Monday, July 25, 2011

BASS Clarinet

I LOVE the bass clarinet! I tried to avoid it like the plague in my youth, and then, forced to play it seriously in a performance of the Walton Facade, I realized that I had an aptitude for it. Of course, just because you are good at something, doesn’t mean you should do it, so I continued to deny it’s existence until the Asheville Symphony bass position opened up, I auditioned (only on soprano clarinets, actually!), and started my new career as a bass clarinetist. Since Don Quixote was on the first concert of the season, I knew the bass and I would be doing some serious time together.

For the first five years, I shared the school instrument with my students at WCU. That was a trying time, because I never knew if the bass would be in working order when I picked it up after band. Fortunately, Rhonda at Stone Cottage Band Instrument Shoppe in Waynesville has been here for me all these years to take care of my many bass clarinet emergency repairs.

At some point, I don’t know when, I did fall in love with the instrument, and I decided that I had to have my own Buffet Prestige bass. This was a big financial step, but I knew that I would only buy one bass clarinet in my life, and I’d like to enjoy it while I could still play it. Of course, now, I’m doubly glad I made the purchase then, because the prices have gone up.

My biggest objection to the bass is that it’s big. Big to carry around, big to hold, a pain to put together, and I always need extra room when I’m sitting in symphony. Of course, it doesn’t help that I have a Wiseman case - the older super-heavy kind. Wisemans are the only cases that fit in the overhead on a plane, and the new Wiseman cases that came out last year are quite light. Not mine...

What I love about the bass clarinet is how easy it is to blow compared to the clarinet. The embouchure is looser and there is less air pressure. Make no mistake, the instrument takes a lot of air, but it feels much more free blowing than a regular clarinet. I’ve always thought that when I get too old and weak to enjoy playing clarinet, my instrument of choice will be the bass.

It is tricky to get used to if you are a clarinet player. It took me a long time to figure out reed strength and posture, and I’m still not convinced that the bent neck on the Buffet (that mimics a soprano clarinet angle) is a good idea. It’s easy to make yourself sore from playing the thing if you aren’t careful. Reading music from one side of the instrument to the other is also a hassle. You’ll want to read the music straight in front of you, but there’s an instrument neck in the way.

If you are still reading this, you are probably curious as to what equipment I play on the bass, so here you go:
Grabner Lawrie Bloom Model mouthpiece
Peter Spriggs ligature
Gonzalez or Vandoren V12 reeds (usually size 3.5)

I’ve been working on Mike Lowenstern’s transcription of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s song “Lenny” on the bass, and I just found a chart on Mike’s site with altissimo fingerings that’s very useful. Go to his super awesome site and click download on the fingering chart to get a chart with notes going higher than anyone would ever want to hear on bass clarinet!

Mike shows the standard way of playing high notes on bass where you stay in clarion for notes up to E, and then all the fingerings he lists beyond that are way different than anything on the soprano clarinet. Of course, it’s a good idea to make up your own fingerings too, especially for high notes. When you are up high on the instrument, the possibilities for overtones are almost endless. Be creative!