Clarinet glissando

John Robert Brown

How do I make a clarinet glissando, like the one at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue? Do professional players have a special key fitted to their clarinet, to be able to slide the notes?

The most famous single reed lip glissando is the clarinet entry at the beginning of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but clarinet glides can also be heard in several other twentieth-century pieces, and in early jazz styles.

Some players achieve a smooth glide by maintaining a steady embouchure and gently sliding their fingers off the keys. Because it depends greatly on familiarity with one particular instrument, and with knowing how far the keys move, this has disadvantages.

The upward lip glissando is better, and easier in the long run, but can only be achieved if you can first LOWER the pitch of a note in the upper register by at least a semitone.

As a preparatory exercise play B above the stave, and try to lower the pitch to A using your embouchure only.

Now play an A, and while changing the fingering to B, hold the pitch of the note down to A by slackening your embouchure so that the note rises very little or not at all. Now raise the pitch of the note towards B using your embouchure, breath and throat, while simultaneously fingering a still higher note - say C#. The aim is to raise the pitch of the note by fingering, but always to be playing a note that is flat to the fingering you are using - until you reach the fingering you are aiming for and return your embouchure to 'normal'. Smooth out the steps of changing fingerings by varying your embouchure. The process is difficult to describe in writing. A demonstration from someone who can achieve a smooth lip glissando will be a great help. Polish the glissando technique in the middle register, where it's easiest to do.

Thus, rather than playing distinct notes, the clarinet can make a noise that starts at one pitch, and ends at another higher or lower pitch, hitting every pitch in between smoothly. To play from high to low and back again repeatedly sounds like a siren.

I can assure you that those within earshot will hate you doing this, so practise in private!

There is no special key to help you, though I'm often asked the question.

John Robert Brown

First published in Music Teacher, May 2007. Used by kind permission.
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