Saturday, December 26, 2009

Pitch problems?

From the mailbag I just got this question about tuning on the bass clarinet

Hello Michael,

I want to ask you a question about the tuning topic on the bass clarinet. I'm playing a buffet bcl and a realtively open Schreiber 7* mouthpiece. My first problem is that I can barely get above 440 pitch with this setup. (Especially a problem with classical tuned pianos in Vienna) My second problem is, that b, c, c#, d, and d# in the second register are far low-pitched and it's very difficult to get them higher.

Do you have any tips for me what I can do to get rid of this problems?
Thank you very much and all the best from Vienna,


So, I should first mention that I don't know that mouthpiece. But the first question should be, with any problems with stuff like this: is it the instrument, or is it me? First troubleshoot your equipment: Try a different mouthpiece. Borrow a friend's bass clarinet and try it with your mouthpiece. What do you discover? If it's the mouthpiece or instrument that seems to be the problem, the answer becomes one of making a decision: Should I have my instrument worked on? Should I get a different mouthpiece? (Not easily answered questions, mind you. But at least you know where the problem is).

That all said, generally speaking, if the problem is minor, you can handle pitch issues with your sound production and adding/removing fingerings to certain offending notes. Obviously, no instrument is ever perfectly in tune. None. Some are worse than others, and my observation has been that the newer the model, the more tuning issues have been addressed by the manufacturer.

Ok, so how do we adjust pitch on the instrument note-by-note? Well, on notes that are sharp, you can add keys to lengthen the tube without changing the fundamental pitch. Example: if your open "G" is sharp, you can add a keys on the right hand to bring the pitch down. If it's flat, you can open up the side D# and/or F# trill keys. But it becomes more of a problem when you're already using most of your fingers (like on the notes you describe, Leo) -- there's not much you can do about using fingerings or opening up vents when those notes are flat. (If they were sharp, you could handle the problem with your sound production in your mouth. It's easier to make notes lower with your embouchure than to make them higher).

But, what do you do if their instrument is flat? Well, I have a pair of Selmer Signature Bb/A clarinets, and I have a really nice Kaspar mouthpiece that I picked up. Together they sound amazing, but very, very flat. So, I call Morrie Backun and asked him to make me some VERY short barrels (For example, I now have a 59mm Bb barrel). I also have a bell that has a hole cut in it. The combination of these bring the instrument up to pitch (but create more minor issues with the scale that I manage with fingerings like I describe above).

With the bass clarinet, you could get someone to make you a short neck. Martin Suter from Switzerland makes necks for the bass clarinet that are really, really good. And I bet he could manufacture you one that's a little bit shorter so that your instrument is altogether sharper. Here is the page showing all of the bass clarinet neck options. (This whole site is in German, but can be translated with Google Translate and it becomes fairly readable).

Martin also does bass clarinet work that can help you with intonation problems. I've never had him do any work on my instrument, but I have heard good things, and he's worked closely with Ernesto Molinari, which bodes well for the quality of his work.

Another option is to work with a mouthpiece craftsman to have him/her adjust your mouthpiece (or make you a new one) that offsets the intonation problems of your instrument. This is likely the most cost-effective measure you can take, and probably the one I'd recommend you begin with.

Finally, if it seems to be you and your sound production, take some time to experiment with your tongue position in the back of your mouth. Is the tongue to low? Say "LLLL" -- feel the back of your tongue? That's what a low tongue position feels like. Now say "EEE" (or in german I think it would be "IE"), that's a higher tongue position. If you're more LLL and less EEE, start experimenting to see how that affects your pitch.

So to summarize:

If it's the instrument as a whole: try to change out your neck or have a mouthpiece made to correct the problems.

If it's just a few notes (this is normal): correct with embouchure and/or fingering adjustments

If it's you: practice your tongue position. Or, work with a teacher to have him/her help you with this.

Hope this helps. And, anyone with other tips, please leave them in the comments!