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Remedies for the Clarinet's "Sore Throat"

by Deborah Check Reeves
Curator of Education and Woodwind Instruments

It has long been recognized that the placement of the tonehole for the register vent on the clarinet is a compromise. If the register vent was only to function as a facilitator for overblowing twelfths, the vent should be much smaller than it is and placed higher on the instrument. But, the register vent also functions as an essential tonehole for obtaining the treble-clef, third-line B-flat—or what clarinetists call the “throat” B-flat. Ever since some of the earliest clarinets were made, the throat B-flat has been fingered using the register vent key and the A key. In order to obtain a clear sounding and in-tune B-flat, the register vent should really be larger than it is and placed lower on the instrument. So, in order to accommodate the dual function of the register vent, its size and placement is a compromise. Most players have worked out a better sounding B-flat than the fuzzy and sharp note that results from the compromised tonehole by manipulating their embouchures and adding resonance fingerings. Even with these manipulations, however, many players and makers are dissatisfied with the outcome and have sought a cure for the clarinet's "sore throat" note.

The best remedies for the sore throat B-flat can be grouped into three different categories. The first category is one of addition: a special B-flat key opens along with the register key when B-flat is fingered. The second category is one that combines mechanisms with both independent B-flat and register keys. The third category usually involves an actual change of fingering as a remedy for the clarinet's throat malady.

An excellent example of the first category—one of addition—is a clarinet in B-flat by Noblet, Paris, ca. 1960-1965 (NMM 13213). It employs the S-K (Stubbins-Kaspar) mechanism patented in 1950 by William H. Stubbins (U.S. patent 2,508,550, awarded to the University of Michigan clarinet professor and his collaborator, Chicago-based Frank L. Kaspar). Premiered at the 1959 NAMM trade show by Leblanc, the S-K mechanism was featured on a Noblet model 240 clarinet, like the NMM's example. The S-K mechanism was offered on Noblet clarinets until 1965. It was also featured on certain models of Vito clarinets and could be ordered until at least 1983.

NMM 13213.  Clarinet in B-flat by Noblet, Paris, ca. 1960-1965. Left side view of Noblet clarinet Back view of Noblet clarinet Right side view of Noblet clarinet

NMM 13213. Clarinet in B-flat by Noblet, Paris, ca. 1960-1965. Serial number 32425. Stubbins model. Boehm system with S-K B-flat mechanism. Grenadilla with seventeen German-silver keys. Gift of Donald Edwin and Alice Lynn Berger, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 2007.

In the S-K mechanism there is a regular register vent and an additional, special B-flat vent that is applied in a cumulative fashion. When B-flat is fingered, not only will the special B-flat vent open, but so does the register vent. While keeping the left hand thumb on the register key and covering the left hand thumb hole—as if going from B-flat to B-natural—the special B-flat vent is closed while the register vent remains open.

Maker's stamps on Noblet clarinet
Upper joint keywork on Noblet clarinet
Lower joint keywork on Noblet clarinet
Register key on Noblet clarinet

Maker's stamps

Upper keywork

Lower keywork

Register key

Stubbins emphasized in both his patent and in subsequent literature that the special B-flat vent and register vent opened together to produce throat B-flat. Although Stubbins points out that this additive process is different than a number of previous mechanisms, the S-K mechanism is not unique, nor was it the first. Louis Kolbe and Ernst Schmidt employed a special B-flat vent that was opened in a similar additive fashion. This mechanism, used on both Wurlitzer Reform Boehm and German model clarinets, can be found on clarinets made prior to the awarding of Stubbins’ patent.

The S-K device was not Leblanc’s first use of a special B-flat key. Leon Leblanc patented a device in 1933 (U.S. Patent 1,926,489) commonly referred to as the "patent B-flat." It was featured on several Leblanc models until about 1956. Among the nearly 550 instruments donated to the NMM by Conn-Selmer, Inc. in 2008, is a model 277 clarinet by G. Leblanc made in La Couture-Boussey (Paris), ca. 1933-1948 (NMM 13585). The "patent B-flat" key on this instrument is representative of the second category of B-flat mechanisms, involving independent action of the B-flat and register keys.

NMM 13585.  Clarinet in B-flat by G. Leblanc, La Couture-Boussey (Paris), ca. 1933-1948. Left side view of Leblanc clarinet Back view of Leblanc clarinet Right side view of Leblanc clarinet

NMM 13585. Clarinet in B-flat by G. Leblanc, La Couture-Boussey (Paris), ca. 1933-1948. Serial no. 5572. Model 277. Boehm system with patent B-flat mechanism. Grenadilla with 17 German-silver keys. Gift of Conn-Selmer, Inc., Elkhart, Indiana, 2008.

Front of Leblanc clarinet, disassembled
Left side of Leblanc clarinet, disassembled

Front of clarinet

Left side view

Back of Leblanc clarinet, disassembled
Right side of Leblanc clarinet, disassembled

Back of clarinet

Right side view

Like the S-K mechanism, Leblanc’s patent B-flat mechanism employs two separate toneholes. But, in this floating-type of mechanism, the register vent and B-flat tonehole work independently. When the A key and register keys are depressed, the separate B-flat key is opened. While keeping the left hand thumb on the register key but letting go of the A key, as if going from B-flat to B-natural, the B-flat key closes and the register key opens.

Maker's stamp
Register key

Maker's stamp

Patent B-flat Mechanism

In a 1960 issue of the Leblanc Bandsman, Stubbins wrote that "there is no new fingering to be learned by the player in order to use the S-K mechanism. It is part of the regular fingering and key mechanism of the clarinet." This comment also applies to the Leblanc "patent B-flat." Both types of B-flat mechanisms contrast with the third category of mechanism—those that require a special fingering. Examples of these types of mechanisms can be found on instruments by Romero, McIntyre, and Mazzeo, all created in order better to access their improved B-flat.

As has been shown by these examples, instruments from the NMM's collections document all the major categories of remedies devised to date for the relief of the clarinet’s persistent "sore throat."

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (August 2010)

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Most recent update: August 27, 2010

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