Mastering The Eb Clarinet

David Cook | January 2018

    Many clarinetists are issued an Eb clarinet with no guidance aside from a quick “Good luck!” This all-too-common scenario results in a great deal of self-teaching, frequently leading to bad habits that can take years to correct and a generally negative attitude toward the instrument. On the other hand, providing some basic instruction that anticipates common difficulties associated with the Eb clarinet can lead to a better experience. This in turn improves your ensemble’s performance and provides clarinetists with valuable skills for future musical endeavors.

Tone and Embouchure
    As with any instrument, the first step to producing a good tone is knowing how the instrument is supposed to sound. Although it is often scored in conjunction with the flute or piccolo, the Eb clarinet is still a member of the clarinet family, and Eb clarinet players should aim for the same tonal qualities that are desired on the clarinet: centered sound, roundness, balance of overtones, and a lack of edge or spread. One reason for a spread or unfocused sound is improper tongue placement, typically because the performer anticipates the pitch that would come out of the Bb clarinet, which is a fourth lower. Transposing a passage for Eb clarinet up a perfect fourth and playing it on Bb clarinet helps to position the tongue properly for the Eb clarinet. Jorge Montilla, Assistant Professor of Clarinet at the University of Iowa, prescribes that the back of the tongue should be a bit lower when playing the Eb clarinet, similar to playing in the altissimo register on the Bb clarinet, to allow the tone to resonate properly.
    Several potential obstacles in producing a desirable tone come from misconceptions regarding the Eb clarinet’s size. The smaller reed and mouthpiece of the Eb clarinet often leads clarinetists to take less mouthpiece and reed than on Bb clarinet. However, the lengths of the facing curves on Eb and Bb clarinet mouthpieces are usually quite similar, meaning the overall amount of reed and mouthpiece taken into the em­bou­chure should be comparable. In fact, close examination of my  mouthpieces reveals that the length of the facing curve is virtually identical between the two.
    Students can quickly identify the length of the facing curve on any clarinet mouthpiece by gently inserting a piece of paper between the reed and the mouthpiece until the paper stops. The point at which the paper stops indicates where the mouthpiece curvature breaks away from the reed; this is the ideal place for the lower lip to contact the reed. A small piece of electrical tape can then be placed on the reed where the paper stopped. Students can then play on the reed (the tape does not impede the reed’s vibration), using the tape as a tactile indicator of where the lower lip should contact the reed.

Comparison of author’s Eb (L) and Bb (R) clarinet mouthpieces. The length of the facing curve is indicated by electrical tape on the reed.

    A desirable tone on the Eb clarinet also requires adequate air support. Too often, performers unfamiliar with the  Eb clarinet believe that the instrument requires less air because it is smaller. However, the opposite is actually true; the narrower bore of the Eb clarinet produces greater resistance, necessitating more air. Students should be encouraged to play with enough air support to produce a tone that resonates and blends properly. I find it helpful to focus on expansion along the ribcage (noticeable by placing one hand on the stomach and the other on the lower back) during inhalation and expelling air in an intense, compacted airstream. Another beneficial exercise is to hold a small piece of paper (approximately 3 inches by 5 inches) against a wall and keep the paper pinned against the wall via blowing at the paper. A sufficiently rapid and focused airstream will hold the paper in place even after the hand releases the paper.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, iii, mm. 139-142. Originally for Eb clarinet, also transposed to Bb clarinet for voicing practice. 

    It may be tempting to immediately scrutinize intonation in a poor Eb clarinet performance, but I instead refer to John E. Williamson, Director of Bands at Central Michigan University, who said, “intonation can only be considered when the students have a clear, characteristic tone.” Many of the previous remedies for poor tone on the Eb clarinet will also go a long way toward correcting intonation problems as well.
    Beyond the means for modifying tone described earlier, students should spend a considerable amount of time with a tuner prior to entering the ensemble, checking the pitch of each note on the instrument. Although variance exists between individual instruments, there are some general intonation tendencies that students should be cognizant of when playing the Eb clarinet. Some of these inclinations are shared between the Bb and Eb clarinets, such as a proclivity for sharpness in the upper clarion register (G5-C6). However, some intonation deficiencies on the Eb clarinet actually oppose the tendencies of the Bb clarinet. While throat tones on the Bb clarinet tend to be sharp, the same written pitches (G4-Bb4) are more likely to be flat on the Eb clarinet.

General intonation tendencies of the Eb clarinet.

