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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000034.txt from 1995/09

From: Everett J Austin <BrendaA624@-----.COM>
Subj: Re: E & F# above the staff
Date: Sun, 3 Sep 1995 03:48:52 -0400

After reading numerous very interesting comments about the altissimo clarinet
register and related issues including "air support", I wondered if any one
would be interested in some comments about what air support might mean and if
any one had any comments of their own pro or contra? This is something I had
in mind for an article but never fully completed it except in this rough form
(Everett J Austin, MD San Francisco)
Blowing the single-reed instruments: some comments on the abdominal and
especially laryngeal (glottal) functions

Wind is one of the most vital elements in the playing of any wind
instrument, and this is certainly the case with the single reed instruments.
A host of factors go into making music beautifully (or otherwise!) on these
instruments, but many if not most will agree that control of the "air column"
(la colonne d'air in French) is fundamental to good tone, intonation and to
attaining a range of expressive capacity in the areas of dynamics and tone
color. The instrumental variables are enormous as well, but assuming an
instrument that is well-designed and in good repair, a good mouthpiece
(easier said than done!) with a good reed balanced and matched to its facing,
a variety of very musical sounds can be produced, determined in large part by
what the player's ear wants, and not dictated completely by the instrument
and the player's anatomy (without denying the obvious influence of these
mechanical and anatomical factors!).
Perhaps this is why it is often easy to recognize the "sound" of a given
player, even when they play a different "set-up", and why one cannot always
tell whether a clarinetist is playing on a clarinet of French, English,
German or Viennese design: the desire to produce a certain sound helps our
bodies find a way to bring it to our ears if the instrument does not
interpose physically unsurmountable barriers. Pamela Weston's book, Clarinet
Virtuosi is full of references to this phenomenon.
To manufacture an absurd example (a "thought experiment" that physicists are
so fond of): what if Acker Bilk and Karl Leister "swapped horns"? For
hygienic and geographical reasons this would probably never occur, but if it
did, one can be fairly certain that each would sound much more like himself
than the other, because that is how he wants to sound. How could this be?
Partly due to their anatomical differences (size and shape of oral, nasal
and chest cavities, etc.) and use of embouchure, but probably in large part
to how the airflow is managed (consciously or subconsciously) in relation to
these relatively fixed instrumental and physical factors (which, of course
are extremely important, but are not the focus of this discussion, except to
affirm here that it seems to be fixed physical characteristics which seem to
guarantee a certain uniqueness of sound, sometimes to the frustration of the
player who may wish to emulate exactly a much-admired model.) In this short
essay, I would like to specify some of the ways in which control of the wind
occurs in the body of the player, in the hope that an awareness of this
anatomy may help players get the sounds that their ear desires more reliably.
Air control is often emphasized in didactic writings, usually an exhortation
to "provide adequate air support", but rarely are all anatomical variables
accurately described. The term "diaphragm" is often incorrectly used to
refer to the supportive muscles of the abdominal wall and back and imaginary
diaphragmatic functions such as forceful exhalation may be conjured up.
Whereas the diaphragm is an important but fairly thin muscular partition
between the abdominal and thoracic (chest) cavities. The main function of
the diaphragm is to prevent entry of the intestines into the chest and to
expand the lungs during inspiration (breathing in). Expiration (blowing out)
and "air support" is a function of the elastic properties of the thorax and
of the muscular contraction of the abdominal, intercostal (rib) and flank
muscles. A recent article in The Clarinet should clarify these notions for
most. The most dimly understood areas of the respiratory apparatus,
however, appear to be the larynx ("voice box") and oropharynx ("throat").
Keith Stein makes a passing reference to the larynx in his superb treatise
on playing the clarinet and David Liebman makes specific reference to it in
his book on saxophone tone production. Fred Hemke is fairly explicit about
this in his short and cogent but unfortunately out of print pamphlet on the
saxophone (at one time available from Selmer), but by and large the "throat"
is a mysterious dark cavern to most players and teachers, even though
consciously or subconsciously it is can have very important positive and
negative influences on tone and intonation.
The larynx (glottis) has obvious functions in speaking and singing: this is
where phonation occurs (where the sound is made). In whispering and in
playing an instrument like the clarinet or saxophone, the larynx assumes a
slightly different role, that of an essentially silent valve (a pair of folds
of tissue held at various distances apart to regulate air passage into the
throat from the lungs) regulating air flow and balancing the pressure of the
abdominal (respiratory) muscles. John Jessen in Seattle made me aware of
this function, since it has always been one of the central points of his
teaching of good centered tone and intonation on single reed instruments.
Now in his mid-eighties, he credits his early teacher Merle Johnson for this
