a bass called brenda
Updated: Feb 12
In many respects, instruments are a bit like cars. Sometimes they’re simply a tool to get you from A to B – reliable and exactly what you need 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 in the summer of 2015, 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 in question was an ebonite pre-Buffet Evette & Schaeffer (but only just; it has the Buffet stamp on it) one-piece low Eb that’d been up on Gumtree for several weeks. 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 to this day. 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 with the bass 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, orrrr 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, so I have form.
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 arm-length, possibly even leg. Most of the pads were the colour of a mug of builder’s tea that’d been left out in the sun for a year and some were actually black around the edges. The ones near the bell were (unsurprisingly) not even close to sealing. The right hand F/C pinky key was stuck in its downwards position and had to be lifted up with a finger before flopping back down again like a piece of limp lettuce, as did the Bb/Eb fork key and B/Bb-slash-E/F cups immediately above it. The left hand E/B lever was more interesting still, since even the slightest touch would make it pop out of its housing at the business end, rendering a) navigating the break and b) B and low E completely impossible. Nothing above the break came out without an ear-splitting screech, leading me to suspect a problem with the register key mechanism – notoriously iffy on a bass of this design with the single-vent type even if they’re *not* as broken as this one obviously was. It had no floor peg, or indeed even any housing on the bell to slot one into, which was a bit unfortunate since the thumbrest – less a thumbrest and more a small piece of vaguely banana-shaped curved metal – couldn’t really be described as an actual thumbrest by any stretch of the imagination. It did have two rings affixed to the body for a sling, but one of them had fallen out and was laying in the case – and on that subject, the case, comprising roughly equal parts ancient American tan leather and gaffa tape, weighed a ton and wouldnt have been out of place languishing in a dusty corner of a railway lost property department with something gruesome inside it.
Oh. Ohhhhhh dear...
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, uncharacteristically letting my heart rule my head, I handed over the money and resigned 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 excellent and trusty local repairer, Stephen Butler. Stephen was… diplomatic, shall we say, and if he had the urge to laugh in my face at the state of Brenda, he kept it hidden like a pro, save for a quick “ahhh, an Ebay Special!” Nonetheless he took her in and agreed to do as much work to her as he could for my very limited budget, and the challenge to make her at least vaguely playable was on.
When I picked her up a couple of weeks later, I was more than a little surprised not to see the new pads I had assumed would be there, until Stephen – 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 stripped and dismantled on the bench; as it turned out, the reason the pads weren’t sealing was that every single rod on the bottom end of the instrument – what would be the bottom joint, were it not a 1-piece – was bent, and at some point someone had taken a hacksaw – yes, that’s a hacksaw – to the bottom of the E/B lever, hence why it was popping out of its housing. All of this explained an awful lot about its playability or lack thereof – the poor thing had obviously had a chequered past before I got hold of it.
With that sorted, it was time to get a floor peg housing/mechanism soldered onto the bell, since there was no point spending money to do so until I knew whether the mechanical fixes were viable. A bass clarinet is too big and heavy to be supported on a thumbrest alone and since I have neck problems, wearing it on a sling a-la Marcus Miller was out of the question, so I needed the floor peg; also with the thumbrest as useless as it was, even if I could use a sling the peg was necessary for additional stability in a sort of “belt and braces” approach. This turned out to be more of a faff than expected, since the only peg housing that would fit this particular bass had to be specially ordered, comes in five parts, and of course none of the five parts were in stock at the same time and the supplier refused to send any of them to Stephen until they all were. Naturally, this took weeks.
Meanwhile, with Brenda now vaguely playable, the urge to take her to rehearsals instead of the Bb was just too much, so I had to improvise something to support her on and there began a several-week long hunt for something suitable, which gave me a problem similar to the one I imagine Goldilocks had with the bears’ porridge. The case proved too low and not stable enough. A chair was too high (obviously). A bright yellow plastic box found in one of the rehearsal churches was just about the right height, but, since “appropriation” of stuff from a church felt like very bad form, only of use for that particular band – although I did borrow it for a gig and drape a band hoodie over it to hide it – bonus advertising, too! At the other band, a toddler-sized plastic chair found in the corner was the perfect height to prop her up with, but it was deemed so ridiculous that Brenda had her own miniature chair that the flute section opposite me couldn’t keep a straight face during rehearsals. Finally, the peg bits arrived and back she went to Stephen have it all soldered on – much to the relief of both MDs who were by now no doubt sick of people corpsing at my comedy instrument, and me, who now had an instrument that wasn’t going to fall over mid-piece.
Finally - a peg!
Stephen also sorted out a few more inconsistencies while it was there – some fuzziness around the throat tones, adjustments to the venting around the clarion G/A and a new bit of cork on the neck tenon which had been so loose I had bits of paper wrapped around it to try to stop the air leak which had badly affected the intonation of the front key A. With these minor things sorted, she was sounding better and better.
