Clarinet Tone Talk 5: Schubert Octet Adagio

clarinet tone talk, schubert octetFor this Clarinet Tone Talk I offer two short samples of the opening of Schubert's Octet in F (Op Post. 166, D 803).

The gorgeous opening of the second movement Adagio begins from nothing, with the clarinet emerging to define the key of Bb.

The first tone sample is of a modern clarinet. The tone is lovely; it's centered, ringing, pure. It seems to come from inside my head!

The second sample is played on a reproduction of a clarinet from Schubert's time. The sound is a bit more open; some would say spready or hollow. But I hear it as more like a voice than the first, more singing.

In the past I would not have liked the kind of tone produced by the old style instrument, but thanks to performances like this, with its emotional clarity and pure velvety tone, I like it as much as (if not more than) the modern clarinet.

What is your take on the two tones? Do you think performances like the second on a period instrument have influenced the overall concept of clarinet tone?

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20 comments for “Clarinet Tone Talk 5: Schubert Octet Adagio

  1. October 21, 2010 at

    Wasn't able to comment until this morning; enjoying the discussion above. My $.02 would've been that modern players are influenced more by period players' phrasing than by their tone. I'll reconsider, since we can be such chameleons of sound.

    • October 21, 2010 at

      Hey Ed- excellent point. I have definitely been influenced by period phrasing. But I would gently argue that phrasing also involves colors and variety in tone, flexibility, if you will.

  2. October 20, 2010 at

    The second in my opinion is much more dynamic, and pleasing to the ear. It seems to get the message across more clearly.

  3. October 19, 2010 at

    Excellent observations John. I, too used to think I had to accept that clarinet tone must be edgy in loud passages. But I must admit that I have found a way to have your cake and eat it too! It involves learning to play and voice every note from "above" (a combination of suspended support and a "tall" soft palette. I have also found that by forming the air into a "ring" like a doughnut, with the tongue in the middle, it allows a ringy pingy sound even in loud passages. If you say "YO", your tongue is probably in the correct position. One other ingredient is the hardest to describe; the air cavity can be shaped to create a resistance, as in a "whispered ahh" which adds to the spring in the air, keeping it from "pressing" on the sound. It feels a bit as if you are hissing while you play.

    • John Peacock
      October 20, 2010 at

      David: I've always struggled to understand descriptions like these, which leave me thinking there's a whole dimension to playing that's passing me by. I find it very difficult to see that there's much freedom about where you put your tongue: certainly if you are actually tonguing the reed, that action dominates, and it has to be a certain shape. And I don't think anyone would want to have their sound change a lot depending on whether or not they are playing legato (OK if you shift to stacatissimo, perhaps, but mezzo-staccato should be capable of being almost indiscernable). Even when I've abandoned the idea of tonguing and waggled my tongue to extreme positions and imagined saying various vowels, I could never convince myself it was making much of a difference – certainly much less than slight alterations of the angle you hold the instrument, or the amount of the mouthpiece you take in – never mind the difference between your best and 2nd-best mouthpieces. As you know, brits from time to time will talk about playing with an open throat, and I've never been sure I understood that either. My best guess has been that such a term is largely shorthand for getting yourself to relax and not to tense up – but then why do we play better when relaxed? Maybe it's just because then it's easier to keep the embouchure the correct shape rather than tightening some muscle in an involuntary way.

      Thinking about this as a physicist (probably not something you generally want to do if you want musical results), I can see that there may be something in "voicing" to the extent that you want to adapt the size of the space inside you so that it resonates with the note the clarinet is producing. Somewhere (possibly on this blog?) I saw an x-ray of a player, and the vocal cavity got smaller when playing high notes. But I would suspect this is something that happens inevitably – by the same instinct you would deploy when singing. I'm not convinced that the shape of the cavity should matter very much, as opposed to its size, and in any case I find thinking about where my tongue is positioned just makes me selfconscious about something that should be natural. I suppose, in the end, I still think that the main thing is to find the right mouthpiece & reed, and that everything else will fall into place automatically when you have these.

      • October 20, 2010 at

        All I can add to your comment John – apart from my alternative description to David's original comment to you – is that in my recent experience, changing the barrel and mouthpiece has made a huge difference to my sound.

        That said, I do not believe that equipment alone should be relied upon alone to be the panacea of all ills.

        Neither, in in my opinion (like Anton Weinburg) do I believe that aspects of the instrument's "natural" sound should be completely squashed in the name of what passes these days for "clarinettistry" or complying to what's expected. I suppose I'm having a rant at the "international" style of playing!

