One of my earliest memories of playing the clarinet was using it to join the altos alongside my mother in our church choir. It was my father's idea (he sang tenor) to help the inner voices stay on pitch. And so I tried to blend in with the singers. Emulating the singing voice became a natural goal in creating my sound, my tone. Life is vibration.
I remember preparing a piece of music by the composer Mel Powell. On the second page of the clarinet part he indicated in one measure to use a "dead tone". I asked him how to accomplish this and he said, "Don't use any vibrato".
So the world is vibrating, we are vibrating, our reeds are vibrating (hopefully)! If, as a clarinetist, you are interested in experimenting with your own vibrato you can start with the breath. A flutist pulses her breath. Her diaphragm makes a pattern of pushes that provides living waves of alternating faster and slower breath speed. A violinist moves his finger on the string in a back and forward motion causing the tone to move slightly lower and higher in pitch.
When Brahms asks us in the language of music to play "espressivo, dolce, cantabile" -- he is asking us to give life to his notes. So we try with pitch, volume, pressure of breath -- searching for sound with meaning. Hearing inspired singing is a way into the miracle of vibrato. I recorded an entire album of opera arias in an attempt to find that magic. The "a, e, i, o, u" vowel sounds and their infinite variations and combinations become powerful parts of expression.
Wonderful nuances can be achieved with placement of the tongue, speed of air, and careful attending to the volume of a note from beginning to end -- its envelope. What's inside the envelope? Your tone. And this, your tone, must be the basis of vibrato. In other words, start with the most beautiful tone you can create, rich in overtones, and send that stream of air spinning through the entire length of the clarinet. Then, listen to that sound as it comes alive with the gradual pulsing of your breath, the subtle changing of vowels, the placement of tongue, the slight varying pressure of embouchure muscles. Your tone will contain a straight even line of sound, and within that sound will develop life as it explores vibration and the colors created by vowels and shapes resonating inside your body.
copyright Richard Stoltzman