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Mythbusting: Teaching Single Reeds Successfully

Josh Harris • Archives • October 12, 2012

By Tracy Leenman

Recently, I overheard a band director tell an incoming band student, “You don’t want to play clarinet, there are all those reeds to buy, and you have to deal with ‘crossing the break,’ and it’s really difficult.” I cringed, waiting for the all-too-typical, “And besides, it’s a girl’s instrument.” Fortunately, at least the director stopped short of that. Obviously, though, teaching clarinet is far from his favorite part of teaching band.

Especially among young band directors, or ones whose primary expertise is in brass or percussion instruments, teaching clarinet and saxophone players can be nerve-racking. But as one who has played clarinet since 1964, and sax since 1966; and has taught both instruments privately as well as in school band programs since the 1970s, I would like to offer a different perspective on teaching single reeds, with the hope that some of these (perhaps controversial) suggestions may make your life easier, and your band sound better.

Promote

Ever heard of Eddie Daniels or even Benny Goodman? My dad was a clarinet player, and he was 6’3” and weighed 265 pounds; no one ever called him a “girl.” To help discourage stereotypes, keep posters of male clarinetists like Eddie Daniels, D. Ray McClellan, Julian Bliss, or Stanley Drucker hanging in your band room – and female tuba players like Deanna Swoboda, too! You can get a good number of these (free!) from your local school music dealer. Play some vintage Benny Goodman recordings for your students, or show them the young clarinet prodigy Julian Bliss on YouTube. Have an area (male) clarinetist come and play some impressive licks to get the students excited about the wide variety of genres the clarinet can play. Of course, it’s best to do this not only for clarinet, but for each instrument you offer beginners, especially those instruments that are harder to “sell.”

Mouthpiece Test

Mouthpiece testing should be routine procedure for every beginning band student you teach, and every student should be encouraged to try every instrument available to them as beginners. Too many band directors ask first, “What would you like to play?” or, “Write down your first three choices,” when the child has never tried (sometimes never even seen) all the instruments he might be able to play. Nearly 75 percent of the children we test end up with something different from their original preferences – and are happy and successful on that instrument – because their original preferences are based only on looks, what friends are doing, and what they see on television, while their final choices are based more on reality.

A student who will make a good reed player will be able to keep his chin flat fairly easily and will be able to sustain a high-pitched sound on the mouthpiece for four beats after only a few tries. If a child cannot keep his chin flat or if he reacts negatively to the feeling of the mouthpiece in his mouth or on his top teeth, perhaps a single reed instrument is not the best choice for him.

Saxophones

This may sound strange (or even offensive to our saxophone-playing colleagues), but I do not start beginners on saxophone. When I first started band in 1964, no one started on saxophone; aspiring sax players were required to play clarinet for at least two years first. Not until the mid-1970s, when colleges began to offer “legit” sax majors, did the idea of starting on saxophone become accepted. While I hated this rule at the time, I now see much wisdom in that approach. And many of my sax-playing colleagues wish they had taken the same route, because taking up clarinet or flute, or even soprano sax, later on was far more difficult than if they had played clarinet first. Children who start on clarinet can easily switch to sax (or to flute or oboe or bassoon) later on, and will often be stronger sax players than those who started on sax from day one. Your school music dealer should offer full credit for a swap of a purchase or rental in cases like this, so parents will not incur extra costs.

If you do start students on saxophone, be sure to have the student hold the entire sax, to be sure they can reach around the palm keys and finger 4th-line D (the first note in many method books). Many young sax players get discouraged and quit band because of the size and weight of the instrument, when they could have easily started on clarinet and moved successfully to sax when their hands were a little larger. While some directors start tenor and even baritone saxes, I would recommend starting only altos, as moving from a smaller mouthpiece to a larger is always easier than the reverse (think about a bodybuilder trying to run a marathon or a tuba player trying to play high notes successfully on a trumpet).

Specs

The bore sizes on student clarinets vary widely, from .573” to .590”. Rather than simply recommending to your students certain brand names that are familiar to you, study the specs of their student instruments as well, so you can choose the specific brands and models that will give your students the best tone quality.  The classic symphonic clarinet will usually have a .576”-.577” bore, so student clarinets with bores in that range will more easily produce the classic symphonic tone we desire from our clarinets. A bore of .580” or larger can be hard for a beginner to control. Also, look for a polycylindrical bore, a feature standard on most professional clarinets, but harder to find on student clarinets.

The clarinet is built on twelfths, not octaves like the flute, oboe, or sax. Therefore, hitting the register key raises the note not by an octave, but skips to the second partial, up a twelfth. That second partial is naturally sharp, meaning that the chalumeau (lowest) and clarion (middle) registers are often not in tune with each other. The altissimo (highest) register again skips a partial, and is a sixth above the clarion. A polycylindrical bore is designed to bring the various registers of the instrument in tune.

Three registers of the same fundamental (B?), showing the “skipped” partials:

For saxophones, one of the most important features to look for is full rib construction. This added reinforcement of the posts helps keep the instrument in adjustment and makes it substantially more durable.