    The altissimo register is of particular concern for the Eb clarinetist, as parts for the instrument generally highlight this upper tessitura. If students are flat in this register (C#6 and above), two likely culprits are insufficient pressure from the lower lip and too light a reed. Many students find a heavier reed more conducive to producing the altissimo pitches with good tone and intonation.
    The inherent sharpness of the upper clarion register can often be remedied by omitting the register key, thereby overblowing the fundamental register and lowering the pitch of the sounding tone. This is particularly helpful when playing in soft dynamics. However, omitting the register key only works for A5-C6 in the clarion register and requires careful voicing to avoid an undertone or grunt. In addition, the intonation of D6 can be performed by overblowing G4 in the throat register; the traditional fingering is often quite sharp on Eb clarinets.

    As is the case with any instrument, specific equipment is secondary in importance to diligent practice and excellent instruction. That being said, certain choices of Eb clarinet equipment can ease the initial playing experience just as particular styles of mouthpiece and reed facilitate more immediate success when beginning the clarinet.
    A fruitful and cost-effective way to improve Eb clarinet performance is to upgrade from the stock mouthpiece, particularly when the instrument is not of professional quality. As the performer’s most direct interaction is with the mouthpiece, its design heavily affects the performer’s experience. In addition, a new mouthpiece can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a new instrument. I find a narrow tip opening on the Eb clarinet mouthpiece allows for the use of heavier reeds, which help to produce a centered tone in the altissimo register. Richard Hawkins’s S model, Clark W. Fobes’s San Francisco mouthpiece, and Bradford Behn’s Zinner mouthpiece all exemplify this design and are known for yielding a darker tone and a free-blowing playing experience.
    Careful selection of reeds may also facilitate improved performance on the Eb clarinet. While there are a multitude of commercial Eb clarinet reeds available from Vandoren and D’Addario, many Eb clarinet players find greater success using reeds designed for Bb clarinet because of the thicker heel and longer vamp of a Bb reed. However, this requires the performer to trim the heel of the Bb reed in order for the reed to fit on the mouthpiece; an unaltered Bb clarinet reed will not fit on the Eb clarinet mouthpiece. I recommend using an ordinary pair of pruning shears to clip the heel of the Bb reed, followed by smoothing the rough edge with fine grit sandpaper.
    Some performers may experience slight discomfort due to the wider Bb reed hanging over the side rails of the mouthpiece; this can be alleviated by sanding the sides of the Bb reed with fine grit sandpaper. This final step can be avoided by purchasing German-cut Bb clarinet reeds, which are narrower than the French cut used in most of the United States. Vandoren’s White Master reeds and Peter Leuthner’s German cut reeds are two of the more popular options available for purchase.

Marking where the Bb clarinet reed should be trimmed.

    If intonation is still problematic after implementing the recommendations discussed earlier, or if the instrument has an even scale but is consistently above or below pitch, a new barrel may solve the problem. Three of the most prominent manufacturers of aftermarket Eb clarinet barrels are Bradford Behn, Backun Musical Services, and Clark W. Forbes. Backun’s and Behn’s products both feature a cutout on the back allowing for a Bb clarinet reed to be used without needing to trim the heel. Barrels from each of these makers can also help to darken the overall timbre of the Eb clarinet and are available for less than $200.

Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Spring Rounds. Omitting register key pitches A5 and above improves intonation.

Selecting Students

    When determining who should play Eb clarinet, look for students with a clear and round tone in the upper clarion and altissimo registers of the Bb clarinet; this suggests a properly developed embouchure that will translate well to the Eb clarinet. Good intonation in those same registers shows great attention to pitch, which is a necessity for playing the Eb clarinet. I also suggest seeking out students with a certain sense of confidence or assertiveness in their playing. The nature of Eb clarinet parts often places the instrument an octave above the Bb clarinets or as the only member of the clarinet family playing with the flutes. These common settings require students to be self-sufficient when playing the instrument and to play without fear of sticking out from the ensemble.

Healthy Practicing
    When practicing music on the Eb clarinet, I recommend that students avoid prolonged repetition in the higher register of the instrument to prevent hearing damage or em­bou­chure fatigue. Extended periods of mental practicing, such as saying note names out loud while fingering, can help preserve the embouchure muscles. Similarly, students can play Eb parts on the Bb clarinet to gain familiarity with specific technical passages. Diligent use of earplugs is also of utmost importance in protecting the performer’s hearing. When combined with effective practice techniques, these suggestions go a long way toward preserving the health and wellness of aspiring Eb clarinetists.

    The Eb clarinet is a valuable presence in any ensemble, be it a symphony orchestra or a clarinet quartet. These suggestions will assist students in reaching a higher level of Eb clarinet performance, leading to a richer and more substantial student experience.