Using electronic harmonization with woodwinds

In a recent recital I performed my own arrangement of Ravel’s Boléro for multiple woodwinds soloist using electronics, with piano and snare drum. I used electronics to try to approximate some of Ravel’s harmonies (and timbres), and used what in my mind are three different techniques, which I’ll try to outline here.

In performance, I used the BOSS GT-1000CORE guitar multi-effects unit to do most of the heavy lifting. I did find that it had difficulty tracking my flute playing (though, surprisingly, it did better with piccolo), so I used an Electro-Harmonix Pitch Fork + to assist with that instrument in particular. I also used a BOSS SY-200 to try to create some non-woodwind tone colors. There are plenty of other equipment options that can achieve similar effects, but you’re on your own to read the manuals.

All of this was done with a microphone rather than pickups, which was less complicated for quick instrument switches, but did make it difficult to get relatively isolated woodwind sounds into the electronics, which ultimately caused problems with the audibility of some of the electronic sounds.

The warts-and-all live performance is available on my YouTube channel, but I’ll provide some clearer, isolated examples here. For rehearsal numbers in the orchestral score, I’m referring to the Durand Edition on IMSLP.

Technique 1: parallel intervals

At rehearsal mark 8 in the score, horn and celeste play the A theme in octaves, with two piccolos playing in parallel a perfect fifth and a major tenth above the celeste’s highest octave, perhaps in imitation of a pipe organ’s mixture stop.

To achieve this harmony with electronics, I played the upper piccolo part “live,” and routed the piccolo’s sound into the GT-1000CORE where I split it into two separate signal paths. One got transposed down using a digital pitch shifter to create the second piccolo part. The other got transposed down to the melody pitch and split into octaves, then routed through the SY-200 to turn the sound into something vaguely celeste-like.

Since the intervals are strictly parallel, this is a pretty straightforward use of pitch shifting: whatever note I play on the piccolo gets transposed to the specified intervals.

Technique 2: smart harmonization

At rehearsal mark 16, a thickly-orchestrated ensemble of woodwinds, brass, and strings plays the A theme in harmony. I opted to play this portion on soprano saxophone, thickened and harmonized with a synthesized string section.

Since the harmony in this section is largely diatonic, I used the GT-1000CORE’s smart harmonizer. I added voices a diatonic fourth and diatonic sixth below in the key of G (like a first-inversion triad), which tracks with the notes in the first part of the theme. But there’s a moment in the first part that uses F-natural instead of F-sharp, and the second part of the melody uses F-naturals exclusively, so I used the unit’s footswitches to change to the key of C major as needed. I routed all of this through the SY-200 to change the three soprano saxophones into a string section sound, with the “live” soprano remaining audible in the room.

For the key switching, I set one footswitch as a “momentary” switch, so it changes the key just while I’m pressing it, and another as a “toggle” switch, so I can press and release it and the key remains changed. This gives me some helpful options for live performance.

Technique 3: smart harmonization with custom scales

The smart harmonizer works well out of the box as long as you want to use notes of a major scale (or mode thereof), but at rehearsal mark 15 Ravel’s harmonization is more complicated than that. Luckily, the GT-1000CORE supports smart harmonization with custom “scales.” What this really means is that I can tell the unit that any time I play a certain pitch, it should add one or more pitches that I can specify arbitrarily. I can add whatever pitches I like to each note of the chromatic scale.

I chose to play this section on clarinet, using the electronics to turn it into a 3-part clarinet section. During the first phrase, the melody pitches are harmonized in a consistent way: every time there’s a melody concert B-flat it’s harmonized with a G and an E, every time there’s a melody C it’s harmonized with an A and an F, every time there’s a melody E it’s harmonized with a C and a G, and so forth. I can just tell the effects unit which harmony notes to add to each melody note.

But things change in the first half of the second phrase: melody B-flat is now harmonized with G and D, and C is now harmonized with A and E. To accommodate this I have to create a second custom “scale,” and use a footswitch to activate it at the right time. To finish the second phrase requires a third scale, engaged with another footswitch.

