Clarinet Craziness

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Let me get this out of the way first: a few days ago, I was chatting with me owd Furniture College mate Jim, he’d noted my bright red clarinet. Knowing his keyboards, he remarked that they were probably a good fit alongside synths. I responded, yeah, and that I thought clarinets produced (something you could approximate with) a sawtooth wave. Wrong wrong wrong. They act more like a tube closed at one end (gob, reed), hence only odd harmonics, much better approximated with a square wave.

An oddness that follows from the closed tube is that unlike if you do that thing like overblow on a whistle, pluck hard on a string, you don’t get the octave (2f) but the 12th (3f). There’s a key you press that makes it go squaaak! Sorry, I’m only very slowly beginning to get the hang here.

Delightful terminology : the things can cover 4 octaves (!), registers being chalumeau (bassy bits, the sounds you’d intuitively expect, named after a predecessor instrument that was less weird), clarion/clarino (named because it kinda sounds like a trumpet if you were a long, long, long way away, dogs upset already) and altissimo (logical name, but for me so far means a hemisphere of death – beware birds & James Webb telescope).


I was given a clarinet for my birthday a couple of weeks ago. I’m having a go at learning it properly, as opposed to the mostly by-ear keyboard (button-pushing) electric guitar (to 11) I’ve done in the past.

I intend to periodically post about my progress here and over on YouTube to give myself a bit of imaginary peer pressure to keep me on track. (I’ve already posted a couple of vids : Parp! and Clarinet pun).

I’m still at the stage of struggling to get clearish tones out of the thing, C major scale. Amazed by my sheer ignorance of the things. The biggest general misconception I had was about them being fairly linear. Lots of complicated-looking mechanical keys, but, I thought, essentially just a pretty simple tube. Hah!


I’m hopeless at reading music (a major target for me here) so hunted around for tunes I recognised, know how they are meant to sound. A tune that immediately appeared was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (YouTube). I recognised the piece all right, but it had never occurred to me that the intro was clarinet. How on earth did he do that!?!??

Searching on that query, I found an academic paper : How to play the first bar of Rhapsody in Blue.

Yeah, ‘…the first bar…’.

Here’s an excerpt :

Interesting paper. Turns out two entirely different techniques are employed : finger-slurring (ps. smear, not slur) and throat resonance. The practicalities are described in this video : How to play Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” opening clarinet solo. Mad stuff.

It got even more bonkers last night when I discovered there’s a thing called ‘multiphonics


It took me a long time to find any tutorial videos that I could get along with. (Is my bad. To put it into perspective, I’ve found zero tutorial folks I’ve liked on guitar, only a couple of lead solder-poisoned sociopaths around electronica). There are lots of beginner-oriented vids, but most I tried I was bored before I’d learnt anything, and that was on week one. Praise be, I have found 2 or 3 that I think will work for me. On the advanced side, There Be Monsters.

That closed tube with lots of holes [insert something filthy]. Turns out that you can do an externalised version of polyphonic overtone singing (known mostly from the Tibetan bits of 1980’s, patronising in retrospect World Music tapes). You can fire up two or more tones at the same time in a moderately predictable way.

Two notes at a time!? Yeah but, they tend not to be harmonically related. Most sound really, really horrible. In a good way. Effectively two tubes. Lots of beating, interference, sum+difference freqs. Think a Geordie doing Dalek voices. But the ones I’ve tried are like playing a normal note in terms of difficulty. Really interesting shifts when you do the slightest body change. Still mostly horrible, but appeals to my Synthi side.

A rather wonderful clarinetist/composer Heather Roche has a database of 208+ of these things. Mostly sound foghorn, but I find it amazing/amusing that with less that 2 weeks experience I can recreate some of these mostly bloody awful noises.

Bell End

So I’m working on C major, posture and embouchure (gob). I thought I’d have trouble remembering the fingering, so many keys, but my main issues so far are more down to mouth, breath and general attitude to life. My lungs are quite rubbish too, so can only play about for 10-15 mins a go. And my top front teeth are capped (a post-grappa incident I’d rather not talk about here). Last night my mouth ached all over, maybe things I should have worked through better as a teenager.

My clarinet is one of the mightily mass-produced ones out of China. Best present ever. While I was hunting for a clue on where to start with it, found a vid : Just how bad… which features an expert player and an engineer (/player) reviewing cheap-end Chinese machines. Turns out very positive. In their playing, listening tests (forget that mostly – youtube audio on laptop, innit), playability tests, remarkably comparable to the $1000+ machines. But notably both of them went straight to using a different mouthpiece. Is clearly a critical part. So out of curiosity (maybe it makes things easier?) I’ve ordered a mezzo-quality used one for about $25 from eBay, due soon.

Next installment, Rhapsody in Infra-Red…

PS. One thing I forgot to mention that is significant to a new clarinet player. The notes that are written down are not the real ones. Bb is written as C. Transposing instrument, so it works well with the orchestra and music reading. Not a piano, guitar or any other normal instrument that you might wish to play in tune with.

PPS. I’ve been staring at a screen a lot tonight, couldn’t face looking at notes on print to practice simple moves. Found that Tangerine Dream works. Three or four notes repeated ad infinitum. (Arpeggios are year two, yeah?).


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