Sunday, January 18, 2009

Developing your altissimo

We've all felt it...that feeling of trepidation as we are approaching THAT passage. The one with the high notes that just don't quite sound the way we would like. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be that way - we can play in the altissimo with control, with a pleasing tone, with good intonation.

Here's how~~

Let's start by discussing just what the altissimo is. It is the third register. Nothing more, nothing less. When we move from the lowest register (the chalumeau) into the second register (the clarion), we don't give it a second thought. It is as easy as engaging the register key. We should have the same feeling when moving from the clarion into the altissimo. Let's clarify these registers. The chalumeau register is from low E up to throat tone Bb, in other words everything under the break. The clarion register is from B just above the break to high C. The altissimo is everything above high C.

The concept is that if you have a good setup - meaning a decent mouthpiece with a decent reed, a good embouchure, proper voicing and good air support - you should need only to open the second register key to move smoothly into the altissimo. It should require no other adjustments of embouchure or air. Two issues come to mind as we think about that concept:

The first is whether or not all these requirements regarding equipment, embouchure, voicing and air are in place. Although we will be discussing voicing a bit here, the rest I am going to assume as a given for the purposes of this discussion. If you have questions about any of these points ask your teachers for clarification that you have it all in place, or feel free to send me a comment and ask questions. I am always happy to answer.

The second thing that comes to mind is the 'second register key'. What is that?! It is merely the raising of the first finger of your left hand. When you lift it to move into the altissimo register it is acting as a register key. The idea is that although each register has fewer notes, the same fingering patterns follow through all three registers. (One slight disclaimer to that -when playing in the altissimo you must add the pinky Ab/Bb key to every note except C# to help with response and intonation.)

Here are two exercises to demonstrate this concept:

Exercise 1:

1. Slowly play chromatically in the chalumeau from A to D.

2. Open the register key and play the same fingerings. You have just played clarion E to A.

3. Open the second register key (the left hand first finger) and play the same fingerings. You have just played altissimo C# up to F#. (don't forget to add the Ab/Bb pinky starting with altissimo D)

Exercise 2:

1. Play chalumeau A. Maintaining the same embouchure, voicing and air support, press the register key. You have moved to clarion E. Open the second register key (LH 1st finger) taking care not to adjust embouchure, voicing or air. You have moved to altissimo C#.

2. Repeat the process starting on chalumeau Bb, B, C, C# and D. Hint: use the chromatic fingering for chalumeau B so that your altissimo D# will be in tune.

Important: Don't try to reach for the notes. Adopt the mindset that you are going to simply open the register keys and 'see what happens'. This is critical because 'what happens' will tell you what you need to know about your voicing.

Troubleshooting tip #1:

You open the second register key and it squeaks. Take heart - this is not a squeak It is simply a very high note - perhaps one that you thought you couldn't play! For instance a 'squeak' on the altissimo C# fingering is probably a high G, a 'squeak' on altissimo E is probably a high A, etc. This is most often caused by biting or reaching for the high notes, or simply being voiced too high. This causes the notes to jump into the super altissimo, or the very high notes above high G or so. This is actually good news! It shows that you have the flexibility to play the super altissimo, you just need to learn how to control it so you produce the notes you want, when you want them. We'll leave the very high notes for another month...for now let's concentrate on the basic altissimo, up to F#. Work on maintaining proper voicing when moving between registers. Trust the clarinet to make the jump - don't try to help by reaching for the high notes.

Troubleshooting tip #2:

You open the second register key and nothing comes out. Maybe a sort of low grunt, not a note of any type. This is the opposite problem from tip #1. You may not have a strong enough reed, you may not have a strong enough embouchure or air support. If those things are in place then you are most likely voiced too low. What I mean by voicing is the position of your tongue and throat. Are you voiced in an "eee" or an "ah", or maybe an "ooo"? Is your tongue positioned high up, in an arch, or low in your mouth? Is your throat open or tight? All these variations will have a profound effect on your tone and your ability to play in the altissimo and super altissimo.

Here's a test. Play on only the mouthpiece and barrel. Be careful not to block the bottom of the barrel. It must remain free and open. Check the pitch with a piano. The resulting note should be an F#. Producing a note that is higher or lower than F# gives you valuable information about whether your embouchure and voicing are set up too tight, too loose, too pinched, etc.

Practice exercises 1 and 2 every day. Focus on finding the embouchure and voicing setup that allows you to freely move up into the altissimo by simply opening the second register key. Once you find this setup you are on your way to a beautiful altissimo!

We can talk about altissimo fingerings, the half-hole technique and other altissimo issues in future blogs. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments! Don't forget to make requests if you have something clarinet-related that you would like us to talk about!

See you next month,
Dr D

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Happy New Year to all and welcome to the opening of Clarinet Talk from Miami! We will be blogging once a month about all things clarinet. We'll be talking about specific pieces - sort of a masterclass in the form of a blog - we'll call them masterblogs! Along with repertoire, we will also deal with skills specific to clarinet playing, equipment, tips on practicing, thoughts about auditioning/interviewing, landing your first job...the list goes on!

Who will be writing these masterblogs? I'll start by introducing myself. My name is Margaret Donaghue Flavin (known to my students as Dr D), and I am Professor of Clarinet in the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL. I have been at UM for nearly 15 years, and I have to say it is a dream job. My colleagues are tremendous musicians and people. My students continually inspire me. The University, Coral Gables, and the surrounding Miami area are all beautiful 12 months a year (ok, a bit hot in July and August!). South Florida is diverse, culturally exciting, and - did I mention - beautiful!

Also contributing monthly masterblogs will be several UM alums. They are all former clarinet students from UM and are now performing and teaching at the university level. We'll be sure to include bios each month so you know who these talented people are.

Feel free to request masterblog topics. Perhaps you are working on a specific skill, maybe you would like another perspective on a particular piece...we will accommodate topics if at all possible. Thanks for visiting Clarinet Talk from Miami and I hope you will be back to visit us each month to check out the latest masterblog.

I wish you all Good Health and Good Reeds in the New Year!