        What we can do as players is enhance the clarinet's natural qualities as much as possible.

        I for one very much dislike the fact that many players seem to all sound identical these days both in sound and interpretation. One of the reason I'm motivated to contribute to change.

      • October 20, 2010 at

        John, as you must know, the tongue is quite capable of all sorts of positions in the mouth, enabling the complex motions required for speech. You are quite correct that there is not a lot of choice to place the tongue to be enable both tonguing and slurring with minimum of movement. If you understand that the tongue is part of the "voicing" system, which includes the jaw, trachea, larynx, soft palette and tongue, then discussion of those parts does not necessarily exclude the others, it just focuses on that part, as a part of a whole mechanism.

        I can probably easily get exactly the British tone you seek, because I know how the voicing "feels" to play that way. When you yawn, your throat is open, but it is not relaxed. So using those words makes no sense, as you imply.

        But I can gently "let" my throat open with air pressure, and achieve a respectable British tone; then by simply focusing the air up and over my tongue (by positioning it at the vowel at the end of saying the sound Yoh), I add some "ping" to the tone. Is it caused by just the tongue? No. The whole voicing cavity is changed with the vowel.

    • October 20, 2010 at

      Having come to the same conclusion as David, I'd describe it as like having one of those `80s "Power Balls" in your mouth – slightly smaller than a ping-pong ball.

      I'm applying the technique by starting my practice with 60 bpm slurred octaves across the entire range of the instrument, taking care to listen to and voice each note without spaces between the octaves.

      The idea is to keep the sound as round and full as possible regardless of dynamic which I cycle throughout the week.

      The sensation is almost like slacking your jaw except not quite due to the resistance of the air cavity.

      So far I seem to be achieving consistent pleasing results on the octave exercise. It's going to take more conscientious practice to implement in the Brahms 5tet for example.

      • October 20, 2010 at

        "The sensation is almost like slacking your jaw except not quite due to the resistance of the air cavity." Excellent description. It's all about the top lip, and letting the jaw go helps.

  4. October 19, 2010 at

    Loved your observation on "nasty and edgy", John. That's how I feel about my own playing currently but I'm actively working on it!

    You can get away with it on more contemporary works, but certainly not the Romantics which is one of my pet periods. musically speaking.

    • John Peacock
      October 19, 2010 at

      Marion: I've concluded that edgy is the clarinet's natural state. Most of the time, I feel I'm having to fight to push it away from where it naturally wants to be. To win this battle, everything has to be perfect: a good instrument with an unusually well-made mouthpiece, and a reed that is 1-in-10; plus you have to be relaxed and in the right state. Why is it so hard to just make a sound that's like you want it to be? But I suppose that's part of the attraction: it seems worth it all for one of those rare moments when everything clicks – the sense of satisfaction wouldn't be so great if it was easy.

      • October 20, 2010 at

        Certainly true in my case – I thrive on challenge and proving wrong those who say "impossible" regardless of deadline. Once achieved with consistency, the satisfaction is enormous.

  5. October 19, 2010 at

    Oh sorry. I know another Gretchen pianist.

  6. October 18, 2010 at

    I far prefer the second clip – in fact, I listened to it three times it was so pleasing to my ear!

    It reminds me very much of the English school of playing. Round and plump like a mature plum.

    Not keen on the first example – too "clinical" for me and devoid of expression.

    I agree with you, David – the second is far more like the human voice.

    Hmm – maybe it's time I looked at the wider clarinet bore of my youth once again. Out of curiosity would be interested to learn of the spec. of the period instrument. German or French?

    • October 18, 2010 at

      Back then there was no French or German system so to speak. Only a few keys at all! The instrument used in this recording was based on one made in 1810 by Carl August Grenser, by a Swiss maker Rudolf Tutz.

      • October 19, 2010 at

        Seems as if I'm going to have to revise my clarinet history – lol! It was so long ago that I was really up on that stuff that clearly my memory is failing in middle-age!

  7. Gretchen
    October 18, 2010 at

    I think that the clarity in the sound has more to do with the way the player is voicing the air than the clarinet itself. The second recording has more clarity to the tone than the first even though the player is on an older instrument.

    • October 18, 2010 at

      Wow, what a perceptive angle coming from a pianist! 😀

      • Gretchen
        October 19, 2010 at

        David, I play clarinet…

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