Clarinets Part 4 – Clarinet Technique

Clarinet Technique

            The modern clarinet and the modern clarinetist have some of the most advanced technique in the wind world.  All members of the clarinet family have identical technique (except for some Contra-Altos and Contrabasses which possess simplified keywork).  All clarinets descend to at least a written low E (and the lower clarinets all have at least a semi-tone below this).  As for upward range, soprano instruments and lower (except the Contras) should be able to ascend to a written high C (three octaves above middle C), though the practicality of this note might be questioned.  The sopranino instruments are best if kept to the G below this high C (four ledger lines above the treble clef), though a few semi-tones higher may be possible.  Unfortunately, I cannot vouch for the upper range of the small Piccolo Clarinet, but suffice to say it is probably not possible for them to reach even this high G.

The clarinets that possess a low C extension (F Altos and professional Basses and Contrabasses) have the largest range of any woodwind at a full four octaves.

The only technique limitation on any clarinet is to so-called break.  Due to the clarinet’s physics, it does not overblow the octave, but rather the twelfth.  This leads to a curious range in between the two main registers where the fingerings can get somewhat awkward.  If you are writing for advanced players (high school and above) then you should not have to concern yourself too much with this register and its limitations as the players know how to manage it quite proficiently.

All trills and many tremolos are possible and are quite common.

One curious aspect of the clarinet’s technique that I have alluded to throughout this text is their use of vibrato.  In the United States (and in many western European countries) vibrato is not used at all on the clarinet.  This makes it the only woodwind instrument in the band to not use the technique.  Use this fact to your advantage.  Try alternating between the cool vibrato-less pale of the clarinets and the warm vibrato of the saxophones (or flutes or oboes or bassoons).  These are curious effects waiting to be explored.

Keep all this in mind and your band won’t be “as bland as B-flat.”


Clarinets Part 3 – Clarinets in the Band

Clarinets in the Band

            The clarinet family takes up the most real estate on the band stand.  The original idea in band scoring was to have the clarinets replace the orchestras’ strings, but this arrangement to my ears has never once worked.  I feel modern bandestrators should rethink this scenario.  Instead think of the clarinets as simply another choir, albeit a considerably larger one, within the woodwind section.

Over the years, many different arrangements for the clarinet section have been tried.  A section from a large band in the late 1800s might have looked like this:

1 A-flat Clarinet

2 E-flat Clarinets

24 B-flat Clarinets

2 Alto Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

We can see that this arrangement was skewed towards the higher end.  As bands evolved, the A-flat Clarinet part was dropped, but little else changed.  Then around the 1950s the Alto Clarinet and the E-flat Clarinet started to disappear, but the contra clarinets were starting to make their appearance.  By this time the section would have looked like this –

1 E-flat Clarinet

12 B-flat Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

1 Contra Clarinet (Contra-Alto or Contrabass – but not both)

This is very similar to the arrangement we have today.  Of the mighty family of clarinets, we now only see four members.

I want us to start thinking creatively though.  We have this mass of players (16 in the scenario I gave).  Why not use them in more interesting ways?  Throughout the individual instrument descriptions, I alluded to the fact that many of these instruments can and should be used in a band setting.  I hereby present a more interesting and more well-balanced clarinet section.

2 E-flat Clarinets (one possibly doubling on A-flat)

2 C Clarinets

4 B-flat Clarinets

2 A Clarinets

2 F Alto Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

1 Contra-Alto Clarinet

1 Contrabass Clarinet

In this arrangement, we have the same sixteen players, but as we can see the diversity is double what we had before.  We now have eight different sizes of clarinet and eight different timbral possibilities.  The mass of B-flat Clarinets is now reduced to four instruments.  This will have the added benefit for the player of now being an important part of a small group as opposed to being a neglected member of an undefined mass.  The division into parts for C, B-flat, and A instruments is a decision wholly based on bandestrational possibilities.  Our C Clarinets can carry the traditional first part while the A Clarinets can carry the traditional bottom (third or fourth part), but more importantly, each of these three groups of soprano clarinets can function as an independent group.  Think of quirky, happy passages on the Cs, while we have serious and melancholy passages played on the As.  The two E-flats and 2 Cs can team up for a high quartet just as Mahler does in his 1st Symphony (3rd movement, Klezmer sections).  The A Clarinets paired with the F Alto Clarinets can form a somber quartet of deep passion.  On the bottom end, instead of having only three players in two ranges to support the sound, we now have six players in three (or four) ranges.  This powerful low end is something I have yet to experience from a band.  Only now, with our more perfect solution, can the clarinet family even begin to approach the orchestra’s strings.  Think of dividing each part into multiple parts.  For instance, 1st and 2nd F Alto Clarinet and 1st and 2nd Bass Clarinet.  This can give far more delicate textures.  Powerful unisons can be had by having the whole section in octaves.  I am getting excited just writing this section!  The possibilities are staggering!

Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre for clarinet choir (appears to use E-Flat, B-flat, E-flat Alto, Bass, and Contrabass Clarinets).  Note, there is only one each of the Alto, Bass, and Contrabass Clarinets.  These poor three players are having to over blow to make up for the ill proportioned group.  However, the lone E-flat player is heard clearly.

Vivaldi’s Summer for clarinet octet (1 E-flat (=B-flat), 3 B-flats, 1 E-flat Alto, 2 Basses, 1 Contrabass).  See how different the balance is with a full low end.

Libertango for 2 B-flats, F Alto, and Bass.  Again note the equal balance of the parts.  This makes the 16 B-flat clarinets in the Danse Macabre video seem extraneous.

Young Person’s Guide to the Clarinet Choir – E-flat, B-flat, F Alto, E-flat Alto, Bass, and Contrabass