How learning extended techniques can make you a better clarinetist

Confession time!

I used to have a complicated relationship with extended clarinet techniques.

I used to think that double tonguing was just a technique so you didn’t have to work on polishing your single tonguing.

I used to think that multiphonics were unnecessary.

And circular breathing? It seemed too difficult to do well!

But you know what?

I was completely wrong!

I’ll always enjoy listening to my beloved Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and other late-Romantic composers, but over the years I’ve developed quite an appreciation for contemporary music.

And it wasn’t until I started playing contemporary music that I truly began to appreciate how much dimension extended techniques can add to music (and how humbling they can be to learn in the practice room)!

I know modern music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is a lot to be gained from expanding your skill set on clarinet.

I’m so passionate about extended techniques now that I encourage my students of all ages and ability levels to try them. (However, for younger players I will try to sneak them in like vegetables in junk food.)

How learning extended techniques can make you a better clarinetist

Whether or not you’ve embraced extended techniques like I have, there are a plethora of benefits to learning them. Whether you choose to focus on one or a few, the skills you gain will help improve your clarinet fundamentals:

  • Multiphonics – Finding a good fingering is just the beginning! To achieve all the indicated pitches, one must have absolute control over their voicing, air stream, and embouchure. (New to voicing? Start here!)
  • Quarter tones/microtones – Splitting the octave into different intervals vastly improves your listening abilities! In order to hit a quarter tone or microtone, you must develop good ears and be able to quickly listen and adjust. These skills will help you improve your aural abilities, whether you’re playing microtones, quarter tones, or semitones!
  • Double tonguing – To achieve clean and consistent double (or triple) articulation, you must have an acute sense of your tongue’s motion. From where it touches in your mouth to the pressure you use, this detailed attention will help improve the quality of your single articulation.
  • Circular breathing – Ah, circular breathing! One of the challenges to circular breathing (besides learning how to actually do it) is to achieve a seamless sound, with no audible bumps or changes in the sound. Creating this seamless line is a skill useful whether you’re circular breathing or not, and this can also help improve your air support, breathing, and embouchure control.
  • Glissandi/pitch bending – Playing the opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is a defining moment for every clarinetist, but it also helps you refine your voicing! It also helps you develop an even scale, since you can clearly tell if there are gaps in the sound when you are sliding.
  • Prepared clarinet – Some composers call for the clarinet to be used in unique ways. One example is William O. Smith’s famous “double clarinet,” but there are also other examples as varied as the creativity of the composer. These performance instructions help you to become more familiar with the instrument’s acoustics and construction, whatever your performance environment is.

There are several other extended techniques, and each one offers unique benefits and can help you become a better clarinetist, whether you choose to perform with these techniques or stick to the classics!