Clarinet Vibrato?

ClarinetMike and Pianist Dena Kay Jones in the video below give the World Premiere of “Small Voice of Calm” by Composer Raymond Head (above) at the Orfeo Music Festival 2018 in Vipiteno, Italy.

Clarinet Vibrato?  by Dr. Michael Dean “ClarinetMike”

I’m often asked questions about clarinet vibrato such as “Do you use vibrato?” or “As a clarinet teacher, should I allow my students to do it?” or “How do I do vibrato?” Below, I consider the first two questions – I’ll leave the third question for another day.

Many professional clarinet players use vibrato in classical music as well as in jazz. For example, the much-admired principal clarinetist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Harold Wright, used vibrato.  Also, I myself use some vibrato in my clarinet playing, as in the video above. (So, yes, I use some vibrato in both classical and jazz.) However, not all clarinet players and teachers hold a high opinion of vibrato on the clarinet, especially in classical music.

The renowned clarinet player and teacher Robert Marcellus said he used no vibrato at all in classical music; however, he did use it in jazz or in a jazzy work such as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (see Marcellus interview here). Similar to Marcellus, many clarinet players and teachers believe that a clarinetist should not use vibrato, especially in classical music. And I’ve noticed that some of them are very strict about it.

So, question number 2: “As a clarinet teacher, should I allow my students to do it?” After a number of years of carefully considering the issue, I came to the conclusion to not allow my clarinet students to use vibrato on classical music. My primary reason for not allowing them to use vibrato is a pragmatic one. Almost all of my clarinet students (whether high school, university, etc. ) will someday have to audition at a region or solo contest, for university or graduate school entrance, or for acceptance into a professional or semi-professional orchestra, wind symphony, etc.

The widespread influence of those who dislike clarinet vibrato is significant enough (at least in the USA) to potentially limit the audition success of a student. I’ve felt (and continue to feel) that it is not worth the risk. Certainly, there are exceptions. For example, if I was working with a graduate student who came of out a military band and was older and more musically mature, it might be fine to allow vibrato.

The mention of age and maturity brings up a second reason for not allowing clarinet students to use vibrato. In addition to being a clarinetist,  I’m also a saxophone player and teacher and have a lot of experience dealing with saxophone vibrato. (I taught clarinet and saxophone at the university level for more than two decades.) I think of and teach vibrato as a tone and musical enhancement. I believe it is important to get a student’s basic saxophone tone established and “locked in” before moving to an expected musical use of vibrato.

Unlike saxophone, there are no expectations on clarinet vibrato in classical music. Therefore, it seems wise for me to not only wait on vibrato until the student’s clarinet tone is developed, but to also wait for a deepened musical maturity (usually age). Such a deepened maturity would generally be beyond the range of study of most students in secondary and university study.

Since my prose is a little thick above, let me restate with some bluntness (and a little glibness) why I don’t teach clarinet vibrato to students:

1. If a clarinet student plays with vibrato on an audition in front of a clarinet vibrato-hating judge, they’re DEAD – “Next Please….”

2. I encourage the clarinet student to wait until they are on their own as a professional musician before using vibrato. Otherwise, they could end up sounding kinda goofy.

ClarinetMike says, “Thanks for reading my opinions. As always, I welcome comments.”

