Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

March 8, 2014

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!

Comments

  1. Andrew

    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.

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  2. Jim K

    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.

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  3. Garrick

    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. :)

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