As Ricardo Morales put it to me recently, “it’s hard in life to differentiate between the things we want versus the things we need.” For clarinet players, this dichotomy is made more dizzying by the endless customizability of our instrument; it’s easy—and indeed, tempting—to get lost amid the infinite combinations and permutations of mouthpieces, ligatures and barrels in pursuit of one’s ideal sound — or response, or intonation, and so on. Add to that the various options and aftermarket modifications possible on the body of the instrument itself, and one may start to lose track of who exactly is making the music — clarinet, or clarinetist?
It’s for this reason that some players spurn the shop talk altogether, choosing to devote their energies to honing their skills on a no-frills setup instead of chasing the Holy Grail of clarinet equipment. And yet, even this minimalist approach is indeed a choice of equipment, one that necessarily impacts the way you blow. (I’m reminded of Meryl Streep’s monologue in The Devil Wears Prada shooting holes through the idea that choosing an unpretentious sweater exempts oneself from the fashion industry.)
The danger of the equipment game is chasing your tail: if you constantly adjust your way of playing to suit new clarinet toys, how will you ever find the setup that liberates your fundamental voice? On the other hand, I believe that the best instruments have personalities of their own. Clarinetists tend to overlook this, perhaps because clarinets are a dime a dozen compared to Strads and Steinways. But violinists and pianists speak often about the natural idiosyncrasies of their instruments, and readily tweak their own playing in response to cues from the instrument. This is not a failure to dominate the instrument, but rather, a portrait of sensitivity and adaptability — a sort of chamber music between musician and instrument.
In reality, we need both: an instrument that allows us to sing from within while also guiding us toward unforeseen possibilities of expression. And this brings me back to Ricardo’s aforementioned axiom: we often like—and want—what feels familiar, but could benefit from a dose of fresh perspective, countered tendencies, new terrain.
I spoke with Ricardo during a recent visit to the Uebel showroom in New Jersey, where I was thrilled to discover a range of instruments that all shared an undeniable integrity of artisanship. Whether plated with silver or gold, the keys feel attractively sturdy under the fingers, and move with crisp action and an even, healthy resistance right out of the box. It was clear that the maker took pains to correct for many of the clarinet’s perennial acoustic obstacles: all the models I played sported the raised “chimney” vent for the low C-sharp, yielding a clearer tone for that note and narrowing the intonation spread with the G-sharp a 12th above. Similarly, I was impressed by the consistency in timbre and intonation between alternate fingerings for the same pitch: chromatic versus middle-finger B/F-sharp, and left versus right fingerings of E-flat/B-flat matched nicely. Even the ever-stuffy throat B-flat found a remarkable clarity on the Uebel models, blending seamlessly into the clarion register above.
For now, I will concentrate on Uebel’s innovative Superior Plateau model, the most striking feature of which is its covered tone holes. The idea here is that such a system on the clarinet could allow for the kind of natural facility that is part and parcel of the saxophone, where the player need not worry about finding the perfect seal with each finger. I’ll admit that I had reservations about the application of this system to the clarinet — mostly because I’m a sucker for half-holing when approaching the altissimo register from below, but I also wondered if the covered tone holes would deaden the sound of the instrument, and how they would affect the clarinet’s trademark capacity for liquid-gold legato.
To my pleasant surprise, the Superior Plateau swiftly dispensed with these concerns. Rather than muting the sound, the presence of the pads over all tone holes produced a more even voicing across the various registers, as well as between notes of the same register that ordinarily possess dissimilar timbres. In turn, this consistency of color aided in the legato process (which, for me, relies more on air/ear preparation than finger motion anyway), sort of keeping each next note in the same part of the voice as the previous. Only the low A struck me as slightly muffled, but nothing a little tone hole undercutting couldn’t fix. (Another thing I very much appreciated about Uebel’s models is that their tone holes err on the side of too small, leaving room to open them up if necessary for more free blowing and higher pitch, rather than stuffing oversized tone holes with tape, cork or inserts and risking muzzled resonance.)
As for my beloved half-hole, the real motivation for that technique on open-holed clarinets is more for color than intonation: using the finger to partly cover the tone hole manually creates a smaller “register tube” for the altissimo register, preventing, say, a high D from sounding too bright and free relative to the lower registers. The proximity of the pad hovering above that tone hole on the Superior Plateau effectively achieves the same thing by tempering the brilliance of that register, but allows for a more precise venting than a partially-fingered tone hole.
Clarinets with covered tone holes have traditionally been marketed at the younger and older sides of the population, helping players with small fingers or shaky hands make their way around the instrument with ease. But neither of those traits are limited to the outer ends of musical life, and Uebel’s Superior Plateau constitutes a seriously compelling instrument for clarinetists of all ages — not to mention woodwind doublers. Even for players of secure technique, there is something to be said for the musical liberation that comes with a more immediate dexterity. Imagine, for instance, the attention to color and phrasing that you could bring to Daphnis and Chloe if you didn’t have to spend quite so many hours shedding the fingers.
The Superior Plateau is available in mopane, an amber-hued African wood, as well as the traditional grenadilla. I found the sound of the mopane to be the denser of the two, rich, robust and with a little more hold. The grenadilla produced a lighter sound, perhaps with some more high overtones, that was for me easier to maneuver. But both instruments seem to invite their own particular way of playing; these are not just nondescript pitch tubes, but real musical tools with voices of their own. It was a treat to take each for a spin and to see what they had to say.
– Graeme Steele Johnson