Balancing a Clarinet Choir

by Mitchell Estrin

Date Posted: May 21, 2019

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The clarinet choir has a wondrous sound. With a range of six octaves and a homogenous timbral quality from low to high, this ensemble can often resonate with the grandeur of a pipe organ. 

This ensemble began in Belgium in the late 19th century. Gustave Poncelet (1844-1903), professor of clarinet at the Brussels Conservatory is regarded as the father of the clarinet choir. Several of his students came to the United States and the medium quickly gained popularity around the world.

There has never really been a “standard” instrumentation for the clarinet choir, as this can vary according to the availability of players and auxiliary instruments. In the best case scenario, an ensemble would have the following instrumentation:

E-flat clarinet

B-flat clarinet (multiple)

Alto clarinet and/or basset horn

Bass clarinet

E-flat contralto clarinet

B-flat contrabass clarinet

"By creating a pyramid of sound from the top down, the ensemble timbre will improve dramatically." - Mitchell Estrin

The number of players available and the instruments they possess has generally dictated a particular ensemble’s instrumentation. Thus, new works and arrangements were created for a variety of instrumental combinations.

Some smaller clarinet choirs will have one player on a part, while the larger choirs can have a membership of 50, 100, and even more! The largest choir I have ever conducted was 80 strong. It was an amazing sound!

This being said, it is incumbent on each director to assess their personnel and instrumentation, and assign parts in order to create a balanced sound.

The great clarinet choir director Harvey Hermann (1934-2017) was a master of clarinet choir balance. His renowned University of Illinois Clarinet Choir was one of the greatest clarinet choirs in history. Harvey’s consummate knowledge of the clarinet family, meticulous attention to detail, and keen ear made him the most respected clarinet choir director for several decades. I was fortunate to be mentored by Harvey.

His theory of balance rested on what is called “pyramiding” the upper voices. The clarinet choir can easily become top heavy and trebly sounding. By creating a pyramid of sound from the top down, the ensemble timbre will improve dramatically. Much of this will depend on the number of B-flat clarinets and the manner in which the parts are divided. Most commonly, the B-flat clarinet parts are divided into first, second, and third. Sometimes there can be four, five, or even six divisi parts, so orchestration will need to be considered when making part assignments.

As an example, let’s say your ensemble has 16 players on the following instruments:

1 E-flat clarinet

12 B-flat clarinets

1 Alto Clarinet

1 Bass Clarinet

1 Contrabass clarinet

Conventional wisdom would say that if the B-flats were divided into first, second, and third, that you would assign four players on each part. Harvey discovered that by having fewer players on the upper parts, and gradually having more players on the lower parts, the ensemble timbre was far superior. He might suggest an instrumentation of 2 firsts, 4 seconds, and 6 thirds. If the parts were divided in 4 divisi lines, he might go with 2 firsts, 3 seconds, 3 thirds, and 4 thirds. No matter what the case, unless the music specifically calls for divisi E-flat clarinets, never under any circumstances use more than one. A little E-flat can go a long way! Also, be sure to assign one of your most experienced players to the E-flat clarinet part, as this voice will always be heard. 

With the scarcity of both alto clarinets and basset horns, the middle voice is often lacking enough sound, so it is a good idea to have the alto voice doubled in the lower B-flat clarinets. This will round out the sound of the ensemble. Arrangements will often come with alternate alto clarinet parts transposed for the B-flat clarinet. It is preferable to have at least one contralto and one contrabass clarinet, but necessity is the mother of invention! The addition of a string bass doubling the contra parts on the bottom of the ensemble will enrich the tonal foundation of the ensemble and will blend very well with the contra clarinets.

Experimentation and experience are definitely the best teachers. Try various instrumental combinations to see (and hear) what works best for your ensemble. I hope these tips will help you to achieve the clarinet pipe organ of your dreams!

Mitch Estrin Clarinet

Mitchell Estrin is Professor of Clarinet at the University of Florida and Music Director and Conductor of the University of Florida Clarinet Ensemble. He is President of the International Clarinet Association and author of the biography Stanley Drucker Clarinet Master published by Carl Fischer. Estrin performed as a clarinetist with the New  York Philharmonic for over twenty years in hundreds of concerts and on 19  tours. As an international concert artist, he has performed in 37 countries on 4 continents. As a studio musician, Estrin has recorded dozens of motion picture soundtracks for Columbia Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Paramount Pictures, MGM, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, and Warner Brothers on feature films. They include Fargo, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Interview With a VampireHome Alone 2Pocahontas, Doc HollywoodRegarding HenryThe Untouchables, and more. His television credits include recordings for ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, HBO, TBS, and ESPN. Learn more about Mitchell Estrin

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