Friday, February 2, 2007

Rebecca's (Relatively) Quick Guide to the Clarinet

Dr. d'Alessio (Relatively) Quick Guide to the Clarinet
I. Embouchure Goal: Warm, rich and focused sound that is controlled yet flexible. Various articulations and dynamics are performed with ease in all registers of the clarinet.

1. Chin is pointed as if blowing through a soda bottle (wee-too).

2. Lower lip over lower teeth. Feel the teeth about half way between the fleshy part of the lower lip. Pressure from the bottom is necessary and good.

3. Upper teeth rest gently on mouthpiece about ½ inch from tip. Many players do not take in enough mouthpiece, resulting in a small and stuffy sound. Do not apply pressure from the top, this is the “biting” feeling that results in squeaks.

4. Keep head up with the clarinet at a 30-40 degree angle from body.

5. Upper lip stays firm. Cheeks will not puff out if the corners are firm. Excess tension, however, may result in air escaping from corners.

6. Do not let a loose embouchure allow the mouthpiece to move around (more pressure from bottom).

7. To check correct pressure from bottom and tongue position (“ee”), the mouthpiece and barrel when played by themselves should produce a concert F# - check yours with a piano.

II. Air The goals listed above in the category of embouchure are only attainable with proper use of air.

1. Laser beam air helps to focus the sound so that a player may project.

2. Soft sounds require less air, but maintain the intensity (think “cold” air) .

3. Playing the clarinet require a lot of air, so do not be afraid to blow!

4. Musical expression is largely determined by the ebb and flow of the air stream. Determine your goal point and aim for it with your air. When it has been reached, your air also determines the rate of tension release.

III. Oral Cavity A warm, rich sound and flexibility in terms of pitch and timbre relies on the shape of the throat.

1. An open and relaxed throat is imperative to a pleasing sound.

2. Movement of the back of the tongue and changes in the shape of the throat cavity create flexibility. This includes the ability to play glissandos and the control to play in tune in a variety of situations.

IV. Phrasing and Expression We master the technical aspects of the clarinet so that we can communicate more deeply with our audience. Never lose sight of this as the underlying
motivation for study.

1. Pay attention to large-scale structure such as recurring themes and repeated rhythmic elements.

2. Find the heights of phrases and become aware of the various levels of tension and release.

3. Notice how the different parts interact with each other and play off one another.

V. Articulation The tongue is a muscle that must be exercised regularly in all registers.

1. The tip of the tongue touches the tip of the reed in order to stop the reed from vibrating. It will feel like the underside of your tongue. If the tongue is too low, a “thh” sound will occur at the start of each note.

2. Tongue pressure should be no more that what is necessary to stop vibration.

3. Back of tongue should remain in “ee” position.

4. Rule against moveable embouchure still applies while tonguing!

5. With just mouthpiece and barrel, make sure that the pitch remains stable while articulating. Excess tongue motion is visible and it results in pitch variations.

6. Air pressure remains constant during rapid tonguing.

VI. Hand Position Positions and movement should feel natural and free of tension. Keep
fingers relaxed and curved without squeezing or collapsing the fingers. Economy of motion – not too much.

1. Use the pads of the fingers, not the tips.

2. Movement should not stray far from “home position.”

a. RH thumb – thumb rest in between nail and knuckle.

b. LH thumb in 2:00pm position with the tip just barely accessible to register key.

c. LH index finger should roll to play throat A.

d. Do not slide pinkies—plan so that you can alternate.

e. The keys are there for a reason – make sure you use all of them!

VII.Reed Placement and Reeds

1. The tip of the reed should line up with the tip of the mouthpiece (when pushed you should see a hairline of black).

2. Center the reed at the top and at the bottom.

3. Choose the correct reed strength.
a. A too thick reed sounds airy and is difficult to blow
b. A too thin reed sounds buzzy and high notes are flat or difficult to produce.
c. Harder does not mean better – flexibility is very important.

4. Brand recommendations
a. Van Doren reeds are the most widely used. The V12 reeds are slightly more expensive but worth the extra money. Rue Lepac (even more expensive) reeds have more projection power but the sound is less warm and rich, in general.
b. Go ahead and experiment with Grand Concert and other brands.

