Right Hand Down? It is a well-known band director trick to have clarinetists cover the holes of the lower section to help improve pitch in the throat tones. Is this really a good idea? I think the best answer is “Maybe.” Let me explain.
My understanding and experience are that throat tones (open G to third space Bb) tend to be flat acoustically. (There will always be exceptions, of course.) Someone might immediately ask, “Hey ClarinetMike! The clarinet players in my band are ALWAYS sharp in the throat tones!” So, what is going on?
Here’s what I think is the issue: Embouchure. Clarinetists with an immature (or bad understanding of) embouchure will usually bite down hard on the mouthpiece and thus push the pitch sharp. Clarinetists with a mature (i.e. good) embouchure will find that the throat tones tend to be flat. Therefore, those 3rd clarinets with crummy embouchures (and likely soft reeds!) are going to be biting down hard on the mouthpiece and thus be sharp in throat tones.
Obviously, the best solution is to have the clarinetists play with a good embouchure [easier said than done!]. This would eliminate the need for “right hand down.” However, in the heat of a rehearsal (with contest looming!) I think it is reasonable to have a clarinetist put his/her right hand down for tuning if sharp in throat tones in a slow passage.
A few notes (pun intended) on this:
1. If your clarinetists are sharp and you have them put down their right hand, I suggest telling them that this is likely because they need embouchure improvement. Possibly a good time to plug private lessons! (Check out my Embouchure and Embouchure Tips.)
2. Many clarinet teachers teach special “resonance fingerings” on throat tones to improve the quality of the sound. I support this; however, I strongly suggest that learning to voice notes well is even more valuable. (Also, do not conflate “right hand down” and “resonance fingerings.”)
3. Make absolutely sure that students ONLY put down fingers (right hand down or resonance fingerings) in slow passages and NOT in technical passages or scale work. Otherwise, good technique will be hindered.
4. If a clarinetist’s embouchure is good and throat tone pitch is not sharp: DO NOT have them put down their right hand. This will make a flat situation even flatter! Put this together with 3rd clarinets biting down hard and you’ll have a mess!
5. If a student has a good embouchure, then the natural slight flatness of pitch should be addressed by slightly raising air position/tongue position aka “voicing” a little higher. This is what I do, fyi.
6. Beginner clarinet teachers should not teach “Over The Break” using the right hand down short cut. The only exception to this is when a student is having real trouble and “freaking out.” Then, for a very, very limited time the student should be allowed to put it down. It is absolutely critical that students learn to move all the fingers together going “Over The Break” as this is how they will really play the clarinet.
Teachers: I’ve seen lots and lots of students over the years who had very dirty technique due to various pedagogical errors like #6 above. It is simply unacceptable for teachers to hamstring their students with having to go through a mountain of mind-bendingly slow practice to fix these sort of issues later.
ClarinetMike says, “Embouchure is everything!”
NOTE: Thanks to my dear friend, Bill Powell, for mentioning this issue a few years ago and sparking my thinking.
[The above is a revision of previous post.]