Playing in the highest register – the altissimo register – of a woodwind instrument requires much experience, embouchure control and inner hearing. Books and webpages offer a huge number of fingering charts for high notes on clarinets. Relatively few of these sources take into account that fingering is not the prevalent matter in high register playing, and less experienced clarinet players will soon notice that a fingering chart may not help their problems in achieving high pitches. This article deals with matters of playing technique, embouchure and acoustic theory of the clarinet’s altissimo register, which starts at notated c#”’ (c# above staff).
Playing on the Overtones
A sound usually consists not only of the fundamental note (the pitch we predominantly hear in a sound, or the first partial) but of many overtones. A natural timbre contains the fundamental (1st partial), the octave above it (2nd partial), the twelfth (a fifth an octave apart, 3rd partial), the major third two octaves apart (5th partial) and so on. The partials up to the tenth are the following:
The seventh partial is a minor seventh two octaves apart and rather narrow – signficantly narrower as in the equal tempered scale (as played by e.g. a modern piano). Please note that the 7th partial is particularly flat in the clarinet spectrum. In fact, it is so flat that it appears not as a minor seventh but rather as a major sixth. In the above example it means that a d-flat ”’ is sounding instead of a d”’ which would be expected.Please note that the 2nd, 4th and 6th partial are in parentheses and with different noteheads because these partials are suppressed in the clarinet’s timbre. For this reason it is impossible to achieve these partials by overblowing. The third and fifth partial are much more present in the clarinet’s timbre and can be heard in a note played on a clarinet by a prick-eared listener. It may require a lot of practice to hear partials, but it is possible.
“Overblowing” a wind instrument means to achieve high pitches by playing on the overtone series of a fundamental pitch. On the clarinet, every pitch from b’ on is achieved by overblowing. The infamous squeaks are nothing else than very high pitches which are produced unintentionally! Without wanting it, the player has “cut off” the lower pitches of a sound and hit one of the overtones instead. It is easy to play clarinet in the high register, you have done it since your very first clarinet lesson!
First Steps in the Lower Altissimo Register
A popular and good teaching method for the high register is to overblow a low note twice, e.g. a – e- c#
Overblowing the first time, the speaker key opens at or nearby a physical node of the vibrating air column and makes the 3rd partial – the perfect twelfth – sound (e.g. a – e”). Or, to explain it in a different way, the speaker hole guarantees that the lowest note (the 1st partial) is “cut off”, and the 3rd partial is heard clearly.
While the clarinet register is obtained by overblowing to the 3rd partial, the altissimo register speaks when the note is overblown a second time. Every clarinetist knows the phenomenon from beginners: Attempting their first tones on a clarinet, it is very likely that a high note sounds instead of a low note. A high “squeak” is nothing else than a very high note which is not wanted at this moment. Are you a clarinet player, and you think it is hard to play in the altissimo register? Remember your first clarinet lessons – or maybe your last public performance in front of parents, friends and your teacher – when you generated that squeak that, um … just happened. Yes, it is that easy. To be honest: It is easy to play a very high note. It is not quite so easy to control it and to know in advance whether a low, medium, high, or very high note is going to sound. But with little experience in clarinet playing and with the help of your teacher, you will soon get better.
To overblow to the altissimo register – the 5th partial or a major third plus two octaves – , the first tone hole (left index finger) is opened additionally to the speaker key and functions as a second speaker hole.
Some notes in the lower altissimo register require a correction of the fingering (right index on g#/d#” key) in order to achieve correct intonation; this may be due to the fact that the first tone hole is relatively big when functioning as a register hole, thus resulting in a tone which is a little sharp in pitch. (Just an assumption. Comments by instrument makers are highly welcome.) A bass clarinet (or an alto clarinet or basset horn, instruments that are bigger than a normal clarinet) does have a closed key for the left index with a very small hole in the middle. In the altissimo register this key is used as a “half hole” in the way that the left index is positioned on the edge of the key and leaves the small hole in the middle open.
The third register can go as high as c-sharp ”” or even d””, being played as the 5th partial above a’ or b-flat’ respectively. Experience shows that it is hard or even impossible to achieve higher partials than the 5th above throat notes (i.e. notes “around the barrel” with a short tube, f-sharp’ to b-flat’). It is not quite clear what the reason is. (Again: Acousticians and instrument makers welcome!)
On notes produced by a longer tube it is possible to go much higher than the 5th partial. There is no limit – theoretically.
For example: c#”’ can be achieved not only as the 5th partial above a, but also as the 7th partial above low e. Theoretically, the 7th partial above low e is d”’. Brymer [Jack Brymer, The Clarinet, 1976] points out that in practice the 7th partial on a clarinet is particularly flat, so flat that it appears to be half a tone lower, in the above case c#”’.
Peter Maxwell Davies uses higher partials in his composition for clarinet solo, The Seven Brightnesses. The given passage is part of the “second movement” (II adagio) of the 3 1/2 minute piece and is notated in two systems. The clarinetist plays a sustained low e and simultaneously lets the higher partials sound through in pp, up to c#”” as the 14th partial:
The notated a#”’ may be an outcome of Maxwell Davies’ work with clarinetist Alan Hacker. When I play this, I get an a”’. But the actual sound depends on many factors such as the mouthpiece-reed combination used or the embouchure of the clarinetist. It is likely that different players achieve higher partials of different pitch and intonation, and it may be assumed that Maxwell Davies would not be too bothered about deviations from his score regarding higher partials.
High notes can be difficult to achieve. It requires the ability of an inner hearing, of knowing which pitch one wants to sound. A traditional method for playing high notes involves high pressure of the lower lip and jaw against the reed. From the author’s experience, this is often more hindering than helpful because it dampens the reed and blocks its movement. To play in very high registers it is often more helpful to place the upper teeth a tiny bit further away from the tip of the mouthpiece (i.e. take a little more mouthpiece into the mouth) in order to allow the reed to vibrate more freely. [source: clarinet lessons with Prof. Hans Deinzer 1999-2004; Keith Stein, The Art of Clarinet Playing, 1958] High pitches are achieved by playing on the overtone series. The clarinetist’s lips can dampen the reed or let it vibrate more freely; he often does so to play different shades of sound / various sound colours. Consequently, the higher the note, the more overtones in the sound are needed! Let the reed vibrate freely, and all the high partials will be there, and so all the high pitches will be achieved.
Advanced saxophone players practice their top tones regularly. I think clarinetists should do so, too. Players who are searching for inspiration to practice top tones on a clarinet may look for the almost classic book by Sigurd Rascher, Top Tones for the Saxophone or the less known, but by some saxophone players preferred volume Saxophone High Tones by Eugene Rousseau. Ben Britton gives many exercises in his book Complete Approach to Overtones.
Special Fingerings and Intonation Corrections
Beside the basic fingerings which can be found in any fingering chart, each player finds his or her own fingerings that suit their needs in certain situations. These fingerings may be found by pure chance and “lucky accidents” or by systematic research. It is a fact that the higher the register, the more different fingerings for a pitch can be found. One reason for this is that the altissimo register is achieved by playing on the overtone series of the instument. This implies a certain choice about whether to play on the 3rd, 4th or maybe even 5th partial. Fingerings can be found accordingly by multiple overblowing and adjusting the fingerings where needed, e.g. to correct intonation, or to improve the sound quality.