5. Break in new reeds by not playing on them for more than 5 minutes before allowing them to dry all the way through. Rotate at least 4 reeds at a time.

VIII. Tuning Flexibility is key. Develop your ear so that you can simply manipulate your throat to play in tune.

1. Tune open G by adjusting between the barrel and upper finger joint. C’s should be tuned between the upper and lower joints. Splitting the difference between both places often works well.

2. Venting and dampening should be used regularly to assist not only in intonation matters but also with resonance. Note your instrument’s tendencies over a period of days to deal with this matter.

IX. Technique Muscle memory is much more capable in terms of technique than brain
memory. Drill patterns (scales, arpeggios, thirds, etc.) evenly so that you can free your mind to concentrate on expression and communication.

1. Practice slowly. Be patient with yourself. Identify the passages that need work, set your metronome at a comfortable speed and gradually increase.

2. Learn the alternate fingerings.

X. High Note Production
Three key factors: open throat, “ee” tongue position, pressure from bottom.

1. Lower lip on reed to help produce high notes in the beginning stages.

2. Do not bite or pinch. Pressure from the bottom is good; from the top is not.

3. Less tongue motion and contact for articulation.


1. Keep hands and mouth clean.

2. Clean instruments (except mouthpiece) with swab after playing.

3. Assemble and take apart instrument carefully as to not bend keys or disturb pads.

4. Grease corks when needed.

5. Mouthpiece
a. This can change your sound dramatically for relatively little money.
b. Pay attention to intonation and articulation when choosing a mouthpiece.
c. Pyne polychrystal mouthpieces are excellent for the price ($40) VanDoren B45, M13 and others are good intermediate level mouthpieces ($60-80) Pyne Bn/Pk/Jx are excellent professional models ($250)
d. Clean your mouthpiece when needed (every few months) by soaking it for 20 minutes in lemon juice then carefully clean with cotton swabs.

6. Clarinet
a. Do not buy used unless it is in excellent condition and clearly a great deal.
Clarinets do not improve with age because they become more and more difficult to play in tune.
b.The professional models use better wood and finer craftsmanship with the mechanism. I generally recommend not purchasing an intermediate model.
c.Buffet R-13 is the most popular brand and the brand most often lauded by repair people. It is also pretty reasonable priced. Check Woodwind and Brasswind for their prices and compare with local dealers as well as with International Music Suppliers. It is good to try at least three at a time. In addition to checking for sound and feel, check the 12ths for tuning (smaller spreads are better). The R-13 Greenline is environmentally friendly because it uses leftover woodchips, sounds the same as the other lines, resists cracking, and has a longer life because the intonation changes occur more gradually. It also costs the same. Silver keys do not deteriorate as quickly, so I recommend them with the Greenline and with an A clarinet because they are more likely to last a lifetime. Also check out Selmer Signature clarinets, and LeBlanc professional models (usually more expensive than Buffet).

XII.Warm-up Establish a warm-up and practice routine that consists of:

1. Long tones (also practice “shape tones” which use air as you would in a phrase).

2. Tonguing (Langenus p22 is terrific).

3. Scales – all major and minor scales over entire range of instrument. Gradually
add arpeggios, thirds and other patterns in all keys. Memorize.

4. Etudes

5. Solo LiteratureChamber Literature


Diego said...

nice tips, they really help.

stackedsax said...

Quick?!! I coulda learned how to play in the time it took me to read all of that.

Nice job, though...


John said...

Well she DID say "relatively". In any case, very nice guide.

Aaron said...

Thanx for the help- I really appreciate it.

University said...

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John said...

I was reading over your guide again for memory, and I happened to notice something. Correct me if I'm wrong, because I could just be misunderstanding. In the "Hand Position" section, letter C. says to roll your RH index finger for A. Shouldn't it be left hand?

Rebecca said...

Thanks, John - I fixed it!

John said...

No problem :). Your guide is very good, and I love to help if at all possible.

Ken said...

I really like what you have to say about the entire process. Please feel free to check out my blog at or my main site at It's always nice to network with other musicians. Keep this blog going!!!!

Roger said...

Thank you for the tips. Any tips for an adult beginner?

I fly for a living, and like the portability of the clarinet. (might need a serious mute for the hotels). :)