Understanding and Perfecting Your Clarinet Tone

Clarinet is a beautiful and interesting instrument to play. Whether you are playing jazz, dixie, classical or another genre, the clarinet has tremendous appeal. It has a woody tone with depth, edge, and a rich quality unparalleled.

Achieving the perfect tone, though, isn’t that easy. The instrument, mouthpiece, reed and other factors such as facial bone density and the shape of your jaw come into play. Then, there’s the size of the auditorium, hall, or room. And, if you are recording, the quality of the equipment and mastering techniques become one of the primary issues.

For the moment, lets focus on live playing in a typical high school auditorium. It’s big but not too big. The clarinetist will need to be able to project and yet play the music with a wide range of dynamics that brings people into the performance. There must be a lure. It starts with the sound. Sound is the single most important aspect of music. If you play all the right notes and have a really poor sound, no one will want to listen to you.

Most often, clarinetists play so the sound sounds good to them – right where they are. They hear the sound in their head but never from afar. If they check their sound via recording, it will be different with differing equipment. Recordings are an inaccurate way to check your “true sound” for live playing. You can only check recordings to measure how you sound as a recording artist.

When the sound is good in the inner mind of the clarinetist, the clarinetist is usually satisfied. But, that is only the beginning. Yes, the clarinetist has a mental “concept of tone” That concept becomes what he/she expects to hear when practicing and performing. Reeds will be measured against that sound – that concept of tone. Mouthpieces will be chosen to reproduce it.

But, the sound you hear when playing is not the same sound the audience hears. It’s much, much different. I remember Mitchell Lurie commenting to me many times that if the sound is too pure in your head, it will be too thin by the time it reaches the audience; and the back row – forget it. They will be hearing a thin, edgy sound that isn’t as pleasant as the one you hear in your head. The sound you hear is NOT what the audience hears.

It’s extremely important to determine what kind of performance sound you want. Do you want it to be dark and rich? Do you want one with some edge? Do you like a full sound or lighter with vibrato? Listen to other clarinetists. Listen to professionals. Then, determine which one you would like to emulate.

Next, talk to your teacher or fellow professional and ask for assistance. They are going to be your ears to help you match your sound with your desired concept. You will have to retrain what to expect to hear in your head.

Start by shifting read strength. Usually, change to a slightly stiffer read first. Play around with stronger reeds for a couple weeks. Evaluate how they effect your sound. Take a slightly bit more of mouthpiece into your mouth but not too much to lose control. At first, it might feel weird and uncomfortable but you will get used to it. You should see immediate results is sound though.

Then, open the clarinetist’s box of confusion. Begin to research mouthpieces if your current set-up is not allowing you to achieve the sound you are looking for. Go to a music store and try out mouthpieces. Bring many different strengths of reeds because mouthpieces are reed strength sensitive. None of them respond exactly the same with the identical reed.

Now, you have a mix of reed strengths and a mix of mouthpieces. This is just the beginning. Find a mouthpiece/reed combination that leans toward the sound you would like to develop. Be sure your friend/helper concurs that this is a sound you are looking for. And, be absolutely positive that you are not simply reproducing your usual tone. The tone you want will sound different in your head until you get used to it. Soon, it will become your concept of tone and you will naturally strive to reproduce it.

Once you have a solid combination of reed strength and mouthpiece you are ready to begin tone study. Keep in mind: if the tone in your head is too clear, it is probably not projecting well to the audience. Look for some husky noise (not too much though) in your sound (from your point of listening, not your helper’s). In your mind, you can here some huskiness in the tone but not too fuzzy. But, some of that fuzz is the vehicle by which your tone is carried into the audience.

Have your assistant stand next to you. Evaluate the sound. Then, your assistant should move further away. Soon, he/she is quite a distance away and hearing the final result of your sound. As a side note: when your helper is standing right next to you they will hear some of your air and sound noise. It’s ok. The sound should not be crystal clear within ten feet of you. You’re not playing for anyone that close. You are trying to reach a distant audience with your sound and it must be a round, big, rich sound by the time it reaches them.

Remember, you want enough real sound to be able to reach into the 2/3s section of the audience easily. They should be able to hear all of your dynamics and musical nuances. It should work well from pp to ff in dynamics. Most clarinetists I’ve heard have a sound that drops off and becomes less than desirable by fifty feet away. There just isn’t much left worth listening to from there on.

Learn what your new sound sounds like. Get familiar with it and keep trying to duplicate it every day until your new sounds becomes your new “concept of tone” which is the tone you’ll be trying to duplicate every day you play. It isn’t until you understand and expect to hear your new tone that you have actually changed your tone and have made an improvement.

Keep in mind. Most players that start changing reeds and/or buying new mouthpieces end up reproducing the same sound they’ve always had. That is because they didn’t decide up-front on the new tone they wanted to hear and to have. First, the clarinetist must understand the fixed position of their concept of tone and how biased it is. Second, they must choose the kind of sound they would like to have. Third, they search for equipment that will help them produce that sound. And, lastly, they train enough to become comfortable with their new sound (in their head) of which results in their new “concept of tone”.

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lucia anna
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