Hitting the Big Time: Tips for Advancing Clarinetists

(OMEA Professional Conference, February 5, 2005)

James E. Perone, Professor of Music, University of Mount Union


When practicing this articulation study, it is important to remember that many tongue-finger coordination problems are caused by trying to finger the notes as they sound. Always lead with the fingers. Practice the exercise slowly if you need to, fingering the scale tones in the brief silences between the notes in order to get the feel of leading with the fingers.





Dealing with the many aspects of the complex subject of the clarinet embouchure (in addition to several other topics) in a one-hour clinic did not seem to make a great deal of sense to me. What we did do in the clinic was to focus on the amount of mouthpiece in the mouth. I did this for two reasons: (1) having the incorrect amount of mouthpiece in one's mouthpiece can cause serious pitch, blend, and timbre problems, and (2) [here's the real kicker!] it is one of the more common problems I see when I do clinics at high schools and it's one of the easiest things to fix.

My advanced conducting teacher at Capital University was Dr. Donald McGinnis. I was fortunate that Dr. McGinnis had just retired from The Ohio State University and took a one-year interim position at Capital, because he was an excellent teacher and had so many insights on woodwind playing (Dr. McGinnis is the only person I've ever met who held both the principal flute and the principal clarinet positions in the same orchestra, of course, not at the same time...). At one of his OMEA clinics in the 1990s I saw Dr. McGinnis address the issue of amount of the mouthpiece in the mouth in a way that I've found works well for my students. He placed a piece of paper between the reed and mouthpiece moving it down until there was some tug. This marks the point at which the curve of the mouthpiece ends, and this is the point where the lip should be.

It has been my experience that many tuning, blend, and timbre problems that high school clarinet players have result from not having enough mouthpiece in the mouth. I rarely see or hear players who put too much mouthpiece in their mouths at this level of experience. Do your high school clarinetists have an pinched tone in the upper register, possibly getting flat as they go up to high C? This is the first thing I check. There can be other causes--soft reeds, for example--but we didn't address them at the clinic.



At the clinic I did a strictly informal, non-scientific survey to see how many of the non-clarinetists in the room did anything with their students related to this. The results suggested that it is an area that frequently is neglected. This is probably due to the fact that non-clarinetists think that it is too complex. Really, it isn't...

Voicing really has to do with the vowel shape, inner mouth and throat shape, position of the back of the tongue--however you'd like to describe this... And, contrary to many people's pre-conceived notions, is not that hard to address--if you have a trick or two.

I have to tell you that my first experience with Kenneth Grant as my clarinet teacher for my junior and senior years at Capital University was one of the most memorable events of my life. I arrived in his second-floor studio in Mees Hall, which was not air conditioned in 1978. We sat down, Mr. Grant looked at my clarinet, asked to see the horn, said "What's this ligature," pulled the ligature off (the brand shall remain nameless) and threw it out the window. He then ran downstairs, retrieved the clear plastic ligature, and brought it back up to me. Ken's teaching was filled with vivid images like that one.

OK, I'll get to the point... One of Mr. Grant's tricks for working on voicing was to finger a low E, close off almost all of the bell (crossing my legs and putting the bell against my calf works for me), and then play bugle calls. Without getting into the acoustical reasons this happens, suffice it to say that doing this trick causes the clarinet to utilize the entire overtone series instead of playing just the odd-numbered harmonics. I have my students play "Taps" to start: it's easy to remember, slow, and fairly short. The only way one can produce the different notes is by changing the shape of the inside of the mouth. We then transfer this to playing "real" notes. I've found immediate improvement in things like squeeking on high E and on reducing undertones. It's a lot of fun, too!


Other Topics (starting on high notes, dry reeds, etc.)

One of the attendees mentioned that his high school clarinet players were having trouble with quiet entrances on high notes in Savannah River Holiday. Voicing, air support, and having the correct lip-against-the-reed fulcrum point would be the first things I'd check. One effective check I routinely use with students is to have them start high notes without the tongue just to get the right amount of air support and voicing. Oh, the other suggestion is to try an "ooo" voicing instead of an "ah" or an "eee."

I didn't have enough time to address this, but it was on my list of possible other topics: dry reeds in the winter. This has been a regular source of frustration to me and my students at Mount Union College this winter. I've given out several 35mm film canisters to students so that they have something to hold tap water for soaking reeds before rehearsals and practice sessions. Find some faculty colleagues who are 35mm photographers to help you outfit your clarinet section with these. Just remember to remind the clarinet players not to store water in the containers. We don't want to encourage any nasty organisms growing in there!


Link to Dr. Perone's home page. You will find a mail-to link there if you'd like to e-mail questions or comments. You will also find a link to notes from my 2001 OMEA clinic on clarinet tone and from my February 4, 2005 clinic on tips for beginners.