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Topic: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

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  1. #1

    Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    Okay, I know I really take to heart what the orchestration books say about the "difficult" or "problem" areas of various instruments and go out of my way to avoid them. But I'm in a real spot with several of my pieces and I'm wondering how strictly I have to adhere to all these rules.

    Here's the situation: I am nearly finished orchestrating a musical that I wrote. My pit orchestra has four reed players. One of them primarily plays bassoon, but occassionally doubles on the bass clarinet. (He also doubles on a Bb Clarinet in a couple numbers where I don't need a reed bass and the part would be a little too agile for the French Horn). So far, so good.

    But I have two numbers where I need the Bass Clarinet as the lowest wind instrument for the bulk of the tune and it also has to go into the middle ("thoat") range sometimes (concert Eb below middle C, up to the top of the bass staff). Ordinarily, I would use the bassoon for numbers like this. But I don't want to because the clarinet just sounds better and I have used the bassoon so much all ready that I need a little variety. The other three reeds are occupied and the French Horn is either being used as well or sounds a bit to muddy if used there.

    In one number, I am contrasting the verses (where the strings, piano, and flute predominate) with the choruses (which feature a pad consisting of the French Horn, over a Bb Clarinet and Bass Clarinet.) The Bass Clarinet is basically sustaining the G#, Db and E below middle C in the chords. In the verses, the Bass Clarinet drops down to its "normal" lower range, alternating with the cello.

    In the other number, I have a relatively fast moving ostinato that lasts for an entire verse. Orginally, I had the Bb Clarinet playing it alone. Then, trying to sing the line, I decided that it would probably be too difficult for one musician to play. (I kept running out of breath.) Since the tempo is in 5/4 time and chiefly consists of 3-beat motifs followed by 2-beat "answer" phrases and vice versa, I thought it would be a good idea to try alternating the Bb Clarinet with the Bass Clarinet. But this would put the Bass Clarinet into its throat tones a lot, over and over again, in this verse. (In the rest of the song, the Bass Clarinet plays in its "normal", low register.) I tried substituting the Bassoon, but I found the difference in timber between it and the clarinet a little too noticable. This section is just one iteration of an ostinato pattern that substitutes for a pad between the bass line and the melody in the treble clef.

    All I have to go by is what this sounds like on my DAW. I am using Westgate's Clarinet sample libraries with Kontakt 2 (and the Bassoon sample libaries that came with Kontakt.) Both of the above parts sound just fine with these instruments. The Bass Clarinet is a part of a harmony pad (in one case consisting of sustained notes, and in the other as part of a moving repetitive riff). Since, hopefully, this will one day be played by live pit musicians, I want to be sure that I am not giving them anything that is technically impossible or unreasonably difficult to play. I know Broadway pit musicians can play virtually anything and make it sound great. But, having been in show business for most of my life, I know the harsh reality is that most shows never make it to Broadway and those that do must first be successfull elsewhere and I want to make sure it's playable by any reasonably good musician. (A little difficult is okay with me. But impossible, or only playable by a few of the greatest musicians is not.)

    I would appreciate any feedback from bass clarinet players - or bassoon players who double on the bass clarinet. Thanks.

    (And BTW - I'd still like to see a real Broadway/musical theater thread here!)

  2. #2

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    I think you're worrying too much. The entire range of the bass clarinet is perfectly playable, and the upper and middle registers are not more difficult than the lower. Granted that the lower register gets used more often, but there's no reason to write the entire part below the break.
    Dan Powers
    www.danielpowers.info

    "It's easier to be a composer than it is to compose."
    --Ray Luke (1928-2010)

  3. #3

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    Agreed - the bass has a hugely usable range. Don't be afraid to use it. However, I will suggest that you take into account the general ability level of the players you're most likely to encounter. While symphony bass clarinetists will have no problem in the octave above the staff, a doubler, or someone whose principal instrument is something other than clarinet/bass clarinet might have more difficulty up there. In any case, the throat tones are fair game. In fact, I'd say that anything on or below the treble clef should be within the range for even a more marginal player.

    One other caveat re: bass clarinet ranges. It's only recently that low C instruments have become more commonplace, and I see more and more theater parts written for this instrument. However, very few doublers own low C horns. We all bought our horns when low Eb was the written limit and I, for one, am not ponying up $7-9k for a new low C horn when my used low Eb horn will only fetch maybe $2k at the most. That's a lot of cash for three notes!

    So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that while you can write those notes, they won't necesssarily be played in that octave in performance. If you absolutely have to have those exact pitches write for bassoon or even Eb contra alto clarinet. I can more easily borrow one of those from a school than I can find a spare low C bass to borrow.
    Paul Baker
    Baker's Jazz And More
    Austin, Texas, USA
    www.bakersjazzandmore.com

  4. #4

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    It might also be wise to leave a little extra time for any within-tune switches, as there may be a mental as well as a physical adjustment from single- to double-reed and vice-versa, and the size of the instruments requires a bit of maneuvering.

    If it's one number on one horn, then switch horns for the next number (and the first number doesn't segue directly into the next) you're probably good to go.
    Jim Williams
    Professor of Capitalism
    N9EJR
    Indianapolis Brass Choir
    All Your Bass Sus&Short Are Belong to Us.

