The clarinet is blessed with the largest range of the entire woodwind family. But Voltaire (and Peter Parker) were right when they warned us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Our responsibility? To perfect the altissimo register so we don’t burst nearby eardrums or alarm any dogs in the nearby vicinity.
The clarinet follows a logical fingering and keywork system. Once you’ve mastered crossing the break from the throat tone to the clarion register, all is fine and dandy until you start inching higher away from the staff. Things quickly turn from straightforward to clunky and confusing once clarinetists venture above the upper break (above high C) into altissimo-land. Then all bets are off.
Take a deep breath (no, really – you’ll need it for these high notes) and get ready for my complete guide to the clarinet altissimo register!
First things first! here’s a refresher of the three registers of the clarinet:
- Chalumeau (named for the clarinet’s predecessor) – low E to the throat tones
- Clarion – above the middle break up to high C
- Altissimo – above the upper break; above high C
***Different books list various starting and stopping points for each register. These are the points I use with my students.***
Tools of the trade
Achieving good high notes on the clarinet is a combination of proper fingerings, a secure embouchure, lots of air, and a little luck. Before you venture in the altissimo register, here are some things that will help you in your journey:
- A trusty fingering chart. The ideal fingering chart should have several fingering suggestions for each note. Don’t be afraid to approach altissimo notes armed with several different fingering charts. Two of my favorites are Ridenour’s Clarinet Fingerings and Opperman’s The New Extended Working Range. The Woodwind Fingering Guide is also an excellent online resource.
- The proper reed. If you’re a beginner and have been playing on strength 2 or 2.5 reeds, now’s a good time to graduate to strength 3. Because high notes produce much faster reed vibrations, you will need a reed that’s up for the challenge. If a harder reed is too resistant for you, try raising your normal strength reed slightly higher on the mouthpiece to add resistance.
- Excellent equipment. Your altissimo journey will be much easier if you are playing on quality equipment. Make sure that you have a great mouthpiece and reed combination. I love Vandoren products, and I use the M13 mouthpiece, V12 reeds, and M/O Gold ligature, but try out different products to find your ideal setup.
- A fresh embouchure. High notes are an unrivaled chop-buster, so make sure you plan your practice routine to avoid embouchure fatigue. Limit altissimo practice time, and make sure you practice methodically and efficiently.
- Lots of air!!! I can’t stress this one enough! Most of the problems students face when approaching the altissimo register is simply not using enough air. A bit of acoustic science: higher notes=higher frequency=faster reed vibrations. If you are using slow air in small quantities, you will probably only sound the undertone (that annoying grunty/groany sound your grandpa might make).
- A tuner. I suggest leaving the tuner off until you can consistently hit the high notes. Don’t get me wrong – tuning is important, but we have to take baby steps in the altissimo register. Once you can consistently hit the high notes, then you can worry about finessing the tuning.
- A saint-like amount of patience. Altissimo notes are tough. Work methodically and focus on mastering one note at a time. Don’t get discouraged if it takes you a while to play the high notes. Learning the clarinet is a journey, so enjoy the ride!
Once you’ve armed yourself with proper fingerings and good reeds, here’s some advice to approaching the altissimo register:
- Take it a (half) step at a time. Make sure you can consistently and confidently play one note before moving higher to the next. Start at high C two ledger lines above the staff and gradually increase your range upward. Beginners: Make sure that you can consistently play your left hand clarion notes approaching high C before attempting to go above the upper break.
- Try a variety of fingerings. The one great (and overwhelming) thing about altissimo notes is that most of them have multiple fingerings. If one isn’t responding, try another! Pro tip: If an altissimo note is similar to one next to it (such as high E and high A), I “bump” it out by slightly altering the fingering, such as using my RH (right hand) C# pinky key instead of the RH pinky Eb key. I might use a different pinky key or other small adjustment to help bump the note out so that it speaks clearly.
- Don’t forget the Eb pinky key. Make sure that you use this on your altissimo notes (excluding C#, which becomes even more atrociously sharp with this key). I know it’s a pain for younger students who might not hear a huge difference and don’t want to have one more finger to worry about, but using this pinky key on altissimo notes improves response and tuning.
