"Should I Be A Contra Player?"

"Should I Be A Contra Player?"

Got a question today from Henry Nahalewski Jr., asking the following:

My name is Henry, and I am an 18 year old instrumentalist from Utah. I started on saxophone, and after a few years moved to bass clarinet. This past year, due to a combination of a lack of low winds in my school band as well as inspiration from the band Moon Hooch, I started playing contrabass clarinet. Now that I've graduated, I need to find my own instrument. I'd rather play contrabass, but from what I've read it definitely feels like it makes more sense to just play bass clarinet. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the pros and cons of the 2, especially because its hard to find anyone that knows much about contrabass nowadays. I really want to pursue the contrabass, but right now I'm not so sure that's even a possibility. Thanks!

Here's my reply—I think it's something that would be helpful for anyone making a decision like this in their young life:

So, here's how I look at it: It really depends on what you want to do with music in your life. If you want to "be a professional musician" and make that your sole career, then you might be limiting yourself with the Contra in terms of your ability to make a living. Hell, you'd be limiting yourself with just the Bass Clarinet—everyone I know who plays Bass and is a full-time musician ALSO has to play Bb/A and even sometimes Eb. Now that's not to say you can't specialize. I do.

But look, there was once a time, not even that long ago (the 1950s), when the Bass Clarinet was just as esoteric as the Contra is now; no one played it as a solo instrument. Then a few pioneers came along—Josef Horak in the classical world, Eric Dolphy in the jazz world—and started playing it seriously, making recordings and doing concerts. Then people like Harry Sparnaay (my teacher) started getting composers to write seriously for it, and now the bass clarinet is on the map.

You could be the person to do it on Contra. People have done it before you (Les Thimmig, Sparnaay, Anthony Braxton to name a few) but it's still in its infancy. No one has "championed" it. (For that matter, no one has championed Alto Clarinet either.) If you want to make that your goal, and are willing to put in the time and effort, then, by all means, DO IT!!

Hope this helps. I look forward to buying your records!

What do you think? Should someone specialize in an instrument that doesn't yet have a huge repertoire or following, or should they take a more "practical" course of action? Say it in the comments!


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