When you have mastered the fundamental fingering, embouchure, and throat techniques on the clarinet, you will find that this little instrument offers a whole new world of sound possibilities. There are advanced techniques for expanding your skill level, as well as a plethora of ways to manipulate the instrument and the way you play it in order to create infinite sound techniques. These are all known as extended techniques, and here is a guide to some of the most common and useful ones that you should know.
What is an Extended Technique?
An extended technique is any way of playing an instrument outside of traditional methods.
This can include manipulation, or combination of manipulations, of the clarinet’s mouthpiece, the keys, the body of the instrument, your embouchure, or your air flow.
Some extended techniques are used to play notes and passages that are not achievable through standard play, while others are used to create unique sound effects.
List of Clarinet Extended Techniques
1. Circular Breathing
Circular breathing is a technique used to combat the break in sound that happens when the clarinetist needs to stop playing to take a breath.
This is especially useful during a solo with a particularly long held note or passage, when you cannot rely on staggered breathing with other members of your section.
Circular breathing is achieved by blowing out into your instrument using air you have accumulated in your cheeks while simultaneously breathing in with your nose.
It requires coordination and embouchure control.
2. Tonguing Techniques
Tonguing techniques are exactly what they sound like: extended techniques you use by manipulating your tongue and mouth in novel ways.
Every clarinetist knows that feeling of coming to a passage of sixteenth notes and beyond and realizing that the human tongue simply cannot keep up!
This is where double and triple tonguing come in.
Double tonguing is when you alternate between using your tongue on the clarinet’s reed and closing the back of your throat to stop and start airflow.
Think of saying “Ta Ka Ta” instead of “Ta Ta Ta.”
Triple tonguing is two with the tongue, one with the throat, and so on (Ta Ta Ka, Ta Ta Ka).
It takes a lot of practice and strength building to be able to produce as sharp of a sound with the throat technique as with the tongue.
There are also tonguing techniques used to create unique sounds.
Flutter tonguing is when you make the same movement with your tongue that you use to roll your R’s against your reed while bowing a note, which makes a whirring sound.
Slap tonguing is a technique of releasing your tongue very strongly with a downward motion while dropping your jaw to create a suction, producing popping or exaggerated staccato sound.
3. Alternate Fingerings
Many notes on the clarinet can be played in different ways by pressing different combinations of keys.
The combination the clarinetist uses will depend on the finger combination needed for the next note and the easiest way to get there.
The pinkie keys are particularly instrumental in alternate fingerings, with the rule of thumb being never use the pinkie of the same hand for two notes in a row.
Different fingerings may require different embouchures to produce the same sound quality.
Vibrato refers to a held note that has an undulation (up and down effect) rather than a steady tone.
Vibrato can range from quick to slow, depending on what the passage calls for.
Playing vibrato on the clarinet remains a controversial subject among the musical community – some love its unique quality, while others argue that the clarinet’s rich tone was designed to be pure and should stay that way.
Nevertheless, clarinet vibrato gained popularity during its introduction to the Jazz genre.
The preferred method of vibrato on the clarinet is by tightening and loosing your embouchure as quickly as you need the pitch to undulate.
The word glissando originates from the Italian word that means to slide, and that is exactly what is happening with a glissando.
The sound it creates is like a continuous slide of sound, usually from a low to a high tone, and it is created by sliding the fingers at just the right pace over the right combination of keys.
The most famous glissando is the one at the beginning of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (shown in the video above).
The glissando is colloquially known as a smear.
Often confused as the exact same thing as a glissando, the portamento is another technique for arriving at one note from another.
While the glissando is longer and occupies a specific amount of musical time, while a portamento is more like a small scoop of one note leading into the next note that is actually part of the musical phrase, usually one step above the scoop note.
Portamentos are used frequently in Jazz music.
7. Embouchure Manipulations
When first learning the clarinet, there is one correct embouchure to aim for.
It’s slightly different for every person and clarinet, but you find the right placement of your lower lip and upper teeth, the perfect amount of pressure, and the ideal opening of your throat to avoid squeaking from too tight an embouchure and the airy sound of one that is too relaxed.
As you become more advanced, you will come across times when you purposely want to infuse your sound with these effects, and you do so by manipulating your embouchure, which requires having a strong embouchure to begin with.
8. Overtone and Subtone
Overtone and subtone are both techniques for purposely distorting sound using throat control rather than embouchure manipulation.
Which you use is up to preference and what works best on your instrument.
An overtone is a controlled squeak sound produced by playing any note by blowing just hard enough to produce more air and force than normal but not enough to produce an accidental squeak.
Overtone is most commonly used in Jazz.
Subtone is the opposite, releasing less air and force so that you play the note at its lowest range and lowest volume.
In both techniques, you do not want to change your embouchure at all, only your throat.
Altissimo is the name for the highest register on the clarinet.
Therefore, the altissimo technique refers to playing the very highest notes possible.
This technique is actually a series of techniques.
It begins with a particularly tight embouchure and placing less of the mouthpiece in your mouth.
This prevents your high notes from becoming squeaks.
While you should always be blowing air from your diaphragm rather than your lungs, this is even more crucial in altissimo.
Although the clarinet is a single line instrument, you can actually create multiple tones at the same time.
Known as multiphonics, this produces a sound similar to a didgeridoo that, while unpleasing when uncontrolled and out of context, it adds character to Jazz improvisations, the feeling of impending doom or danger to move scores, and can be used to create a train sound effect.
Multiphonics are created by strategically adding certain keys to more typical notes.
Other Extended Techniques
And a few more techniques that you’ll likely come across once you’ve been playing the clarinet for a while
If you remove your mouthpiece and purse and release your lips straight into the barrel, the natural acoustics of the clarinet make an excellent kissing sound effect.
Also with the mouthpiece removed, if you blow into your barrel almost like you are playing a trumpet and finger as normal, you produce a lovely buzzing sound.
Removing the rest of the clarinet, you can produce a number of great sounds with just your mouthpiece by manipulating your embouchure.
Play around with it to find siren sounds, bird sounds, and a unique use of the slap tongue.
You can slide your finger slowly over the base of the mouthpiece to create different tones and slides.
Playing Two at Once
While it takes a great deal of practice to adjust your embouchure accordingly, you can in fact play to clarinets at once!
This is great for emulating a duet on your own or for playing two different kinds of clarinets at once.
You can expand your options by using pieces of cork to depress some keys and keep other keys open.
Once you master the above extended techniques, challenge yourself and your instrument even further.
Take the clarinet apart and explore creating sound with different pieces, and play around with changes in your throat and embouchure.
The possibilities are endless, and the more you play outside the box, the further you also develop your foundational skills and musical creativity!