In my experience, one of the most neglected aspects of clarinet fundamentals among students is resonance fingerings. I get it – resonance fingerings may not seem as important as articulation, scales, posture, altissimo register, or other more obvious clarinet skills – but mastering resonance fingerings will allow you to maintain a mellifluous and symmetrical sound throughout the entire range of the clarinet. Your clarinet sound is your musical voice, so it’s important to develop all fundamentals necessary to produce a beautiful sound.
Let’s start from the beginning.
What are resonance fingerings? Resonance fingerings (which I have also heard called covered fingerings, shading, right hand down/RHD, and other names given by students and teachers) are simply altered fingerings to improve the quality of throat tones on the clarinet. These fingerings add resonance (hence their name) to the naturally nasal and brittle quality of throat tones.
What are throat tones? If the clarinet was a person (which thankfully it’s not!), the throat tones are the notes around the “throat” of the instrument. The mouthpiece is the head, the bell is the feet, and the throat tones are open G to middle line B-flat, although some clarinetists include bottom space F and F# as throat tones.
Why do we need resonance fingerings? Contrary to popular belief, the clarinet is not a perfect instrument. The design and accoustic properties of the clarinet mean that some notes are naturally out of tune or stick out. Throat tones are the most notorious. When you blow air into a clarinet via the mouthpiece, it utilizes the length of the tube (aka clarinet) to build and develop into a note, before escaping out of the first available tone hole. This means that “long” notes in which more fingers are covering the tone holes have a richer and deeper sound than notes without as many covered tone holes. For example, middle B typically has a full sound because all the fingers are covering tone holes, so the air must travel all the way from the mouthpiece and escape through the bell. This creates a nice sound because the air has time and distance to develop into a more robust sound. On the contrary, when you play a throat tone, the length of the tube is so short that the resulting sound is weak, brittle, and anemic compared to other notes on the instrument. To restore timbral equilibrium, clarinetists must utilize resonance fingerings.
Vitamin T. Think of resonance fingerings as a multivitamin for your sound. Resonance fingerings improve many aspects of the clarinet, which coincidentally all begin with the letter T:
What’s the difference among timbre, tuning, and tone?
- Tone is your musical voice. Just like humans all have naturally different voices, musicians have their own “voice” – tone. Many factors affect your speaking voice (smoking, pollution, too much talking), and musical tone can be affected by other factors too (equipment, embouchure, posture, etc.).
- Tuning is the adjustment of musical pitches to match a reference, whether it’s other musicians or a tuner. You can read my complete guide to clarinet tuning here.
- Timbre is the quality of sound. We can use resonance fingerings to ensure that the timbre matches from the lowest to highest note of the clarinet.
The Christmas tree effect: The natural timbral qualities of a clarinet mimics a Christmas tree – wider on the bottom and thinner at the top. The notes of the chalumeau (low) register are naturally warm but often spread, while the altissimo (upper) notes are narrower and not as resonant. The low notes form the wide base of the auditory Christmas tree, and the pinpoint altissimo create the star on the top. Clarinet timbre shouldn’t sound like a Christmas tree (as Grinch-like as that may be) – instead, the timbre should be the same “width” from top to bottom. Clarinetists must avoid the Christmas tree effect and instead focus to create a sound which is equal in warmth and resonance from the lowest to the highest note of the instrument. In order to create timbral symmetry on the clarinet, you must incorporate resonance fingers.
How to find the perfect resonance fingerings. Perhaps one of biggest reasons that resonance fingerings are not often taught by music educators is that they are different for each clarinetist and setup. To make matters worse, resonance fingerings often change, depending on several factors including tuning (and the many variables which can affect tuning), reeds, and other external conditions. There are different types of resonance fingerings, depending on the musical and technical requirements:
- Right Hand Down (RHD) – This is a one-size-fits-all approach to resonance fingerings and is great if you’re new to the concept. Begin by keeping your right hand down on throat tones (open G to B-flat), especially when you are crossing the break (going from a throat tone to middle B or above). Not only is this useful for crossing the break, but it also trains beginners to get into the habit of using basic resonance fingerings.