Reeds and Mouthpieces

There are as many “setup” (combination of mouthpiece, ligature, and reed) combinations as there are stars in the sky, or as there are #2 reeds on the planet. Ask 100 reed players and you will get 100 different opinions. I have three friends who are fine professional clarinetists, who all play the same model clarinet – but one plays on a B-40 mouthpiece (very large facing), one plays on a 5RV (very small facing), and one on an M15/13 (in-between, but on the smaller side). The mouthpiece must suit the instrument, and the reed must suit the mouthpiece; no one setup is right for every student, or for every instrument (especially when student bore sizes vary so greatly).

Generally, the larger the facing of the mouthpiece, the softer the reed that fits it best; the smaller the facing, the harder the reed that is meant to be used with it. Most student mouthpieces have fairly large facings, as most students begin on fairly soft reeds. While some directors start their students on professional level mouthpieces such as the C* or B-45, I start mine on plastic mouthpieces, largely because of the cost factor. Another reason to do this is because beginners tend to drop mouthpieces. Putting an expensive mouthpiece on a poor-quality student clarinet is akin to putting Pirelli tires on a VW beetle – it still won’t make it a race car. Better to spend the money on a quality student clarinet first. A requirement for a better quality mouthpiece makes a great “reward” for finishing the first year, or for making the local honor band.

I also start my reed players on #2 inexpensive reeds, at least for the first few weeks. No sense paying for better reeds until they master the skill of getting the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature together without shredding the reed. The one accessory I do require from the beginning is a Rovner-style or Bonade-style (“upside down”) ligature… but more on that later.

Starting Reed Players

Our first three pass-offs are:

  1. Assembling the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature correctly.
  2. Playing a whole note on the mouthpiece alone, starting with the tongue and maintaining the correct pitch (high C above the treble clef for clarinet, high A for saxophone), keeping the chin flat and “corners” firm.
  3. Dividing that correctly-played whole note into four quarter notes, played on one breath with only the tongue moving to separate the sound from the whole note into four quarter-notes.

Only when these three skills are learned do they earn the right to assemble the instrument completely (pass-off #4). And their desire to get to play the whole instrument is great motivation for practice on the mouthpiece each night, in the mirror, until these skills are mastered. While this might sound time-consuming, it does prevent a multitude of even-more-time-consuming problems later on, throughout the students’ musical careers.

In recent years, the “soft-cushion” or “drawstring” embouchure has become popular for both clarinet and saxophone; some even teach a “double-lip” embouchure, where both lips are turned in. For heterogeneous band classes, especially for non-reed playing directors, I find the traditional “hard-cushion” embouchure works best. I recommend other embouchures be addressed only in private or small-group settings, as they usually require more consistent, individual follow-up.

If a student cannot play on the mouthpiece alone, on the correct pitch, with quality tone, the rest of the instrument merely serves as a “megaphone” for a poor, off-pitch sound. The student cannot possibly play in tune. The cure for a flat, flabby sound is not a harder reed, but often a softer one – along with the building of stronger embouchure muscles through mouthpiece work (which using a harder reed actually hinders). Just as you would not recommend your beginning trumpet players start on 12C mouthpieces to “help” them reach higher notes, I do not recommend beginners start on anything harder than a #2 reed. Remember that different brands of reed use different standards. For example, a #2 VanDoren is roughly equivalent to a #2½ Rico reed. Some directors start clarinet and sax players on VanDoren #2½ reeds (roughly equivalent to a Rico #3!) because they believe it makes a better sound; but in reality, their embouchure muscles are not yet developed sufficiently to stay firm against the force of breath required to make any sound at all, so the result is counterproductive as far as developing embouchure strength. And while the sound may be acceptable at first, without the muscle development, tone in the upper registers will suffer. Of course, some directors merely move to harder and harder reeds, but this only fixes the “symptoms,” not the root problem.

Especially for the lower clarinets and saxes, a harder reed will hinder good tone production on piano and pianissimo dynamic levels. While some directors recommend #4 and even #5 reeds for high school tenor and bari sax and for bass clarinet players, I recommend a maximum strength of #3 or #3½ (only for very good players). Low sounds are made up of long, slow vibrations, and a hard reed cannot possibly produce long, slow sound waves. The beautiful undertones characteristic to those instruments’ sounds are lost.

Mouthpiece facing charts are available on line; some mouthpieces such as VanDoren state right on the box the recommended reed strength that is best suited for that particular facing. Using a reed harder than recommended for that facing is as nonsensical as putting a trumpet mouthpiece on a trombone – it just doesn’t work well. For those students who think using a harder reed automatically means they are a better player, I tell them that Michael Jordan did not use a trampoline to learn to slam dunk; he built up his leg muscles by hard work. Jordan would consider a shortcut an insult. Students get it.

