“Clarinet tuning” Thus sayeth the clinician!

Dear Mr Friedland:

I have a Buffet Prestige that tunes very well (generally). Recently at my All-District practice, our guest clinician said (we were tuning) “You all know your instruments; you know which notes are sharp and flat (e.g. the D on trumpets is sharp so you have to pull the ringed slide out and the forked F# on oboe is blah blah so you have to adjust it). You know how to fix that.”
I’m curious as to how you know (on clarinet) that this note   is sharp or this note is flat. Do you just sit down with a tuner and run through scales, identifying these notes? Considering most clarinet tuning is an iffy thing that varies from instrument to instrument/person to person, I doubt there are “common” notes that are flat and sharp, right? Like, for example, if, unknowingly, my E is alwasy sharp, how do I discover that?
Haha. I feel as if I have caused confusion.
P.S. Do you have any Eb Soprano instrument suggestions/recommendations? I’m thinking about getting one for college. WD
Dear WD:
Thank you for your letter concerned with clarinet tuning.
Speaking of guest clinicians as you do in your letter, I wonder how such comments can be made by a person being paid to teach or demonstrate at a musical function. “You all know how to fix that” is strange. I think that what was meant was the following: There are certain notes on many different instruments which are inherently out of tune. Fixing these notes can be done in several ways, but the notes remain basically not well tuned notes. Or they are not good sounding, compared to the general tessitura of the instrument.
As to the presentation by your guest clinician, he was merely demonstrating his “chops”, his knowledge of what is taught to all MUSED. majors in most schools. All instruments are basically imperfect, these imperfections having to do with the harmonic series, the naturally occurring overtones and the particular ways in which musical sounds are made by instruments. His comments “You all know which note are sharp and flat” actually means that he himself may have learned , however has forgotten some or all, therefore his vagueness. (This, by the way, angers me. Why? Because he comes on as if he knows, but probably doesn’t, and also that he ought to be able to simply run down the line of imperfections in particular instruments. He did not do this, therefore that makes him an unsavory character, employed to enlighten, but simply giving you “the business” instead.

The clarinet has a virtual laundry list of notes which are not well in tune or are out of balance in timbre with the others. Please check this site for articles indicating the many problems that the principal clarinetists of orchestras such as Cleveland, Philadelphia have had with their instruments prior to using them in everyday situations. People like Gigliotti, Robert Marcellus, and Ralph McClean spent years with technicians such as Moennig in Philadelphia tuning and changing their instruments in various ways in order to get them in tune .

The ordinary Buffet best model is fun to play but has a myriad of tuning problems, which is just a fact . Selmers and or Leblanc , and /or Yamaha clarinet may have fewer problems with a new horn, but there are other problem such as the basic response, which heretofore had put players off from using them. What is in fashion also has a good bit to do with the problem.I certainly do not dispute of the popularity of the Buffet Clarinet. It is just an out of tune instrument, with more basic problems than any other top brand. In actuality, the clarinet which sounds like the Buffet, but with elimination of many of the problems is the clarinet made by Yamaha, a very pleasant playing experience, without all the tuning glitches of the Buffet.(In the 70s and 80s, I was able to try every new Yamaha that came out, and actually keep them for as long as I wished. I had some really wonderful experiences with the 64, the 72 and the 82 models. I recall there was less resistance, but still a nice experience)

Back to your letter which asks, how one knows the problems of the instrument. One doesn’t really know because what feels good usually sounds good, and specific tuning has a lot to do with all of the others in your ensemble and how your tuning, and your playing fits with the others. Sounds too general? Well, it is general, but if you do sit down with a tuner and go over each note, you will automatically tune with the tuner, and not check with the tuner. It is a very natural tendency to do this. It is impossible not to react to that needle. Besides that, does everyone in an ensemble have a tuner by their side as they play? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

As to your question as to how does one knw, here are a list of notes and their tendencies on most clarinets and most certainly on the ordinary Buffet Prestige, or whatever. The low E is always flat, the b below middle C is sharp, the throat open G, A and Bb are also sharp, the Bb being the worst of all because the hole that vents the Bb serves a double duty as being the keys changes registers and also part of the Bb fingering.. I have found the fifth line F# to be slightly sharp, the high B and C to be sharp, the altissimo High F to be flat, and the altissimo high F# and high G to be wild and easily blown at least 20 cents sharp. While these are generalizations, they remain part of the answer to your question

What you do in your ensemble is to listen as dilligently as you can, then work on the problems you discover in your instrument. Tuning is both a science and an art, in that you have to learn to move as the line moves and your place within the harmonies and timbral function. It is well to know the science, but more important to learn to artistically move with the music.

No, you have not caused any confusion, but you speak of what is before you, the process of learning to play within an ensemble, no easy chore. As far as Eb clarinets are concerned, I would ask why?

best of good luck in your practice.

sincerely, Sherman


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