Because of the flexibility of the custom scale system, I can recreate harmonies that use a variety of intervals. With a little analysis I can figure out where the scale changes need to be (basically anywhere a given melody pitch is harmonized in a new way).

Additional thoughts

There are some limitations to using pitch shifters and harmonizers, depending on your equipment. Each virtual pitch shifter and harmonizer in the GT-1000CORE can only add two voices, though by (virtually) splitting the audio signal into multiple paths and passing each through its own shifter/harmonizer I can build thicker chords.

When trying to reproduce specific harmonies written by a composer, there may be some decisions to make to balance accuracy with practicality. Serendipitously, most of Ravel’s harmony translated fairly easily to the effects unit’s capabilities. But there were a few spots where I decided that certain chord voicings were close enough, and that I didn’t need to complicate things with one more custom scale plus the corresponding onstage footwork.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m more interested in electronic effects that give my woodwinds new capabilities, like polyphony, than in just adding some distortion or echo (though those are also fun). Enjoy!

Recital videos, August 2023

I’m pleased to share videos from my recent Delta State University faculty recital.

Favorite blog posts, July 2023

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Interview: Stefanie Harger Gardner, clarinetist and #clarequality activist

Dr. Stefanie Harger Gardner teaches clarinet, chamber music, and music theory at Glendale Community College and Ottawa University. Previously she served on the faculty at Northern Arizona University. Gardner has performed with Arizona Opera, the Phoenix Symphony, Red Rocks Chamber Music Festival, Seventh Roadrunner, the Paradise Winds, and the Égide Duo, whose mission is to commission, record, and perform music inspiring social change. During her time as chair of the International Clarinet Association New Music Committee, Stefanie founded and organized the biennial ICA Low Clarinet Festival and the annual ICA New Music Weekend. She has performed in concert with PitBull, Ceelo, Tony Orlando, Reba McEntire, Michael Bolton, David and Katherine McPhee Foster, Jordin Sparks, Weird Al Yankovic, Hanson, and The Who. Her chamber music albums are recorded on the Soundset label and can be heard on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube. In 2012, Gardner won first prize at the International Clarinet Association Research Competition with her study, “An Investigation of Finger Motion and Hand Posture during Clarinet Performance.” Gardner received Bachelor, Master, and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in Clarinet Performance from Arizona State University, studying with Robert Spring.

Here’s my interview with Stefanie:

BP: What is #womenplayclarinettoo?

SHG: I’m lucky to have a strong network of women all over the world speaking up about female representation in the clarinet community: Sarah Watts, Julia Heinen, Carrie RavenStem, Dawn Lindblade-Evans, Lara Diaz, Marta Kania, Fie Schouten, Kristine Dizon, Larkin Sanders, and many others. We use this hashtag to promote clarinet events embracing equality and to call out events lacking in representation of women and other marginalized populations. We are actively working together to ensure the future of clarinet is welcoming of all underrepresented populations (races and ethnicities, gender diversity, sexual orientations, and those with disabilities). In short, we are a coalition of worldwide clarinetists using our voices to demand change. 

Why did you start #womenplayclarinettoo? 

The hashtags #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality grew out of frustrations that women and other marginalized groups have been excluded in recent clarinet events. In just April and May of 2023, there were at least 24 international festivals with male-only faculty, jurors, or guest artists. 

We publicly asked the organizers and panels of these events on social media “Where are the women?” Many organizers did not reply, deleted our comments, emailed us or privately messaged us threats, or, even worse, said that they only hired the best faculty and artists (implying that women can’t play or teach as well as men). We have asked sponsors to think carefully about supporting these events, and how that reflects on their company and their consumers. 

What are the goals of #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality?

We believe that our clarinet community is made stronger by the diversity within it. Events within our community should represent our diverse makeup and be accessible to all. We are inviting all clarinetists to join us by taking this pledge:

“I am an ally and advocate for equality and diversity in the worldwide clarinet community. I will inquire about, support and insist on increased visibility and opportunity for underrepresented populations; races and ethnicities, gender diversity, sexual orientations, and those with disabilities in events and programs that I take part in.”

Clarinetists and sponsors can sign the pledge at and have their name listed on the website as allies for equality. There are “next steps” to becoming an ally listed on the website as well. 

