The clarinet has one of the most resonant and pure sounds in the orchestra. With a few easy steps, any student can create a darker and richer tone on the instrument.
Proper equipment is essential to good sound production. Having a non-warped reed and air-tight keywork is the first step. Try materials such as cork pads on the top joint that seal the clarinet even in different humidity and temperature conditions. It is absolutely essential that the reeds are not warped in any way. Figure out a proper humidity system for wherever you live (i.e. Houston might be different from Denver) to keep your system stable. Work with an experienced teacher on reed adjustment techniques. I personally do a lot of work with a reed knife and a specific break-in routine that will be discussed in a later post.
Aside from equipment, there are four main ways to instantly get a bigger, richer sound on the clarinet:
1. More air
2. Higher tongue
3. More reed
4. Flat chin/less biting
Though this is oversimplifying so much of what we do on clarinet, these four techniques, when done correctly and on the right equipment, can help produce a better sound on the instrument.
Better air support is an obvious first step in getting a bigger tone. From long tones to breathing exercises, there are a plethora of methods to excel in this area. There is no doubt that full expansion of the lungs in a relaxed but powerful manner is the driving force behind all clarinet fundamentals, from articulation to legato and from tone production to intonation.
Equally important as the quantity of air that you are taking into your body is the quality of air that you are releasing into the instrument. This is where high tongue position comes into play. By raising the tongue in the back of the mouth with a “hee” sound , cat hiss, or a cold whistle shape, the air becomes focused into a direct stream that produces a resonant and controlled sound. Think of it like a lazy river that suddenly goes through a canyon. The same volume of water is channeled into a smaller space which results in a more turbulent flow. This is the same effect as a high tongue position on the clarinet. By sending the same air through a smaller space we get the good turbulent wind that we need for proper tone production.
More reed is sometimes overlooked in clarinet pedagogy. Because not squeaking is the number one imperative of any young clarinetist (and let’s face it for all of us), they start to take less mouthpiece and apply more pressure with the bottom lip. It makes sense because it’s easier to control smaller amounts of reed, but this has the converse negative effect of also restricting the vibrations that produce deep, rich, and complex sounds. We want the many beautiful overtones of that reed. A good simple rule is to slide a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed to find the fulcrum where the reed separates from the mouthpiece and to mark this spot with a pencil. While keeping the angle of the mouthpiece pretty close to the chin, slide the clarinet into the embouchure up to the mark. Experiment with how much reed you can control and produce optimal overtones. This can definitely result in squeaks, so don’t attempt this for the first time in a rehearsal or concert situation! Learning to focus the sound through a strong upper lip and a higher shaped tongue position instead of too much bottom lip pressure is key to producing a big resonant sound.
This also ties in with the fourth principle which is flat chin and less biting. It’s natural to bite on the clarinet. Our jaws are much stronger than the muscles of the top lip. But it is important to focus on equal pressure of the lip muscles in order to support more reed. A good simple fix to strengthen those important upper lip muscles is to practice with a double lip embouchure.
The general premise is that through refining the quantity and quality of the air stream, increasing the area of the vibrating surface, and improving the shape of the embouchure, tone production will generally improve. This is definitely over simplifying a lot of the issues pertaining to tone production and resonance. But undoubtedly these principles can lead to much better overtones and a richer, deeper sound on the clarinet.