When switching back and forth between soprano and bass or contrabass clarinets, a musician will inevitably have to deal with the differences in several key aspects of the instrument and playing techniques, including embouchure, air support and breathing, voicing and tongue position, hand position, and handling and maintenance. I interviewed six of my former and current students with solid bass and contrabass experience and background to get their feedback on the possible solutions and adjustments that need to be made to facilitate the transition from one instrument to another. The interviewees are Marshall Waterman (freshman, Tarleton State), Adrian Rodriguez (sophomore, Tarleton State), Scott Copeland (senior, Tarleton State), Andres Guerra (senior, Sam Houston State), Scott Buyers (masters, Texas State), and Stefan Murat (Associate Director of Bands, Jersey Village High School).
Embouchure position is probably one of the most important fundamentals of clarinet playing. When comparing the soprano and bass/contrabass embouchures, a young player should be aware about not only the obvious differences between the two, such as lower jaw position and amount of mouthpiece in the mouth, but also the similarities, such as the shape and placement of the chin and lips.
M.W.: The biggest difference between the soprano and bass/contrabass clarinet embouchure is that on bass and contra it is necessary to open up and loosen the jaw. It is like whistling compared to eating an apple.
A.R.: On the bass clarinet, wrap the corners of the mouth around the mouthpiece and make sure the embouchure is flexible and relaxed. Going back to soprano requires a firmer embouchure and a flat chin.
S.M.: Once a soprano player tries a contra clarinet, their world will change. I encourage them to remember two words: open and relaxed. These apply to the entire range of the instrument. The embouchure necessary to make a chirp-free sound on contrabass clarinet will be well outside the comfort zone of a poor soprano player. This will be strange at first, but once a clarinetist opens up and relaxes, the sound will come.
These changes will help the soprano player play the lower instruments in the family, but it is critical to change back when returning to the soprano clarinet. If you are a bass clarinet player switching to soprano, make sure you firm up that embouchure, otherwise you will have a very difficult time making a pleasant sound in the clarion and altissimo registers.
A.G.: When switching from soprano to bass or contrabass, the player should take in more of the mouthpiece and keep the corners of the mouth more out than usual. When switching back to soprano, the player should take in less of the mouthpiece and keep the corners more in than for the bass embouchure.
Air Support and Breathing
Air support is similar on both soprano and bass/contrabass clarinets; players must blow intense and focused air. Keep in mind that bass and contrabass clarinets will require significantly more air due to the larger size.
A.G.: Just like soprano clarinet, one should have a concentrated, fast air stream while trying to play bass or contrabass. Students will need a lot more air to fill up the bass clarinet and even more for contrabass. Every breath must be full and deep.
S.C.: Because of the size of the instruments, the clarinet player will need significantly more air on the bass clarinet than on soprano. This will definitely require taking deeper breaths. Students who frequently switch between soprano and contrabass clarinets should do breathing exercises to get used to taking deeper breaths without the danger of passing out, something that has happened to me while playing.
S.M.: Air support is generally the same across the clarinet family. There are some concepts that can increase your awareness of how you use your air. Bass and contrabass clarinet players can visualize the necessary volume of air by thinking about filling up the entire length of their instrument with air right at the beginning of the note. This concept is comparable to water filling up a garden hose. They should also think about sending their air straight across the neck and avoid trying to aim the air down.
Voicing & Tongue Position
Voicing and tongue position are similar on both soprano and bass clarinet. Students should use the syllables ee or hee and raise the back of the tongue. In the lower register of the bass and on the contra, however, ah, dah, or oh syllables are better.
A.R.: Voicing an ee vowel is quite typical for soprano clarinet players to produce a decent tone and intonation. Voicing ee and keeping the tongue high is also beneficial on the bass clarinet, especially in the high register. In the low register this can change to eh or even ah.
S.M.: An ah vowel sound on a bass clarinet is the first option. I would encourage bass clarinetists to experiment with an ee vowel sound and find the registers where that is appropriate. Bass clarinet players will need to think ee again when they switch back to soprano clarinet. I spent many years in college in high register slurs trying to focus in that ee tongue position.
Bass and contra players will want to use a dah syllable for articulation because of the angle that the mouthpiece enters the mouth. It is also ideal on these instruments to articulate just slightly (one to two millimeters) below the tip of the reed. This will allow for more effective articulation. Soprano clarinet players will want to use a dee syllable because of their regular ee vowel sound.
A.G.: Playing bass clarinet takes a da syllable, and on contrabass students should use an aw syllable. When playing the soprano clarinet, the back of your tongue is raised like you are trying to say ee.
