Altissimo and Alternate Fingerings: Making or Breaking Your E-flat Clarinet Experience
An E-flat clarinetist deals with a number of pitch inconsistencies inherent to the instrument, and similar to someone playing piccolo, often has to deal with these notes in a very exposed register. The way in which clarinetists treat these notes can often determine whether or not we feel like we're good at our instrument. Thus the common prejudice against E-flat clarinet - it can be difficult to play in tune!
Composers and arrangers often place the E-flat clarinet in the upper register. This means that we need to be very comfortable with altissimo in a variety of settings. Can you play at a strong dynamic without a piercing tone? Can you play softly while still matching the pitch of the ensemble? Most often we cannot achieve our best sound in a variety of settings using the same fingering.
If you have strong fundamentals (embouchure, air support, voicing), then alternate fingerings (and a good sense of pitch!) are all you need to be successful in the upper register.
Selecting a Fingering
So you know you have a problematic altissimo note - how will you choose the best fingering for your situation?
Know the context: What musical elements are the most important in this particular moment in the piece? Is this note going to be held out for a long time? Is it essential to play as soft as possible? Do you need something that responds immediately? Identifying your priorities with the note in question will help you in your fingering choice.
After you know what you need from your note, consider the following concepts when making your decision:
1. Technical Facility
Can you get to this fingering easily? If you're playing something very smooth and connected, or something very fast, you need a fingering that works with the notes that come before and after. Keep in mind that sometimes a fingering can be too easy, causing us to rush!
Different fingerings change the feeling of resistance you experience when playing. Often, putting down more fingers means that you can play "into" the note a bit more - it will be stable at strong dynamic levels and not easily overblown. Other fingerings may allow the note to come out quite easily - great for some softer dynamics and moments when you need to get an immediate response.
In some ways, the tone you get on a particular fingering may be related to the response. Notes that respond quickly and easily can sometimes be brighter in timbre and easy to overblow. Listen carefully to each of your fingering options and choose the fingering that allows you to match the surrounding notes and mood of the piece you are playing.
Most often, tuning will be the most decisive factor in selecting a fingering. Due to fluctuations in intonation at different dynamics, make sure you are testing fingerings with the same air support and dynamic level required for that note in the music.
Venting and resonance fingerings: It is also worthwhile to learn the tendencies of your particular instrument, and how to correct them. Often, this requires added fingers in the throat tones to help tone quality and intonation.
I've included a chart with some of my most frequently used alternate fingerings. I highly recommend you write down your own favorites! Every instrument and clarinetist can have a different result with alternate fingerings, so figure out what works best for you, and always have several options.
Need a place to start writing down your fingerings? Click on the link below the blank chart to download a copy.