I spent a few hours last week with a long time colleague. She played in the Kennedy Center Opera House orchestra with me while I was there from 1983-89. I've always respected and liked her, both as a person and a clarinetist. It's been at least ten years since we've seen each other. I was in the DC area for a few days. So we got together.

I'm not much for shop talk. I've always believed in striving for my own ideals and finding my own way. I chose to spend more of my life and time doing other things such as gardening, writing, traveling, reading. Music is only a piece of the whole picture for me.

Lora is one of the few clarinetists I like to talk "shop" with. She had recently gotten a new "Vintage" mouthpiece from Brad Behn, who claims to have recreated the old hard rubber of the famous "Chedeville" mouthpieces from the 50's. I wanted to compare it to my Lelandais Chedeville, which I love, but which is also getting old and worn. Over the years I've tried many new mouthpieces, some of which I've used for months and which are excellent. But I always come back to the Lelandais. There's something in its sound, a color and resonance missing in all the others.

So we started warming up. We have very different tones. Hers is more round than mine, but more fuzzy. Mine is perhaps more pointed and clearer, but less deep than hers. We tried the new mouthpiece with different reeds and ligatures. Some combinations worked better than others. That's another post. But it was fairly clear this new brand of mouthpiece would be a strong contender against the inimitable old Chedevilles.

Why is tone so important to us? Of course, it's crucial to have good tone along with the other skills of a musician, technique and musicality. But tone is not as easily measured. It's subjective. Each listener will have a preference. So will each player. And there are different schools of tone. The French were famous for their focus and clarity, using lighter, flexible tone to express themselves. The German school stove for a heavier and darker, more earthy sound. Karl Leister is one of the great German clarinetists, whose sound is rich and dark. I use the past tense with those schools, because the lines have been blurred by easy access to recordings and foreign equipment. Most players can now pick and choose who they wish to emulate, rather than subscribe to a particular school.

Tone becomes a personal stamp, the most basic way to appeal to a listener. I have always emulated Robert Marcellus, whose tone is unforgettable. But even he once said to me, "Don't try to sound like me, just follow your inner ear." And Loren Kitt once advised me, "No matter what mouthpiece you play on, you'll eventually sound like yourself. So play what's comfortable." ...sound like yourself...inner ear. So what is the ideal sound I wish to produce?

Marcellus described the clarinet sound as "pear" shaped, deeper and wider at the bottom, more pointed at the top. I like that image. I strive to produce a "diamond" dense clarity from my sound. I want a sound which will ring in the back of the hall, even if I'm playing pianissimo. I often lament that I desire such a "clear" sound, because clarity is hair's breath from "edgy" or "bright", two qualities I abhor. Harold Wright had an incredibly dense, pure sound, with no edge. (he played a Lelandais) And his tone was flexible and light, like a flute. Though I respect and love his sound, I still have my own ideal, not quite like his. I want deep, resonante, clear tone, the way my inner ear guides me.

Tone is the Holy Grail. When I'm in the sweet spot, with the right reed, and the stars are aligned, I never want to leave. I just want to feel that perfect sound vibrating, emanating from me. It's like chocolate. Once you taste the good stuff, there's no turning back. I've been addicted for 34 years. And I don't plan to quit.

At one point Lora said I needed more "body" in my sound. She was right. I was focused on "focus" to the exclusion of "body". That's why I like her. She can criticize me gently and effectively. I think she also came away with some new ideas about sound. She preferred the ligature I was playing, which helped focus her sound. I enjoyed and benefited from talking shop over coffee with a good friend. It doesn't get much better than that.

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5 comments for “Tone

  1. February 9, 2006 at

    God Bless your talent and all the joy you bring to us!:)

  2. January 23, 2006 at

    What a wonderfully descriptive post. I enjoyed reading it very much.


  3. January 6, 2006 at

    Hello Jennifer- I also like bass clarinet.

    It’s difficult for clarinet to get different colors out of one “setup”, meaning one mouthpiece and reed combination. I can change colors a bit with embouchure and air, but not much. Winds are not as flexible as strings in tone color and pitch.

  4. January 6, 2006 at

    I love the sound of a bass clarinet, personally – so dark and velvety.

    Is it hard to get a lot of range of tone colors on one instrument/setup? Strings have a ton of tricks to use to change tone color (how close the bow is to the bridge, the speed of the bow, the pressure on the strings, etc.) and I know brass instruments have various mutes they can use to get totally different colors.

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