What are some of the ways gender inequities are manifested in the world of clarinet playing?

Many women in the international clarinet community have come forward with personal stories of inequity, harassment, and even sexual abuse by male colleagues and teachers.

The #womenplayclarinettoo movement has met resistance from some men in the clarinet community. Some have told us to “be more ladylike,” “stop shouting,” or “plan your own events” (excuse me, but we do!), or warned us we are “burning bridges.” Others have threatened lawsuits and changed our slogan to “B****es play clarinet, too!”

Asking nicely or ignoring the issue has not brought change. With our campaign, we are finally getting festival organizers and sponsors to think carefully about their rosters and programming, and getting allies to spread the word and speak up for us too.

What experiences have you had with gender inequity as a female-identifying clarinetist? 

In addition to never having a female teacher or role model, I am often the only woman in the clarinet section. It is rare for me to play with another professional female-identifying clarinetist in orchestras and other gigs. I’ve been attending ICA festivals for decades now, and it has only been in the past 5 years or so that we have had women headliners at the night concerts. I can recall past years like 2016 when there were zero women soloists at the coveted night concerts.

I want my diverse clarinet studio (primarily female, Hispanic, and LGBTQIA+) to see themselves in the performers they admire and want to study with. I don’t want my students to feel like they don’t belong in the clarinet community because they don’t look the same as the teachers or artists in the poster, or that they can’t be professional clarinet players too.

When with my spouse, Joshua Gardner (another professional clarinetist) at music festivals, I am often introduced as “Josh’s wife” and rarely introduced as another clarinet player or even by my name. (To be clear, Josh never introduces me this way, but other males in the clarinet community often do.) 

The low clarinet community used to be very male dominated, but in recent years has been a very accepting community of all marginalized players with the work of Sarah Watts, Jon Russell, and the very first ICA Low Clarinet Festival. 50.6% women low clarinet artists performed at the festival last January.

Has there also been positive response to #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality?

The ICA has taken notice of the #womenplayclarinettoo and #clarequality movement. Many of the board members use profile picture frames, created by Carrie RavenStern, for their social media accounts. They also worked with us to create a powerful diversity statement to remind the international clarinet community that we are an inclusive community.

Where can people find you on the internet?

Where can people find #clarequality and #womenplayclarinettoo on the internet?

Favorite blog posts, June 2023

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, May 2023

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Favorite blog posts, March 2023

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Experiments with electric woodwinds

I’ve been having fun with woodwinds enhanced with pickups or microphones. (If you’re interested in natively-electronic instruments like wind controllers, I’ve written about those elsewhere.)

I still have a lot to learn about working with electronics. But here are a few observations in case anyone finds them helpful.

Which instrument(s) to use? I find lower-pitched instruments to be more fun, since they can provide convincing bass lines. Electronics can pitch a high instrument down, of course, but I haven’t had the success I would like making this sound good. So far I’ve installed pickups into a bassoon bocal, a bass clarinet neck, and an English horn bocal. I’ve used microphones for other instruments.

Which gadgets to use? I’m personally using the Little-Jake pickups, a looper, and a multi-effects unit. When I started getting into effects pedals, I found it alarmingly easy to accumulate quite a few. This was a good and inexpensive way to get started. But I quickly discovered that it was becoming unwieldy to try use use more than a few in performance (I literally had to walk back and forth across the stage to get to them all). A multi-effects unit turned out to be much more practical, with a few foot switches I can configure to operate a large number of effects. (I’m currently using one by Boss.) It takes a little more advance setup than individual pedals, but greatly simplifies the onstage footwork. And I was pretty easily able to sell off the individual pedals to fund the purchase.

Which effects to use? I think the best-known guitar-type effects are distortion, delay/echo, and reverb. Those are fun to play with, but I’ve become more interested in ones I can use to give my instruments new capabilities, rather than just give their sounds a little grittiness or echo. For example, smart harmonizers (which add harmony lines based on a selected key) and pitch shifters (which add harmony lines based on selected intervals) make my instruments polyphonic, a significant upgrade for a woodwind player. And a looper, or even a cleverly-used delay, can create counterpoint.

