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.”