Clarinet Tone by David Weber

Originally published in Woodwind Magazine (1952)
Edited by Ed Joffe

The problem of developing a good tone is a very controversial one largely because of disagreement over what or whose is a good sound. The first and most important step in producing any kind of tone is to have in your mind’s ear a clear conception of the tone that you want to reproduce. Without this important conception, all the books and articles giving technical advice lose most of their usefulness. This first step in deciding what tone he/she wants is of paramount importance. The decision can be reached very simply by listening to various players and determining what kind of sound is desired.

I believe that the great difference in tone produced by French and German clarinetists is largely mythical. The clarinet has its own peculiar quality of sound and the nationality of the clarinetist, or the make of the instrument, doesn’t affect it very much. The good French clarinet player gets a good tone and the bad player a bad one. The same goes for the German clarinet player. The good instrumentalists of both nationalities produce a very similar kind of tone. For example, in the New York Philharmonic recording of the Khachaturian Marquerade Suite, principal clarinet Simeon Bellison plays a German Oehler clarinet without any of the thickness we have been led to expect from the German school. Mr. Robert Lindemann, the Germanic-schooled principal of the Chicago Symphony who also plays an Oehler clarinet, offers a further refutation of this popular misconception on the recording of On the Shore of Sorrento by Richard Strauss. These men produce a beautiful tone and so does Philadelphia Orchestra principal clarinetist Ralph McLean, who plays a Buffet clarinet and is of the French school.

Of course, the musician must have a good instrument without which it would be difficult to get the best results. The most vital part of the equipment is the mouthpiece. Concerning the mouthpiece, I would like to mention a few important things:

  1. See that the chamber is not too shallow because it will tend to give a bright sound.
  2. The chamber should not be too deep, either, as this makes the tone dark and tends to sharpen the high register.
  3. The bore should be suited to the make of the clarinet. For example, using a big bore mouthpiece on a small-bore clarinet will throw off the intonation. A small-bore mouthpiece on a big bore clarinet will have the same result.

Now we come to the embouchure. I have found through experience that the double lip embouchure (both lips covering the teeth) gives the best results, although I have occasionally heard clarinetists who get good results with the single lip embouchure since there are always exceptions to the rule. There is only one important muscle that we should be concerned with regarding the embouchure­–the orbicularis oris. (There are minor accessory muscles, but they are not of primary importance.) This muscle is so constructed that the fibers of the lower lip interlace with the fibers of the upper lip at the corners of the mouth. They form a sphincter or circular muscular band. The sides of the mouth should be close together so that the air comes out only through the circular center opening. Avoid stretching the lower lip too much against the lower teeth which would allow air to escape through the corners of the mouth and prevent the production of a concentrated, mellow tone. It is also necessary to avoid exerting too much pressure with the lower jaw as this makes for a pinched tone. The tip of the mouthpiece should extend into the mouth approximately one-half inch behind the teeth, the exact amount depending on the bite of the player and the thickness of the lips. In covering the teeth, use as little of the lips as possible to avoid irritation of the inner membranes by the teeth. The fibers closest to the edge of the lips are tougher and less liable to become irritated.

In general, the clarinet should be held at a forty-degree angle from the body. This is not a figure set arbitrarily by me but one which allows for the air column to follow the path of least resistance. However, the actual angle is determined by the relationship between the upper and lower teeth. One who has a protruding jaw will increase the degree of angle; one who has a receding jaw will decrease that angle. Experiment with raising and lowering the clarinet angle as you blow. You will be surprised to notice the difference in quality at different angles.

Assuming the aural conception of what tone one wants to produce is formed, now we come to the actual technique of developing a good tone. There are several ways of doing this with long tones:

  1. When practicing, start forte (f) and decrescendo to pianissimo (pp) on each note of the instrument. Start in the clarion register and go chromatically up then chromatically down from the starting note. The reason for this procedure is to keep the lips adjusted to all registers.
  2. Start pianissimo and crescendo to forte using the same progression as #1.
  3. Start pianissimo, crescendo to forte, then decrescendo to pianissimo again using the same procedure as #1 and #2 above.
  4. Another favorite warmup of mine is a slow exercise in twelfths. Start on low “E” and gradually crescendo to forte. As you come close to the forte, open the register key to produce the twelfth (middle “B”). Sustain the “B” for a moment and diminuendo to pianissimo. Repeat this chromatically up to “F” on the first space of the treble clef, making a perfect legato on the twelfth while not letting the interval pop out.
  5. Starting on the low “E”, play half-notes on each tone of the E minor, C# minor, A major, A minor and C major arpeggios. Each arpeggio should be three octaves in length up to the high “E” above the staff. Play legato while keeping the tone alive and resonant both ascending and descending.

One should practice standing so that no portion of the body is cramped. It is advantageous to interpolate between these exercises some slow passages from the symphonic repertoire to see how the tone is progressing. One might use the clarinet solo from the slow movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony or the slow movement from Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding Symphony. With progress, one might try the more difficult solo passages found in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, or the long solo in Richard Strauss’ Don Juan. One of the best passages for our purpose is the clarinet solo at the beginning of the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.

The exercises/examples listed above should not be attempted in one practice session—there aren’t enough hours in the day! One might work on one or two for a few days and then go on to some others. Avoid over practice of the long tone exercises because it will make the embouchure stiff. Before you practice and during your rest periods, it is wise to refresh your ears by listening to a clarinetist with a good tone. The following is a list that may be helpful:

  1. Simeon Bellison, New York Philharmonic—Sibelius Symphony #1; Mozart Clarinet Quintet
  2. Ralph McLean, Philadelphia Orchestra–Respighi Pines of Rome
  3. Gaston Hamlin—Debussy Premiere Rhapsodie
  4. Robert Lindemann, Chicago Symphony–Enesco Romanian Rhapsody
  5. Ulysse Delecluse–Beethoven Septet
  6. Frederick Thurston–Bliss Quintet
  7. Daniel Bonade, Philadelphia Orchestra–Brahms Symphony #3
  8. Manuel Valerio, Boston Pops–Kodaly Dances of Galanta
  9. Louis Cahuzac–Nielsen Concerto

Lately the symphonic clarinetist has become embroiled wittingly or unwittingly over the use of vibrato. This is not a new development in clarinet history. Some years back, Louis Cahuzac in France advocated for and used vibrato. More recently, he abandoned it and, in my opinion, sounds all the better for it. I, myself, feel that a good clarinet sound is clear and pleasant in its simplicity and does not require vibrato all of the time. I use it occasionally and when the composer indicates that he/she wants it, as has happened. A last word: I repeat, ALWAYS keep in your ear the sound that you would like to make.

Editor’s Note: David Weber had an illustrious career while playing in some of the most prestigious orchestras in the U.S. A student of Roy Schmidt and Alberto Luconi (both of the Detroit Symphony) as well as Daniel Bonade and Gaston Hamlin, he played with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, CBS Symphony Orchestra, Symphony of the Air, and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. He was also an influential teacher having been on the faculties at Columbia University and The Juilliard School in addition to his private studio. Many top clarinetists have studied with Mr. Weber including Jon Manasse, Robert DiLutis, Lawrence Sobel, Gerhardt Koch, Jerry Goldstein, Todd Levy, Dan Gilbert, Greg Raden, David Gould, Kenny Davern, Ron Odrich, Benny Goodman, etc. Much thanks to my friend Gerhardt Koch for providing this article.

Please check out A Portrait of David Weber–a-portrait-of-david-weber


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