About ClarinetMike

American clarinetist MICHAEL DEAN performs and teaches internationally and across the USA to consistent praise such as "world-class clarinetist and pedagogue," "consummate performer," "inspirational," "outstanding teacher," "super," "brilliant performer," and "one of the best clinicians I have ever seen." His career is headlined by appearances at Carnegie Hall, ClarinetFest, NACWPI, Eastman School of Music, and Royal Northern College of Music with recent recitals and master classes in Canada, Italy, Spain, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, and Texas. In July, he will again return to Vipiteno, Italy as Clarinet Artist Faculty in Residence at the international Orfeo Music Festival 2019. He is featured on 5 commercial CD's and on New Media, such as YouTube. He is currently preparing another new clarinet CD, Postcards from Silver Lake. Dr. Dean has given more than 500 clinics, master classes and performances at high schools, universities, conferences and other venues. For 11 years he was a clarinetist with the Paducah Symphony and he's also performed with the Southwest Symphony, Nevada Symphony, Abilene Philharmonic, Southeast Chamber Players, Red Mesa Trio, and Duo 35. His articles appear in journals such as Southwestern Musician, WINDPLAYER, NACWPI Journal and The Bandmasters' Review. As "ClarinetMike," he writes for his widely-viewed ClarinetMike Blog, the Internet’s #1 clarinet blog read in 150 countries on 6 continents: clarinetmike.wordpress.com. After a successful 25 years of teaching clarinet at the university level, he relocated to his native Texas due to family concerns. He is a past president and former National Board officer of the National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors (NACWPI). Dr. Michael Dean studied clarinet performance at Texas Tech University, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas at Arlington. His teachers include Robert Walzel, Phil Aaholm, Carol Jessup, Jess Youngblood, and Bob Ackerman. His web page, clarinetmike.com, features video of his teaching and performing as well as information on his CD's and other publications. He is a BG France Performing Artist.
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10 Responses to Clarinet Vibrato?

  1. Amy Paul says:

    Clarinet Mike, please follow up with the “how” part! My first clarinet teacher was British and worshipped at the shrines of Brymer/dePeyer/Kell… and so do I! Lord knows he had a lot of work to do with me, so vibrato definitely wasn’t a priority. But now that I’m, uh *old*, I doubt I’ll be auditioning for anything, and if I do and I get some vibrato- hating crank to evaluate me, oh well, he/she can kiss my old, wrinkled, vibrato-ing you-know-what!

    • ClarinetMike says:

      Thanks for the reply. You won’t get a complaint from me! Ha! Hear’s a little “off the cuff” advice. 1. Listen to musicians use vibrato that you like. Listen especially to great singers and string players. 2. Vibrato is primarily jaw vibrato I think with maybe a little bit of “panting” air possibly. 3. Pulse air 4 quarters notes on each note of a scale with a “Woo, Woo, Woo, Woo….” syllable. Then eight notes. Then triplets. Then sixteenths, etc. Sorry if this is confusing. If you want give me a call. http://clarinetmike.com/contact.html

  2. Jan Spenski says:

    I love your articles! I’m looking forward to the “how to” part of this one.

  3. Howard R Lewis says:

    Hello Folks. This is Clarinet Howard. I am a retired Band Director in the Denton Tx area. For the most part I agree with Dr. Mike. However – I do allow vibrato on slow – oops sorry – lyrical etudes – WHEN I feel it adds beauty. Secondly – I teach vibrato to reinforce deep breathing and subdivision counting. I do explain interpretation and expectation of judges. That’s my 2 and a half cents.

  4. Robert Larm says:

    Mike, I have strongly disagreed with many of your posts in the post. Some of them I posted comments on and others I just discussed with peers across the country. But regarding I agree with you 100%. Of you’re established you can do a Drucker or Wright. If not, it is prudent to be very careful on its usage. That’s why to this day Reginald Kell is still a very controversial figure.
    I will continue to read every post and I intend to make comments regarding almost all of them in the future.

  5. In the late 70’s during a musical tour of the Soviet Union (USSR), I had the opportunity to hear several Russian orchestra’s…one being the ballet orchestra at the Bolshoi performing “Swan Lake”. Another was at a performance of “Prince Igor”. In both cases I heard clarinetists using vibrato when performing short solo passages. I also noticed the same with French horn solo passages. That was the first time I had heard vibrato used in those scenarios. Being a jazz musician, I’m accustomed to hearing wind vibrato in all scenarios, but that experience was a first for me. And I liked it a lot.

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