By now I had fallen so in love with this daft old bat that I’d switched permanently to the bass chair in one of my bands and occasionally to it in the other, and the case – the potential railway station horror story, remember? – was making carting her around to multiple rehearsals every week a monstrous pain in the bum. It was heavy, unwiedly and unbalanced, and since I live up 13 concrete steps and use crutches, trying to lug her up them at the end of the night in the dark when my balance wasn’t at its best was becoming genuinely dangerous. 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 a 1-piece low Eb exist on the market? One – the Protec PB319 – and nobody in the entire country had one. I tried Howarth. I tried Dawkes. I scoured the interwebs. I tried everywhere local. I even considered a bassoon case at one point, but it wasn’t long enough. When I actually caught myself seriously wondering whether a padded fishing rod bag might do the trick, I knew I had to cast the net a bit wider and I finally found one Protec in stock at Thomann in Germany, setting me back another 150 quid on top of the repairs by the time I’d paid for the case, the additional backpack straps, and the shipping.
The day it arrived was literally a weight off my mind, and the minds of the rest of the section, who were by now all following Brenda’s recovery with some degree of amusement; 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 them had they 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 the cloths, the 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.
Brenda gets a well deserved makeover: Before...
... and after. Shiny!
Prior to the latest round of minor surgery, I’d settled on a B45 to replace the mouthpiece-shaped atrocity it came with. It was never ideal but I had assumed the shortcomings of the noise I was making were due to the mechanical issues but once they were fixed it became clear that the B45 was an expensive mistake – a bad mismatch that was causing more problems than it solved (thankfully, it worked brilliantly for a mate’s low-C Buffet, and he bought it off me). A switch to a Selmer C85 courtesy of the nice folks at Jonathan Myall Music in Croydon made her sing in ways I didn’t think she was capable of – a much improved clarion with no squeaks over the break and a beautifully clear altissimo as an added bonus. Hurrah!
So, now all the major issues are (mostly) ironed out. Admittedly it’s a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge; she currently needs to go back to the shop for some more work on the bottom end (accidental multiphonics on the bottom G/F/E and a very clacky left hand E/B lever and she really could use a repad at some point). This means we’re into Custom Tweaks Territory, which is where it gets to be Proper Fun, and first on the menu is the issue of streamlining everything.
Apparently ergonomics weren’t a big thing in the 50s and the placement of the left hand pinky levers, which was never ideal, was becoming a stumbling block. With my repertoire of mainly concert band staples, I’d got away with it thus far, but when Roger Nixon’s wonderful Fiesta Del Pacifico, with its complicated and extremely vital bass part, was added to the spring programme in the symphonic wind band, I knew I had to do something about it. A crucial chromatic passage over the break was completely defeating me because the L/H C# was in such an awkward place that I simply couldn’t reach it the speed necessary to pull it off as tidily and precisely as I wanted to, and the part was so exposed that I couldn’t fudge it.
Really awkward lever placement – look at the dip in height!
Rather than send her back in for more surgery, I started to think about how I might be able to modify her myself. Soldering a touchpiece extension was out, since I have neither the equipment nor the aptitude. I looked into key risers of the kind often found on sax palm keys, but found none available and in any case they have an annoying habit of falling off at important moments. The solution was a DIY job with Sugru – a mouldable glue that bonds to pretty much anything and sets into rubber. Roll it into a ball, mould it around whatever you want to, shape it however you like within 30 minutes, leave it to set overnight at room temperature and bingo – Brenda has her own custom key riser, shaped very high and also outwards a bit so that I now barely have to move my little finger to hit the F#/C# cleanly. I also managed to mod the thumbrest so that it now functions a bit like… well, an actual thumbrest, improving her stability by about 40% and saving me another trip to the repair shop.
The Sugru experiment – which cost me the grand total of £8.99 – has been so successful that I’m now thinking about which other keys I can mod to improve her ergonomics. I expect there will be many and she’ll end up a black and silver patchwork, but I’m so looking forward to seeing where these potentially endless possibilities for mods take can us.
Is it all worth it, I hear you ask? Why not just buy a “proper” bass clarinet in the first place? Well, cost, for one thing. Basses are expensive and while I’d love a Selmer or Buffet low C – who wouldn’t? – that’s just never going to be in my budget. Including the original cost of the instrument, with 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 cost into stages. It’s fairly unique – you don’t see many of these around; I recently took part in a 28-strong bass clarinet choir and she was the only one like it in attendance. It sounds *great* – the ebonite construction gives it a funky edge that I’ve not come across before. She’s not worth so much that I’m going to ruin it if I fiddle around with it and custom mod her to my specifications, which means in theory I’m going to end up with an instrument that plays exactly the way I want it to. Because she’s a project that I’ve put time and care into, I’m very attached to her in a way that I’m not to any of my other instruments, not even my 1920s vintage Selmer alto. And last but no means least, she’s got character – everyone loves Brenda, to the degree that if I turn up to band with only the Bb, people ask where she is.
Well and truly earning her keep...
When I handed over my money that day in Stratford, I promised, in return for a very good price, 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. A go on her has been used as a reward for a 9-year old student having trouble with her Grade 2 arpeggios (she learned them within the week at the prospect!). 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 with my good friend and fellow bassist Sophie Ransby for a feature in our band’s spring concert – rehearsals start next week for that, which is very exciting. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve held up my end of the bargain, don’t you?
Update 2021: After finally splurging on a Selmer (guess I wanted those extra three notes after all), Brenda is now enjoying her very well-deserved retirement after several years of faithful service. She still plays, and every now and then I get her down off the perch just to prove it. When I do, I always think "This keywork is as smooth as the Selmer - why don't I play her more often?!" Despite her new life as an ornament, she is one of my most treasured posessions, not least because I have her to thank for sparking my love of bass clarinet.
I shall never part with her.