7

First of all I understand that most people's first (and very reasonable) place to look to improve intonation is at the technique of the player: embouchure quality and technique, air support, maybe quality of reed, etc. I have been following this advice for a couple of years now and it hasn't improved the general flatness of most pitches, especially "throat" pitches I think they're called.

For some background, I mostly play brass instruments with some traditional jazz bands, and have been working for a few years on the clarinet to "bring it out of the closet" eventually. I mostly play clarinet with myself for practice and this feels comfortable. But when I play with a backing track, or at jams with others, it is obvious that I have to play much sharper than I do in my own practice without a pitch reference, and I am constantly "lipping up" every pitch to try to be in tune, often "breaking" entirely when playing with others. I can lip up some pitches to be in tune, but nearly half of them, no matter what I do, cannot get any sharper without breaking/squeaking.

At this point I'm convinced that, though I may not have perfect technique, that there is something mechanical at work that cannot be overcome with technique alone. I think the instrument is just playing flat for whatever reason(s). Having done some research it seems a good number of things can affect pitch, from mouthpiece, barrel, and the tapers of things.

I don't live in a big city, and I don't think there's any place in my area where I can go in and try out different mouthpieces and barrels to try to figure out what might help. Nor is there anyone that works on clarinets in my area that I know of who I could speak with.

As far as specs go, I'm playing a

  • Buffet Crampon R13 Bb
  • B 660 barrel (66mm)
  • Vandoren B40 mouthpiece
  • All reeds I've tried have no effect on the issue

I've most recently considered buying a 65mm or 64mm barrel to see if this would help, but I understand that this does not affect all notes equally. And the barrels are not cheap ($170-190).

I'm wondering what you smart folks would recommend I do, check, or consider.

--- UPDATE ---

As for the actual pitch, I've confirmed with a tuner that most notes in what seems to me to be the most free-blowing resonant focused tone are between 10 and 30 cents flat. This is less towards the bottom of the instrument with more holes covered.

I've uploaded a video to youtube trying to demonstrate the issue. Bear in mind that I'm not trying to get the greatest constant tone here. I'm trying to demonstrate the tone quality at a lower pitch compared to the choked deadened quality that results from trying to play at the proper pitch. It also demonstrates that the sharpest I can manage to play on most notes, is still under proper pitch, and I couldn't play sharp on purpose if I wanted to. It also demonstrates that the flat effect is worse with fewer holes covered, and is progressively more accurate with more holes covered. In the higher register the cracking is a result of trying to play "up" or lip up the pitch to be more accurate and it is very tense and pretty awful to play and hear. When the horn has its most resonnant natural tone, it's quite flat.

Also please be kind, I'm not an expert. Just trying to figure out why my sound comes out 10-30 cents below proper pitch.

Thanks!

15
  • 6
    Do you know any well-trained clarinet players who could test it out to see if they have the same trouble with it?
    – Aaron
    Sep 17 at 5:18
  • 1
    R13 is a pretty serious instrument for someone just playing occasionally. Did you get it used? Any idea how old it is? I’m not sure but that might be a factor. You could just be playing flat normally, so you have a tuner you can play with to get an objective sense? (What if the others are playing sharp?) If you’re really flat across the board, a shorter barrel may help. You should already be experiencing some notes being flatter than others, so not affecting all notes equally is just par for the course. You have to intonate each note of the clarinet anyway, right? Sep 17 at 11:37
  • 3
    Another possibility is that while most modern instruments are generally tuned to A440, some instruments may be tuned to a different A, ranging from 400 to 450 Hz before it was standardized in 1939. Note that it's not just older instruments that may be tuned differently, but even modern instruments may be custom built to play older music in a different tuning. Sep 17 at 13:40
  • 1
    @PiedPiper I just added a video that might help
    – pixelearth
    Sep 17 at 15:38
  • 1
    What hardness reed are you using? I can easily reproduce what's happening in the video by putting on a 2.5 reed (I normally play 3.5+) and dropping my tongue way down in my mouth and then trying to use my lower lip to control the intonation. That gets me both closer to the tone you have and also the behavior of the sound choking when I try to bring up the pitch. I suggest stiffer reed and very high tongue position, unless you're already doing that. To really match your tone I have to have very little mouthpiece in my mouth. I suggest moving your lower lip down the reed. Sep 18 at 22:15
6

The first thing to try is playing another clarinet. If that's flat as well, it's you. If not, start looking for mechanical solutions. But it seems unlikely that what seems to be a standard, reasonable quality instrument would be 'built flat'.

3
  • I added a video link to the post that might help clarify the situation
    – pixelearth
    Sep 17 at 15:32
  • I disagree. With an R13 the first thing to try would be adjusting the reed and embouchure. Sep 18 at 8:20
  • He's convinced himself that embouchure isn't the problem. First job - demonstrate that it IS. (Or confirm otherwise.) Sep 18 at 13:48
6

With an instrument that is consistently playing flat, the first thing to try would be a new barrel. Your 66mm barrel is the standard, but you can easily find a 65mm or 64mm to try. The shorter barrel will shorten the instrument and make it play sharper.

