heather roche

…on clarinet articulation

Bit of a monster post for you today, so I won’t waste too much time in introducing it. Basically I’m going to cover all the different ways the tongue and throat can be involved when playing the clarinet. From the basics of tonguing (tenuto, staccato, changing consonants), to extended techniques (flutter tongue, slap tongue), to stuff you don’t see all that often (shaking the clarinet, flute and trumpet embouchures)… I’m going to try to cover it all. If there’s something I’ve forgotten, or there’s something that’s not clear, please leave a comment!

If this post was useful to you, you might also be interested in techniques for bass clarinets without mouthpiece, bass clarinet preparations, reed tapping articulation, and singing and playing. These posts also have a lot of material about articulation.

(I apologise for the sound quality of a few of these examples. My Interface stopped speaking to my laptop towards the end of my recording session, so there are 4 examples where I’ve had to just record using my laptop microphone. If I get it working again I’ll update the sound files!)

Articulation Basics

The use of the tongue and the shape that it makes can have a dramatic effect on the sound of the instrument. To make clear what a difference the use of the tongue makes, in this first example I first play a chromatic scale downwards using the tongue, and then the same again without the use of the tongue:

Creating a staccato on the clarinet basically comes down to starting and ending the pitch with the tongue. In the following example I demonstrate a fairly normal staccato, then a longer note with a tongue stop and finally a shorter note with a tongue stop:

The shape that the tongue makes can have an effect too. Just as we discussed forming different vowels in the throat to affect the quality of air in a previous post, we can change the consonant in the front of the mouth in order to make subtle alterations to the sound of articulation. Here are the two most common, first with a “t” sound and then with a “d”:

One could also do something slightly more ambitious and try an “s” sound, which has the clarinet sound starting without the tongue and then stop it as during the “s” the tongue moves forward and hits the reed:

You can try these different positions yourself without the use of the clarinet. Any consonant where your tongue hits the top of your lower teeth is going to have some kind of effect on the articulation of the clarinet (because that is basically where the tip of the reed sits).

Of course, one doesn’t have to just use the tip of the reed. Here’s what happens if I try to tongue by placing my entire tongue on the reed. It’s actually quite difficult not to slap tongue (see below) while doing this, because it’s quite a similar process:

On a side note, one can actually lay the tongue on the reed while playing, it creates a kind of muffled airy sound. In the example I play twice, first normal and then with the tongue on the reed:


I learned to double tongue because my single tonguing was slow. It was the first “extended technique” I learned after glissandi, but it really had nothing to do with new music, but everything to do with wanting to cheat when it came to this. If you’re curious about tempi, a fairly careful answer would be that I can sustain sixteenths/semiquavers at 136 in single tonguing and somewhere around 160 if I’m double tonguing. But this depends on the length of the passage, the register and how in shape I’m in at the time.

I would, in general, leave it up to the clarinetist to decide what she might use, but here’s an example so you get an idea of what the two sound like. I think it’s pretty clear when I’m single tonguing and when double tonguing:

Notice what happened in the high register? Yeah. That’s a thing that happens. I’ve heard clarinetists who can double tongue up there clearly, but those are mostly clarinetists who accidentally learned double tonguing when they were first starting out as children without knowing. Though maybe it’s a fun effect? Here’s my disintegrating high register double tongue:

Flutter Tongue

There are two ways a clarinetist can flutter tongue. One is by making an rrrrrrr sound with the tongue (we just move the tongue slightly back in the mouth in order to not destroy the reed), and one is by growling in the throat. My throat r is a little weak (though gradually strengthened by years of living in Germany, hurrah!), but usually it’s a little too subtle to use anyway. So here’s the difference. All on a low E, first a normal pitch, then tongue flutter, followed by throat flutter:

Flutter tongue is a common enough effect these days that I probably don’t need to spend too much time writing about it. But I thought I’d just share a few examples using fluttertongue in more unusual ways. First of all, flutter is usually written on longer held notes, but this of course isn’t necessary:

Singing and flutter combined is a nice effect, I think. A little extra noise/distortion:

As you might remember from the post on air sounds, flutter works very well this way also, here’s the Bb example from that post:

And the bass example:

Okay, this is important: if you’re going to write fluttertongue in the altissimo register, write it at loud dynamics, unless you want the untertone multiphonics to come through. Loud: no problem the pitches will sound as one pitch. Softly, and here’s what happens:

Another effect I really like is bass clarinet spectral multiphonics with a little flutter added in.

