Avoiding clarinet undertones: published techniques

Clarinet “undertones” or “grunts” are the unpleasant low sounds that happen usually at the beginning of tongued upper-clarion-register notes (about written G to C, above the staff). They are the lower register speaking out of turn—a clarion G’s undertone, for example, is the chalumeau C.

Fine clarinetists can more or less eradicate the problem, but there isn’t a lot of consensus or clarity among clarinetists about how exactly this is done. I checked some published clarinet wisdom that I had at hand, to see what some of the experts say about what causes undertones, or how to eliminate them. Here are the results:

To prevent clarinet undertones in the upper clarion register…

This listing isn’t comprehensive, so I welcome submissions if you can point me toward published sources. And in many cases I have done some interpreting of the authors’ intents. (Julie DeRoche, for example, lists a number of embouchure specifics in her article, which I have reduced to “Ensure correct, stable embouchure formation.”) If you are one of the authors, or have particular insight into their thinking, I also welcome corrections.

I’m refraining from comment or conclusion at this point, but stay tuned for a future post.

Buy intonation, not tone

How exciting to try out new instruments (or mouthpieces or headjoints or barrels or…) and to find one that really has a great sound! It’s a rite of passage for the young woodwind player, trying out a parade of shiny new possibilities, surrounded by parents, a private teacher, friends, and a salesperson with dollar signs in their eyes. “That one has such beautiful tone!” everybody will sigh.

I suggest that you do not buy that one.

photo, themusicgrove

“Good” tone is a fluid, fleeting thing. That clarinet might have better tone than a half-dozen of the same model because its pads currently leak less than the others. That mouthpiece might sound like a winner because the reed you brought with you happens to mate with it better at the moment.

And your tone will shift as you adapt to your purchases. That new piece of gear might make you sound like somebody else right now, but as you get accustomed to it you’ll start to sound like you again. (Don’t like sounding like you? Develop your tone concept.)

Rather than splitting hairs about tone, break out a chromatic tuner, or, better, a drone, and pick out the one that is easiest to play in tune. Bring along a teacher or professional colleague who has high-level proficiency on the instrument, and have them listen and watch the tuner while you play, then play while you listen and watch the tuner. (This is especially crucial if you are a student-level player!)

An instrument or accessory with great tone but poor pitch will be a constant exhausting struggle to play in tune, and its problems are harder to fix in the repair shop. Gear with rock-solid pitch will do a fair amount of the work for you, and “its” tone (your tone) will improve with practice, listening, and some TLC from a good technician. Shop with your priorities in order, and you will get an instrument that will serve you well for many years.

The role of tone exercises

Tone exercises are useful, sort of. Read last month’s post about tone for a reminder why tone exercises are only part of the process.

photo, valentina
photo, valentina

Here is what tone exercises do:

  • Excellent tone exercises demand solid fundamental tone-production technique, providing a chance to habituate useful muscular actions. Trevor Wye’s “Flexibility I” flute exercise is a perfect example. (I suggest you buy the whole Trevor Wye omnibus edition.) If your tone-production technique is correct, you can play the exercise successfully (in tune, in time, with all notes responding easily). But you will fail if your breath support, voicing, and/or embouchure are bad. If you are doing something wrong, you get immediate feedback.
  • Poorly-designed tone exercises lack that self-destruct trigger. Often the creators try to prop them up with text explaining fundamental technique: “Use strong breath support! Keep your embouchure flexible!” If that kind of textual instruction is necessary to make the exercise useful, then the content probably doesn’t really matter—it might as well be a single note with a fermata.
  • Regardless of quality, any exercise you do with tone in mind is an opportunity to focus on your tone. That’s a good thing.

Seek out high-quality tone exercises and do them regularly, but don’t forget to listen.

Achieving an ideal tone

A lot of the questions people have about woodwind playing center on tone: how can I get a better tone? a darker tone? a tone like _____’s? There’s not a lot of clarity on this, for a few reasons:

  • Firstly, of course, “good” tone is subjective, and trying to communicate clearly about tone in more dispassionate terms is problematic due to inconsistent vocabulary.
  • Tone is made from a recipe of factors, so it’s hard to isolate individual ones. Will adding another egg improve your cake? Depends on what else is in it. Will a certain warm-up exercise or piece of equipment have a specific effect on your tone? Depends on what other equipment and playing techniques you are using.
  • Much of what affects tone is difficult or impossible to observe and measure.

Let’s look at the physical factors that influence tone:

  • Yes, of course, equipment. It’s axiomatic in woodwind playing that your equipment does affect your tone, but not as much as you affect your tone. Still, your particular combination of headjoint, reed, mouthpiece, ligature, barrel, bocal, instrument, and various other parts and accessories does influence in some way the sound that you make. Equipment of good design and construction, and within typical parameters, will contribute to an essentially characteristic tone quality. (By characteristic I mean easily identifiable as a specific instrument by someone with a musically-educated ear.)
  • Basic woodwind-playing techniques, including most notably breath support, voicing, and embouchure. Assuming these are well-trained, they also contribute to a characteristic tone quality.
  • Some subtle aspects of those woodwind-playing techniques that are hard to pin down. These small things determine how the tone fits into the larger world of characteristic tone qualities, usually described poorly in vague terms like “good” or “pure” or “rich” or “buttery” or “vocal.” For example, an oboist’s embouchure puts different pressures on different parts of the reed. Those pressures can be adjusted very subtly using the small and flexible muscles of the embouchure, but most oboists probably aren’t very aware of exactly what adjustments they are making (though they may know what it feels like). Most are also not very capable of passing that wisdom (i.e. a feeling) along to a student or colleague. Some of them can be described in too-general terms (“bring the corners of your mouth in more”), or can be evoked with spotty accuracy through metaphor or through tone exercises.
photo, Tom Page
photo, Tom Page

So, how do you ever develop a tone that is characteristic, personal, and beautiful?

  • Use appropriate equipment.
  • Employ solid fundamental woodwind-playing techniques.
  • Listen frequently, widely, and at length to good music, particularly on your instrument, to develop a tone concept—an aural impression of your ideal tone. In early stages, that might be based on how deeply you have absorbed the sound of a favorite musician, perhaps your teacher. In later stages, it might be a sort of composite of your favorite aspects of many tones that you have internalized, perhaps even things that inspired you about a performance on an instrument other than your own (or a voice). Ultimately, it might be a tone that you have never heard before, but which you can imagine.

Here’s why tone concept is so crucial:

All those subtleties of woodwind technique that affect tone, the ones that are so hard to understand and communicate? You can find them with patient and dedicated practice, if you know what you are listening for. As you have already discovered, your tone tends to change from day to day. This inconsistency can be a problem, but can also be a way of stumbling, even subconsciously, onto something positive. (When it’s a conscious process, your thought might be, “when I hold my embouchure this way, I get a sound that is more _____.”) Additionally, a clear tone concept may aid you in intuitively pursuing it; you already use the muscles of breathing, voicing, and embouchure to intuitively produce a huge and subtly-differentiated set of speech sounds, and for most of those you would be hard-pressed to explain how you make them. If you get comfortable and familiar enough with your instrument through years of practice, you can begin to tap into that intuitive control, but again: only if you know what sound you want to make.

An ideal tone is a lifelong pursuit—invest in yours by listening and practicing daily.