Mike Lawson • February 2003 • February 1, 2003

Stanley TopferWhile there are no quick fixes in music education, student clarinetists can show rapid improvement in their tone quality and technique with a few adjustments and the assistance of their director.


There are many ways to set up an embouchure for good tone production. However, by doing a few things, the tone quality can be significantly and permanently enhanced throughout your clarinet section and, for that matter, your entire single reed section.
Correct position of your head will allow the epiglottis to fully open so that the air column will have a minimum of obstruction and resistance. When teachers say, “play with an open throat,” this is actually what they are talking about.

First, help your student find the natural position for his or her head. Have students move their heads from side to side and up and down. When they return their heads to the forward position, tell them to keep their heads there. Next, have them bring their instruments to their mouths without moving their heads forward or side-to-side. Now have them play a note. There should be a noticeable difference in resonance from this step alone.

Mouthpiece Setup

Most students and many professional players set the clarinet on their lower lip and close down with their top jaw. What this does is set up both a downward pressure from the top jaw and an upward pressure from the bottom jaw. This constricts the reed and does not allow the reed to vibrate as freely as it could, thereby having a detrimental effect on tone quality.

Remember the old law, “For every force there should be an opposing force of equal pressure.” In the setup described above, there are two exerting forces (one down on the mouthpiece and the other up toward the reed), which are at work constricting the reed. Try the following way of setting up the mouthpiece: Have students open their mouths and place their lower lip over their bottom teeth. Next have students place the mouthpiece against their top teeth. Have students close their mouths by bringing their bottom jaw up toward the reed. Have students play G2. Listen for the improvement.

Overtone Exercises

Playing 12s Without the Register Key. Play any notes from B2 ascending with the register key. While sustaining one of these notes have the student let go of the register key and maintain the 12th.

Starting with D1, have the student try to over-blow the 12th and then sustain it. Do this all the way down to B2. This is tough at first but it will pay off in better intonation and a richer fundamental tone quality in the end.

When doing these exercises, remember to check the head position and the mouthpiece setup. Practicing straight tones and long tones by over-blowing will pay off in a more resonant sound and more consistent intonation.

Bottom Lip. It is important to keep as much bottom lip away from the reed as possible. The sides of the bottom lip usually end up flopping against the sides of the reed. You can see how this affects the speed at which the reed vibrates and the length of the vibrating part of the reed. The amount of reed and the speed at which the reed vibrates both add to the resonance of sound and intonation stability. Let’s see if we can do a few things to maximize the freedom with which the reed can vibrate.

While practicing the exercises discussed under Mouthpiece Setup, try the following:


  • After placing the mouthpiece against the top teeth and positioning the head correctly, place the clarinet bell on the student’s lap and ask the student to play G2. Hold a mirror up to the student so that the student sees the sides of the bottom lip in relation to the sides of the reed. Make sure the student sees the bottom lip lying against the sides of the vibrating reed.
  • Have students place their forefingers on their bottom lip on either side of the reed, and make sure the student does not touch the reed. While playing G2, have the students push their bottom lip down and away from the reed. Listen to how the sound becomes more resonant.


    The object is to train the bottom lip to stay over the bottom teeth on the sides as it does under the reed. These muscles can be trained to keep the sides of the bottom lip away by practicing long tones and straight tones while holding the sides of the bottom lip away from the reed, and by practicing folding the bottom lip over on the sides and keeping it in place without using the instrument.

    It is important when practicing and using side-folding that the bottom jaw does not shift outward. Only the bottom lip should be moving – not the jaw. It’s important for the top jaw not to exert any more pressure than is necessary to resist the upward pressure from the bottom jaw. As explained earlier, forcing down and forcing up will constrict the reed. Many well known players have to use an extremely hard reed to compensate for the upward and downward pressure. This only leads to tension in their playing and generally playing on the high side of the pitch. Practicing correct placement of the mouthpiece and the alignment of the jaw and lips will lead to a fuller, less strained sound while increasing playing longevity.

