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Bass Clarinet Advice
I have played bass clarinet for almost 50 years. I played professionally in the Toledo Symphony for over ten years, and continue to perform on bass clarinet in recital and in “pick-up” orchestras in the Chicago area. At one point in my life, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study with one of the Grand Masters of the bass clarinet, Alfred Zetzer, who played in the Cleveland Orchestra for his entire career.
Here are some "pointers", based on my experience:
Steady the bass clarinet in front of you in an upright position. I have always found it useful to support the instrument using a peg. A neckstrap can be helpful if you find the instrument moving around as you play. I often find the neckstrap too confining, however, and that it can contribute to neck and shoulder tension and fatigue.
Experiment with the angle of the mouthpiece in your mouth. I like the new Buffet bass clarinets with their upward curving necks. I find the angle just about right (for me). Try to find a position where the angle of the bass clarinet mouthpiece is similar to the angle that the Bb clarinet mouthpiece enters your mouth. With some models of bass clarinet, this can be quite a challenge.
As close as you can, use your normal clarinet embouchure. A larger bite is necessary, but many people overdo it.
Approach the bass as if it is nothing more than a large Bb soprano clarinet. Stress the similarities, not the differences.
Resist the temptation to play on too soft of a reed. With a soft reed you can get a big sound in the low register, but sacrifice control in the clarion and above. If you use a 3 1/2 reed on the soprano clarinet, use a 3/12 on the bass. I currently use, and recommend Grand Concert #4 reeds.
and expect to blow a
Your bass clarinet must "seal" and seal well. Bass clarinets are notoriously unforgiving even for very minor leaks that you might never notice on your Bb. If you squeak, or have little control articulating in the clarion. Find a really good tech and expect to spend some time working with that person to get it right.
With the right reed, mouthpiece, and a bass that seals, you should be able to play almost any clarinet piece on the bass clarinet.
Bass clarinets go out of adjustment easily. Wood bass clarinets undergo dimension changes as the seasons change. Expect to adjust twice a year, or when traveling from one climate to another.
Get the best mouthpiece you possibly can. Good advice for any clarinet.
For years I played on Vandoren 3 ½ reeds. I now play on Grand Concert 4’s.
Some people find they can play on tenor sax reeds. I have never found a tenor sax reed that I really liked on bass clarinet.
I like the publications by Michael Davenport. Visit his site: www.bassclarinet.org for great bass clarinet stuff.
Transposition is a must. Learn and practice A and C clarinet transposition. Learn to read bass clef. The worst thing is to show up for a rehearsal, unprepared, and find an unfamiliar part for bass clarinet in A in bass clef. It happens – be ready.
Build your library of orchestral parts. Learn “La Valse” before the first rehearsal – not AT the first rehearsal. You might not be invited back for the second rehearsal.
Get Michael Drapkin’s excerpt books - published by Roncorp Corporations www.nemusicpub.com/roncorp/ - and learn the repertoire.
To build great technique and facilitate your bass clef reading, buy a copy of Martin Arnold's Bass Clarinet Scale Book. Martin is the bass clarinetist with the Mexico City Philharmonic. There is no other book out there like this one. I have copies for sale - $21.95. Add $4 postage for domestic shiping, $10 for International shipping.
Gary Van Cott has quite a nice collection of bass clarinet etude books, scale books, solos and chamber music for bass clarinet. It would be smart to patronize his website. http://www.vcisinc.com/clarinetbassmusic.htmRegarding squeaking in the clarion register:
I had a customer ask the following question:
<<…..Fortunately, I haven't come across too many high altitude problems with my current setup. Except for, perhaps, the G and A just above the staff. I have had problems sounding the notes consistently. If I have a running passage to and through those notes, no problem, but if I have to hit the notes, and at a forte or better, I have a tendency to hit the partial above. It takes a lot of embouchure control just manage those two notes…..>>
This was my answer:
Everyone has trouble with these notes. It is a peculiarity of the French style bass clarinet. It just WANTS to jump to the next partial.
Make SURE there is no leak in the upper joint. The pad that closes directly below third finger left hand leaks on 3 out of 5 bass clarinets. It must seat perfectly to avoid squeaks. So must the C#/G# and the two Eb/Bb keys.
Any leak there acts just like a register key....
I should also add to this that if squeaking or chirping persists, have a mouthpiece tech check the table of your mouthpiece. Many bass clarinet mouthpieces (including brand new ones) have a “hump” in the table. This causes the reed to tilt on the facing causing instability. The tone and response may be great, but the resulting chirps can be very embarrassing!
More tips coming later! I will respond to inquiries and questions sent to my e-mail.
Tip openings are measured in either hundredths of a millimeter (e.g. 1.47mm) or thousandths of an inch (e.g. .046"). The difference between a close facing and an open one may be a matter of 0.009" or 0.15mm. Most people can't see those differences - they're measured with some kind of instrument, usually a specially made taper gauge of some kind or a dial gauge. In addition to the tip opening, other dimensions of the facing (also measured with micro-capable tools) contribute to its resistance: the contour of the curve between the point where the reed contacts the table and the mouthpiece tip and the actual length from the tip to the point where the mouthpiece contacts the table are the most important ones. In general, the longer the curve, the less resistant it is. In general the closer the tip opening, the less resistant it is. But these can be combined in novel ways to balance (or confound) each other. Also, there are variable dimensions in the baffle, throat, chamber and even the back bore that can materially add resistance or not and make a curve that should give a certain resistance level a whole different feel from what you'd expect.
A "big" or "huge" or powerful sound can be produced with any combination of reed and mouthpiece that are appropriate to (match) each other. There are not many instrumentalists, much less bass clarinetists, who want deliberately to get a "small" or "tiny" or weak sound. But bass clarinetists play on all kinds of equipment from very close, long facings with stiff reeds through more moderate tip openings and/or shorter curves and medium reeds, to very short, open curves with very soft reeds.
I don't think there's necessarily a connection between a player's preference on Bb and his preference on bass. Especially if the bass is a double, reed-friendliness and ease of transition between the blowing qualities of the bass setup and your accustomed Bb setup are more important. A stiff reed on a close facing doesn't feel the same on a bass as it does on a Bb. You may like an equivalent to the M15 or not, but I don't think what you use on Bb will necessarily be the standard. Don't forget that bass clarinets, even when in excellent mechanical condition, are inherently more resistant than a Bb just because of the size of the air column involved. And a lot of basses (at least every one that I've ever played) have mechanical resistances that most of us would never tolerate in a Bb - but we learn to accommodate them on a bass.
In almost any case - whether you deal with Walter (Grabner) or Clark (Fobes) or Roger (Garrett) or buy mouthpieces from Woodwind & Brasswind or another major music supplier - there is some kind of "approval" system available. Your best bet is to take heart in hand and order something you've heard is good (or you know someone who plays on it whose playing you like) and see how it feels. Return it if you don't like it, buy it if you do.
There are today lots of choices, though, and the only real way to find something you like is to start trying them.
Happy bass clarineting!