ClariNotes Issue Ten: So You Want To Glissando

Every clarinetist, one day will want to learn how to play the opening glissando from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue.[1] It is one of the most recognized clarinet solos in the repertoire. If you know how to perform a glissando, then you will look forward to the day when you can perform this with orchestra; however, if you can’t make the glissando work, you will be terrified if it shows up in your orchestra folder.

Contrary to popular belief, the glissando effect does not depend on sliding the fingers off of the clarinet, but instead relies on voicing and manipulating the tongue to bend the pitches. Sliding the fingers can help a little bit in the effect and give the impression that the fingers are producing the glissando, but you can definitely tell the difference between a performer who relies on fingers and one who can really pull it off.

I have used the following three steps in effectively teaching the glissando to my students:

  • Pitch Bending Exercise

The key to a smooth glissando is voicing and tongue position, not so much fingers. With step one, play the slurred notes as written to get these pitches in your ear. Then repeat those pitches while fingering high C. Change your voicing (tongue position) to bend the pitch down. It will feel like the middle to back of your tongue comes closer to the tip of the reed. Think about making your oral cavity smaller to bend the pitch. Keep the embouchure very firm and practice these at a loud dynamic.

  • One Step At A Time

For each measure, play the first pitch, bend it down as far as you can with voicing while still maintaining tone, then lift you fingers to high C, then bring your embouchure and voicing back to normal, thus glissing to high C. Repeat with each lower note until you can glissando an octave.

  • Rhapsody In Blue

The above steps will help in glissing smoothly from third space C to high C. For the opening, finger a rapid scale from low G until you are over the break.

The opening clarinet glissando came into being during rehearsal when; “…as a joke on Gershwin, Ross Gorman (Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist) played the opening measure with a noticeable glissando, adding what he considered a humorous touch to the passage. Reacting favorably to Gorman’s whimsy, Gershwin asked him to perform the opening measure that way at the concert and to add as much of a ‘wail’ as possible.”

Download ClariNotes Issue Ten: So You Want To Glissando

  1. We actually have Ferde Grofé to thank for orchestrating Rhapsody In Blue as we know it today and for giving the clarinet such a prominent and memorable opening solo.  ↩