I mentioned this in both of my February 2005 OMEA clinics because it is an issue for beginning clarinetists and for advancing (or even advanced) clarinetists: many problems are caused by using the concept of "tip of the tongue on the tip of the reed." Without going into detail about all of the problems that I've seen caused by using that concept (clicky articulation, not enough mouthpiece in the mouth--which causes poor tone and intonation, and so on...) I would suggest that you have your students place the tongue down a bit from the tip of the reed. You may want to use the link at the bottom of this page and then link to the handout from my February 4, 2005 clinic on hints for beginners for more embouchure/tongue position detail.
As a high school, undergraduate, and graduate student I had the opportunity to study with some very fine clarinet teachers: Frank Kinnan, David Hite, Kenneth Grant, James Pyne, and Allen Sigel. They had very different concepts of sound and conflicting ideas about equipment (mouthpieces in particular), but the one thing on which I think they would all agree is that many tongue-finger coordination problems can be solved by developing the following two finger technique concepts:
When I studied with David Hite at Capital University from 1976-1978 he had all of his students play this exercise each week at their lesson. I've outlined it below using a G major scale, but any easy-to-negotiate scale (F,G, C) will work just fine. The idea is to start on scale-degree 1 holding the tone for two beats, playing sixteenth notes on the tone for two beats, playing an ascending scale for two beats, holding the arrival note (scale-degree 2) for two beats, and then (VERY IMPORTANTLY) resting for two beats. Then, go back down to scale-degree 2 and execute the same pattern. Then, scale-degree 3, and so forth. The last upward iteration of the pattern would begin on scale-degree 7 (bottom-space F# in this key), which will take you up to scale-degree 1 (DO, for you solfege fans out there). Then, come back down in the same manner. The last iteration of the downward pattern will begin on throat-tone A and descend back down to the G on which the entire exercise began. Mr. Hite was always emphatic about the need to put the two beats of rest, even though it makes for five-bar phrases. He explained that it was essential part of the tongue exercise-relaxation balance and to help ensure proper deep breathing, and I agree.
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.
- Burst tonguing
Another important tonguing exercise for the advancing clarinetist is to practice bursts of quickly articulated notes. I suggest three-note and five-note groups (two 16ths and an 8th note for the three-note group, and four 16ths and a short quarter note for the five-note group). Do this on each scale degree of a two-octave major scale and you not only practice burst tonguing, but you also practice your memorized scales. It's a way of getting your students to review those scales without placing the emphasis on the scale itself.
As your students practice burst tonguing or the more repetitious tonguing of the Hite exercise, make sure that the airstream keeps moving. No individual puffs of air for the individual notes, please!
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!
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.