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Playing and Teaching the Clarinet

Dr. Carol A. Jessup • September 2022Woodwinds • September 5, 2022

Female High School Student Playing Clarinet

Playing and teaching the clarinet is both challenging and rewarding. The clarinet is one of the most versatile instruments in the woodwind family. In the hands of an artist the clarinet’s beautiful singing tone, large range, and technical capabilities offer significant musical possibilities. Fundamentals and reeds play an important role in clarinet performance. The reed alone can affect sound, articulation, response, the upper register, and intonation. 

At the heart of clarinet playing is tone quality. A characteristic tone is produced through a combination of embouchure, air support, concept of sound, and good equipment. What is a good clarinet embouchure? The embouchure includes top teeth placed approximately 1/2 inch down on the mouthpiece with bottom lip turning slightly over the bottom teeth. The upper lip is pulled down and smooth, and corners are positioned “in and firm.” It is very important for the chin to be flat and smooth. To find the amount of mouthpiece needed to produce a good sound, place the top teeth on the mouthpiece up to where it begins to squeak. Upon reaching this point, take slightly less mouthpiece. In general, using more mouthpiece allows the reed to vibrate better, and enables good fundamentals. Too little mouthpiece can result in a small sound, tonguing problems, and difficulties in the upper register. Sometimes a student’s teeth may be sensitive to the vibrations of the mouthpiece. Placing a thin rubber or plastic patch on top of the mouthpiece increases comfort. The bottom lip is turned slightly over the bottom teeth, and acts as a cushion. Look for some red of the lip to be visible. Turning over too much of the lower lip muffles the sound and affects articulation. The lip is in the way of the tongue to the reed. The tongue bumps the lip and produces a heavy articulation. To form a clarinet embouchure with lower lip turned slightly over, simply place the reed “against” bottom lip, insert mouthpiece, and allow bottom lip to turn back naturally. The upper lip pulls down and smooth over the surface of the top teeth but is not positioned under the teeth. This downward stretch helps focus the sound. If the upper lip is loose or pushes forward the sound will become unfocused. A simple exercise is to have students place a small, folded piece of paper in between the upper lip and gum area (position as high as possible). To hold the paper in place, the lip will automatically pull down. The downward stretch helps shape the inside of the mouth and provides equal support around the mouthpiece. Corners that are positioned “in and firm” produce equal support, prevent biting, and help shape the oral cavity. Sometimes students push the corners forward creating endurance problems. Firmness of bottom lip is also very important. Clarinetists differ on the amount of support but using a “firm” lower lip enables focused tone quality. If the lip is loose, the sound is unfocused. An extremely tight bottom lip produces a thinner sound, shrill upper register, and is often accompanied by biting. A flat, smooth chin provides the foundation for the clarinet embouchure. Students often play with a bunched-up chin. The bunched chin affects tone, articulation, and intonation. If the chin moves when tonguing in the upper register, notes will sound scooped. Use of associations help students form a flat chin. Imagine the chin position being like when shaving or applying lipstick. 

Young players as well as advanced students may “bite” down on the clarinet mouthpiece. Biting muffles reed vibrations and creates tension in the throat area. The tone may sound okay, but intonation is a problem. A rounded or oval-shaped embouchure with corners positioned “in” balances the natural upward/downward push and helps correct biting. Biting produces bright, thin tone quality, a shrill upper register, and articulation and endurance problems. The tone may almost sound focused playing with tension in the throat, but tone is thinner, and pitch is sharp. Extreme tension contributes to back pressure and may produce an involuntary air leak from nasal passages. To assist with opening the throat take a full, relaxed breath. Imagine how the throat feels before a yawn. Whisper the syllable “hee” to help open the throat and shape oral cavity. 

Good technical facility on the clarinet depends on good hand position. In general, the thumbs set the position. Have students drop hands to their side. The hands will be relaxed with slightly curved fingers. Bring this natural position up to the clarinet. The thumb rest is positioned directly behind the R-H thumbnail, enabling curved fingers and a comfortable playing position. Left hand thumbhole may be thought of as the face of a clock, with L-H thumb pointing to two o’clock. This position allows the index finger to connect with throat tone G-sharp and A-natural and positions the little fingers comfortably over little finger keys. Technical facility is enabled by keeping fingers relaxed and close to the keys. Practice raising fingers the same height. Young players may try to hold the clarinet placing the R-H index finger under the side E-flat/B-flat key, limiting technique. Much discussion centers on “popping” fingers to develop good finger action. A small pop assists with finger action, but extreme popping; raising the fingers high can create unwanted tension and limit technique. 

Technical facility also requires notes to speak easily in all registers and in different dynamics. Response is enabled by embouchure, air support, and relaxation. For upper register notes, a method referred to as the “half-hole technique” will improve response and control. The left-hand index finger “rolls” downward uncovering half of the tone hole, enabling smooth, even slurs from the first or second register into the altissimo register. In softer dynamics, beginning a note using a half-hole fingering allows upper notes to be played easily. From high E-Flat to G-natural, adding the R-H little finger on the A-flat/E-flat key improves response and intonation on altissimo notes.

Articulation on the clarinet depends on embouchure, air support, and being relaxed. The “tip to tip” method touches the tip of the tongue (top of tongue near end) to the tip of the reed. Clarinetists sometimes use different syllables to teach tonguing. The syllable “TU” works well. Tongue position is forward in the mouth and helps open the throat area. To begin a note, student places the tip of the tongue on the tip of the reed, and “releases” the tongue. Be careful to watch for any changes in the embouchure. Keeping tongue close to the reed facilitates articulation. Common problems include articulation that sounds too heavy or too light. The bottom lip may move when tonguing, and tone quality may be unfocused. A good embouchure that produces unfocused tone quality may indicate a low tongue position. The inside of the mouth (oral cavity) is too open. Have the student whisper the syllable “hee,” and listen for improvement in the sound. Bottom lip movement when tonguing indicates the tongue is bumping the lip. The student may be anchor tonguing, the tip of the tongue rests against the bottom lip or teeth while the middle of the tongue touches the reed. This tonguing style is an accepted practice and works well for many people, although bumping the lip suggests moving the tongue too far in the mouth. Extreme lip movement distorts the sound, and high notes sound “scooped.” Sometimes a student doesn’t touch the reed with the tongue. He/she may be touching the roof of the mouth or using puffs of air for articulation. 

Many commercial reeds are available today, and most are of high quality. Learning to work on, adjust, and maintain clarinet reeds is important, and essential for consistency in playing. There are many different brands, models, strengths, and quality of cane. In general, the mouthpiece assists in selecting the best fit. A mouthpiece with a closer facing, reed is positioned closer to the mouthpiece, requires a stronger, firmer reed. A medium to open facing requires a bit softer, more flexible reed. It’s very important not to play a reed too long, after it has lost its support and tone quality. A reed case helps keep reeds flat, and allows them to dry slowly, increasing the life of the reed. Alternating three or four reeds over a period increases their lifespan and provides more consistency in playing.

The clarinet is versatile and capable of great musical expression as a solo instrument, in chamber music, the wind band, and symphony orchestra. Good fundamentals and challenges at the beginning level require patience and hard work. The development of musical skills and experiencing the progress and accomplishment that accompanies each new step is highly rewarding for student and teacher. 

Carol Jessup is associate professor of music at the University of Texas at Arlington. She received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in music performance from The University of Michigan where she studied with professors John Mohler and David Shifrin. She is a graduate of Texas Tech University and Michigan State University and is a student of Keith McCarty and Dr. Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr.

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