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


  1. These exercises have definitely helped my altissimo tone. I am not biting with my jaw as much anymore. But could you please discuss articulation in this register. My tongue is high. Throat, neck, chest, shoulders relaxed. But my tonguing, especially once I get above altissimo C# is unsatisfactory.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Alexander! You ask a great question. Articulation in the altissimo - a great blog topic! Too big a topic for a comment ~~ give me a couple days and I'll post an article on that topic by the weekend. Thanks for visiting my blog!

  3. Hi
    You mention applying the pinky A flat/B flat key on notes other than C#
    Should that read A flat/E flat ?


  4. Anon--YES! Thank you, that should certainly say Ab/Eb!! Thanks for catching...

    And as I read these comments I realize I never posted an article re articulation in the altissimo - coming soon!!

  5. excellent article Dr D. Returning to serious clarinet shedding after many years concentrating on sax, and it is very nice to get these issues ironed out. Really enjoying the clarinet these days. Thank you.

  6. I've been trying to work out the altissimo register for a while - things like what fingering gives what pitch, whether it's embouchure or fingering or both, and the like. When I picked up the clarinet a couple of years ago, the squeal was one of the first sounds I produced, and then I discovered I could play tunes with it :)

    But I'm hoping to write something suitably discordant in altissmo for a piece I'm writing on the relatively recent Chch NZ earthquakes. I've got the main discordant voice worked out - that's a blues harp with the notes bending in the upper registers, with a trombone playing disconsolate chromatic pedals way below - I just need the shrieking, screaming clarinet to play between the blues harp discords ... (How many people would use the clarinet for such a purpose? It's not the way it's taught, is it? Clearly not a "legitimate" player! :)

    Wesley Parish

  7. Wesley - I like it! The sound up there in that range could certainly work in the context you describe. I like the idea of playing tunes on that 'squeal' you mentioned :) that's actually a great way to develop flexibility!

  8. Oh my goodness. You have helped me so much!

  9. Anonymous - THANK YOU! I am so glad that this helped!

  10. In addition, I have my students use a sequential set of “g-squeak" exercises that directly deal with voicing. In super-short, squeak on an open g. If needed, regain a good embouchure and focus good, fast air to achieve a strong sounding altissimo d. I also have them achieve the d by playing high clarion c and letting go to open d. They then are required to master switching between g and g-squeaked (with a good strong sound). After being able to readily play between the two notes, I have them practice repeated articulation patterns on the squeak and moving down to clarion c and onto fingered altissimo d. The are more exercises to help extend the range, but these beginning explorations help my students become aware of voicing for the altissimo, correct tongue placement for articulation up there as well as getting rid of subtones.

  11. Hi,
    I have a problem with a very specific set of notes (particularly clarion A to clarion high C, and then less so with the altissimo register), in that these notes always have a "clunky" start when tonguing but are fine once they get going. I'm sure it's embouchure, but I have tried many things without success. The "clunk" is like a momentary dead spot, almost like a soft tapping. Any thoughts / recommendations for this? Sorry I can't be more descriptive. Thanks!

  12. Hi @anonymous - sorry for the slow (understatement!) reply! So slow in fact, you have probably figured out the problem already :) Here are some thoughts: this is likely a problem with tongue placement throughout all ranges but shows up in particular in the upper clarion which is a very sensitive area. Try experimenting with where on the reed you place your tongue while articulating. A slight shift (slightly down from the tip, slightly closer to the tip, etc) can produce significant results. Also check the 'arch' in the back of your tongue; make sure the air is spinning into the mouthpiece across a good arch. Also try for a lighter touch with the tongue; think about interrupting the air not stopping it entirely. In terms of embouchure direction of jaw pressure plays a big role in causing this 'clunkiness'. Experiment a bit with slight (Slight!!) changes in direction of the jaw pressure, so in other words try directing a but more towards the barrel, a bit more straight on, (rarely need to adjust it to point further up but you never know). Without seeing your embouchure (and sometimes even when you can) its impossible to know which to suggest - trial and error it is! Good luck - keep me posted!

  13. Thanks so much for this, this has just been so useful for me. I really wanted to develop my altissimo but I honestly couldn't find anything on the internet that would help, but this is fantastic!