At the end of last summer, I set a goal of playing high notes that were less shrill and more resonant. I had tried the new Vandoren BD5 mouthpiece, and I liked the covered, mellow sound of its high notes. I opted, however, against the BD5 since it had little flexibility in producing tone colors. I still wanted those BD5 high notes, though, so I resolved to do what I could to make my B40 sound better in the altissimo register.
Six months later, how did I do?
There has been some improvement. Notes like F sharp, G, and G sharp an octave above the staff do not feel particularly high anymore.
I also have better legato between the notes of the altissimo register than before.
Still, the tone is a little too strident for my taste, and I am laboring to make these notes more resonant.
My main method for working on high notes during this six month period was practicing scales up to the C and C sharp a twelfth above the staff. As I worked on the voicing of these highest notes, it became much more comfortable to play notes which were a fourth lower.
By working toward my goal, I reminded myself of some important fundamentals of clarinet playing
There are a few things that conspire to make high notes shrill. One is too much air pressure. Another is an embouchure that is too tight. It is a common problem among clarinetists that the jaws compress the mouthpiece more as we go up in register. By the time we are in the altissimo register, the bottom lip often exerts a lot of pressure on the reed. This added pressure prevents the reed from vibrating freely and makes the note sound pinched.
How to guard against biting? The solution lies in the corners of the lips. The corners must always be engaged – pulling the cheeks in and forward toward the mouthpiece. Engaging the corners this way focuses the airstream and serves as a counterweight to the tendency of the jaws to come together as we go higher in register. When the corners are engaged, the jaws are not needed to hold the mouthpiece in place and this reduces the tendency to bite. When I play in the altissimo register, I feel that the corners are straining more. This prevents me from crushing the reed against my bottom lip. I can now play with a smooth legato up to higher notes than before, sometimes playing c sharp minor scales up to the fourth c sharp on the instrument.
I also focused on maintaining a consistent stream of air through the instrument. I found that as I played different intervals, the movements of my fingers moved the instrument slightly and interrupted the smooth passage of air. I stabilized the instrument by pushing the clarinet up more with the thumb of my right hand. Then I could insist on a perfectly smooth air stream. Maintaining the same direction of the air was helpful when going over the break, but it was especially helpful in improving the legato in the altissimo register.