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by Tom Ridenour


Whenever someone tastes a specific recipe, the taste of the dish is in reality several different tastes which have been combined to make one composite taste.


This situation has its' analogy in clarinet playing.  The singular, sensate experience of playing is created by a very complex recipe of resistances, all working interdependently to create a single playing



The two primary sensate features which are encountered by the player are the paradoxical qualities of  flexibility and stability. The character of each clarinet is the result or composite of the the particular relationship or juxtaposition of these seemingly oppositional features.


Players usually experience flexibility as a sense or feeling of freedom and malleability in the sound.  Often, players seem to have an insatiable thirst for these things, even to the point of forgetting that freedom is a relative quality, needing  a perceivable context of limitation in order to be appreciated.  When this happens the term freedom is in danger of simply becoming a euphemism for chaos and disorder.


Because of this hunger for the obvious qualities of freedom and flexibility it is perhaps less common for players to look for the somewhat more subtle but equally important quality of  stability. Few players even know what stability really is, the various ways it manifests itself in the different qualities of clarinet performance, and how to effectively test for it.




First, what it stability?  Stability is that quality in an instrument which aids the player in the maintenance of consistency. In short, stability facilitates sameness.


Stability manifests itself  primarily in four ways: tone shape, tone color, tone response and pitch stability.  Stability also contributes to intervallic efficiency and agility.


Testing for stability involves evaluating the way embouchure and air behave in actual tone production.   This test is based on the reality that the resistances of embouchure and air form a composite energy to maintain the sound. However, the proportional contribution of each varies according to the dynamic and pitch level.


For instance, whenever one plays from loud to soft or soft to loud, the air resistance and embouchure resistance makes a proportional exchange.  Specifically, as air resistance increases, embouchure resistance must decrease and vice versa.  Because of this, it is most ideal for a player to have  an instrument which will allow the extremes of air pressure variation while at the same time requiring minimal embouchure pressure variation to maintain all  aspects of tonal integrity.


Therefore, the softer (less air pressure) we can play without the necessity of increasing embouchure pressure to maintain tonal focus, shape color or frequency, to the degree this may be done, it can be said the instrument is stable.  (Stability in this instance is experienced by what the player would term  as "hold" in the sound.)


Conversely, the louder we can play (more air pressure and volume) and still maintain tonal and pitch integrity, without having to tighten the embouchure to prevent the pitch from going flat or the tonal shape from spreading, to the degree this can be done, we may say the instrument is stable.


The most stable horn, then, is one which allows  maximum variation in the air stream while requiring minimal degrees  of variation of embouchure pressure to maintain pitch integrity, tonal focus, and tonal shape.  An instrument which has these features  is a joy to play, and the security it provides results in an   expressive freedom and confidence that is absolutely essential if the player is to reach the heights of interpretive freedom.


Logically, clarinets which tend to produce great degrees of flexibility will also tend to be unstable.  Clarinets which tend to produce great degrees of stability will also tend to be inflexible.  Such extremes ought to be avoided, while the optimum instrument is the one which has large amounts of  both these qualities with little or no compromise.  Such an instrument may be considered a truly great instrument.


Stability, flexibility and player preference


Most artists prefer an instrument that has a proper balance of stability and flexibility, though they may tend towards one or other characteristic because of personal preference or according to the type of playing they do.


For instance, an orchestral player will often opt for a clarinet which is very stable.   Such an instrument allows him  to relax his embouchure and put large amounts of air into the clarinet with out fear of distorting the tone or flattening the   pitch.  Conversely, soloists and chamber music players usually tend to opt for more flexibility because of coloristic and expressive considerations in the music they play.


Most  players tend to gravitate towards a more of less middle ground of comfort, but they choose to arrive at their goal by using different combinations or "recipes" of resistance.


While  most of these recipes tend to bring most players in the "middle", the various combinations or "recipes'  create the subtle difference in the playing qualities they prefer or need.  These subtleties are difficult to describe and define except in the most general of terms.


It can definitely be said that those who like flexibility and ease in their reed/mouthpiece combination  most often prefer instruments which have a lot of inherent resistance,  stability and definition.  Conversely, players who like resistance in their reed/mouthpiece combination tend to prefer instruments which are characteristically free and flexible.


Freedom, resistance, and endurance


It is not uncommon for the novice to be seduced by the ease of playing and lack of resistance in a excessively free, flexible clarinet. In other words, freedom and flexibility can be to clarinet players what the Lorelei is to sailors-they will cause one to ship wreck.


How so?


Because when an instrument is excessively free and flexible it takes constant energy from the embouchure to maintain the center or focus of the tone just in normal playing.   Because of this,  the embouchure is afforded almost no point of relaxation whatsoever.  Consequently, an excessively

free and flexible clarinet can be very taxing to play; shortening the endurance of the player, sometimes significantly.


It is not uncommon for players who have selected such an extreme instrument to be inclined to use a resistant, inflexible reed/ mouthpiece set up to compensate for the extreme lack of freedom in the instrument itself.


Because of the necessity of embouchure and  reed/mouthpiece combination compensations,  the free, flexible clarinet does not always produce the big sound it promised to on the initial experience of playing.  It is certainly capable of producing a big sound, but when the player increases the air volume and necessarily relaxes the embouchure, the integrity of pitch and shape are quickly lost.


When this happens, the embouchure must add control pressure to maintain the integrity of the sound shape and pitch.  It does this by inhibiting the reeds vibrational amplitude, and reduced reed amplitude  inhibits the ability of the instrument to produce higher levels of volume.


In contrast, a stable clarinet, by its' nature, is always holding the sound envelope and preventing the pitch from excessive fluctuation in the extremes. This allows for great freedom in the embouchure, so that the air can flow in large amounts at the reed/mouthpiece opening with only minimal need to inhibit the vibration of the reed,   since the sound/shape quality and pitch integrity are being maintained by the "hold" of the clarinet itself.


This feature  gives the player much more endurance for playing. Additionally, he can also be much more flexible and expressive with the air column: he has this freedom because the tube of the instrument is "holding" the integrity of the tone and pitch, so he does not have to.  This may be expressed aphoristically in the following way: "What the instrument doesn't hold, you must hold."


Hybrid clarinets


More taxing to play than even the most excessively flexible of clarinets is an instrument which is badly balanced within itself in regard to flexibility and stability.  Such instruments are all too common, and they are terribly difficult to play and to control.   Their usual pattern is that the left hand joint would be characterized as excessively free and flexible, while the right hand joint would be characterized as excessively contained, resistant, and stable.


Such a mixed recipe of resistances is without a doubt the worst thing possible for artistic control throughout the full dynamic and pitch range of the clarinet.  It sets up the most potentially offensive, harsh sounds-especially in the upper clarion and the altissimo.  It also makes the player labor very hard with the embouchure and air to maintain the tonal color and  create the illusion of predictable response.


To summarize, professional clarinets come in a range of combinations in regard to flexibility and stability.  In order to choose the proper clarinet the player needs to intelligently reflect on his personal

artistic preferences and/or special playing needs.  In no case should the player choose a clarinet whose hands are a hybrid of  resistance, flexibility and stability, since such inconsistency between the hands of the instrument will in turn produce an inconsistent and unpredictable response and wildly varying  tone color and shape.   Such an instrument will always be difficult to control and limit the expressive freedom the aspiring artist  needs to convince the listener that the clarinet is truly a musical instrument.