway, to sum up: if you want to play bass clarinet, absolutely go for it! Make it your life. But if you want to survive as a musician — you know, making enough money to pay the rent and eat — you will have to play clarinet well too.

So schools may actually be on to something...go figure.