- Pros: clean technique for fast scalar passages; makes it easier to cross the break
- Cons: not ideal for exposed or sustained throat tones which require custom resonance fingerings; open G can be flat
- Prepared resonance fingerings – These fingerings “prepare” you to cross the break by covering the tone holes of the subsequent note. For example, if you are going from a throat tone B-flat to a top space E, you will play B-flat and also cover the first and second tone holes of the right hand. This fingering will prepare you to cross the break and facilitate clean technique because you are reducing the number of fingers you move between notes; thus, you are reducing the chances of finger flubs.
- Pros: great to achieve seamless connection between larger intervals
- Cons: not ideal for exposed or sustained throat tones which require custom resonance fingerings
- Custom resonance fingerings – Grab a pencil and paper and get ready to spend some quality time with your tuner! Begin by playing the regular throat tone without any extra keys or tone holes. Pay attention to both the tuning and the timbre. Experiment with different fingering combinations on the right hand (don’t be afraid to use your pinky keys too!). You can also use your left hand ring finger for additional coverage if necessary. To lower the pitch, use more fingers. To raise the pitch, use fewer fingers. There are four throat tones (G, G-sharp/A-flat, A, A-sharp/B-flat), so spend time finding the best resonance fingerings for you and your setup. Don’t forget to write down your fingerings so you don’t forget them later!
- Pros: improved timbre, tuning, and tone; great for long, sustained, or exposed throat tones
- Cons: unwieldy custom fingerings may be difficult for faster technical passages
Additional resonance techniques:
- F and F-sharp – Some people include these notes in clarinet throat tones. To improve the quality of F, don’t add too many keys. When I am sharp on F, I like to add half of the 3rd tone hole on my left hand to lower the pitch. For F-sharp, you can use the alternate fingering (thumb + bottom two side keys).
- Half-holing – Like the name implies, half-holing is covering half of a tone hole. This is a great technique to cross the upper break (which I will discuss in a future article), but it can also be used to further customize resonance fingerings.
- Hovering – Hover, don’t cover! Instead of actually covering the tone hole with your finger, bring your fingers close to the keyboard to lower the pitch. This is another way to further customize your resonance fingerings and adjust your tuning.
Factors which affect resonance fingerings: Congratulations, now that you’ve diligently determined the best custom throat tones for your setup, you now have to make adjustments for outside variables including:
- more fingers = lower pitch
- fewer fingers = higher pitch
- Dynamics –
- loud dynamics = fewer fingers (so you’re not flat)
- soft dynamics = more fingers (so you’re not sharp)
- Different equipment – Check the pitch of all new equipment. The American tuning standard is A=440, so know your equipment and adjust your resonance fingerings accordingly. Be prepared to adapt your resonance fingerings each time you use new equipment.
When should you use resonance fingerings? Resonance fingerings should be used any time you are playing a throat tone. There are very few exceptions to this rule, so make sure you and your students are always using proper resonance fingerings.
- There is no such thing as too many resonance fingerings! You will use different resonance fingerings (even for the same note) depending on the musical context. There is no such thing as “open G resonance fingering” – you should have many different resonance fingerings for each throat tone, to be used according to external and musical variables.
- Resonance fingerings are not one-size-fits-all. What works for your friends and colleagues won’t necessarily be the best solution for you and your setup.
- Use a tuner, but use your ears too. Tuners only provide information on just one aspect regarding resonance fingerings – only your ears can determine timbre and tone. Find the best compromise between the tuner and your ears.
- Consider the musical context. Use simple resonance fingerings for fast technical passages. Awkward resonance fingerings can impede technical agility. For long, sustained, or exposed notes, find the resonance fingering with the best quality of sound. Let the music be your guide to employing the best resonance fingering for each musical circumstance.
- Record yourself. If you can’t decide which resonance fingering sounds best, record a short musical passage or scale. Microphones never lie.
- Ask your teacher or band director for help. Two sets of ears is always better than one! Ask for their suggestions and fingerings.
- Last resort: take your clarinet to a repair shop. If you’ve tried every conceivable resonance fingering and your throat tones are still problematic, take your clarinet to a qualified repair technician. Sometimes, tuning problems in throat tones can be adjusted by raising or lowering keys. Just remember that even with these tweaks, you’ll still have to use resonance fingerings.
The search for resonance fingerings is a never-ending journey, and with a bit of diligence and patience, your arsenal of reliable resonance fingerings will continue to grow. I hope this guide helps you on your quest to a beautiful clarinet sound, from top to bottom!