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Topic: Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

  1. #1

    Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

    This is a question about "throat tones" for clarinet players. I'm reading an orchestration book that says "very rapid passages across the break should be avoided". It describes the "break" between the middle and clarino register as being between Bb and B (written). But the illustraion shows the written range of G to C on the staff. So, I'm wondering exactly what they mean. Do they mean not to write passages that involve going from Bb to B and vice versa, or do the same "rules" apply to other notes in the middle register? And how hard and fast is this rule? Can a good player manage this without much trouble? Or does the length of the passage and the frequency of these notes in it make a difference? Is this less an issue with the Bass Clarinet or Eb Clarinet?

    Another book says that fast legato passages in the throat tone range should be avoided. I have a piece with a theme based on an arpeggio that encompases some of the middle register. It is played moderately fast the first time it occurs and faster on its second appearance. I currently have scored it for the keyboard, but I'd like to have it played on the clarinet because there are answering phrases in the flute. It goes too low for the oboe, in one section and too high for the English Horn in another and there isn't enough time to switch. So, it has to be the clarinet if played by a reed. I tried using an alto sax, which is good for the range, but it has way too much color and the keyboard doesn't have quite enough. (I tried organ and harpsichord patches.) Laying aside for a moment the idea that if I looked hard enough I might be able to find a sax or keyboard instrument that I like better, I'd like to know if the clarinet would work because it sounds like just what I'm looking for, but I'd hate to give a clarinet player something that won't be played well because it isn't what he's used to doing in this range.


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  2. #2

    Re: Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

    Being a clarinetist, I should be able to answer this.

    The throat tones are the area of the clarinet that have the fewest fingers down on keys and holes on the instrument. They are in what is often referred to as the "throat" of the instrument which is the area between the mouthpiece (with reed) and the first set of holes on the instrument. They have a "throaty" or "husky" kind of quality which is more prevalent in the larger clarinets like the Bass. The difficulty that arises in the throat tones in performance is that the motion of adding all fingers down from a fingering such as Bb to C is a bit difficult in and of itself. Bb is played by pinching two keys (one with thumb and one with the first knuckle of the index finger), then moving the fingers to covering all the holes simultaneously. This problem in and of itself can be very successfully mastered. (Practice, practice, practice)

    The major problem occurs in the change in quality and ability to make speak the first few notes of the clarion register. Since the notes are "throaty" (in the upper part of the instrument) and all fingers have to be added simultaneously, extreme fast passages may show a few "ghosted" notes (they don't cleanly speak). This all can be mastered and has by all professional clarinetists but it is a concern for even the best at making sure these notes "speak" clearly and cleanly.

    I have to play many passages that cross the break all the time. But I can tell you from experience that it is uncomfortable and difficult if the passage is constantly revolving around this break. And the article is correct, all notes from G to C are involved in this break. G,G#, A and Bb are the throat tones and B natural and C have the most fingers used above the break, so jumping between the G, G#, A, or Bb to B natural or C is considered crossing the break. All clarinets have this happen on the same notes for the instrument. The difference is they are pitched in different key centers. The pitches that are being referenced are the ones that the player reads and not the CONCERT PITCHES. For Bb Clarinets the concert pitches affected would be F, F#, G and Ab and jumping to A or Bb is the break. For Eb Clarinet the concert pitches affected are E, F,F#, G and jumping toG# or A (I think I got the transposition correct, it has been a while ).

    I hope that long dissertation helps and doesn't confuse.
    [Music is the Rhythm, Harmony and Breath of Life]
    "Music is music, and a note's a note" - Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong


  3. #3

    Re: Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

    Well, you learn something every day. Interesting. I played the recorder (long time ago, very amateurish) and I can still remember the problems in just making certain leaps, so I can sort of imagine the amount of practice it must take to get these transitions to sound smooth. It's paradoxical: if something sounds effortless, you can be sure it took a lot of practice.

    Thanks for question *and* answer...

  4. #4

    Re: Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

    Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed response. It's just what I was hoping for.

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  5. #5

    Re: Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

    Just to add a little to this, I learnt clarinet at school. Most woodwinds "overblow" an octave but the clarinet overblows a twelth.
    Things may come and things may go but the art school dance goes on forever
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  6. #6

    Re: Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

    Yes, I've read that. But they never explain what "overblowing" means ... and why it matters to an orchestrator.

    Looking over the passages I was concerned about, it looks like I managed to avoid the break in some of them.

    On the Bb Clarinet, I have a run of moderately fast arpeggios (played marcato) beginning at concert G# on the treble staff and going down to the first concert A below the staff.

    This motif is repeated later, with the second run beginning at high concert Eb on the staff, going down to concert F#, G, then skipping the break and going to concert C on the staff.

    I'm wondering if something like this would actually work in practice -- skipping over the problem fingerings -- or is it just a bad idea to have any sort of run moving into and out of the throat tones with any regularity?

    I also have, in my notebook, "avoid octave skips" in the Bb Clarinet. I don't remember where I got that advice and don't know how seriously to take it. Are there exceptions?


    [NOTE - While orchestrating this piece, I have stuck to concert pitch for every instrument, for the sake of simplicity and clarity, with the idea that I would make the transpositions when finished, before printing the manuscripts.]

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  7. #7

    Re: Clarinet Throat Tones and Break

    The clarinets register change is, indeed, a 12th and not an octave. The term "overblow" is not quite precise. It doesn't necessarily mean the player has to blow harder to get the higher notes. As a matter of fact, it takes much less effort to do so. The term "overblow" comes from the register change idea of the "over tone" series of the registers. The normal over tone series is given for a set of fingerings and especially on brass instruments. An open fingering (no fingers pushing valves) would be a Bb concert pitch (middle Bb4). The next note "over" that would be and octave higher Bb (Bb5), then the next would be F6, then A6, etc. This is part of the natural over tone series that is even found in nature.

    The clarinets overtone series is a 12th. It's lowest note is concert D4 (normally, though some clarinets are made with a low concert Db key). [Oh, and I am assuming here that middle C is a C5.] So the register jump for the same fingering of D4 on the clarinet would become a A5.

    I would not think of the register changes as "overblows" but over tones of the same basic fingering.

    As for the problem of the throat tones and difficulty of playing across that "break" from throat tones to the upper register and back again, I wouldn't overly worry about it. Most of those explanations about the difficulty are overstated. I have been playing clarinet for a very long time (since 1958) and once I mastered (literally with a Masters in Performance from Northwestern Univ.) the clarinet, I don't find any more difficulty with the "break" and throat tones than any other difficult passage that a composer can devise.

    Write the piece the way you want to and let the performer learn how to perform it. (Except for me, don't write octaves [I hate octaves ]. Oh, and I hate chromatics in thirds. ) And if you asked a dozen clarinet players, they would all tell you different types of passages that are difficult for them to play.

    I once had a professor of composition that said, It is not the composer's job to meet the demands of musicians, it is the musicians job to meet the demands of the composer. I believe I remember correctly that it was said in a masters class with Pierre Boulez, but I am not sure if it was the college professor or Pierre that said it.

    Okay, you can stop yawning now. I am finished with my dissertation.
    [Music is the Rhythm, Harmony and Breath of Life]
    "Music is music, and a note's a note" - Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong


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