One of the main challenges for a clarinet player is going back and forth between spreading the fingers on the bass and contra and squishing them back together on soprano. Covering tone holes might present an additional challenge when switching from bass to soprano.
M.W.: The biggest concern when moving from bass to soprano clarinet is the tone holes, because the big clarinets have keys instead. Another big difference is that bass clarinet has more keys than soprano, and the contrabass can have even more. That is why it is quite easy to fumble the hand when switching from soprano to bass or contra. You’ll also have to learn some new fingerings on the bass clarinet, especially if it is an extended-range bass.
S.B.: On bass clarinet, the left hand index finger must cover the small, single tone hole at all times up until written B5. For everything else, hand and finger placement is the easiest relation from soprano to bass. Granted, the fingers will feel stretched out more than the usual, so students should be sure to feel and adjust where their fingers are from time to time. Finger accuracy will develop over time.
The primary concern is low C bass clarinets. On these, both pinkies have additional keys to use, and the right-hand thumb now controls keys as well. The same additional key sets are also applied to extended-range contrabasses. The best way for students to become familiar with these additional keys is to accurately play the C major scale, starting on C4 and slowly descending to the lowest C, which is fingered with the bottom key of the right-hand thumb.
S.M.: A common mistake among many beginner bass clarinet players is to keep the elbows turned out too much. The key to fixing this is to keep the wrists straight and the hands perpendicular to the instrument. Bass clarinet players also need to be vigilant about adjusting peg height or the neck strap to make sure that the instrument always comes directly to them. Avoid bending the neck or leaning into the instrument; this can put pressure on the back and neck.
G.C.: When switching from soprano to bass, a clarinetist will have to keep the hands slightly further apart. It would be a good idea to practice where to put fingers for muscle memory. Bass and contrabass clarinet have no holes to cover, which is a significant advantage. When moving from soprano to contra, a clarinetist will have to keep the hands and fingers quite far apart. I would suggest practice putting hands on the instrument several times daily until it becomes a natural movement.
Handling & Maintenance
It is important to be extremely careful when assembling or disassembling bass and contrabass clarinets. The large rods and keys on these instruments can easily become bent.
S.M.: The bass clarinet and contra clarinet can be quite frail. The large rods necessary to make the lower notes seal can easily move out of alignment. When assembling the instrument, be careful to handle the upper and lower joints with the hands as close to playing position as possible. Gripping the lower joint by the long stretch between the right pinky keys and the tenon can, over time, bend the rods.
Never hold a low clarinet by just the upper joint. The bottom half is heavier than the upper half and can easily fall off. A common mistake I have seen students make is too much dependence on the neck strap, which is not meant to support the entire weight of the instrument. Having the bottom half of the instrument fall off can incur many thousands of dollars in repair.
Low clarinet players will likely not need as hard of a reed as they would use on soprano. For instance, on soprano clarinet I play on 31⁄2+, but on bass and contra, I never use anything harder than a 3. Low clarinet players may also have much more success with synthetic reeds compared than their companions on soprano clarinet.
S.B.: Aside from playing big, the handling of a larger instrument also requires basic observation when assembling and taking apart. Always have cork grease before assembling a bass or contrabass clarinet; the assembly will be easier. In addition, reed cycling is even more important on low clarinets. The bigger reeds bass and contrabass clarinets require will warp quickly if played every day. Rotate reeds just as on soprano. After playing, swab bass clarinets by using a large silk cloth to drain the moisture from the wood inside.
Clarinetists who double on bass and contrabass must pay attention to their physical well-being. Carrying cases for large instruments by the handles can cause hand fatigue, which will interfere with playing ability. If it is possible to get a backpack case for bass clarinets, do so.
The size of a contrabass case can present a significant physical challenge. Use a dolly or have two people be responsible for the case while traveling longer distances, because the internal shuffling of the instrument could possibly bend the contra’s keys.
G.C.: Be cautious of all bridge keys. On instruments with a low C extension, make sure the bell key lines up correctly. The contrabass has several bars that are more than a foot long, and these can get bent easily.
Always take the reed off the mouthpiece after use. It is always a good idea to wipe the keys with a polishing cloth after use to remove fingerprints and grime. Also, keep in mind that contrabass clarinet reeds are quite expensive and can be difficult to find in an emergency. If this happens, contra players can use bari sax reeds as a last-minute substitute.
Transitioning between soprano clarinet and the larger sizes can be simple with work and attention to detail. Clarinetists need not be frightened of a switch to bass or contrabass.