Why Flight of the Bumblebee is a great etude


I play the clarinet as a hobby although I used to play it competitively during high school. Unfortunately, since I began my undergraduate studies, I have stopped receiving lessons, which are quite expensive. So during undergrad, my playing ability rarely improved. However, perhaps thanks to COVID-19, I have had more spare time recently and have been able to find practice routines that have worked for me to become a better player.

These practice routines include exercises that I believe I can improve infinitely. They include long-tone and scale exercises (i.e., not so interesting stuff) but not a piece. To spice up my routine, I decided to one day include a piece in my routine: Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov.

This piece is essentially a non-stop chromatic scale at a very fast tempo. It requires you to place your fingers close to the keys and minimize the motor movement for each note. Although this piece is in the key of C for the piano and the flute, since the clarinet is in Bb, it is in D major (two sharps). I think a clarinet repertoire in D major requires a lot of dexterity from the left hand, so this is an excellent piece for those who are right handed.

To really master each note of the piece, one needs to play this piece slowly. I started practicing this piece at a tempo of 90 beats per minute. Then I gradually increased it all the way to 180. It took a few months of concentrated practice for my hands to really master it. Here is the end result.

Once, I was able to reach a tempo of 200 beats per minute. Then, I asked myself, ‘what now?’ It turned out I could play this piece all double-tongued. If I ‘tongued’ all the notes, each note would be detached and articulated because my tongue would touch the reed of the clarinet to block the air flow. I realized playing this piece with a non-stop double tongue was much more difficult than slurring (i.e., connecting) all the notes. So, I guess it will be my next challenge (for the next couple years). I usually double-tongue (i.e, ta-ka-ta-ka) rather than single-tongue (ta-ta-ta) in typical clarinet repertoires, such as pieces by Mozart, Weber and Spohr. However, a long passage of non-stop articulation is very rare in the clarinet repertoire. So, I guess this exercise will improve my articulation too.