  5. #5

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    Thanks for all the input. And, yes, I have tried never to have the reed players switching instruments within a number, or in a number that immediately follows. I've only had to do it a few times in the score, and then only when there is a long break between the two.

  6. #6

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    I say you're fortunate to have reed players who can double. These days, most don't. If they do, they're probably pretty decent.

  7. #7

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    Dear Eir,
    I think you posted a very interesting question.
    The best advice I can give is to see how Beethoven performed Bb clarinets
    in the first movement of the "Eroica". It is a 3/4 and he gives a very very simple part to play to clarinets.
    Beethoven gives the basis of the harmonic structure to clarinets and leaves to violins and horns to be brilliant.
    Cellos could move more in an easier way (but I am a J. Dupre's fan so I am always for the cellos). Anyway I follow Beethoven and Vivaldi: they like to surprise with the cellos.
    Now you ar playing 5/4, so you want someone to dance.
    I would be not so worried of who is playing clarinets, because I should write an easy part.
    I would be focused on the dancers and keep the harmony structure as simple as possible.
    I tell you this because, while you were posting, I was arranging a part for oboes and Bb clarinets, and I decided to solve it this way.
    Have a brilliant composition time.
    Best, Master1.

  8. #8

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    Thanks for all the input. And, yes, I have tried never to have the reed players switching instruments within a number, or in a number that immediately follows. I've only had to do it a few times in the score, and then only when there is a long break between the two.
    It's perfectly fine and reasonable to have reed players switch instruments in the middle of a particular piece. It happens all the time and reed players expect it. As has been stated, the main issue is allowing enough time for the player to physically (and safely) put the first horn down and pick up the second one. As an example, I'm booked to play the touring production of "Legally Blonde" when it comes through my town in February. My book calls for seven instruments (two saxes, two clarinets, and two flutes plus a penny whistle), one of which I've never played before (aforementioned Irish penny whistle), so I'm sure I'll be switching back and forth fairly often.

    FWIW, the one switch I dread is having to play sax (any of them) or clarinet (particularly) for a long time and then immediately pick up a flute for an exposed solo line, which is inevitably in an upper register and piano or pianissimo. The reason for this (my dreading the switch) is that saxes require a larger, looser embrouchure which has to be refocused quickly and clarinets require a firm embrouchure that temporarily somewhat deforms the lips (spreads our chops, as they say) which makes it difficult to control the flute tone as well. Given a break of 15-20 seconds or more, we can work around this problem, but immediate switches of this sort are really difficult and the flute solo would be in jeopardy to an extent.

    An issue specific to double reeds is that, unlike clarinets and saxes, the double reed players remove their reeds from those instruments and put them back in a container of water to keep them wet for the next entrance - so, you have to allow enough time to not only just pick up the instrument, but time for them to retrieve the reed from the water, put it onto the horn, and THEN be prepared to make the next entrance. It can be done, but it needs to be done with proper consideration.
    Last edited by bmdaustin; 11-30-2008 at 02:33 PM. Reason: correct typos
    Paul Baker
    Baker's Jazz And More
    Austin, Texas, USA
    www.bakersjazzandmore.com

  9. #9

    Lightbulb Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    Okay, I know I really take to heart what the orchestration books say about the "difficult" or "problem" areas of various instruments and go out of my way to avoid them. But I'm in a real spot with several of my pieces and I'm wondering how strictly I have to adhere to all these rules.

    **

    I would appreciate any feedback from bass clarinet players - or bassoon players who double on the bass clarinet. Thanks.

    (And BTW - I'd still like to see a real Broadway/musical theater thread here!)
    The throat tones are really only problematic because the timbre is a bit different from the ranges above and below them. On the other hand, the weaker timbre means that the bass clarinet sound will blend in, and not stick out of the chord. If it doesn't turn out to be loud enough, or if you want the bass clarinet timbre to be audible, you could try dropping it an octave.

    Although it is possible to write something unplayable, the throat range is not particularly more susceptible. If you want to post a few excerpts of the (transposed) part, I can tell you how difficult (or not) it would be for your pit musician. (I've played a number of shows, typically the Reed V part -- bari sax, bass clarinet, bassoon, flutes, etc.). If you're concerned that a particular player might not hack it, you can always make that passage part of the audition.

    With regard to ranges, a high school player should be able to cover the bass clarinet at least up to the (written) C above the treble staff, and it is not uncommon to see bass clarinet parts up to the F above that in show books.

    Woodwind players in pit orchestras typically get paid extra for each double that is required. They not only expect to double, they hope for it.

    Enjoy,

    Grant
    ==============================
    Grant Green ||| www.contrabass.com
    Sarrusophones and other seismic devices

  10. #10

    Re: Bass Clarinet - throat tones question

    Since we've kind of gotten off the main thread, I went back and reread it again, focusing on the ostinato problem. From an orchestrational viewpoint, other options would be to give the part to a cello or viola (if strings area vailable) or keyboard where breathing isn't a problem. Another thought is to take advantage of the call/response nature of your ostinato and play up the differences between the 3 beat phrase and the two beat phrase by alternating instruments or ranges. Finally, if it's an option, alter the ostinato itself over time to provide possibilities for breathing.

    You were wise to try and sing the line first. Sadly, many modern shows are written by keyboard players on a computer and breathing apparently isn't taken into account.
    Paul Baker
    Baker's Jazz And More
    Austin, Texas, USA
    www.bakersjazzandmore.com

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