The altissimo, or upper register of the clarinet can be a mystery to both music educators and clarinet students alike. Similarly, it is not uncommon for students who have been studying for several years to express uncertainty, apprehension, and downright fear when they see the notes on the page moving above the staff. Not surprising, students who are fearful when approaching the upper registers of the instrument will most likely possess a tone quality and technique that is undeveloped and lacks confidence.
Equally important, if an entire clarinet section is uncomfortable playing in the upper register, the repertoire that is accessible to the band (or orchestra) is significantly limited. This situation negatively impacts the variety and quality of educational opportunities you can offer your students. In other words, the inability of the clarinet section's range can adversely affect the entire instrumental curriculum.
Examples of the technical limitations caused by a poor clarinet upper register:
Slow tongue speed and poor tongue flexibility
Lack of tone quality
General fatigue issues
Examples of the repertoire limitations caused by a poor clarinet upper register:
The ensemble will not be able to perform upper-level transcriptions of orchestral works
The ensemble will not be able to successfully perform many standard marches by Sousa, Fillmore, and King since these composers commonly composed for the clarinet in the upper registers (similar to violins in an orchestra.
Clarinet players will not be able to successfully perform many standard works found in the repe1ioire as they advance into high school and beyond.
As a clarinetist in today’s ever-evolving world of composition, composers are now commonly writing in the altissimo register, so it is crucial that students begin to discover and become comfortable with the altissimo register at an early age.
If a methodical, systematic, and consistent approach toward altissimo development is followed, tone quality will improve in the upper register, students will play with more confidence, and the overall musical experience of both the individual and the ensemble will be greatly enhanced.
So, where do we start? In order to become proficient in the upper register, some basic fundamentals must be in place.
The basic fundamentals for a solid clarinet embouchure can be remembered using the acronym TLC2 (TLC Squared).
The top teeth are on the mouthpiece
The bottom teeth are covered by the lower lip
The top lip is pulled firmly against the top teeth and the top of the mouthpiece
The bottom lip is curled over the lower teeth, acting as a cushion against the reed
The cheeks are pulled inward in a firm manner-not overly tight.
The chin is extended down
Work for a slightly concave surface in the area between the lower lip and the tip of the chin
Remember that the pressure around the mouthpiece should be equally distributed throughout the embouchure, similar to that way a drawstring pulls evenly as it closes around the opening of a drawstring backpack (see image to the right). Too much pressure from the upper or lower lip, the jaw, the cheeks, or any other part of the embouchure will negatively affect the clarinet sound.
Without a properly functioning embouchure, execution of the upper register will be extraordinarily difficult for junior high to advanced students. For this reasons, great care should be taken when teaching the basic embouchure.
To learn more, stay tuned for Clarinet Altissimo Part II: Equipment.