A SAXOPHONIST'S APPROACH TO CLARINET
Getting Your Doubling Chops Up
by Tedd Griepentrog
Traditionally, single reed players have begun their studies on clarinet. After developing their skills through classical training, students were allowed to attempt playing the saxophone for commercial purposes. Yet, through the last seventy-five years, the saxophone has emerged as an instrument worthy of beginning instrumentalists. In many parts of the country today, there are more beginning saxophonists than clarinetists.
As these young saxophonists mature and fill our colleges and universities, the small market for professional saxophonists and music educators is quickly filled. As a result, the learning process for single reed instruments is now reversed. Many trained saxophonists are turning to the study of classical clarinet to remain competitive.
The clarinet may be introduced as a double for saxophone players in the late high school years. Music majors should certainly begin clarinet by the early years of undergraduate study. The similarities of tone production, breathing, articulation, and upper register fingerings make at least the initial introduction less foreign than other woodwind instruments. However, many of these attractive similarities often lead to frustration as the player begins to recognize the minute differences.
CLOSE FAMILY OR DISTANT COUSINS?
Most saxophonists will meet with immediate success in initially creating some type of sound on clarinet, due to the similar design of the mouthpiece and reed. The thumbs and three common fingers on each of the left and right hands are easily placed, and a few stunted scales result. For many, all similarity ends here, as the register key is pushed producing not an octave jump, but the displacement of a twelfth! This is usually accompanied by the first squeaks as fingers are improperly placed, sliding off rings and bumping auxiliary keys.
At this point, the saxophonist should step back and begin to approach clarinet as a distant cousin. Recognizing the idiosyncrasies of all aspects of clarinet and saxophone playing is key to overcoming the differences.
Most saxophonists begin playing alto or tenor, which use a neckstrap for support. However, the entire weight of the clarinet, must be supported by the right-hand thumb. Initially, short practice sessions should be planned to prevent a sore thumb and cramped hands. Consider adding a pad to the thumb rest until a callous can be developed. Some clarinetists remove and invert the thumb rest, providing a more comfortable hand position. Under no circumstances should the clarinet be supported by the player’s knees, chair, or the right-hand index finger wedged under the side keys!
Unless the saxophonist is accustomed to playing flute, open tone holes and rings are a major source of frustration. Those in the habit of just catching the edge of saxophone pearls or flopping fingers over the entire key cups are destined for disaster. The smaller body and key mechanism of the clarinet demand that the player keep fingertips closer together, fingers curled, and hands relaxed. To avoid squeaks and indistinct pitches, one soon learns to cover the entire hole with the fleshy pad of the front of the finger. Slow scale practice can be especially helpful in improving finger placement and motion.
Due to the difference in size, the saxophonist will tend to take too much of the clarinet mouthpiece into the mouth. Many are apt to exaggerate this to the point of incessant squawks. Be certain to place the lower teeth even with the fulcrum of the reed. (This is the point at which the back of the reed breaks contact with the curved facing of the mouthpiece—see Figure 1). The opposite extreme, placing too little mouthpiece into the mouth, will result in a small, stifled sound.
The angle at which the mouthpiece enters the mouth is also important. The saxophone neckpipes of all but the straight soprano direct the airflow almost horizontally out of the mouth. The mouthpiece and bore of the clarinet direct the air downward at a 30–45º angle (see Figure 2). The saxophonist must become accustomed to keeping his head up and level, with the bell of the clarinet projecting just past the knees when seated.
Saxophone embouchures have traditionally varied greatly. The French school approaches the embouchure as an even-cushioning “O” which encircles the mouthpiece. Others are more closely related to the clarinet, with the lower lip flattened, corners of the mouth pulled back and down, and the chin pointed.
Clarinetists use a single lip embouchure accepted almost universally. It is this standard that saxophonists doubling on clarinet must duplicate. Begin by curling ½ the red portion of the lower lip over the bottom teeth. Stretch the jaw downward and pull the corners of the mouth back and down. Do not form a smile as this puts excessive pressure on the corners of the reed. The object is to pull as much of the fleshy portion of the lip and chin away from the reed, allowing it to vibrate freely. The chin should remain flat and firm.
Long tones and slow scales are recommended to adapt to the clarinet mouthpiece. This time-consuming process to develop a clear, pure clarinet tone is essential. Practice gradual crescendo and diminuendo, not allowing the embouchure to push up or pinch the reed. Bunching of the lower lip around the mouthpiece should be avoided.
Many saxophonists play reed and mouthpiece combinations which blow very freely. Most attempt to duplicate these softer setups when doubling on clarinet. Yet, playing softer reeds on clarinet often results in a spread, uncentered sound, poor intonation, uncontrolled articulation, and a thin high register. Professional clarinetists use a fairly hard setup, with an average reed strength of #4. Although these resistant reeds may not be required for all doublers, it may be necessary for the player to gradually work up by ½ strength to a stiffer setup in order to improve tone and high register production.
Choosing a proper strength reed is only the first step in dealing with resistance differences. The resistance factors of the saxophone’s conical bore vary greatly from that of the cylindrical clarinet. While the saxophone’s lowest range increases in resistance, the clarinet’s low chalumeau register ir relatively easy blowing. Saxophonists will tend to overblow and spread the clarinet’s lowest E’s and F’s as a result.