- Take in enough mouthpiece. Make sure that you are playing with enough mouthpiece. Generally, your upper teeth should be 1/3 of the way down the mouthpiece (approximately 10mm from the tip), or where the reed and mouthpiece meet. This allows maximum reed vibration to produce solid altissimo notes. Pro tip: If I have an isolated altissimo passage, I take in a bit more mouthpiece before the section so I’m sure that the high notes will speak. Call it altissimo insurance.
- Check the note with the lower octave. The altissimo overtone series contains closer partials, so sometimes it’s easy to play a high note – but you’re not quite sure if it was the correct one! Play the octave lower to see if the pitch matches and you have the right note.
- Practice note identification. All those ledger lines are overwhelming at first, so make sure you practice note identification as you learn the fingerings.
- Make your own altissimo fingering chart. I keep a notebook where I write down my favorite altissimo fingerings, along with suggestions from teachers, colleagues, and friends. I also notate my own fingerings that I’ve “created,” and I make sure to write down any notes (good response, great for softer dynamics, slightly sharp, etc). Keeping my own fingering chart ensures that I don’t forget any fingerings and has been an invaluable resource when I’m stuck and need fingering suggestions.
You know the classic game Rock, Paper, Scissors? Well, here’s the nerdier version so you can troubleshoot your altissimo register! It’s called Embouchure, Air, Fingers:
- Embouchure. Are you playing with a proper embouchure? Is there enough upward pressure on your upper teeth? Are there any air leaks from the corners of your mouth? Are you biting the reed? Are you using too much pressure? Are you taking in enough mouthpiece? Is your tongue position affecting the response?
- Air. Are you using enough air? Is your air fast enough? (One easy way to tell: Grab a sheet of paper and stand about a foot away from the wall. See if you can hold the paper against the wall using just your air. If the paper immediately falls to the ground, you aren’t using enough quantity or velocity of air.)
- Fingers. Are you using the correct fingering? Would another fingering work better? Would this speak easier you vented using the throat tone G# key? Did you remember to add the right hand Eb pinky key? Are all of your fingers covering the tone holes entirely?
Once you’ve achieved the altissimo notes, it’s time to incorporate them into the rest of your practice routine. Here are some ways to build up your altissimo technique:
- Add-a-note chromatic scale. Once you’ve learned the altissimo notes, it’s time to add them to your chromatic scale. Your finger muscles will freak out if you try to add them all at once, so start with one note at a time. Begin at middle C (third space C in the staff) and go up one octave. Repeat 3 times, then begin from C# in the staff and go up one octave. Next comes D, then D#, etc. Repeat each octave several times until you can play it without errors. Your goal should be to eventually play up to altissimo C (or as I like to call it, “Super C”). Bonus challenge: Alter the rhythms to further optimize your technique.
- Octaves. Play all octaves of each note to match tuning, pitch, and timbre. This will also facilitate technique and help with large intervallic leaps. Use a tuner to make sure all octaves match.
- Squeaking game. Simultaneously practice altissimo notes while learning about the clarinet’s overtone series! Begin on low C, then “squeak” up the partials of the clarinet. You can use your register key at first to “bump” out the 12th, but the key is learning how to adjust your air and embouchure to produce these upper partials. Since squeaks are just really high notes, this controlled squeaking will help you perfect your altissimo register.
- Practice everything up an octave. True confession: I pride myself on my altissimo register, and I attribute my altissimo confidence to my high school clarinet friends RG and PW (initials used to protect the squeaky). During marching band when we were bored (which was often, since we preferred concert band), we would play football tunes up an octave and have competitions to see who could play the highest note. We wrote down particularly good fingerings, and by the time concert band rolled around, I had high notes of steel. I don’t advise doing this in your band (sorry to all the piccolos for getting you called out so many times!), but practicing familiar sections of repertoire up an octave to build up your altissimo technique and confidence.
- Arm yourself with a multitude of fingerings. As you know by now, there are tons of different fingerings for altissimo notes. Once you’ve mastered the basics, it’s time to add some more fingerings to your repertoire. Some fingerings will work better for ascending intervals and some better for descending. Choosing the best fingering takes practice, so it’s up to you to become an altissimo detective. When you learn new music, determine which fingering will work best in each specific musical circumstance, whether for response, dynamics, trills, technique, etc.
May your practicing be to altissimo and beyond!