For a few years now I have had the wonderful opportunity to guide students through their development as clarinetists. I have worked with students from 6 to mid 60s, and the issues that arise are almost always the same.
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The clarinet is a wind instrument. It requires an optimum volume of air with an optimum level of velocity to vibrate the reed, the mouthpiece, the rest of the instrument, and the players themselves. If the player does not feel like they are an extension of their instrument, or conversely if they are feeling uncomfortable with their instrument, this should be addressed. The instrument should be sealing, the reed must be strong enough to support the incoming air, and the air should be plenty, for the whole system to work properly, from the lowest register to the highest range of the clarinet. One must not just fill their close proximity with their sound but the entire room or space they are in with good, resonant sound, not with a simply loud sound.
Rhythm should be present in not just in the brain of the student who is counting 1-2-3-4 silently, but also in the way of their inhaling and exhaling, and in their finger movements. For instance, if you come in on beat 1, you should breathe on beat 4 and breathe in until you immediately turn the air around for your entrance on beat 1.
I am a bit torn on the teaching of “legato fingers,” because especially to younger students I think it can actually do more harm than good. The idea of legato fingers is to not to pop your fingers down on the tone holes and the keys to avoid creating percussive sounds and thereby ruining long lyrical phrases. Yes, of course one should not slap the fingers down, but the fingers have to be in the rhythmic context of the music being played. I emphasize the two motions: lift & squeeze. Your fingers are always either lifting or coming down. If one gets caught in the middle of those actions the hands can often get “tangled” or confused, and the student may make mistakes. Being conscious of lift/ down has been very helpful for many of my students.
The problem of legato fingers is that while the intentions are good and the ideology is especially effective for advanced students, it can create tension. “Don’t slap your fingers,” “Don’t bite,” “Don’t squeak,”…etc. these “Don’ts” I find can create tension and set students up for failure. If you are a teacher and you do this, may I recommend using the alternatives “Feel the notes with your fingers,” “There must be rhythm in your fingers,” “Blow more air,” “Use a new reed.”
Tension can come from various things. It can come from the person not having strong enough back/ arms to support their instrument and compensating with smaller muscles in their hands. This can develop into tendonitis and carpal tunnel. I would say before you try Alexander Technique and other body mapping techniques, if you are going to invest a lot of time into learning and practicing your instrument, make sure body is in shape. Start with 20 push ups a day. If you are already injured, I strongly recommend taking the time off the instrument for about two weeks or more to fully recover before doing push ups and eventually getting back on the instrument.
Tension can also come from having too hard a of a reed (usually results in one or both shoulders going up during playing and cramping), the instrument not sealing somewhere, or having too soft of a reed.
The truth is that there must be some kind of resistance somewhere in the set up, for the musician to feel comfortable to engage their large quantity of air properly. For instance if the reed is too soft, the musician will subconsciously feel the low headroom and try to compensate or create some kind of resistance by biting too much (results in squeaking or choking especially higher ranges of the clarinet) in order to be able to blow air. Every student has their ideal reed strength, but usually from middle school and on, 2.5 is too soft. I would recommend 3- 3.5 in middle school. And 3.5-4 in high school. Of course exceptions exist.
If the reed is too soft, especially in the high ranges of the clarinet is starts getting very flat and eventually the reed closes up, producing no sound at all. Or it will produce squeaks or “chirp.” If the reed is too hard, the pitch tendency is to be higher. So it is the clarinetists’ duty and responsibility to play on a good reed that works for each individual so they can blend and tune better in ensemble. Also I find often also that if the reed is too soft, students play with little air to avoid producing bad, spread, sound, in doing so, their intonation is not stable, and also others around cannot hear them well enough to even try and tune and blend.
The typical Bundy, Vito, and Yamaha brands usually seen in public schools are generally fine. I have seen many no name and “brand name” Chinese models that are unbelievably affordable and made of unbelievably bad material. These might be tempting when you come encounter them on eBay. While they may be fine in the beginning, if the student practices regularly (and often times even if they don’t) the instrument will go out of adjustment and start breaking usually within three weeks. Then your options are either bringing it to a repair technician, ignoring the problem and trucking through, or getting a new instrument. None of these are ideal (repair technicians dread working on bad instruments). My advice is to get a proper instrument from the beginning. I have written a blog about beginning/ intermediate instruments, so check it out:
Voicing/ Air (reprise)
If you have a good, functioning instrument, good reed-mouthpiece-ligature set up, and a healthy body, and yet you are struggling still to produce good sound especially in the higher territories of the clarinet, investigate your voicing. Voicing is basically the aperture of your tongue and your throat through which the air comes out from your body. The air can be slow (say “haw-” without vibrating your voice box as if you are trying to create condensation on your glasses to clean them). The air can be also fast (hiss “hee-” as if you are a cat). Another way of thinking about it is picturing a garden hose, the water is on, the water is coming out of the end of the hose, chug chug chug.. then you pinch the area near the end of the hose to make the water spray much stronger and shoot much farther.
The type of air you want to use vary in various degrees on the style of music one is playing, the sound they are going for, the type of set up one is using. However, generally speaking, especially when first learning the clarinet, one must aim for high velocity in the air (highly pressurized, cold air), which is produced by the smaller aperture of the arch/ back of the tongue and the throat. In order to this, the back of the tongue must be high. The saxophone is different in this aspect, maybe I will cover that in a future blog.
The most important steps in learning how to voice are listening to great players, having clear concepts/ goals in desired sound, and constantly adjusting by listening and experimenting privately and in the context of ensemble. And of course, you need a good teacher to help you in your journey.
Mastering a craft is a lifelong process and the clarinet is no exception. One must be very patient and curious. However it is extremely important to remember all of this labour of love is to create music. One must be very much interested in music in order to be a successful musician/ clarinetist, for the long haul, anyway. That is not to say playing the clarinet is not a pleasurable activity, but to simply say after all of our experimenting and education, our playing should serve the music in convincing ways. As a former student who struggled with the types of teaching methods of “Because I said so,” but benefitted from “This why and this is how you do this,” I strongly believe in teaching methods that not only yield results but can be taught to students in completely purposeful, convincing, and memorable ways.
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