Playing flat on the clarinet

January 17, 2014

I frequently see this kind of question asked on online message boards:

I have a Nabisco clarinet with a Palmolive C43 mouthpiece and Marlboro 3¾ reeds. I am 30 cents flat all the time. What piece of equipment should I buy to solve this problem?

The answers are always varied (harder reeds, softer reeds, someone else’s favorite brand of reeds, an expensive mouthpiece, an abnormally short barrel, a specific model of clarinet) and generally completely off base.

On further prodding, the clarinetist with the flatness problem invariably turns out to be self-“taught,” sometimes with some degree of prior achievement on another wind instrument. This is a huge red flag that we are dealing with operator error.

Photo, matsuyuki
Photo, matsuyuki

The correct solution to this problem is to take at least a few lessons with an excellent clarinet teacher. A good teacher faced with this problem will review the fundamentals of tone production with you: breath support, voicing, and embouchure formation. With some dedicated practice, you will almost certainly see your pitch improve (as well as your tone, response, and more).

On the rare occasion that I do see this course of action advised, the poor flat clarinetist often has a number of excuses at the ready:

  • “I don’t have money for lessons.” (You should be able to get at least one and probably several lessons for what you would have spent on that new mouthpiece or barrel.)
  • “There aren’t any teachers near me.” (Have you really checked? The world, sadly, is full of very talented musicians who are underemployed and very much available for lessons. Check in with your nearest university music department, consult a school band director, or even try “Skype” or other online live-video lessons if you must, which are being offered more and more frequently by qualified teachers.)
  • “I already play a different instrument really well, so I’m pretty sure I can figure the clarinet out by myself.” (Learning a new instrument requires much more than a fingering chart and brash confidence. In particular, the clarinet’s voicing technique is unique among the major, modern wind instruments, and doing it wrong will result in—you guessed it—significantly flat pitch.)

Message boards and other text-based communication methods (even books) have their uses, but they aren’t a viable substitute for having a real, experienced clarinet teacher diagnose the problem and make some suggestions. Even if it does turn out that an equipment purchase is in order, do it under a teacher’s guidance—the money you spend on lessons is an investment in avoiding mistakes that are much more expensive.

Comments

  1. Jack Malmstrom

    As usual Bret, I agree with ya 100%. But just for grins, here’s a story I encountered first-hand. A few years ago, after moving from the steamy jungles of central Virginia to the frigid tundra of Nova Scotia I found I started having trouble with a flat horn during the winter months. At first I thought I was going nuts, but just arriving to a gig in 20 below weather and trying to warm the thing up was really a challenge. (Even though I’m of course not playing outside.) So I got a barrel that was a millimeter or two shorter and: Problem Solved. Now I use my “Winter Barrel” during cold-month gigs when there is little opportunity to properly tune.

    Recent blog post: Jack’s Cats included on upcoming album (June 29, 2013)

    Reply

    • Bret Pimentel (Your host)

      Agreed, a slightly shorter or longer barrel can be useful for tuning. I keep a 66mm and a 65mm ready at hand. But sometimes I’m seeing people on the dreaded message boards advocating barrels well outside of normal parameters, which I am certain are being used as a poor substitute for proper clarinet-playing technique, and that’s what I am hoping to talk people out of here.

      Reply

      • Jack Malmstrom

        You’re so right. I hope my story that it took actual arctic temperatures of -20° in Canada to necessitate a 1mm shorter barrel will give pause to those who seek equipment fixes as their first resort!

        Recent blog post: Mixing & Meeting (January 10, 2014)

      • Ed

        That comment is really dead on. I have known of people who go through any range of equipment issues trying to make up for bad playing technique. I have heard of players using a barrel that is 4 mm short to compensate.

        I think one key thing that your site addresses very well is to aim to approach each instrument as a completely different entity. To use a huge tip opening on clarinet to make it feel more like a sax (or vise versa) generally causes a whole range of issues. Even within members of the same family the playing characteristics are very different. But I am not saying anything you don’t know!

  2. Joe Philpott

    Great article and spot on! Getting the fundamentals of proper embouchure and tongue position are something you must get from a good teacher.

    Here is another issue that I have encountered that May tie into this one: I think that sometimes a player truly thinks they are playing in tune even though they are chronically flat. Perhaps they have a skewed perception of what ‘in tune’ should sound like? I have played beside more than one players (amateur and professional) who say they know they are sharp (even though they are actually quite flat). I usually pull out on my horn as much as I can without totally compromising my integrity with the rest of the ensemble. Then…sure enough… said stand partner, upon detecting a change in my center of pitch proceeds to pull out on their horn to make themselves even flatter:-/ Has anyone else experienced this phenomenon?

    Reply

  3. Ed

    A few years ago a guy called me for private lessons. He was an an adult, probably in his early 30’s. We went over the usual routine typical of a first lesson- assembly, embouchure, notation, etc and played a few notes, working off of the first couple of pages from a lesson book. About a week later he called to tell me that he could probably figure out the rest by himself.

    Reply

  4. Jerry

    By any chance Bret, are you a clarinet teacher? I think what’s important is the sound that comes out of the horn. It may not be in the correct way but if it produces good intonation and sound it doesn’t matter how you get there. Your advice is excellent for young students but as you’ve probably guessed I’m a saxophone player that took up clarinet as a second instrument years ago. I’m too old and stubborn to change my ways. I found this blog because I do find myself playing flat occasionally. The comment about dealing with colder weather makes sense to me and I’ll probably get a slight shorter barrel for those situations.

    Reply

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