    Legato Playing

    Finger Closing. Good legato is dependent on closing the keys exactly, using all required fingers simultaneously with the correct amount of pressure. Although we don’t want to hear fingers slapping the keys (heavy fingers), it is also important not to use ultra-light fingers either. This will have a detrimental effect on intonation and can cause squeaking. It is better to think about playing without tension than with ultra-light fingers. Try the following exercises slowly to help improve your legato: Start with C3. Have students take their fingers as far away from the clarinet as possible. Have them slowly bring the left forefinger down to close the B1 tone hole. Make sure they don’t “plop” their fingers down or make their fingers too light, so as to cause a slide. Have them slowly place the forefinger back to the starting position. Now have them go from C3 to A3 and repeat this pattern all the way down to D2. Remind students to avoid making a gliss or slide. Try to gauge the closing action so that it accelerates as they approach the tone hole and make sure their fingers have enough strength in the closing to avoid a slide.

    Finger Lifting. Good legato is also dependent on a good clean finger lift. This has to be in character with the music. Finger weight – both in closing and opening the clarinet keys – must be in character with the music. However a few rules apply when lifting fingers.

    Finger movement must be sufficiently quick to avoid a glissando effect. Listen carefully while having the student play slowly. The quickness of the finger lift should be such that the change between notes is not noticeable. That is, the pitch change should be immediate – not glide from note to note.

    Finger Shape. In my opinion, the best finger shape is with fingers gently and slightly curved. I always have my students keep their little fingers above C2 in the left hand and C#2 in the right hand. This avoids stretching and overextending their fingers. The Perier 331 Journalistic Exercises, pages one and two, are helpful for developing a good hand position. The Rubank Advanced Method finger exercises are a good place to practice developing a good hand position for the intermediate level clarinetist. Slowly going from F1 to C1 and ascending from that as a starting point is a good way for beginning clarinetists to correctly learn good hand position right from the start.

    Suggested Studies

  • Rose 32 Etudes #31, #28, #23.
  • Jean Jean Etudes, Progressives et Melodiques #35, #29, #31.
  • Perier Studies #22, #18, #16.

    The Reed

    Much has been written and discussed about reeds. I truly believe that reeds are blamed for a lot of problems that actually lie elsewhere.

    First Preparation. Instruct students to select three or four reeds from the box. Have them play on the first reed for 10 minutes then rub it with the index finger. Next, they should set the first reed upside down to dry and do the same for the other three reeds. Remind students to rub the reeds before they dry. Have students repeat this process the next time they play these reeds. Adjustments to the reeds should not be made at this time. Repeat the same procedure one more time. The fourth time students play these reeds they can start making adjustments to the reed.

    Each reed is different. Students must find the best position for each reed on the mouthpiece. Playing the reed and moving it to different positions will yield a higher percentage of playable reeds than trying to keep a perfectly centered reed. This also holds true for reeds that are “broken in,” and for the ligature. Have students try the ligature in different positions. It does not necessarily have to be below the etched mark on the mouthpiece. Let students try different ligatures to see what works best for them. They should trust their own ears.

    For the less experienced student, concepts previously presented should be applied to music under study.

    Closing Comments

    Credit must be given to Joseph Allard, of the Julliard School, and Leon Russianoff, the great clarinet teacher, for originating some of the concepts presented. I have tried to expand and clarify these concepts so that they can be readily implemented at all levels in both a private and group setting.

    Stanley Topfer has performed with symphony orchestras and ensembles throughout the United Stated and Canada. He was principal clarinetist of the Gateway Symphony of St. Louis, where he appeared as a soloist many times. He has also performed as a member of the St. Louis Symphony, the New England Music Festival Orchestra, both as principal clarinetist and soloist, and is the recipient of the American Guild of Musical Artists Award. Topfer has studied with Joseph Allard, Stanley Drucker, and Leon Russianoff.

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