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  • Writer's pictureQueen Reed

The Secret To Playing Evenly

Of all the principles I have learned about playing evenly, the most important one came from Yehuda Gilad at my very first lesson with him. I came into his office, sat down, and he asked me to play my F major scale evenly. Hooray! I can do that! An easy first assignment for someone who had completed an undergraduate degree in clarinet performance — or so I thought. Like you, I’d been asked to play my F major scale for others before, this was nothing new. But this was the first time someone added “evenly.” So I took off, concentrating with all my might on delivering each note with the same air power as the note before it, all the way up and all the way down. “Try again.” So again, I played the scale but concentrated harder on delivering the EXACT same air power to every note, and I engaged my abdominals with more purpose and really leaned into it, playing it louder so no individual note could sound weak. “Try again.” And he was smiling, with a twinkle in his eye, because he knew that I knew that I didn’t really know what he was asking for. I began to think my ears weren’t sensitive enough to pick up on whatever it was that was off, that somehow four years of college study had failed me on my F major scale, and wondered if I would get a second lesson after this. Clearly, he was not getting what he asked for; and just as clearly, I had no clue what that was. By the third or fourth time I attempted the scale, something occurred to me: maybe I should listen as though outside myself to see if I’m playing evenly, instead of using my internal sensations of how much air I push to determine if I’m playing evenly. Once I did that — used my ears to listen as if in the audience — it all clicked. And I got the full smile from Yehuda. We both knew that I had begun to figure out what it means to play evenly.

What follows is a basic truth about playing the barkystick, and it is utterly unavoidable (unless you live in an alternate universe that succumbs to different laws of physics). Issuing forth even, constant air power across any set of notes does NOT translate into the audience hearing an even volume of sound across those notes. If you play your F major scale with the same air power from bottom to top, just like I did at my first lesson, it will sound uneven, especially when you reach the highest notes, which will sound louder than the rest. You can thank physics and the human ear for that. Here are two places you can read more about the related science:

In a nutshell, as we play higher (and this is magnified if we are also playing louder), the clarinet produces more high harmonics, and this sounds louder to us, because (quoting the first link), “the higher harmonics fall in the frequency range where our hearing is most sensitive.”

Here is a very scientific picture I drew to help show what happens if your air power is constant:

So, what does this mean in real-life clarinet playing? How can we begin to sound even to the audience when we play through the range of the instrument? To fix this problem of perceived loudness increasing with higher notes, we need to treat our high notes with care and sensitivity, learn how to play them with air support but not with tons of volume, of loudness. When I see a forte written under a note that has more than one ledger line above the staff, that note is automatically demoted in my head to mf, or even mf-. This actually, really, truly, works to make that high note sound more like it belongs in a phrase where the rest of the notes are lower, and the whole phrase is marked forte.

There’s also the problem of throat tones, which we all can attest can be annoyingly weak and difficult to play loudly with a good center. Imagine a phrase that contains notes from top-of-the-staff F (F5) down to throat tone Bb (Bb4). If the whole phrase is marked mf, I will definitely need to treat the Bb as though it is marked f, in order for it to sound like it belongs in that phrase. If I don't, it is likely the Bb will come off sounding like a weakling. This sudden difference in perceived strength between the other notes and this Bb is unsettling to the audience. They may not know exactly why, but that utterance of unexpected unevenness is unnerving. Undoubtedly.

Here is another very scientific picture I drew to explain what I have to do with my air volume (not my air support - which comes from the abdominal region and which is always engaged) in order to make it sound to a listener like I am playing everything with the same volume.

All of my scientifically trained friends will likely find huge holes and problems with these depictions. I say, Ignore Science! Just Kidding. Definitely don’t do that. I love science. Embrace the scientific facts, and know that I am merely a poor conduit in my ability to depict the facts. Make a few recordings of your F major scale - experiment for yourself. Because here's another secret for you, the audience WANTS to hear evenness — it is part of sounding like you're in complete, flexible, elegant control of your instrument. An hour long concert where every high note was loud is grating on a listener. When you play evenly, your audience feels good about listening to you, and they'll come back for more. And isn't that a great thing?

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