Clarinet Playing: Improving

Ways to improve your clarinet playing: fingering, embouchure, articulation, and more.

The clarinet is an easy instrument to learn to play. However, it is not an easy instrument to become good at (it's not EASY to be good at any instrument). If you have taught yourself to play, or have only had group lessons, you may find that you're not improving as quickly as you would like to. However, you can improve as soon as you know what to look for.

Embouchure: Sit in front of a mirror and put your clarinet in your mouth with your embouchure set. What does it look like? Is your chin bunched up (if so, pull it down)? Do you see a lot of red around your lips (if so, tuck your lips in a bit more, until you only see a small amount of red)? Do your lips feel like they're tight because they're in your mouth so far (if so, use less lip, especially over your lower teeth -- the lip should be a small cushion for your reed, but you don't need a ton)? Is your embouchure "spreading" at the sides, or are you pulling your lips back kind of in a smile position (if so, think about pulling your embouchure more towards the center. Think of your mouth as a drawstring that needs to pull tight around the reed, with even pressure all around)?

Things to keep in mind: Your mouth shouldn't be entirely round, but you must have even pressure all around the reed. Don't put too much pressure on the bottom of the reed, or you'll be more likely to squeak (this is called biting). Make sure you have enough upper lip pressure, or there will be certain notes you'll have difficulty controlling (A in the clarion register, and any altissimo notes). Constantly practice in front of a mirror so you can check your embouchure (until it's very steady). Don't practice for longer than your embouchure can stand (tired muscles means your embouchure will flatten out and do all sorts of weird things. You may only be able to practice for ten minutes at a time until you build up some endurance. Don't practice too long or you'll get into bad embouchure habits).

Articulation: Sit down, set your embouchure and your breath, and articulate quarter notes on an open G. Where is your tongue hitting the reed? What part of the reed is it hitting? How hard are you hitting the reed? Does your articulation sound clear?

You should use the part of your tongue that is just back from the tip (don't use the very tip). You should be lightly touching the reed just below the tip of it (don't use your tongue as a valve to cut off the air; use it to stop the vibrations of the reed). Your tongue should strike the reed very lightly. If you hear a "tha" sound when you articulate, you're using too much tongue. Think more "ta." Keep your embouchure and your jaw completely steady as you articulate. Watch yourself in the mirror if you're not sure if you're moving.

Breath control: This takes awhile to build up. Take a deep breath and see where the air goes. Does your stomach come out (good)? Do your shoulders lift (bad)? Take deep breaths from down in your stomach, then "pressurize" the air by tightening your muscles. Without your clarinet, blow as if you were blowing through a straw. This is the sort of pressure you need to properly play the clarinet.

Pick up your clarinet, take a (correct) deep breath, and play an open G (forte). Feel your muscles tighten, and your stomach come in as you run out of air. If your stomach muscles and even lower back get sore after awhile, you're doing it right. You need this exact same support to play "piano" as do to play "forte."

To build breath control, play long tones. Choose a scale and play each note for four slow counts. Go as long as you can without a breath. Expect to last only one or two notes at first, but get it up to four or five.

Hand position: Make sure your hands are slightly curved and are kept close to the instrument. Don't lean your palms against the side of the instrument (you'll hit other keys). Don't rest fingers on the hand you're not using against the side of the instrument. When playing, keep your hands as close to the instrument as possible, and make small gestures. Your hands should never be far away from your instrument. Pay careful attention to this especially when you're going over the break. Watch your pinkies (especially the left one) to see that they aren't sticking up in the air.

Tone: Breath support and embouchure will help improve your tone dramatically. Always be listening to hear your improvements. Be aware that a poor instrument or, especially, a poor mouthpiece can affect your tone adversely. If you suspect this is a problem, choose a good mouthpiece. Ask local clarinetists or music shops for suggestions (Vandorens are standard).

Intonation: Play with a tuner some of the time. Check your instrument's tuning before playing. Play your open G (if it's flat, push in at the barrel. If it's sharp, pull out at the barrel). Play your C over the break (if it's flat, push in the middle. If it's sharp, pull out at the middle).

Know that when you play forte, the pitch will tend to be flatter. When you play piano, the pitch will tend to be sharper. Some notes are naturally sharp or flat. The throat tones (G, G#, A, A#) are very hard to control. Use a tuner to check the clarinet's, and your, pitch tendencies.

Listening: Buy or borrow recordings of famous clarinet players and listen to them. What kind of tone do you hear? What kind of articulation? The more you listen, the more you know what you can improve (but don't let their skill discourage you; few clarinetists are ever that good).

If you practice in a focused manner (at least some of the time), you will find it is possible to improve rapidly on the clarinet. If there is ever anything you're unsure of, contact a local clarinetist.

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