Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Simple techniques to streamline your teaching and practicing.
Music should be magical and inspirational, enabling humans to strive for higher goals and allowing us to express things that we can’t say in words alone. But sometimes to achieve these beautiful and virtuous moments, our practice and lessons need to be simply…organized. By refining the fundamental aspects of our playing first, we can then truly sing and express what is in our souls.
One technique to take care of the essential basics of playing the clarinet is known as the Five Fundamentals. This simplified approach allows the student or professional to hone in on clarinet basics every day in addition to studies in expression, historical style, critical listening, ensemble playing, equipment adjustment, and the countless other considerations that come with playing a musical instrument.
Are there many more fundamentals than just these five? You bet. This list should merely serve as a guide for structure but not exclude other important steps towards mastery of the clarinet. This will also help not just the individual in their practice session, but any teacher who finds themselves in a clinic or masterclass setting and needs to organize and execute effective teaching practices.
For this purpose, the Five Fundamentals are Air, Embouchure, Tongue position, Hand position, and Articulation. A great mnemonic device for these basics is to use the Acronym AETHA or the sentence “Always Employ This Helpful Acronym.” It’s as easy as that. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to any of these fundamentals but rather a Cliffs Notes version of clarinet practice and teaching.
Air is the reigning monarch of the wind instrument world. You will rarely attend a masterclass or lesson without this being a major focal point. Strive to make your air support the best it can be every time you pick up the clarinet and rob teachers of the ability to pick this low hanging fruit of lessons!
Several proven techniques for better air support are posture and daily long tones to build lung capacity. There is no substitute for long tones! But just by employing a few mental techniques, you can see instant results in air support. One easy method to better inhalation is pretending to take enough air to blow out all the candles on a birthday cake. As a teacher, I find that this not only helps air support but also induces relaxation and happiness in students, getting us all back to the fact that playing these instruments is fun and supposed to encourage feelings of well-being, not stress. Also imagine taking a breath to swim across a full swimming pool underwater. My students also know that I’m a big fan of a deep “Darth Vader” breath over a shallow “Minnie Mouse” inhalation. The lower and more relaxed the inhalation, the more effective the breathing. There is also great value in the breathing techniques of endurance athletes and free divers but I will delve into that more in future articles.
A quick tip on breath support and teaching is to make sure that students have their shoulders back and down. Sometimes students will make such an effort to take in more air that they will move the skeletal system into positions that actually block the flow of oxygen into and out of the lungs. It is imperative to keep a neutral and relaxed skeletal position for maximum air support and to prevent injuries.
Clarinet is a fairly symmetrical instrument for our bodies, which means that we should also have a balanced and relaxed structure in our faces when we play. The chin should be pointed with the corners of the mouth and top lip pointed down. The function of the embouchure is to provide a structured environment for the reed to vibrate without biting. In order to achieve this we need equal pressure from the lips without letting our strong jaws and bottom lip exert excess pressure.
A very simple technique for building good embouchure is to simply have the student whistle and then to have them remove the tone of the whistle. This “O” shape with this mouth and “E” with the tongue will create a relaxed yet firm embouchure.
The conversation about embouchure segues nicely into discussion about tongue position in a lesson. For proper resonance on clarinet, the tongue must be high and arched in the mouth to focus the air before it enters the mouthpiece. Again, the whistle is a good way to generally set up proper voicing. Because it’s often hard for an individual to isolate which region of the tongue needs to be high in the mouth, saying an “E” sound can help. Try blowing on your hand to make sure the hard stream is cool, fast, and focused.
Hand position can be one of the most gratifying fundamentals to practice and teach on the instrument. With a few small adjustments, students and professionals can achieve faster and cleaner technique in a short amount of time. As we know from physics, a curve is stronger than a straight line. This is also the case with the position of the fingers on the instrument. By imagining holding an orange and keeping the fingers curved above the keys without extraneous motion, we can all achieve cleaner and more efficient technique. There are countless books for this fundamental, including Carl Baermann’s Complete Method for Clarinet (book three) and Paul Jeanjean’s Vade Mecum. More methods that effectively address technique and will be addressed in future articles.
Articulation is one of the toughest areas to teach and execute on the clarinet. Tonguing is not just an effect; it also serves as our diction. Without this we cannot properly “speak” through the instrument. Whereas students often look to the tongue to solve issues in this area, air is key to clean and clear articulation.
Air is vital to this effort because it keeps the reed vibrating through the additional stress of the tongue strikes. Because this motion can create such tremendous instability in the system, the tendency of many players is to back off on the air at the moment of attack to avoid a potential squeak. This serves to actually destabilize the system of sound production even more, as does the additional bottom lip pressure that players apply when articulating. Therefore, the first step to proper articulation are the previously discussed fundamentals of proper air, embouchure, and tongue position.
When articulating on the clarinet, an area slightly above the tip of the tongue should generally touch the reed a bit below the very tip. When students get a “spitty” sound, it is usually because they are using too much of their tongue. I will discuss more suggestions for increasing tongue speed and quality in future articles. As a start, I have outlined suggestions for this fundamental in Dr. Z’s Magic Warm Up. The Reginald Kell 17 Staccato Studies are a great resource as is the research of Dr. Robert Spring and Dr. Joshua Gardner at Arizona State University.
The Five Fundamentals are a consistent and useful tool for students and professionals to incorporate in their daily practicing and teaching. Through proper mastery of these important basics, clarinetists can feel more confident in their expression and effective in their performance.