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Using Overtones To Create Your           Most Beautiful Clarinet Sound

The late 1890’s and early 1900’s witnessed a predominant German influence in woodwind playing in the United States. Joseph Shures, Robert Lindeman, Simeon Bellison, etc. were the predominant clarinetists in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. It wasn’t until the onset of  WWI when Stokowski in Philadelphia made the move to replace most of the German players with French woodwind players, a move that reflected his artistic sensitivities more than his patriotic feelings. At that point the French style of sound gained the upper hand in the United States. In those days American players were considered too primitive to hold solo positions in orchestras and imported Europeans filled the important positions. It wasn’t until after 1930 that American players began to give competition to Europeans.


Although Bellison, a major teacher in the 20th century, came from Russia and played on German system clarinets, he never insisted that his students play on that system. As a result most of his students leaned toward the French school of sound which was becoming prominent in America.


Daniel Bonade studied at the Paris Conservatory and Ralph McLane traveled to Paris with Gaston Hamelin in1931 to continue his studies. It is no wonder that clarinetists in the US leaned toward the “Old French School” of clarinet playing from the 1930’s on. It is from that school of sound that  American clarinet playing evolved.


Working with clarinetists from two generations ago such as David Weber, Sidney Forrest, Harold Wright, Robert Marcellus and Martin Zwick who studied with the likes of Ralph McLane, Simion Bellison and Daniel Bonade, it became clear that the development of sound quality came from the practice of listening to the teacher to solidify an idea, a concept of sound. Hearing a quality of tone in ones mind would aid the students in producing a similar quality on their instrument. By having a “concept” when producing a sound, the body would follow what the mind was hearing to produce the desired tone. The “old guys” would say the sound had to be “centered” it had to have a “ping”, it had to grab you, had to be wet rather than dry and hard. These descriptions along with demonstrations in lessons and in concert, helped to develop a sonic concept in the student.


Because of the “subjectiveness” of these sonic concepts, the qualities can be forgotten or altered in the mind from day to day due to ones mood, how one is feeling physically or mentally or how the equipment is responding. There is nothing wrong with these alterations or changes of state, they make us sound more human, but they can get in the way of having a sound that is consistently what we are striving for. Another variable is how the reed is responding due to altitude and atmospheric conditions. In this case one may find oneself in a conflict between concept of sound and comfort and ease of response. We very well may forsake concept for comfort. The question arrises, can there be a quality within the tone based on a constant that can allow us to change the color and feeling in a way that is more intentional and less dependent on our physical and mental state?

                                                                                                                                          RALPH McLANE


Ralph McLane was born in Lynn, Massachusetts on December 19,1906.  He began to study clarinet at the age of nine, first from Elizir Therrien who had been a pupil of Cyril Rose, Porteau and Selmer. He then studied with a clarinetist named Vannini, who also studied in Paris. Vannini was second clarinet with the Boston Symphony. McLane won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory and later he studied with Gaston Hamelin who was principal clarinet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. McLane became principal clarinet with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1943 to 1951.

Listening to recordings of McLane every day and listening a lot, I began to hear certain qualities that create the tone that McLane was getting. There is a subjective, romantic-decriptive, approach to sound that can leave a mental picture in the ear of the player. If we were lucky, we had a teacher who instilled this search for a beautiful sound in us. “A diamond wrapped in velvet”, mellowness, darkness, brilliance, a moonlit forest, etc . All these descriptive representations of sound become a part of our “conception” of tone that is extremely important. But McLane had something else that was quite unique to his sound.

He put an emphasis on concept and double lip embouchure, but the element that makes his sound so unique, whether he scientifically knew it or not, is referred to in his first prerequisite to John Mohler…


TONE QUALITY: same pp as ff; must be pleasing, flexible and rich in overtones.


Careful listening will reveal a strong sixth partial or 12th overtone in Ralph McLanes sound.

Clarinetist Ralph McLane's sound is used to demonstrate how learning to hear and intensify overtones in clarinet playing can improve sound

The Old French School and the Effects of          Overtones in Clarinet Sound


Every musical instrument has it's characteristic sound, which is the result of the intensity and arrangement of it's overtones. This is why when played into the harp of a piano, the flute sound reverberating back sounds like a flute, a violin like a violin and the clarinet like a clarinet. Concept of sound is of the greatest importance in playing any musical instrument because the quality heard by the minds ear determines, to a great extent, the quality that comes out of the instrument. The mind hears and the body reacts to arrange the overtones that are desired...........Click here for more information and videos

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