Saturday, 7 July 2018

Figuring out the clarinet

The engineering of the instrument

I am spending time at the moment trying to figure out how a clarinet works. 

I don't know much (anything) about the clarinet, but I thought I'd write down what I'm finding out, in case it's useful to others. 

The instrument is fantastically complicated because it has meeelions of buttons that have to be pressed in sometimes quite unintuitive combinations in order to produce a given musical note.

This is very different from the piano or violin, where all of the notes are laid out in order, and fairly different from the recorder, which also has its notes laid out in order. 

Some of the buttons operate levers that cover or uncover holes that may be quite a long way away. Because of this, it's hard to tell, when I press a button, whether I am interacting with a hole that is a long way up, or a long way down the instrument. All of this makes it hard to play the instrument just from first principles, and means that instead I have to memorise a lot of fingerings that don't make intuitive sense to me. 

To a rough approximation, it's a bit like playing a piano, where the keys have been arbitrarily swapped round. The keys still produce their original notes, and I have to memorise all their new positions.  

I found a brilliant explanation of the physics of the instrument on the website of the University of New South Wales, written by the research group of Professor Joe Wolfe. Their explanation really helps to clarify things. 

As far as I can see, the clarinet is very much like a giant recorder, and I would be able to understand it better if I could figure out the order of the holes and their distances from the tip of the mouthpiece. With this information I'd be better placed to predict which holes will produce which notes.

In order to get closer to that, I have measured the distances of all of the holes and made a chart below. In the real instrument, some holes are different sizes, which makes a big difference, but here I have just marked their position, and I have not marked how far they are round the bore of the instrument, just the distance from the tip of the mouthpiece. 

In the real instrument I have a sense that the holes are set in two clusters, which are close to my two sets of fingers, but in the chart below it is clear that they are actually pretty evenly spaced right down the length of the tube, which makes a lot of sense. They also get more widely spaced as I get towards the bottom, which also makes a lot of sense to me. 

The instrument that I am working with is about 70 years old and was made by E.J. Albert in Bruxelles (Brussels, in Belgium). The mouthpiece was made by Boosey and Hawkes in London. 

Here are some diagrams and photos that I took to try to help figure it all out. 

Order of the holes

Here are cut down versions of the top and bottom half of the diagram so that the text is easier to read when the image is enlarged:

Top half

Bottom half 


Here are the measurements, in case anyone would like to know.

Mouthpiece tip                     0
Register key                       15.1cm
1R                                      16.1cm
2R                                      18.4cm
1L                                      19.7cm
2L                                      20.7cm
no name                            22.4cm
3R                                     23.2cm
Left thumb                        23.4cm
Left index finger               24.4cm
no name                            26.2cm
Left 2nd finger                 27.7cm           
3L                                     28.0cm
4R                                    28.2cm
Left 3rd finger                 29.9cm
4L                                    30.9cm
no name                           33.9cm
Right 1st finger               35.4cm
5R                                    35.9cm
Right 2nd finger              37.9cm
Right 3rd finger              40.2cm
7R                                   43.2cm
8R or 5L                         45.8cm
6R or 7L                         48.6cm
9R or 6L                         52.4cm
End of Bell                     64.8cm

Having looked at this, I realise that what I need to know is which buttons open or close holes in which sections of the instrument. To figure this out, I have split the instrument into four sections as below.

Some of the buttons are located in very different areas of the instrument from the holes that they open and close, and this is what makes memorising the fingering tricky. If I can clarify this part it will make more sense. 

Sections of the instrument

There are four main sections to the instrument. In the middle, there are two section of buttons/holes that are broadly similar to the main two sets on a recorder. 

Then at the bottom there is a section that produces all of the very low notes. This is a bit like the one hole at the bottom of a recorder, but it can be controlled by either hand, using a series of long levers. 

At the top of the instrument there is another set of buttons and holes to enable the instrument to play very high notes. These are new to me, and I need to figure them out. Some of them are controlled by fingers at the top of the instrument, and some from further down, using long levers. 

First Section

This section of the instrument is used to produce the high notes. 

It is the most confusing part for me, having come from the background of playing the recorder, as recorders do not have these holes at the top. 

Some of the holes are tone holes, while one is the register key, which makes the whole instrument shift up by a 12th (so they tell me). That means that the instrument changes from having a very deep voice to suddenly being quite high pitched. 

The tone holes up here are quite small, while the tone holes in the middle of the instrument are bigger, and those at the bottom are very big. 

Some of the holes are operated using levers close to where the holes are sited, whilst other are operated by long levers that are pressed much further down by the right hand, which is at the bottom of the instrument. This makes it all much more interesting. 

This is the really complicated part of the clarinet to learn, as far as I can tell. At least coming from a background of recorder playing. 

Second section

The second section is fairly straightforward. 

It has 6 buttons/holes and the levers/buttons are all in the same section of the instrument, as the holes that they open/close. The only slightly muddling thing is that one lever (4R shown bottom left here) is operated by the right hand, while all of the other controls are operated by the left hand. 

This extra lever also seems on first inspection to belong to a group with 1R, 2R and 3R, but those other levers all operate holes that are much further up in the first section of the instrument. That is a bit confusing. 

Third Section

The third section is simplest. It just has four buttons that open holes that are all in that same section of the instrument. Phew!

Fourth section

This section produces the low notes and can be controlled by either hand via long levers. It's pretty straightfoward, except that I struggle to remember which lever is which. 

The levers are called 5L, 6L and 7L for the left hand, and 6R, 7R, 8R and 9R for the right hand. 

Three pairs of levers do the same thing, as follows:

8R = 5L                         
6R = 7L                         
9R = 6L                         

7R opens a button that can only be opened by the right hand. There is no equivalent lever for the left hand. 

It's a bit tricky to remember which button is which, but all of them produce very nice deep sounds, and so figuring it out the hard way (by playing) is very enjoyable. 

Figuring out the fingering of the notes

Looking back at the chart of the notes, I can now figure some things out more easily.

I'm reading from the note chart in "A Tune A Day Book 1" the newest edition, which is very good, but I can't reproduce it here unfortunately. 

The lowest notes of the clarinet are shown on the bottom stave of the diagram below, and the notes that are exactly a 12th above these are shown in the stave above. 

The fingering for the top stave of notes is the same as the fingering for the bottom stave of notes, except that the register key also must be pressed. This applies also to the associated sharps and flats. Presumably this means that if I could think in 12ths instead of octaves, that would help quite a lot. I can't. However, if I can memorise the fingerings of the notes once, then the same fingerings will appear in the same order in the second set of notes, which is good. 

In between the bottom set of notes and the top set, there are just a few (below) that have different fingerings, which do make intuitive sense. The fingerings progress nicely from the preceding notes, and as the pitch gets higher, the buttons that need to be pressed get higher up the instrument. Good!

These top notes (below) and the associated sharps and flats are where it gets really crazy. I think I just have to memorise these. 

So here we are. Some of it makes more sense now. I hope this helps someone else, as well as me. 

Here are some links to pieces of music that people can play, when they have got the knack of this. I do not think that I will be playing anything quite this complicated any time soon, but I like listening to other people doing it.

This page is continued on the page called Figuring out the clarinet - continued.

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