Articles

The Science of Squeaking – What Your Squeaks are Trying to Tell You

If you’re a clarinetist, you probably learned very quickly that squeaks are just a fact of life.

Hopefully, as you improve and begin to develop your skills on the clarinet, your squeaks will become fewer and less frequent.

But in the meantime, let’s talk about ways you can stop the squeaking.

First of all, what is a squeak? (besides embarrassing, if you’re in band class)

A squeak is simply an unexpected overtone. More simply put, a squeak is just a really high note that you played by accident.

Here’s a bit of clarinet acoustic science:

Whenever we play any note on the clarinet (called the fundamental), we are actually hearing that note plus many other higher notes all at once. These higher notes are called partials, and the partials and fundamentals make up the overtone series. (To learn more about the clarinet overtone series, including a video of a robot clarinet, click here.)

Going back to squeaks – a squeak is when you play a higher partial instead of the fundamental. Squeaks are super common in clarinetists, and there are usually simple solutions.

Before we troubleshoot what might be causing your squeak, it’s important to listen and see if your squeak is higher or lower than the intended note. This is an important piece of information which can help you determine the possible causes and solutions. Here are some of the most common causes of squeaks:

If your squeak is lower than the note you wanted to play:

First of all, this is technically not a squeak – this is called an undertone (because it’s under the tone you tried to play). Here are some possible causes and solutions:

  • You aren’t using fast enough air. If your squeak sounds like a grunt or undertone, it’s likely that your air speed isn’t fast enough. Remember, the reed has to vibrate at certain frequencies in order to play each note correctly.
  • You aren’t taking in enough mouthpiece. Generally, you should play with about 1/3 of the mouthpiece in your mouth (or 10mm or 3/8 of an inch – about where the reed and mouthpiece come together). Every embouchure is slightly different since no two faces are alike, so practice in front of a mirror or work with an instructor to determine how much mouthpiece you should use for your best sound.
  • Your fingers aren’t properly covering the tone holes. Air leaks caused by imprecise finger positions can cause a hollow, groan-like sound, so practice in front of a mirror to make sure your fingers are in the right place.

If your squeak is higher than the note you wanted to play:

  • There’s tension somewhere. Make sure that you aren’t biting or squeezing the mouthpiece with your lips or jaw. If air can’t get through, it often causes a shrill squeak (not dissimilar to a dog whistle).
  • Your air isn’t even. If there’s a sudden influx of air (as opposed to a constant, steady flow), this can cause high-pitched squeaks.
  • You’re taking in too much mouthpiece. As I said above, work with a teacher to find the right embouchure and amount of mouthpiece to use to produce your best sound.
  • Your reed is imbalanced. If your reed isn’t properly balanced or is old and/or chipped, it could be causing some of your squeaks. Try switching reeds to see if this helps.

Still squeaking?

  • Reset. This is the clarinet equivalent of turn it off and back on again to see if it works. Remove the clarinet from your embouchure, take your hands off of the keys, and try to reset your playing position. A lot of times, something that’s slightly out of place can cause squeaks, so the best option is to reset and try again.
  • Check your reed. Is your reed chipped or past its prime? We can’t always blame the reed for our squeaks, but if it’s been a while since you’ve switched reeds, see if this helps soothe your squeaking.
  • Identify the problem notes. If your clarinet only squeaks on certain notes, it might be time to take it in to a trusted repair technician to see if there are any adjustments to be made.
  • Don’t forget about voicing. Voicing plays a critical role in helping us hit all the right notes. Here’s my guide on what voicing is and why it’s so important for clarinetists.
  • Check your equipment. Sometimes, mouthpieces or instruments which don’t cover properly are the cause of your squeaks. If you think this might be the case, take your clarinet to a teacher or repair technician who can help you determine what could be wrong.

If you want to learn even more about squeaking, here’s a previous post I wrote to help you stop the squeaks.

I hope this article helps you say so long to squeaks!