and was told by Johnson that these concepts came from study with French
players such as Marcel Mule. I have informally surveyed a number of teachers
and players about this about the larynx or "throat" and generally find that
they are at best vague about this region of the anatomy. I suspect in most
good players it is entirely unconsciously controlled. I spoke with an ear
nose and throat surgeon who is a excellent clarinet player and former student
of Ralph McLane and Daniel Bonade, who knows this anatomy quite intimately
and acknowledged its relevance, but had never given it much thought in his
playing, nor did his teachers.
The most familiar physical analogy for the glottal or laryngeal function
would be the garden hose analogy: the faucet (respiratory muscles) varies
the pressure of the water (air column) and the nozzle (larynx) controls the
size of the opening through which the water (air) may flow. Thus, the water
pressure at the faucet and the opening of the nozzle are two independent
variables which produce a wide variety of combinations of water (air)
velocity (speed) and flow-rate (volume of water (air) per unit time). If the
faucet is opened we get more volume and pressure and some increase in
velocity and if the nozzle is closed we get the same volume but at a much
higher velocity.
Of course, this is all very simple, and playing a variety of instruments
from the bass saxophone to the E-flat clarinet is not, but the concept is
still potentially useful in understanding what goes on in ideal conditions
and also in trouble-shooting. There are other variables including the
resistance (impedance) of the reed-mouthpiece/instrument combination and how
that varies with different pitches and also different embouchure variables
(pressure, longitudinal placement on the reed, etc). In general, however,
the instrumental resistance should be less than that of the larynx:
otherwise, one is not "supporting the air column", but blowing against the
instrument. This latter approach can be done and has been advocated with an
extremely resistant set-up, but would seem to allow for considerably less
tonal flexibility and more precarious intonation. Thus this discussion
assumes a resistant but somewhat somewhat free-blowing (responsive)
instrumental set-up.
Now to give this abstract discussion a concrete example which should be
easily appreciated, except by specialists, compare the proper blowing of a
low saxophone with that of a high clarinet (or any sax with any clarinet). A
bass or baritone saxophone requires a large voume of air at a slow air speed
to produce a full, centered sound, so the larynx is wide open or nearly so
and the respiratory muscles are making a big controlled exhalation. The
E-flat or B-flat clarinet require a much smaller volume of air at a much
higher air speed to produce a properly centered tone with good intonation ,
so the abdominal muscles are firmer and the glottal opening smaller to give a
jet of air to the reed. If the high clarinet is blown like a saxophone, it
may sound ok ("big" perhaps?) but not round and centered and will lack
projection and add intonation problems (in particular flat and
unfocussed/blaring/flaring in the upper clarion and higher) to an already
imperfect instrument. If the big saxophone is blown like the small clarinet?
Expect a visit from the Humane Society. Within the clarinet and the
saxophone families, similar considerations regarding the general ranges of
air speed and volume apply depending largely on the size of the instrument in
relation to its sibs, but not as dramatic as in the above example.
The details of exactly how the airflow should be ideally varied in the
playing of various individual clarinets and saxophones is a fairly detailed
and complex subject to articulate, and in the end is determined by the
player's desire to sound a certain way, by intent listening and by the the
player's body ultimately making the adjustments necessary to satisfy the ear
(brain) of the player. I will not go into these details here, but in general
terms the low notes on these instruments require a greater volume of air at a
slower speed and the higher notes require a higher air speed with generally
less volume. Variation in dynamics introduces an additional complication,
whereby (in one school of playing) playing softer takes less air volume but a
firm support with a correspondingly faster airjet to maintain focus and
pitch. At this point, still other potential (and useful) variables can be
cautiously mentioned, which must themselves be understood, mastered and put
in their proper place. These include: tongue position (generally should not
be obstructive but should focus the airstream at the tip of the reed, raising
arch of tongue raises pitch and may assist altissimo, lowering tongue arch
lowers pitch), as well as embouchure pressure and pivot point of jaw pressure
on reed (should not overly inhibit reed vibration, rolling jaw forward
slightly assists production of altissimo).
What is the point of all these references to human anatomy and elementary
physics in the context of the art of music? Mainly that the analysis and
real understanding of technique can extend profitably beyond more
approachable areas like fingerings and fiddling with reeds and sometimes help
us know what we are doing right and what we might do better. Ultimately,
however, after these matters have been consciously processed, they should
again become largely unconscious good habits which are merely the wherewithal
for making music they way we would like to hear it, which is our raison
d'etre anyway!
Everett J. Austin, MD September 3, 1995

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