Here are a few examples of my experiments:

There are eight audio tracks here, but each one is performed “live.” I’m trying to somewhat replicate sounds from the original song: two vocal parts, two guitars, piano, electric piano, and electric bass, plus various synthesizer lines that I’ve consolidated into one. I’m using harmonizers and pitch shifters on the “guitars” and “keyboards” to perform chords in real time. I’m also pitch shifting the “bass” to let the English horn play much lower than its natural range.
I’m using a harmonizer here similarly to how I used it in the English horn video, but you can get a better view of what that involves footwork-wise. I’m using several carefully-programmed footswitches to change the harmonizer’s parameters as I go, in order to get the chromatic harmony that I want. On the A sections of the tune, I’m also using a pitch shifter to double the melody up an octave. The separate bass part that starts at about 0:28 uses pitch shift to drop the sound down an octave.
This is an example of using a looper (the red unit) to layer multiple lines, while using the multi-effects unit (black) to do real-time harmony and some other things. The “bass” part, shifted down two octaves, isn’t as convincing as I would like (you may have to use earphones to hear it).
Here’s a live-performance example using looper plus multi-effects unit.
Here I’m using the multi-effects unit to perform the melody “call” and harmonized “response” (unfortunately distorted and too soft), and using the looper to provide backing for an improvised solo.
Here’s an attempt to replicate one of Paul Hanson’s incredible electric bassoon “hocket” performances (I fell a bit short). The technique uses a delay to create a single well-timed echo, with the result being that I’m only playing every other note you hear; the in-between notes are echoes of previously-played ones. To get the full effect, check out Paul’s video.
This one you can actually buy sheet music for; the arranger, Melissa Keeling, provides parameters for using a harmonizer and a delay (which could be separate pedals or functions of a multi-effects unit).

Switching between clarinets: tone production

Switching to bass clarinet

Switching between any two instruments, even two closely-related ones, is a challenging prospect. You must practice for many hours to do it well. But often people switching between clarinets (such as between B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet) are making larger changes than necessary.

The fundamental concepts in clarinet tone production are breath support, voicing, and embouchure. These should remain basically the same whether you are playing the largest or smallest members of the clarinet family.

Breath support should, in all cases, be powerful and constant. Voicing, even on low clarinets, should be high (think “cold air”). You may find the lower clarinets are somewhat more forgiving of lower voicings, and even that some pleasing effects can be achieved. But a consistently high voicing across the clarinet family pays off in intonation, evenness of tone, and ease of response.

Embouchures must adapt, but really only to accommodate different sizes of mouthpiece. In general, the larger the instrument and mouthpiece, the more mouthpiece you will take into your mouth. However, this amount can vary even between two B-flat clarinet mouthpieces. To find the correct position for each of your mouthpieces, insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. Where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.

Beware advice suggesting that larger clarinets use a “looser” embouchure. Embouchures for all clarinets should be airtight, but not tight.

The angle of the embouchure is also important. Clarinet mouthpieces of any size are best played at a relatively steep angle (compared to, say, a saxophone or oboe), around 30 degrees from vertical. Some larger clarinets, depending on their neck curves, seem to lend themselves to a more-horizontal angle. But bringing the bottom end of the clarinet closer to you helps to achieve a more optimal position.

Fingerings are mostly the same for members of the clarinet family, but there are some exceptions and adaptions. Advancing players should consult a good fingering chart (such as Stefanie Gardner’s bass clarinet chart) for differences. (Or even better, get a private teacher.) Note in Dr. Gardner’s chart some differences from B-flat clarinet: the use of the left hand index finger vent for C-sharp6 through G6, and the special fingerings for the extra keywork for notes below E3, if available on your instrument.

Happy practicing!

Clarinet glissando

There are few more coveted clarinet techniques than the smooth glissando, as heard in the famous opening to Rhapsody in Blue. But the technique isn’t intuitive, and lots of questions persist about how to do it.

(Incidentally: the Rhapsody in Blue score doesn’t call for a smooth portamento-type effect, but a scale with discrete notes. But the portamento became tradition early in the piece’s life and is now more or less required.)

