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Five Tips to Start Playing Clarinet Better Today

As usual, please check with a doctor before trying any new exercises, this is not meant as medical advice.

 

Relax and breathe

Relaxation sounds like a cliché; a teaching technique to comfort worried students. But relaxation is essential to optimal performance. When we are tense, we take shallower breaths, use more bottom lip pressure, tense the hands, and move without alacrity and ease. We also make terrible musical choices and add needless tension to our lives and art. When we truly relax, the fingers can fly nimbly over the keys; the tongue is able to move easily against the reed; and we have enough air to produce the dark rich sounds that we desire and the phrases that the music deserves.

 

In any masterclass or clarinet lesson, air will be mentioned multiple times. So how do we get more air? Relax.


Photo credit: Photography by Jitka

 

Though clarinetists have been talking for years about air support, it turns out that it is more accurate to think of optimal oxygen and carbon dioxide thresholds in the body. Proper air control on clarinet depends on effective inhaling, taking low and relaxed breaths, and controlled exhalation.

 

Paradoxically, many religious practices and relaxation techniques are predicated on long exhalations and intentional inhalations. Even the chanting of mantras or prayers turns out to have the effect of enhancing exhalation; in fact, many of these practices around the world have the practitioner exhale at a similar rate. Since exhaling is part of the job for wind players, the act of playing and breathing could have positive implications for making us MORE relaxed. Deep and relaxed breathing triggers our vagus nerve to help our body systems work harmoniously and to bring down general anxiety levels. Like eastern and western forms of meditation and religious practice, emphasizing calm exhalations on a wind instrument could potentially lower blood pressure and heart rate. The added resistance of the clarinet can act to greater relax the body, not induce struggle if done right.


Photo credit: Photography by Jitka

 

What can help? A great technique for successful oxygen exchange includes working on deeper and calmer diaphragmatic breathing. Upon exhalation, the player should not become tense or strained in the torso. Wasted energy or negative thoughts make the body panic leading to a feeling of oxygen deprivation. When you feel like you can’t exhale anymore while playing a long tone or extended passage, try mentally and physically relaxing. You will be surprised by how much more residual air you have in your body.

 

You can find some resources on effective breathing and relaxation here:

 

 

 

 

Conditioning

Optimal relaxation and breathing are partners of physical and mental conditioning. This area is often neglected in our pedagogy. If our body is to perform a litany of complex tasks on the clarinet, it is important to first support the mechanisms for such an athletic endeavor. The good news is that there is no shortage of techniques available for conditioning and air support. Start a cardio and/or weights regimen with the permission of your doctor. Almost anything can be an exercise for building strength on the clarinet, with maybe the exception of hang gliding and rock climbing, which may prove too hard on the hands.  Swimming, running, climbing stairs, mountain biking, hiking, walking, rollerblading, climbing mountains, yoga, weight lifting, tai chi, and so on, the list is endless. If these don’t work, enjoy roller skating or fishing, or almost anything, just get out and get the body working!

 

Weight training, stretching, and meditation can have especially important implications. Stretching is of particular importance since we can help thoracic expansion by working the intercostal muscles between the ribs. This allows for greater diaphragmatic efficiency and lung expansion.

 

Training ourselves and also encouraging our students to prioritize their physical health should be of paramount importance to any wind player. That fact that we do such physically demanding tasks without emphasis on self-care is reprehensible. There are conditioning exercises for every musician, even if there are physical limitations.


Photo credit: Photography by Jitka


Top lip power or double lip

I can’t emphasize the importance of the top lip and equal lip pressure enough. By pressing too hard on the bottom lip, we are crushing the vibrations we need to produce a warm, dark, and focused sound on the clarinet.

 

Many of the most famous clarinetists in history have double lipped throughout their careers: Harold Wright, Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, Ralph McClane, Sydney Bechet, among many others. Pure double-lipping might not be for everyone; sometime making players feel less stable, especially when standing. Though I double lip a lot, I always promote a hybrid single and double lip approach. These are not two different embouchures, but actually use the same structure: in one the teeth are on the reed, in the other the lip is pulled over the top teeth and cinched like a drawstring shape around the mouthpiece, creating equal pressure or an “ooo” shape with the mouth. It is advantageous to start with a double lip embouchure and then to switch back to single to encourage the importance of the muscles of the top lip. I do this by starting a long tone with the top lip over the teeth and then on the next note, placing the top teeth back on the mouthpiece. I make sure that I am relying on equal and relaxed pressure with the lip muscles. In this way, we can marry stability and greater richness of tone.

 

If a player wants to avoid all of this double/single lip business, often the same result can be obtained by cinching in the top corners of the mouth, right above the canine teeth. Use this area on the top lip to hold the clarinet stable in the mouth since this won’t stop the reed from vibrating like pressure from the bottom lip would.

 

Reeds

Don’t tolerate warped reeds! Often, we are financially challenged, tired, or too lazy to open a new box of reeds. This is not even mentioning the warm up and adjustment period that good cane reeds require.

 

When we play with warped reeds, we start to bite with our embouchure and drop our tongues to compensate. Often, we will even alter our air quantity and quality on warped reeds to avoid squeaking. It’s often tempting to use poor reeds in practice, but this has deleterious effects on our sound production techniques.

 

Open a new box of reeds and then learn how to break them in and adjust them to stay consistent and un-warped. Also make sure that your mouthpiece and ligature are optimal and that your clarinet is in good repair. You can work with a teacher on reed techniques and also peruse these resources:

 

 

 

 

 

Let the reed vibrate

It’s important to note the physical mechanisms of the reed vibration and what can optimize and/or limit the ideal vibrations. Having a high tongue and fast column of air as it enters the instrument is of paramount importance, as is the amount of air that we can take in through deep diaphragmatic breaths (optimized through proper physical training).

 

We need to keep the reed vibrating, regardless of register or articulation. The three ways to do this is to:


1.     Take more air in and then focus air before it hits the reed by raising the tongue

2.     Minimize bottom lip pressure

3.     Minimize the tongue stroke

 

I have discussed the first two items in previous paragraphs. The third factor that often inhibits optimal sound is using too much tongue while articulating. If the reed is being squashed by bottom lip pressure, and not even vibrating well in the first place because of too little or unfocused air, excessive tongue on an already crushed reed will bring any great vibrations to a standstill.

 

Make sure that you are thinking of a “teee” and not a “deee” sound when articulating and keep it light! Play a game to see how lightly you can articulate and try to even miss the reed a few times. Then build consistency of articulation through combining the methods discussed in this article: better breathing, relaxation, proper reed hygiene, and physical conditioning will help your articulation practice.

 

With all of these techniques, consistency is key, so build them into your daily practice. You will see results quickly and feel better about your playing immediately. With all things clarinet, make sure that you enjoy and keep a positive attitude. Be good to yourselves! Clarinet is one of the most beautiful and versatile instruments in the world. By incorporating these techniques, you can enjoy a rich sound, facile technique and articulation, and happy music making for years to come.


Photo credit: Photography by Jitka

 

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