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Overcoming clarinet undertones

Clarinet players everywhere are quite familiar with the dreaded squeak.

But what about the squeak’s distant cousin, the undertone?

Squeaks are easily identifiable – shrill, piercing, and distressing to any dogs in the nearby vicinity. An undertone is more subtle – it is the grunting, hollow sound that is literally under the tone you are trying to play. Undertones can happen in any register, but they are most common in the clarion and altissimo register.

Just like squeaks, undertones are a completely normal part of being a clarinetist. However, if you notice that undertones are a recurring issue in the practice room, here are a few causes and how you can avoid undertones:

  • Slow air. This is one of the most common causes of undertones. Even if you are using enough quantity of air, if the speed or velocity isn’t fast enough to produce the note you’re trying to play, you will probably get an undertone. This is usually the case for upper clarion and altissimo notes, which can only be sounded if the reed is vibrating quickly enough. If your air is too slow, the reed can’t vibrate fast enough, resulting in an undertone. If you think this is the case for you, try speeding up the air – imagine your air is like a laser beam, or imagine you are trying to blow out all the candles on a very large birthday cake in one breath.
  • Your air column is too wide. If your air lacks focus, it can result in undertones. Here’s a simple test – do a heavy sigh, then pretend you are trying to fog a cold window. These are both unfocused air columns. Try to narrow your air column and increase the speed (see above). You can simulate this by breathing through coffee straws (which are more narrow than regular drinking straws) to add focus and speed to the air.
  • Tongue impedes air flow. Check your tongue position to make sure that it is not blocking or slowing down the air going into the clarinet. Also, make sure that you are not using too much tongue pressure against the reed, which can also block the air. Try moving your tongue higher in your mouth, especially if the undertones occur on higher notes. I believe that the tongue naturally rises as we get higher in the register (just as if you were singing higher notes), and using a different tongue position can help rid you of pesky undertones.
  • Your reed is too soft. This is most likely the case if you notice undertones specifically in the altissimo register. If you notice that the undertones disappear when you use a harder reed, this is probably why. You also might notice more undertones if you are using older reeds which have lost some of their vibrancy, so try replacing old reeds with newer ones to see if this is the case.
  • Voicing. If your voicing doesn’t match the note you are trying to play, this can often result in an undertone. Basically, you are sending the clarinet mixed messages – you are fingering one note, but your voicing is telling the clarinet to play a different one, so the resulting sound is an undertone. (If you’re not familiar with voicing, check out my voicing overview here.)

I hope these tips help you overcome undertones! Happy practicing!