A Bass Called Brenda
In many respects, instruments are a bit like cars. Sometimes they’re simply a tool to get you from A to B – reliable but ultimately boring and characterless. Other times you end up with one that may be a bit rough around the edges and have a face only a mother could love, but its personality makes you give it a silly name and fall in love with it. And so it is that last summer, I came home from Stratford with a very sorry-looking bass clarinet under my arm that, with a lot of coaxing and TLC, turned out to be an absolute belter called Brenda.
The bass clarinet in question had been up on Gumtree for several weeks and – let’s not beat around the bush – it was as ugly as sin and fairly genuinely broken, so quite why I agreed to the deal is something that still puzzles me. It may have been because I’d had a frustrating two-hour trip trying to find an address on the Olympic Park that was still too new for the satnav and I didn’t want to go home empty-handed, or because the nice man knocked several hundred quid off the asking price when I told him it was going to be used mainly in community music outfits (true; I wasn’t trying it on) and he wanted it to go to a good home where it would be used and loved . . . o-r-r-r-r more likely because the poor thing was reminiscent of the sickly, one-eyed puppy in the shelter that everyone was overlooking and hell, that’s exactly how I ended up with my two cats.
While it made a noise and was reasonably in tune with itself, the laundry list of Ways In Which This Instrument Does Not Work was at least as long as your arm, possibly even your leg. Several keys were stuck in their downwards position and when lifted would flop back down again like a piece of limp lettuce. Nothing in the middle range of the instrument came out without an ear-splitting screech. It had no floor peg – needed for stability and to take the weight of the instrument – which was a bit unfortunate since the thumb-rest was little more a small piece of vaguely banana-shaped metal. The case, roughly equal parts ancient American tan leather and gaffer tape, weighed a ton and wouldn’t have been out of place languishing in a railway lost property department with something gruesome inside it.
It was a wreck, for sure, but there was something about it. Markings on the case suggested that at some point it’d been shipped over from the US, the serial number dated it to the early-mid 50s and the few notes that did speak had such a beautiful rich tone that it piqued my interest. So I let my heart rule my head, handed over the money and brought her home, resigning myself to A Project.
After doing what I could myself, I quickly realised that Brenda – no, I don’t know either; she just looked like a Brenda – was going to need some serious professional help so the first port of call was my excellent and trusty local repairer Stephen Butler. He was . . . diplomatic, shall we say. If he had the urge to laugh in my face at the state of Brenda, he kept it hidden like a pro and agreed to do as much work to her as he could for my very limited budget.
When I picked her up a couple of weeks later, Stephen – oh, the poor, poor man – explained that he’d spent most of the time he’d allocated to it tearing his hair out, with the entire bottom end of the instrument dismantled on the bench. It turned out that every single rod on the bottom end of the instrument was bent, and at some point someone had taken a hacksaw to it! This explained an awful lot about its playability or lack thereof – the poor thing had obviously had a chequered past.
With that sorted, it was time to get a floor peg mechanism soldered onto the bell. A bass clarinet is too big and heavy to be supported on a thumb-rest alone and since I have neck problems, wearing it on a sling was out of the question. Needless to say, the only peg housing that would fit this particular bass had to be specially ordered, comes in five parts, none of the five parts were in stock at the same time and the supplier refused to send any of them until they all were all in.
Meanwhile, with Brenda now vaguely playable, the urge to take her to band was just too much, so I had to improvise something to support her on. This gave me a Goldilocks problem: the case proved too low and not stable enough; a chair was too high; and a bright yellow plastic box found in one of the rehearsal churches was just right, but ‘appropriation’ of stuff from a church felt like very bad form. Eventually I found a toddler-sized plastic chair that was perfect, but the sight of Brenda in her own miniature chair was so ridiculous that the flute section opposite couldn’t keep a straight face during rehearsals.
Finally, the floor peg bits arrived and back she went to Stephen have it all soldered on. Stephen also sorted out a few more inconsistencies, and she began to sound better and better. By now I had fallen in love with this daft old bat, but the case was making carting her around to multiple rehearsals every week a monstrous pain in the bum. The search for a backpack-style case turned out to be like pulling teeth – and hen’s teeth at that – because do you know how many backpack-style cases to fit this particular type of bass clarinet exist on the market? One – and nobody in the entire country had one.
I finally found something in stock in Germany, setting me back another £150. When I turned up to rehearsal with her in the new case that week, there couldn’t have been any more ‘Oooh’s and ‘Ahhhh’s from the clarinet section than if they had been enthralled by a firework display.
Next up was a proper clean-up with the silver polishing kit – which I hadn’t bothered to do until then because making her look too nice if she was never going to work properly would just have depressed me. After a Saturday afternoon in the spare room with cloths, elbow grease and a fair amount of disbelief – I swear tarnish came off her that had been there since the 50s – she looked like a different instrument. After that, a new mouthpiece made her sing in ways I didn’t think she was capable of. Hurrah!
Then I began to think about Custom Tweaks. One of the keys was in such an awkward place I couldn’t reach it at speed. Soldering an extension was out, as I don’t have the equipment or the aptitude, and key risers of the sort used by saxophonists have an annoying habit of dropping off at important moments. The solution was a DIY job with wonder substance Sugru – a mouldable glue that that bonds to pretty much anything and sets into rubber. Roll it into a ball, shape it however you like, leave it to set overnight and bingo! Brenda now has her own custom key riser so that I barely have to move my little finger to hit the key cleanly. I also modified the thumb-rest so that it now works a bit like . . . well, an actual thumb-rest. The Sugru experiment, which cost me a grand total of £8.99, has been so successful I’m now thinking about other keys I can customise to improve her economics. She may end up a black and silver patchwork, but it can only add to her charm.
Was it all worth it, I hear you ask? Why not just buy a new bass clarinet in the first place? Well, cost, for one thing. At around £22k, a high-end bass is just never going to be in my budget, and even a mid-range instrument would have set me back about £5k. Including the original cost of the instrument and all the fixes and bits and pieces, I’ve ended up with a very serviceable (if a little quirky) bass for around the £1k mark, and I’ve been able to spread the expense into stages. She’s fairly rare: I recently took part in a 28-strong bass clarinet choir and she was the only one like it in attendance. She’s not worth so much that I’m going to ruin her if I customise her to my exact requirements. Because she’s a project that I’ve put time and care into, I’m attached to her in a way that I’m not to any of my other instruments. And last but no means least, she sounds great and she’s got character – everyone loves Brenda. If I turn up to band with only my normal clarinet, people ask where she is.
When I handed over my money, I promised that I’d put her back into playing condition and make use of her for worthwhile things. So far, she’s taken part in a bass clarinet choir and a woodwind orchestra play-day, and been used to record music for a short film. I used her as a reward for a 9-year old student having trouble with her Grade 2 scales – she learned them within the week at the prospect of getting to play Brenda! She’s holding down the bottom end in at least one symphonic wind band, sometimes two, and she’s just about to form half of a bass clarinet duet I’m putting together for a concert. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve held up my end of the bargain, don’t you?
Lisa Devlin is a clarinet teacher working in South London. For a longer version of this article, click here.