Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Half-Holing for the Clarinettist

Half-holing is one of those techniques whose usage depends very much on the instrument being played. Unlike vibrato or double-tonguing, which are used to a greater or lesser extent on just about all wind instruments, half-holing is not particularly widespread. To the bassoonist, it is a crucial technique, an essential part of their playing. But to the clarinettist it is a mysterious concept that is generally neglected as having no practical usage.
Let me see if I can change that attitude.
For those of you who are unaware, half-holing is exactly what it sounds like. Normally when playing a wind instrument you either cover a hole completely (closed) or uncover it completely (open) with one of your fingertips. When you half-hole, though, you only uncover half of the opening. On the clarinet, as on the bassoon, this is most useful when done with the left forefinger. Simply slide the finger down the instrument slightly so that there is a small gap for air to get through, but the tone hole is still partially covered.
The reason this is never really done on the clarinet is that none of the notes actually need a half-hole in order to sound. You can play any note with a good tone and tuning without ever having to half-hole at all. Contrast this with the bassoon, where the half-hole tends to act like a register key, providing the only difference between the fingerings for one octave and the next. In fact, the degree of half-holing can also be significant on the bassoon, with some notes needing only a small opening but others requiring the uncovering of almost the entire hole. The clarinet is much less sensitive, and as a result it is sufficient to lift the left forefinger entirely when moving into the top register.
         However, for those who have had experience playing the bass clarinet, half-holing will not be an entirely alien concept. For on the bass, the left forefinger’s touchpiece has a small hole in the centre (see right) which can be uncovered to give the effect of a half-hole when playing the high notes. Again, the increased sensitivity of the instrument compared to the soprano clarinet means that completely uncovering the hole would make the top notes more difficult to play reliably.
But how, I hear you cry, does all this affect me and my soprano clarinet? Well, in general I find that half-holing is an invaluable technique for slurring up to the altissimo register. Probably the best way for me to illustrate this, though is by means of a few examples. So go and get your clarinet. Seriously. Get it now, and try out these musical passages. Then see if I have managed to convert you to the ways of the half-hole.
First up, I have the third movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto. You’ve played it a million times before and you may think you have discovered all its secrets, but let me show you that there is still room for improvement. Take a look at this famous passage, which is often played as a slur:
As I’m sure you’re aware, the best way to execute this is by using the left-hand C followed by this fingering for the E flat: 

 Now, though, try slurring the whole thing using the half-hole E flat. In other words, use this fingering:

Is it just me, or does that slur suddenly become a lot smoother?
But maybe you’re not a Mozart fan. How about a bit of Brahms instead then? Here are two bits from his second clarinet sonata, in E flat: 
 First, give them a go with the standard fingerings. Then, try half-holing the Ds, using this fingering:
 I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
Alright, one more then I’ll shut up. How about something a little more contemporary, such as Debussy’s Premiรจre Rhapsodie:

 You get the idea by now – try it with the normal fingerings. Then try it with the half-holed E flats. I rest my case.
Hopefully in this post I have achieved what I set out to do and convinced you that half-holing is not only a valid technique for use with the soprano clarinet, but it is also a highly valuable one. Don’t be put off by its apparent obscurity, as it really is an extremely powerful tool that you can use to greatly enhance your playing. It’s certainly enhanced mine.

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