2
  • I added a video link to the post that might help clarify the situation
    – pixelearth
    Sep 17 at 15:32
  • I disagree. With an R13 the first thing to try would be adjusting the reed and embouchure. Sep 18 at 8:20
1

Even if you are "out in the boonies," I strongly recommend getting an expert to evaluate your axe. This may entail mailing it off to some clarinet repairman and waiting for him to return it with a report, but that's the best way to determine for sure whether it's the instrument or your technique that is at fault.

By the way, are you absolutely 100% sure you bought a Bb and not an A clarinet?

4
  • I appreciate this advice. I can make to a larger city sometime, and try to arrange a meeting. I'm pretty sure it's a Bb, but not exactly clear on how to check, except for the pitch. The number on the back says 532278. I guess I could look that up. I bought it from a friend whose relative passed away who was a player. It's a good horn, and having played music for 30 years I didn't bother to start on a student model, since that held me back on violin and guitar in the past, as they were harder and less enjoyable to play.
    – pixelearth
    Sep 17 at 15:09
  • I added a video link to the post that might help clarify the situation
    – pixelearth
    Sep 17 at 15:32
  • An A clarinet would be close to 100 cents flat, not 10-30.
    – PiedPiper
    Sep 17 at 19:30
  • @pixelearth You can get a remote lesson with a teacher who should be able to help even over a laptop microphone. Sep 18 at 8:19
1

Edit - additional info

I created a video of me trying to re-create the tone and intonation problems that you have and I think I succeeded:

Then I changed to my normal setup and embouchure and recorded a little more:

If you're not familiar with strobe tuners, when the blue bars on the screen are going up, the note is sharp, when they are going down, the note is flat. There's also a display of cents sharp/flat.


Original post

I’m sorry to have to say this but both the tone you have in the video as well as your clear ability to lip the notes into tune suggest that it might not be your clarinet, it might be you. Your embouchure seems off to me. Your tone seems quite reedy and not round.

I wish I could tell you simply what to change, but it could be so many things, and is probably a combination. Before buying anything I would take a one hour lesson with a good teacher. At least they should be able to confirm for certain whether it’s you or the clarinet.

As for things to try, could be too little mouthpiece in your mouth, not a firm enough embouchure, air too slow, tongue not high enough, chin not pointed properly, and of course all of these interact with each other. I would start by trying to get as much mouthpiece in your mouth as possible, with your lower lip halfway between the tip of the reed and the top of the ligature. You will probably have to adjust your tongue position. It should be convex towards the roof of your mouth, with the tip of your tongue just off the end of the reed and pointed slightly down. The closer you can get your tongue to the contour of the top of your mouth without touching the better. Make sure your lower lip is firm and the face of your chin is flat.

Also support should be solid, breathing might benefit from some work. If you’re playing softer than a 3.0 that could be contributing, especially if it’s a synthetic reed.

An R13 should be able to create a very rich, round, woody tone across its entire range. If you don’t sound like a pro in a major city symphony, it’s not because of the instrument. Even on a softer reed a correct embouchure should sound very nice on that clarinet. The only possible exception might be if it is an old R13 that might be damaged or have a bad bore in some way, but even then I’d expect a better tone.

A good one hour lesson should cost much less than a barrel. Invest in one to double check whether I’m right. I can only bend notes like you do in the video if my embouchure is way off, so that’s my strong suspicion. If I’m right (or wrong), a decent teacher will be able to tell in maybe ten seconds of you playing.

Oh yeah, make sure your reed is high on the mouthpiece. And make sure your ligature is in the correct spot. With your lip halfway down the read and a nice firm embouchure, you can feel when the reed is in the right place. When you have it right the notes just jump out and sound surprisingly warm and round. If you’re fighting for every note it could be a bad reed or it could be too low or two high. Placing the reed takes practice.

2
  • Hey @Todd thanks for taking the time to make these videos. I appreciate the spirit of sharing! I'm getting this pretty late at night, so I won't have time to respond until tomorrow. I am indeed using a synthetic legere reed and it's quite thin. I think it was a 2.5 jazz cut, and it plays like a 2 probably. I definitely play in a similar location to you, not up near the opening and my reed generally flush with the tip or just under. I have played the 3 and 3.5 reeds and they were not significantly sharper, but they did make it harder to shape and bend notes as is common in early jazz styles.
    – pixelearth
    Sep 19 at 4:02
  • I'll experiment tomorrow with cane and do more measurements and maybe make another video. I should probably make one with my normal tone so it's clear that I'm not actually all over the place, lol.
    – pixelearth
    Sep 19 at 4:04
-1

Try smiling a little more while you are playing. The warmer your instrument gets the sharper it will be, blow warm air into it before you play. Blow more air into you instrument, even if you are playing quietly.

3
  • To clarify, not simply “more” air, but faster air. High tongue position. Sep 17 at 11:38
  • Smiling is a very bad idea.
    – PiedPiper
    Sep 17 at 15:48
  • The best advice to give to students is to NOT smile when playing. Doing a smile will widen your mouth and make your lips thinner -- quite the opposite of what you want when playing. I know, it is a sort of "natural" tendency when you get tired, but it will only make for a this tone.
    – ghellquist
    Sep 22 at 6:36

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