The “Break”

If the mouthpiece work is done, and the foundation for a correct embouchure is laid, going from the chalumeau (lowest E to “thumb F”) to the clarion register (same fingerings, but with register key) is as simple as rocking the thumb forward and opening the register key. Nothing else changes. And to take this a step further, going from the clarion to the altissimo register is as easy as lifting the left hand first finger (and adding the right pinky on the E? key). I do move my clarinet beginners to a #2½ reed when they start using the register key, and #3 when they begin the altissimo register; but at that point, this improves their tone without shortcutting their muscle development.

Going up the scale through the throat tones “over the break” is facilitated by putting the right hand down as soon as the student passes above “thumb f.” While I don’t teach students to use their right hands every time they play “open g,” I do teach them to use it on all ascending passages that go over the break. This not only stabilizes the instrument and prevents a break in the air flow, but it also keeps the student from having to place six to nine fingers down correctly, simultaneously. From day one, we mark in our music where the right hand must go down – or where it should stay down when playing back and forth across the break.

An exercise that will help your clarinet students learn proper finger placement is descending the F scale, from “thumb F” down the octave and back up. We start this the very day the students first put their instruments together. Making proper finger placement a habit will also make crossing the break easier when the time comes. Unlike a piano, we do not use the tips of the fingers to cover the holes, but the “pads,” the puffy parts of the finger. A rounded hand (a “C” shape) with the wrists level and proper placement of the right thumb will help keep hands relaxed and fingers flexible. If the right thumb is placed properly under the thumb rest, a cushion is rarely necessary; most often, when students have discomfort in the thumb or wrist, poor hand position is the cause, not the “weight” of the instrument.

Other Tips

  • Emphasize fundamentals. Check your students’ setup every day until you see they can set up correctly, 100 percent of the time. When I do clinics for high school or even college students, I still find many who have never understood proper placement of the reed and ligature. I recommend a hair of the black of the mouthpiece show at the tip of the reed; certainly the reed should never be higher than the tip of the mouthpiece. And I recommend the ligature sit approximately ¼” below the top of the slanted part of the mouthpiece. This alone will correct many tone problems students may be experiencing. And of course, check for unplayable reeds – and insist they are replaced immediately.
  • Another minor correction that can make a huge difference is strap height for saxophones (or bass clarinets). Allowing the reed to vibrate freely, as it must do for low notes, is impossible if the sax is resting on the lower lip, instead of against the upper teeth. A student sitting (or standing) “straight up like a Marine” should have the strap set so the instrument comes right to his mouth, without raising or lowering the head, without slouching. This, too, is something I have to address in nearly every clinic I do. I use a strap rather than a peg for bass clarinets, to encourage this better “like a Marine” posture.
  • Insist students come to class prepared. If you want your class to be considered an academic subject, you must treat it like one. Students who do not have their five extra reeds, pencil. and textbook (method book) every day should be penalized just as they are in math class when they forget their math book. We began each day in beginning band with “hold up your pencil” … “hold up your extra reeds” … and so on, until compliance with this requirement becomes basically 100 percent, for all instruments (and intermittently throughout the year thereafter).
  • Insist on proper fingerings. An incorrectly fingered note should be considered a wrong note. Just as syntax determines whether we say “is” or “were,” context determines which fingerings are correct. Alternating pinkies on clarinet, b/c side key, the various Bb fingerings on saxophone, and chromatic F/F# for both clarinets and saxes are just a few examples:
  • We mark any alternate fingerings with an asterisk (*) so that students don’t play them wrong over and over. The new Technique Tabs are a great help in teaching young clarinetists which pinky keys are which; we mark R and L on passages where alternating pinkies are required:
  • Never pass off a scale or exercise that sounds correct, but includes incorrect fingerings. Bad habits learned are much harder to break than good habits are to learn. And as music increases in difficulty, facility with alternate fingerings is more and more necessary for a smooth performance.
  • Teach Instrument-Specific Warm Ups. Too many band students equate “warm ups” with scales. Each student should have warm ups specific to his instrument to work on before you get on the podium and begin rehearsal. This also prevents “noodling”. Some examples might include octaves for the flutists, chromatic work for the single reeds, lip slurs for the brass players.
  • Stepping up. When moving from a plastic to a wooden clarinet for the first time, back off ½-strength on the reed. Otherwise, the wood clarinet may feel “stuffy” to the student – and few parents will want to spend money on a better quality instrument if the student does not like the way it feels when he first plays it. After a few minutes, the student can usually return to his normal reed strength, after he learns to vibrate the wood with a fuller air stream.

While there are many different approaches to teaching single reeds, the bottom line is that teaching clarinet and sax players successfully is not as complicated as it may seem. With proper fundamentals, your single reed players can be strong contributors to your band.

Tracy E. Leenman currently teaches and performs actively on bassoon, clarinet, saxophone and flute. Currently the owner of Musical Innovations, a school music dealer in Greenville, SC, she is internationally recognized as an author, clinician and educator. She has served on the executive boards of SCMEA and NASMD, and is a member of the Support Music.com Coalition. In 2006, she was named the winner of Phi Beta Mu (Theta Chapter) Outstanding Contributor Award; in 2009, she was given the KEYS Program National Music Advocacy Award and the SCMEA Friend of Music Business Award. 

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