Tongue Rams

One of my little pet peeves these days is when pieces are written with tongue rams in both clarinet and flute parts with matching (loud) dynamics. Never going to happen. It’s an extremely soft effect on the clarinet, in the following example I’ve even amplified my recording a little bit so you can actually hear it. (It is beautiful though, so if you’re writing for amplified clarinet it’s not a bad thing to consider)

It’s a slightly different story if the mouthpiece and barrel have come off. I always do these things with both the mouthpiece and barrel off, by the way. If I just have to grab the mouthpiece, there’s a slight danger that the reed will get displaced, or the whole ligature might come off, and I usually don’t have enough time to do anything about that within a piece. Anyway, here’s what these tonguerams sound like:

Slap Tongue

We all have some idea of what a slaptongue sounds like, but do you know how it works? Basically, by flattening my tongue against the reed, I create a vacuum. When I release the vacuum quickly, I create this big popping sound – slap! Slap tongue is fun to do (though not every clarinetist can do it – it’s actually not all that easy to learn, so if you’re writing for someone in particular, do ask them if they can slap!), but I often wonder why composers sometimes aren’t more specific about the kind of slap tongue they want. For example, here are two chromatic scales, the first with a very dry slap and the second just allowing the pitch to come out.

Or when I open my mouth at the same time as slapping, usually called an ‘open slap’ then this happens:

Slap tongues at soft dynamics are also possible, I really like them:

And if you slap tongue on a multiphonic fingering, you get a chord!

Though do keep in mind this doesn’t work for every multiphonic (this is one of those things to try out in collaboration!). Spectral multiphonics for example sound like this when I try to slap tongue on them:

As you might have noticed, all the examples until now are played on the Bb clarinet. A certain well-known orchestral clarinetist made a video some years back that was circulating about the internet, wherein he said that slap tongue wasn’t used on the Bb clarinet. So now you know, it’s not true. That said, it does sound terrific on the bass, so here you go:

By the way, don’t hesitate to write slap tongue in the middle of phrases, it’s totally possible, here are some bass chromatic scales with slaps thrown in for fun:

And you can even incorporate open slaps into phrases. Here’s a tiny little bit of a phrase from Aaron Einbond‘s Resistance; there are two normal slaptongues and one open slap. Can you hear the difference?

Trumpet Embouchure

Not difficult to explain this one. Mouthpiece and barrel off, blow into clarinet as though it were a brass instrument. Strange sounds a plenty. In this example, I’m basically just using the right hand as it’s a little more effective for different pitches (so from a written C down to the lowest E):

But if I tighten the embouchure a little this is what happens:

And on the bass clarinet it’s even more effective:

Flute Embouchure

Similar idea. Not everyone can do this, and by that I actually mean that not everyone has bothered to learn how to do this (because it’s a bit silly). This is also done with the mouthpiece and barrel removed! Here’s a chromatic scale downwards in the first register:

It also works reasonably well with multiphonic fingerings:

In case you’re interested, here’s a basic chart of the pitches available. It’s a pretty safe chart, none of the pitches go all that low or all that high, but any clarinetist should be able to manage these. The pitches and the fingerings are notated in Bb!

Clarinet Shaking

This effect takes a little getting used to, but once it’s mastered it’s extremely effective, for anything from soft pitches to loud spectral multiphonics. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the clarinetist finds a stable position for the embouchure and then gently shakes the clarinet vertically, so that the stability of the embouchure’s position is …er… shaken. It sounds like this:

It also works quite well to combine shaking the clarinet with sharply accented articulations, as in the following example:

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