Monthly Archives: April 2014

Clarinet Tip #4: Cheating over the break

I played quite a lot of Clarinet when I was young, and wasn’t too bad at it. Then I stopped; for about 20 years. Then I started again. I found that I’d forgotten lots. Even worse, I discovered that there was a lot basic stuff that I should have learned, but hadn’t.

So thought I’d share a few of the things I should have learned when I started, but didn’t; until now.

Cheating

Keep the fingers of your right hand down if you are playing a G up to a Bb.

This makes it much easier to cross the break since you don’t have to synchronise as many fingers to cover holes at the same time.

I discovered this myself, before reading about it, when I was starting to play again after many years. I found that, due to a serious injury, the outer 3 fingers of my right hand were weak and uncoordinated. I cheat like this all the time now as I need all the help I can get to play acceptably with these fingers.

Lateral Music Theory #2: Tension, Instability

Continuing on from the earlier discussion on dissonance, there is another couple of numeric quantities that can help describe how chords are perceived. These are Tension and Instability. Instability matches the empirical perception of 3 note chords.

Tension is a word used to describe the ambiguity of how a chord seems to want to resolve. It is calculated from the relative size of the intervals of a three note combination. Specifically, from all the combinations of 3 tones from all the partials of the 3 fundamental tones.

TensionEqn

where:

ν is the product of the relative amplitudes of the three tones (0.0 to 1.0),

x and y are the interval sizes of the lower and upper intervals defined in semitones

α = 0.6 determines the steepness of the fall from maximal tension.

Total Instability is (I) is calculated from Tension (T) and Dissonance (D)

I = D + δT

where δ = 0.2

When all the partial combination D and T effects are summed in this way, the scores rank the sonority in a similar order to the empirically determined order.

You can calculate your own dissonance, tension, and instability for chords at a web page I wrote a while ago: here.

Clarinet Tip #3: Get a Good Mouthpiece

I played quite a lot of Clarinet when I was young, and wasn’t too bad at it. Then I stopped; for about 20 years. Then I started again. I found that I’d forgotten lots. Even worse, I discovered that there was a lot basic stuff that I should have learned, but hadn’t.

So thought I’d share a few of the things I should have learned when I started, but didn’t; until now.

Get a Good Mouthpiece

If you still have the mouthpiece that came with the clarinet, you probably should get a new one. It is much better to have a medium quality clarinet with good mouthpiece, than it is to have a great clarinet with an unsuitable mouthpiece.

I read about this in “The Art of Clarinet Playing” by Keith Stein, then decided to get a new mouthpiece myself.

I rang up a local music instrument shop and asked if they would let me come in an try a bunch of mouthpieces. They said yes, so I brought my instrument in, with some decent reeds. Then tried a bunch of mouthpieces.

The mouthpiece should be selected on four criteria (in order of importance):

  1. Intonation
  2. Tone Quality
  3. “Security” from squeaks
  4. Response – how it feels to blow

Everyone will be different, so you need to try some out for yourself.

Clarinet Tip #2: Relax

I played quite a lot of Clarinet when I was young, and wasn’t too bad at it. Then I stopped; for about 20 years. Then I started again. I found that I’d forgotten lots. Even worse, I discovered that there was a lot basic stuff that I should have learned, but hadn’t.

So thought I’d share a few of the things I should have learned when I started, but didn’t; until now.

Relaxation

A common problem when playing the clarinet, is that the fingers are too tense. Lots of other muscles are tense too.

If you can learn to relax everything, except only those muscles that need to be strong, then you will play much better and have greater control over your fingers.

The muscles of the embouchure, and the muscles around the right thumb – supporting the weight of the instrument – should be the only tense muscles. Everything else should be relaxed.

Do this: experiment to see how lightly you can press your fingers down on keys and holes and still make the note sound without any problems. You will be surprised how light you can go. When you start using minimal pressure, you can start to feel the vibrations of the notes in your fingers. This is a good sign. So go on, experiment!

Lateral Music Theory #1: Dissonance

Dissonance is word used to describe how unpleasant something sounds; particularly in psycho-acoustic studies. In one article I read by Normal Cook, in the Music Perception Journal, it can be calculated numerically from the magnitude of tones that make up a sound.

The formula for calculating dissonance (D) from tones is

DissonanceEqn

where:

  • ν = the product of the relative amplitudes of the two tones (0.0 to 1.0),
  • x = the interval size defined in semitones.
  • β= -0.8 is the interval of maximum dissonance
  • β= -1.6 is the steepness of the fall from maximal dissonance
  • β= 4.0

When we plot this for 2 pure tones we get a nice little plot like this:

However, real instruments do not produce pure tones. They produce harmonics, that is, lots of extra tones that are roughly integer multiples of the frequency of the lowest tone. Interestingly, if you add up all the dissonances from all the pairs of tones between 2 “notes”, the plot starts looking a lot more interesting.

There are tantalising dips at important musical intervals; like the 5th, 4th, and octave.

I did my own plot, using the first 8 harmonics with similar magnitudes as a piano sound and got this plot:

This graph has some very interesting features. I have plotted the equal temperment semitone points with small grey lines. These miss the kinks in the dissonance plot slightly. But, when I plot the Just Intonation semitone points [1, 16/15, 9/8, 6/5, 5/4, 4/3, 7/5, 3/2, 8/5, 5/3, 7/4, 15/8, 2] in red, they match the troughs and kinks almost perfectly.

I wonder what this graph looks like if we extend it into the next octave?

Interestingly, this calculation can be extended to cover any combination of any number of notes and is an interesting way to compare chords of any kind. The part that appeals to me is that a simple relationship between tones and their perception can generate parts of music theory, without requiring “the edifice of music theory”. This is Lateral Music Theory.

You can calculate your own dissonance for chords at a web page I wrote a while ago: here.

 

Clarinet Tip #1: Breaking in a Reed

I played quite a lot of Clarinet when I was young, and wasn’t too bad at it. Then I stopped; for about 20 years. Then I started again. I found that I’d forgotten lots. Even worse, I discovered that there was a lot basic stuff that I should have learned, but hadn’t.

So thought I’d share a few of the things I should have learned when I started, but didn’t; until now.

How to Break in a Reed

  1. Take a few reeds out of their packets
  2. Place them in a glass of water so that they stick to the edge of the glass for a few minutes
  3. Take them out and place on a super flat, smooth surface. Really smooth glass is perfect, but you could probably make do with something hard and smooth and clean.
  4. Massage the reed from the heel to the near the tip with light forward strokes of your bare finger for at least a minute.
  5. Repeat several times over a few days.

Why do it this way?

Using water instead of saliva means the reed has less harmful deposits and the acidic saliva doesn’t damage the reed.

Massaging the reed breaks off fine hair fibres and bends other over close to the reed surface. It also smoothes down pithy sections (spongy bits) bulging out from between the fibres and helps close the pores so that the reed becomes less waterlogged. It also assists breaking in the reed, making it quicker to get to a playing state that just playing it.

I’ve had pretty good success with breaking in reeds by doing this. It seems more reliable than what I used to do, which was put the reed in my mouth and use saliva to wet it lots before playing it.

There are lots more techniques used in the reed breaking-in process, but this method is pretty easy and doesn’t need any special equipment. I haven’t gone to the extent of purchasing Dutch Rush, sandpaper, or other equipment.

This technique comes from a small part of the chapter on Reeds in “The Art of Clarinet Playing” by Keith Stein.