How the clarinet glissando is done, technique-wise

One key thing to understand is that finger movement is the smallest part of the clarinet glissando. It’s not possible (or at least I’ve never seen it done) to achieve the full effect by simply uncovering toneholes gradually. The real work here is done with voicing.

Let’s break the technique down. We’ll use Rhapsody in Blue as an example, but the principles can be applied to other repertoire (or improvisations).

First, let’s look at what’s called for in the score:

clarinet glissando notation from Rhapsody in Blue

Glissandos that cross register breaks are a particular challenge, so most clarinetists avoid that, opting to play a scale in the lower register, and beginning the glissando at the lower-clarion B or C.

High C is the destination note. Start by playing that note and using your voicing (think of blowing warmer air) to bend the pitch downward. Resist the urge to “lip” it down with your embouchure muscles or to let your breath support sag.

Bend it down absolutely as far as you can, until the note quits. It can take some practice to get a wide pitch bend range. Don’t strain; play around with it for a few minutes, then try again tomorrow.

Once you’re able to bend it fairly far, try kicking in some extra breath support. The air column is reluctant to vibrate when it’s bent too far (I’m fudging a little here on the acoustics). Use powerful air, even more powerful than usual, to make it keep vibrating, and see if you can bend even farther.

Now go to the lower part of the glissando, B or C in the staff. Try to bend it. You probably can’t bend this long-tube note, with lots of closed toneholes, nearly as much as you could bend the short-tube high C.

Now play the note, and gradually let your fingers lift, just a little bit, off the toneholes.

Notice that with the toneholes just slightly vented, the note becomes much less stable—or more bendable. Play around with the pitch to get the feel of it.

Now play the lowest note of the glissando (I’m using C here for simplicity). Move the fingers a little off their toneholes (all of them, except the left thumb, which stays in position for high C) while simultaneously bending the pitch down hard with voicing. (Remember to keep breath support strong.) While gradually moving the fingers farther off the toneholes, bend gradually upward with voicing. As the fingers finally completely clear the toneholes, the voicing arrives at its standard high position, and the pitch settles in on high C.

It takes practice to get the fingers and voicing coordinated, and to gain enough control to shape the bend just how you want it.

To execute the Rhapsody in Blue opening, play a scale in the lower register, then switch as seamlessly as possible to a glissando just above the register break. Some players play the scale portion as written, but some attempt to make it sound more glissando-like by turning it into a chromatic scale. Sometimes they also start the scale on chalumeau F-sharp rather than the written G.

How the clarinet glissando is done, taste-wise

Mastering the technique of the glissando, like mastering any technique, is only the first step. The next and perhaps more important step is to learn to do it with good musical taste.

When performing a glissando, carefully consider the shape of the pitch bend. How long is the bend overall? Should the pitch move in a straight line from one pitch to another? (Unlikely.) Should it have more of a curve, staying low at first and then rising at an increasing rate? Should there be a moment at the beginning or end at which the pitch remains stable, or is it constantly in motion?

These are fine distinctions, but important to the character of the glissando. Careful, detailed listening is crucial to the process—be sure to check out as many good recordings as you can, and note the differences in approach. If your intention is for the glissando to sound jazz-like, make sure you are listening to jazz players who use that effect, not just classical players who may or may not have done their homework.

Why it’s a clarinet-specific effect

The clarinet, unlike any of the other major modern wind instruments, uses a very high voicing for general playing. This leaves room to lower the voicing considerably for this special glissando effect. Flutes and double reeds (and brass instruments) use a very low voicing, which theoretically can be raised, but a raised voicing on a low-voicing instrument doesn’t cover as much territory pitch-wise; in other words, it’s harder to raise the pitch with voicing than it is to lower it. The saxophones, with an in-between voicing, have some flexibility here, but also have to contend with large keys on large toneholes, which are not as precise for hole-uncovering as fingertips on small clarinet toneholes. (The keys situation also explains why the larger clarinets aren’t nearly as agile with glissandos, even though those instruments are properly played with a high voicing.) In short, the technique lends itself particularly to the high clarinets, and may be much more difficult on other woodwinds.

Practice smart!