The increased resistance is obvious as saxophone players move from open C# into the second octave D is similar, but not as pronounced when changing from clarinet throat tones (G, Ab, A, and Bb) into the clarion register (B-natural and up). Again, slow scale work can be the key to controlled dynamics and evenness of tone.
Years of minute tonguing problems on saxophone are amplified when switching to the smaller reed of the clarinet. These bad habits may include excessive movement of the tip of the tongue; hard, accented attacks; and throat movement that disrupts the airstream. Squeaks, displaced registers, scoops, and explosive attacks will result.
Review the individual steps of the tonguing process and practice “slow motion articulation” on just the mouthpiece and barrel of the clarinet. Position the mouthpiece in the mouth and establish the embouchure, being careful to find the fulcrum of the reed as discussed previously. Place the tip of the tongue on the bottom of the tip of the reed, very near the end. (Do not allow the tongue to hit between the reed and mouthpiece, as this will cause slow articulation and a very high bill for broken reeds!) Also avoid anchor-tonguing, where the tip of the tongue is placed behind the bottom teeth and the middle of the tongue actually contacts the reed.
Begin to blow air from the diaphragm, while keeping the tongue in position on the reed. No sound should result—your tongue, functioning as a valve, continues to hold the reed closed, preventing the airstream from entering the mouthpiece. Release the tongue, as if saying the word “doo.” Keep in mind that the tip of the tongue needs to move just far enough to allow the reed to vibrate freely. Continue to blow, replacing the tongue in its initial position against the reed. The sound should now cease, although the air pressure remains constant. Repeat this process a number of times until you feel comfortable using the least amount of tongue motion required to produce an articulated attack.
TECHNIQUE AND FINGERING
Many of the fingerings on clarinet are similar or even identical to saxophone fingerings. However, it is those unique to the clarinet that will cause the most problems.
The most difficult fingerings to learn and perform smoothly are those associated with the “break,” the transitional range between the chalumeau and clarion registers. While it is fairly easy to find the keys for G#, A, and Bb, the problem occurs in connecting these pitches to the other ranges. Slurring can be especially difficult in the beginning stages of work on this section.
Isolating the interval of bottom line E to second space A can be very helpful in developing a smooth technique on clarinet. When playing these notes, it is imperative that the performer roll from the front E and thumb F to the A and Bb keys. There are a number of exercises included in most method books that are aimed specifically at developing the rolling technique across the break.
Bridging from these throat tones to the clarion register can be even more difficult. Here it is easier to work downward from third line B to Bb or A. The player should attempt to keep the fingers as close to the keys as possible when moving downward. Then when the interval is inverted (Bb to B), the fingers are in position to be replaced correctly. Squeaks that occur in moving across the break into the upper register are usually the result of fingers not completely covering the holes and rings, or inadvertently bumping additional keys. This is one of the most difficult areas of technique to overcome, even for the seasoned clarinetist!
Technique in the extreme low register of the clarinet and in the bottom of the clarion register is aided through the alternate long levers for both hands. Low E/B, Low F/C, and Low F#/C# can be played by little finger of either hand. Experimentation will enable the performer to determine which combination works best in each technical passage encountered. On all but the most expensive professional clarinets, low G#/Eb can only be played by the little finger of the right hand. In many instances, the performer must predetermine the use of the left and right “pinkies” to avoid sliding from one key to another. Feel free to mark L or R over notes that continue to give you trouble.
As with the saxophone, the clarinet has multiple fingerings for high Bb. (Due to register displacement, these fingerings work equally well for low Eb.) The standard side Bb from saxophone (first two fingers of the lefthand, plus the bottom right-hand side key) carries over to clarinet. It can be used in both registers to produce a low Eb or high Bb. Unfortunately, the clarinet does not possess a Bis key, which presents a major stumbling block for saxophonists who rely heavily on its use. However, the standard “one and one" fingering (first fingers of both right and left hands) works very well on clarinet. Additionally, clarinetists frequently use a chromatic fingering (first two fingers of the left hand plus the sliver key located between the second and third fingers) inn technical passages. Again, it is to the doubler’s advantage to acquire as many of these fingerings as possible. The more fingering choices available, the better the chance that one can be found to eliminate unique technique problems.
The extreme high range on clarinet is as complex as the altissimo range on the saxophone. Although many of the unique fingerings above high C may seem awkward, they are in fact more closely related to the other registers than most saxophone altissimo fingerings. A sizeable amount of time spent with an intermediate to advanced method book in developing the high register of the clarinet is imperative.
TO BENEFIT OR NOT TO BENEFIT
The saxophonist who approaches the clarinet with the same enthusiasm with which he approached his major instrument will reap many added benefits. Besides the improved marketability, saxophonists will soon develop faster technique and greater tonal flexibility. Altissimo registers an all saxophones and performance on the soprano saxophone will improve, as one learns to adapt to clarinet reed and mouthpiece combinations. The exposure to original literature in early style periods unknown to the late-blooming saxophone is also an asset to be cultivated.
Through time-consuming, frustrating, and diligent study, clarinet skills will become a welcome addition to the woodwind player’s arsenal for employment. Saxophonists who take the time to treat the clarinet as a unique instrument will obviously meet with greater success as doublers. The musical benefits to be derived from the study of the clarinet are limited only by the amount of time and effort spent learning to play the saxophone’s second cousin.
Copyright © 1993 Tedd Griepentrog
Published in the Spring 1993 Leblanc Bell
Reprinted with Permission. All Rights Reserved.