…on using the register key

Something that’s started to interest me recently when it comes to clarinet writing and collaboration with composers, is the generation of material. I love these long collaborative meetings where you just sit together and generate material for its own sake. And I love seeing what makes it into the piece later, and what doesn’t. That’s basically what my whole PhD was about.

It seems to me that a lot of the time when working with composers, generating material comes down to things like “well, that’s great, but can you do and b… at the same time?” It’s all about layers, and isolation of various bits of the instrument and then layering all those isolations. Fun stuff. And it’s about developing an understanding about how certain aspects of the instrument function and how you can use them. Sometimes this is about taking one note and adding layers of different articulations, singing, multiphonics, etc. on top.

Today, I’m going to show you how manipulations of the register key can generate some beautiful and interesting effects, and while the effects are beautiful in themselves, I think/hope that for composers who are interested in isolating various aspects of technique, this could also prove to be interesting on that level.

So, perhaps you’ve worked with younger, less experienced players and you’ve noticed that sometimes (or perhaps all the time) when the clarinetist plays in the second register, especially when articulating, you can hear the untertone of the register below coming through. We work really hard to get rid of that, and there are a lot of exercises to work on it. One thing that works really well is having someone push the clarinetist while she tries to play certain notes, while pushing back to as not to fall over. Some combination of distraction and engaging the muscles seems to do the trick. Another thing that works well is this exercise. Start at the top of the register (here I play a written B), remove the register key (you hear the pitch go down by about a quarter tone) and then try to play a chromatic scale downwards, keeping the pitch in the second register (despite not having the register key down) as long as possible. Hear how it becomes more difficult the lower I go, until I drop into the bottom register?

One can then achieve some great effects by trilling the register key at various speeds. First, at a fast tempo one doesn’t really hear the lower pitch but a kind of nice colouration of the sound (here a written D):

Slowly, however, one hears the lower pitch (a written G) start to emerge:

I think it also works beautifully with a super airy sound and very little pitch (I add fluttertongue towards the end):

Of course, one doesn’t need to choose between the two pitches. If I keep the register key down, I can still bring out that undertone, which results in these multiphonics:

And one doesn’t need to stick to trilling with the register key, as other keys in the general vicinity will have similar but different effects. Here’s a written low G, trilling first the A key, the G# key and then the top two trill keys (usually either called B and Bb, or 12 and 13, depending on the fingering system). The A and G# keys are controlled by using the knuckle or side of the index finger while still keeping the fingerpad down on the top tone hole (necessary to produce the low G). The trill keys are operated by the right hand thumb (normally just used to hold the instrument up!):

And since I’ve been ignoring the altissimo register, here’s what it sounds like doing register key trills on high notes:

On the bass clarinet, the principle is basically the same, though because of the bore size it’s a possible to have even greater control and in some cases the effect is a little bit more nuanced. Or maybe I mean dramatic. Well, you can decide. So here’s a clip of some of the same stuff we’ve just been doing on the soprano clarinet:

Where things get really beautiful is actually at the very bass of the instrument; some beautiful extra harmonics start to emerge. So here I am, playing the lowest C, C# and D, opening and closing the register key at different speeds – it also makes a difference just how wide I open it.

These harmonics can be controlled much in the same way that spectral multiphonics can be controlled (and the pitch material is essentially the same), but they have to be kept at relatively quiet dynamics. As soon as I push too hard, the second register is too heavily activated, and the harmonics are then limited in number and very squeaky.

The other thing about the bass clarinet, which is definitely worth knowing, is that it actually has two register keys.


The second is (strangely enough) controlled by the third finger of our right hand and can be used for register key trills from the written G just above the staff until the F above that (actually it can be used for a lot of different things, from producing multiphonics to stabilising very very high notes). Here I do a chromatic scale with slow trilling downwards to demonstrate:

Please get in touch if anything about this post is unclear or if you want more details about a certain aspect of the technique. I’m so far ‘inside’ the technique on this one, I’m not sure I can tell how clear I’ve been!

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This entry was posted in clarinet techniques, multiphonic, on composing for the clarinet, performance, register key, trill and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to …on using the register key

  1. Pingback: Index / Table of Contents | heather roche

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  4. Hi Heather! Thanks so much for all this hard work on behalf of us composer. I’m wondering, in regards bass clarinet, if one can start on a note in the lower – mid register, and use either register key to effect a kind of grace note that would go momentarily very high? If not, how might this be achieved?

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Blasio – Yes, moving upwards quickly like this is very easy to do with the register key (I hope I’ve understood your question correctly). Best wishes!

  5. Yaar says:

    Hi Heather, thank you so much for everything in this blog! I have a question concerning the part about trilling with the A key- If I want to transpose the pitches you played in the recording (I’m writing for Eb clarinet), should I still write a trill with the A key or am I to “transpose” also the key involved in the trill?

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