Clarinet Tone Talk: What’s the big deal with tone? Last week’s results. And the importance of ideal tone.

Image CreditWhy is tone so important?

The clarinet tone saga continues, but one chapter is over.

Most of the comments indicated that #3, the Selmer Privilege, won the match from last week's test. The instrument order was: #1- Buffet R13, #2- Buffet Tosca and #3- Selmer Privilege.

Your comments on last week's Super Bowl Tone Test- Tosca vs R13 vs Selmer were helpful in choosing between the 3 instruments.

Why do I seek other's opinions on these matters of instrument choice?

"Someone at his level of professional experience would know exactly what he wants", you might be thinking. The answer lies in the very heart of the spirit of a musical practice. Show me a performer who is ever content with how they sound and I'll show you a musician in denial.

Just as the art of music performance is a never ending practice, the event of seeking the best tone is also an infinitely variable challenge.

Ultimately, I can make any instrument sound how I would like it to. The instrument offers its part, but the main sound producer is my body and my inner concept. As soon as I forget the ideal of how I wish to sound, a sort of entropy begins to erode the actual sound. Left unchecked for months or years, the sound could become cold and austere at best, harsh or unpalatable at worst. In other words, perfect tone must remain unachievable to keep the muse fresh.

However, tone is not the primary goal of choosing a good instrument. Two other factors, intonation and evenness, rank higher in importance. While I can also play any instrument relatively in tune, some may require more work than others.

Some of you may remember that I bought those Selmers in 2008 on the recommendation of Richard Hawkins. When I bought the Selmers, I was 3 days away from performing a recital which some very difficult works of Jeanjean; etudes 14, 15 and 17 from the book of 18, which demand control over huge intervals at extreme dynamics. The Selmers enabled control more easily than the R13.

Playing the Selmers in orchestra, however, the instrument felt limited in volume. It resisted when I pushed the sound. (Our hall requires a lot of high overtones, even brightness, to carry to the 3000 seat space.) So I switched back to my Buffet R13.

It wasn't until much later I realized it was not so much the instrument, as it was the combination of mouthpiece/barrel/instrument, which did not work.

If this sounds like a lot of fussing and over indulgence in minor details, it is! Connection with an instrument is a fussy subject. And tone is a never ending journey. Ideal tone is just that, ideal, something to strive for and refresh daily.

In my own practice experience, tone changes with every room, every type of weather, every mouthpiece/barrel/body/bell/reed combination. More importantly, the feeling of the instrument will change daily.

The feeling of complete connection to the instrument also comes and goes. The coordination and balance of connecting with the instrument tonally is incredibly complex, and every part affects every part. It is difficult to remember exactly how a great day felt when the next day arrives.

In other words, there is no guarantee that your sound will remain "good" if you set it and forget it. One bad day may lead to another. A tiny flaw unchallenged can grow deep and wide. However, the opposite can be worse. Fussing too much can create its own havoc, as I have learned.

Rather than judging your tone each day by its "sound", let your awareness learn instead how it "feels" when you are connected with the instrument. That feeling can serve you much better, in the long run, than reacting to each new reed, each acoustic, each new piece of equipment.

I say to my students, "When you feel connected to the instrument, carefully observe exactly how it feels. Try to focus on the whole, meaning air, embouchure, voicing, angle. Enjoy the feeling. Don't cling to it. If it doesn't come the next day, don't worry. It's possible to re-discover it anew/afresh each day. Then you learn it every more deeply and can recall it more easily."

Would you like to share practice ideas with other musicians? You could do so at the Practice Café.

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9 comments for “Clarinet Tone Talk: What’s the big deal with tone? Last week’s results. And the importance of ideal tone.

  1. January 27, 2011 at


    I so appreciate your comments to your students about feeling connected to the instrument, especially that it may not be there automatically every day, and that we need to rediscover it afresh. I truly believe young players yearn to be working toward something that isn’t automatic and easy. Some balk at how much more difficult it is – as compared to the easy reward of technology – to perform an instrument at an artistic level, but eventually they intuitively come to know that there is a deeper meaning, a more profound sweetness when one finally finds the feeling of connection through the discipline of regular and intentional practice.

    Willis Olsen, the woodwind prof at Ohio Wesleyan before me, would tell his students: “Don’t worry that pianists have so many notes to your one – this instrument is so challenging that we can only concentrate on producing one note at a time!”

    • January 29, 2011 at

      Hi Nancy, I noticed that you registered to comment. I’m so glad you did. I hope you will also check out the practice cafe.

      That quote by Willis is priceless. I love it. Thanks.

  2. January 27, 2011 at

    I really “get ” your article on tone. Tone , or your voice is everything. A good sax player has me in just a few notes. Almost dont’ care what he/she plays, just the way they play it. I am very happy with my older Leblanc LL that a friend talked me into picking up. For 400 dollars I notice a mush bigger difference than the 5K horns I played a few weeks ago in the store. And it feels good. I just have to not blow so hard to make it work and let the tone come from inside the horn. K

    • January 29, 2011 at

      Keith- That’s fantastic that you get so much quality from a $400 Leblanc LL. How old is it?

  3. January 26, 2011 at

    One theory holds that the barrel is really an extension of the mouthpiece, so I guess it works ok in that reguard.
    Glad to hear it still worked for you.

  4. Bob Pfeifer
    January 24, 2011 at

    David…I’m curious. In all the tests between these three horns, did you keep the variables of reed, ligature, mouthpiece, barrel and bell the same across all three, or did you mix those up as well (based on the best fit for each different horn)? I’m sorry if you explained that somewhere else, but I don’t recall seeing it.

    • January 25, 2011 at

      I would HOPE that he did NOT use the same barrel across the board….the dimensions (internal bore) that actualize the sound of each instrument are quite different, even from the R13 to the Tosca, let alone a Selmer.

      • January 26, 2011 at

        Bob and Allan, I used the same barrel because it sounded best on each of them. My decades of experience has shown me that some barrels just “have it” and work with ALMOST any clarinet. I did try each clarinet with several barrels, including the ones which came w the Selmer and Tosca, and this Chadash sounded MUCH better than anything else.

        As for bells, since the bells for Tosca and Selmer are very different than R13 I used their respective bells. No Backun equipment was used at all.

        The mouthpiece and reed were the same.

    • January 26, 2011 at

      Bob, see my reply to Allan.

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