Stability in Clarinet Sound
The five dimensions of clarinet sound are stability, clarity, focus, color, and depth. Today we consider stability.
Think of a one-quart water balloon as your sound. Lovely thing. Hold the water balloon in your hand. Feel how satisfying it feels. Stability is one of the characteristics that makes it beautiful.
Stability in clarinet sound is a measure of how consistent our sound is. Consistency. Reliability. Dependability. We want all our water balloons to look and feel alike. Stability and flexibility are opposing forces that create a delicious dialectical tension. But we must achieve stability first. We leave the flexibility to the veteran jazz musicians. They have mastered creating stable water balloons, so they have earned the right to create flexible ones that suit their purposes.
Stability manifests in four ways:
1. Stability of tone shape
2. Stability of tone color
3. Stability of tone response
4. Stability of pitch
Stability of Tone Shape: Imagine the tone coming out of the bell of your horn as an acute angle. As it moves forward toward the audience, the sides continue on from the angle of origin. If you produced an angle of 15 degrees, you have a narrow tone shape. If you produced an angle of 45 degrees, you have a wide tone shape. Hold your pointer finger and your middle finger together. Then spread them out to make an acute angle of 45, then 30, then 15 degrees to imagine your tone shape.
We want to produce the same size angle every time. A 30 degree angle is good for our purposes. Think of a triangular balloon blowing out of the end of your horn. We want all the balloons to be the same angle, so at ten feet away, we will have the same-sized base of the triangle. We don’t want to produce a balloon with a 15 degree angle, and then a 41, and then an 18, and then a 23. That would be ugly. A cascade of 30 degree angle balloons would be beautiful.
Stability of Tone Color: Also called timbre (tam-ber), tone color is what makes two instruments playing the same pitch at the same volume sound different. Tone color is what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet. A clarinet and an oboe are distinguishable because of their different tone colors. A clarinet tone color should be clear, warm, and woody. An oboe tone color should be nasal, pointy, and woody. Either can be dark or bright, delicate or forceful. Or a whole dictionary of opposite, yet acceptable, characteristics.
Tone color is the result of the harmonics, the multiple sound waves that the instrument produces. Think of the harmonics as thin strips of balloon rubber stacked upon each other, each strip cut into more pieces than the one above it. The top rubber strip is whole; the second, cut in half; the third cut into thirds; the fourth cut into fourths, etc. They work together to create the harmonics of the sound we hear by vibrating at different speeds as we blow. The whole rubber strip, the slowest sound wave, is the fundamental tone, and may be called something like warm. The shortest strip vibrates the fastest. The more short waves in the harmonics we hear, the brighter the sound. We want to master the art of making our tone color consistent so that the fundamental wave is always the same speed. The harmonic waves will follow its lead.
Stability of Tone Response refers to the relationship between the amount of energy we put into the sound and the way the sound comes out of the instrument. Stable tone response means that if I blow a quart of air into the balloon, the balloon fills with a quart of air. I don’t have good tone response if I blow a quart of air, yet only a pint gets into the balloon. Effort in, tone out. Blow a tightly controlled stream of air with good breath support, get a lovely pianissimo. Blow a large stream of air with good breath support, get a resounding forte. Pianissimo is harder.
Stability of Pitch: Stability of pitch can mean that we hold a sustained note steady without letting it flatten or sharpen. The frequency of the sound is the same from the moment we start playing the note until we release it. Stability of pitch can also mean that our G in the chalumeau register, throat register, clarion register, and (Heaven forbid!) altissimo register all sound like the same note save for the octave. Our tendency is to play some of those G’s sharp, some flat, and some on pitch. We want to produce balloons that are consistent, not some flat, some overfilled, and some exactly the right size.
We want to have stability to make our beautiful water balloon sound: stability of tone shape, color, and response, and stability of pitch. Consistency. Reliability. Dependability. Good characteristics in a friend. Good characteristics in a woodwind sound.