Voicing vs. Biting, and Improvisation (from the mailbag)

I got some great questions from Italy this morning. These seem to be universal questions, so I thought it might be helpful to post the exchange for anyone struggling with high notes, improvising, etc. Here's goes:

I actually have a few questions for you: I started playing the clarinet quite recently (about 6 months ago) and the fact of being a sound engineer and already playing various other instruments has helped a lot, but some things are hard to wrap one's head around.

1) on the soprano, in the clarion register, I find the notes tend to sound rather flat as I go up (pitch-wise) and I find myself having to pinch the reed quite a bit to be in tune. Is this normal?

I think you are experiencing voicing issues, most likely with the back of your tongue too low in your oral cavity. To see what I mean, say the words "Kah", "Keh" "Koo" and "Cue" (or the letter "Q") -- notice how the back of your tongue rises with each word. That's voicing. Typically the higher your tongue, the higher the pitch. But if the tongue is TOO high, you will squeak. Pinching the reed is NEVER normal, and should be avoided.

2) When I try to slap tongue on both bass clarinet and soprano, I often can only get the pop sound and if I blow I usually get a synth-like squeak. How do you manage to 'pop' the reed in such a position that you still get the fundamental note and not an overtone? If I put less reed in my mouth I have no suction space!

Again, it's most likely that you're pinching the reed. You want more, not less, reed in your mouth so that more of the reed can vibrate after you slap.

3) I've just bought a bass clarinet (a bundy selmer). I had all the pads replaced and had it re-adjusted, but the clarion register seems a little hit and miss, in the sense that it's much harder to 'get' the clarion notes to sound (once I do manage, then I can keep the whole scale going as long as I don't pause to breathe). I think your video on voicing may be the answer, but how hard should it be to get those notes to sound, considering that on the soprano I have no problem?

The more I read, the more I think you a) need to not pinch, b) need a different mouthpiece and reed combination and c) need to practice voicing. But try all three if you can get your hands on a different mouthpiece, preferably one more open.

4) Which is the best way to learn how to improvise? I would like to automatically play the notes in my mind, like when I sing or whistle, I don't wish to become too used to automatically playing scales, but rather train my instinct to 'know where to go'. Playing along songs by ear seems to be working very well, but I wonder if you can recommend any exercises aimed at this?

This one is easy: listen to a LOT of improvised music. Transcribe solos you hear and play along with those solos. The issue with learning to improvise is not just that you need to know the instrument (of course) but also that you need to learn different ways around your instrument. I also have never practiced scales, and the way I improvise reflects that (for better or for worse), but the feel of my improvising comes entirely to listening and imitating. My personal favorites: Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker and Bob Mintzer. Beyond listening and imitating, I would recommend playing along to simpler tunes (modal blues like Miles Davis' "So What" or simple 12-Bar Blues tunes) to just practice the feel and exploring the instrument. It's a long process -- one that lasts a lifetime!