Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.

The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.

I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.

photo, APMus
photo, APMus

I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.

I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.

I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.

Saxophonists are spoiled by the instrument’s relatively small “standard” range and relatively simplistic fingering scheme. But I think a reasonable argument could be made that the clarinet’s system of alternate “pinky” fingerings is tidier and more flexible than the saxophone’s clunky rollers. Break out the Klosé book and learn to do it right.

I’m pretty sure my tone is okay.

If you are guessing, then chances are you aren’t anywhere near it. You need to listen to fine clarinet playing, a lot of it, on a regular basis, or you’re just shooting in the dark. It’s one thing to have the “best” clarinet sound in the saxophone section, but another thing entirely to have a clarinet sound that stands on its own. Develop a clear aural concept of good clarinet tone through listening.

It’s the clarinet’s nature to squeak when crossing the break.

Nope, that’s not the instrument’s fault. And only non-clarinetists get uptight about The Break. Remember, if your tone production technique is solid and your fingers are moving well, then the break is only significant as a footnote in an acoustics textbook.

It’s a 100% true fact that if you play mostly tenor or baritone saxophone, that makes the soprano saxophone especially difficult, and it’s the same thing when you switch to clarinet.

Playing larger saxophones only makes the smaller ones difficult if you are failing to make the correct adjustments when switching between them (voicing, amount of mouthpiece taken in, etc.). Same thing goes for the clarinet: you can switch between clarinet and any saxophone very effectively if you use proper embouchure, voicing, finger technique, etc. for each instrument. It isn’t a zero-sum game where playing one instrument better makes another one worse. You can learn to play several instruments well if you are willing to put in the extra time.

I’m playing flat a lot, so I’m going to get some stiffer reeds.

Getting stiffer reeds won’t solve your pitch problem, and if your current ones are within normal parameters then there’s a good chance that moving up a strength will make your tone stuffy and your response sluggish. Flatness on the clarinet is a super-common problem for doublers coming from the saxophone. It’s nearly always a voicing issue, and nearly never an equipment issue.

If you expect to play the clarinet decently well, you’re going to have to do all the same things you did to play the saxophone decently well: obtain good quality equipment, seek out quality instruction, practice regularly and well, and listen to lots of fine playing. No shortcuts!


12 responses to “Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling”

  1. Great post! I’ve always felt fortunate as a clarinet -> sax doubler… and pity the poor flautists who try to move across! My son has started learning clarinet and wants to move to sax because it seems cooler, but I’m insisting he develop a decent clarinet technique first.

  2. I’m also a Bflat clarinet -> soprano/alto/tenor sax doubler. I find each instrument is different and demands its own time. I think the time I spend on tenor sax actually helps my clarinet tone through learning to put more air through the instrument. One of the hardest things about a Bflat clarinet/alto sax double is changing embouchures on the fly. Terrible things happen if I accidentally play alto sax with a clarinet embouchure OR clarinet with an alto embouchure.

    At the moment I’m focusing on soprano sax. Soprano is fun to play, but aside from the fingerings it doesn’t seem much like anything else, not even the other saxes.

    Instrument doubling is much like playing different musical styles. I play both jazz and classical clarinet. I have to practice each of them and remember which I’m playing, otherwise my Mozart will have scoops and vibrato and my jazz will be boring.

  3. Garrick Avatar

    Great post. Before i retired, I was a bassoon/contrabassoonist, who picked up a little extra as a sideman, playing bari sax, clarinet & bass clarinet.

    You’re absolutely right that each instrument must be practiced within its own parameters. The techniques, while similar, are NOT identical.

    It was great fun while it lasted. :)

  4. Natalie Avatar

    I’m currently finding it hard to go from alto saxophone to Bb Clarinet.
    I started off as a flute player for 3 years, then I taught myself alto saxophone for about a year, from thence I played baritone saxophone for 3 years, and now I am back at alto saxophone for 4 years now. I’m attempting to teach myself Bb Clarinet, but I’m finding it very difficult. I’ve tried pinching the corners of my mouth, taking in different amounts of the mouthpiece, angling my air a little bit, and nothing is really working. I can’t start below an open G, those notes are too low. Any pointers?

    1. Find a good teacher. Seriously.

    2. What is hard and easy about learning the clarinet? I am a sax player, have been for 2 years, (alto) and found it extremely easy. I want to play clarinet now, and the thing is I’ve been seeing comments that say it’s really hard to switch. So what are the easy and hard parts? (Just wondering.)

  5. Jacqueline Nielsen Avatar
    Jacqueline Nielsen

    Thanks for this post. I found it very useful. I’m an alto sax player and have just started to play the clarinet in a community orchestra. I’ve been playing clarinet for 10 months but only been serious about it and in the orchestra for a couple of months. My peers are sick of my squeaking. But I recall starting the sax when I did wasn’t all plain sailing. I’m willing to put in the work and have invested in a very good instrument. JuSt need to persevere with it. Upping my practice to 2hrs a day.

  6. I liked that post ,thanks for it…I have given time to learn clarinet and flute together , this is my third year and so far I have learned that To play the entire extension of the instrument I have worked my whole notes doing intervals alone …it took me 3 years for the flute , 1 year and 3 months for clarinet , coming from the european Saxophone school I took the Zen approach towards these 2 instruments and have learned so far that breathing is the secret ,second is the tongue…the rest are fingers with Klose and marcel moyse ,quantz….

  7. Angela Avatar

    I started with flute, fooled around with oboe, and then learned clarinet, which is now my primary instrument. I picked up an old student bass clarinet just for fun, but then on a whim bought a refurbished student alto sax. I was shocked that I could actually play the sax (though not with great tone) the first time I tried it. I feel like playing multiple instruments improves my overall musicianship, but I don’t have as much time to devote to practicing each one. It’s a trade off.

  8. I mean I get that if you mainly play the alto saxophone, you’re only used to reading the ledger line notes up to F and down to C, but that’s something you can learn and practice easily by reading/Identifying more of those notes. If you’re gonna play Bass Clarinet/Tenor sax/Soprano Sax then you’re heading straight towards more of those ledger line notes. An embouchure is something you can adapt to when switching between instruments. Bass Clarinet to me just looks like a super long version of a tenor saxophone, while a Bb clarinet looks like a soprano sax. I started off with the Alto sax, then got trombone, then trumpet and then soprano sax and now planning on Baritone sax. It didn’t take that long to adjust to the soprano sax at all. (We’re not gonna talk about trumpet, it’s unbearable and Trombone is not what I’m focused on right now.) And with the S. Sax I get some time to read flute and Bb clarinet music as well and trumpet music. (In High school right now) Oh yea and personally, 2 hrs a day isn’t enough if you’re playing multiple instruments unless you literally don’t have more than 2 hrs of free time a day. I’m going to try the Bb Clarinet to see what all this squeaking you speak of. I feel like it’s a beautiful sounding instrument.

  9. I have been playing alto saxophone for about 2 years now, but I want to play clarinet in my band. I’m a little scared to start, because everyone is saying it’s extremely difficult to go from sax to clarinet…any tips?

  10. I am an alto saxophonist, have been for 2 years. Found this article very interesting! I am going to switch to clarinet in about one week, but I’ve been seeing it’s supposedly extremely difficult to switch..? Any tips? I’m a little intimidated now.

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