There is actually another way that I learned.
Because there are lots of different ways of talking about embouchures,
as well as different approaches (as Tom's post shows), it might be worth
describing what an embouchure actually *does*, as an aid to
characterising differences of embouchure between one good player and
I should emphasise straight away that the intention is descriptive
rather than prescriptive. So I'm certainly not putting forward any
theory of ideal embouchures here. (Indeed, as some of you may know, my
'theory' of the ideal embouchure is that it's the one that produces the
To begin with, I'm going to take the position that the essence of an
embouchure lies in the contact between the muscles of the lower lip and
the vibrating reed. Other muscles (such as those of the upper lip) are
also involved; but their influence on the embouchure occurs largely via
their effect on the contact between the lower lip and the reed.
This approach leaves aside the possibility that the upper lip may
directly damp vibrations of the mouthpiece itself (not the reed,
notice); but I'm going to assume, along with most other people, that
that effect is negligible.
Description of the contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the
vibrating reed can be conveniently if crudely divided into three parts;
there's an important refinement that I'll come to afterwards.
The three parts are:
(1) The position on the reed of the area of contact;
(2) The size of the area of contact; and
(3) The pressure exerted on the reed by the contact.
(1), (2) and (3) in combination affect both the equilibrium position of
the reed (the mean position that it vibrates around) and the nature of
the reed vibration.
In general, (1) is located roughly at the point at which the reed leaves
the mouthpiece facing. In this position, the lower lip does two things:
(A) it exerts pressure on the reed, moving its equilibrium
position further towards the mouthpiece, and
(B) it damps the vibration of the reed, thus changing the sound.
For (A), the amount of pressure required to put the reed in its
optimum equilibrium position depends a great deal on the sort
of reed-mouthpiece setup the player is using. It can vary from
very little, in the case of a long, close facing (like a German
style mouthpiece) to quite a lot (as in the open facings used in
the last century by some Italian players, for example. Different
schools of playing therefore require different amounts of
pressure. Obviously, the strength of the reed used is also a
The damping of the reed-vibration, (B), constitutes the most
crucial effect of the embouchure on the sound of the instrument,
and much of the complication of 'embouchure-talk' is an attempt
to characterise the physical characteristics of the embouchure
that the speaker considers essential in order to achieve the
damping required for a 'good' sound.
It is possible, for special effects, for (1) to be nearer the tip or
farther away from the tip, but the former usually 'chokes' the reed, and
the latter has little effect on the vibration.
(2), the size of the area of contact, is crucial, though. If it's too
large, then too many higher harmonics of the vibrating reed are damped
out. If it's too small, then a 'bright' reed may be too shrill. And
the required amount of damping is dependent on what note you're playing,
Essentially, therefore, what's required is real time control of (2), so
that it can vary from moment to moment. Fortunately, the lower lip
consists of *muscle*, and therefore is capable of fast response around
an initial calibration. Choosing the degree of flexion of the muscles
of the lower lip initially to suit a particular reed, and then varying
it moment by moment according to what you're playing, is what enables us
to play effectively.
This point of view explains why a given reed may be 'too much trouble'
for a good player, even though the results obtained are satisfactory to
The 'refinement' I mentioned above comes in here. The refinement is
that when we play, the lower lip also vibrates, and therefore the
optimal state of the bit of it in contact with the reed can't even be
captured by specifying the size and shape of the area of contact. The
vibrational qualities of things are always much more tricky to
characterise and reproduce than their mere geometries and masses.
That's why violins are difficult to copy -- and bows too, because they
vibrate when they're used. Even *how you hold a bow* makes a
The upshot is that the precise nature of your lower lip when you play is
crucial. Where you put it on the reed, how flexed it is, how much it
overlaps the part of the reed that's vibrating away from the mouthpiece,
all affect your sound from moment to moment, and therefore must be
capable of subtle change from moment to moment.
Now, obviously we haven't a hope in hell of controlling all of that
consciously. But we can learn how to have it under our (unconscious)
control by practising in the understanding that both flexibility and
feedback are required.
How did we learn our 'other' sort of speaking, which is much more
miraculous, I'd say? Answer, by both babbling and listening.
And -- you know why 'biting' is wrong? It's *not* because it involves
the exertion of pressure, or because it involves forces between lips
and teeth. Controlled and precisely modulated pressure is the name of
the game! Dogmas about 'zero pressure' can be as counterproductive for
some players as excessively hard reeds can be for others.
No, it's because 'biting', at its extreme, reduces the subtle
musculature of the lower lip to the status of a dead piece of meat
covering the teeth. Such a move puts beyond our grasp the flexibility
required to learn how to play the clarinet.
Contrary to what many clarinetists and teachers of the clarinet believe,
the embouchure and oral cavity change according to the register and
intonation requirements. (Through the practice of specific exercises you
can develop the flexibility to handle almost any situation with which you
Brass players have been using the mouthpiece alone for practicing
flexiblitly for years. Many modern professional brass players use this
technique daily. As we know, the brass player changes his embouchure and
oral cavity in order to select the part of the overtone series they desire.
if you ask an advanced clarinetist to take his mouthpiece off and play a
well supported and focused sound on the mouthpiece alone, the resulting
pitch will usually be the concert C or C# above the treble staff. After
producing this initial pitch you should attempt to play a descending
glissando to see how low a pitch can be sounded. I have tried this with
many players over the past 20 years. The results are quite interesting.
Some clarinetists can play only an octave. I have found that saxophone
doublers and jazz clarinetists tend to do much better at this than the
exclusively "ligit" clarinet player.
The next step is to try to extend whatever range you have on the
mouthpiece to an octave. This can be accomplished by experimenting with
embouchure pressure and oral cavity settings-- the more embouchure
pressure the higher the resulting pitch. As pressure is decreased, the
pitch is lowered. When the oral cavity is set in a position for
pronoucing "eee", higher pitches are produced and progressively lower
pitches are produced as you move from "eee" to "ahh" and "ohh". While I
am willing to grant that many clarinet performance requirements can be
met with the settings needed to produce a major third or perfect fourth
on the mouthpiece, frequently larger embouchure and oral cavity
adjustments are necessary to play in tune, to affect large downslurs, to
play bends, gilissandi, and many extended techniques such as some
multiphonics. The combined control of embouchure pressure and oral
cavity settings gained through this practice cannot be overestimated.
Once you have good control of the glissando from concert C above the
staff to the C an octave below, you can begin to attempt holding specific
pitches within that range. Playing simple tunes and arpeggios is also
good exercise. Another step in refinig embouchure/oral cavity settings
is to match pitches at the piano. Play a melody or scale with the left
hand and try to play the same pitch simultaneously with the mouthpiece
held in the right hand. These exercises should develop 12 discreet
settings, one for each chromatic pitches in the octave.
Concurrently with the mouthpiece exercises you can be working on
welecting registers exclusively with embouchure/oral cavity settings. Do
this exercise using NO regester key.
C above staff slur down to first space F
do this slowly then gradually speed up until the C is just a grace note
to the F.
B above the staff - slur to first line E
Etc... until you are down to B/E
Once the clarinet is producing the first tone (if you have trouble
producing the upper 12th you may "flick" the register key) it will resist
producing the lower note in the chalumeau register. In order to produce
the chalumeau note without a break, you must make a dramatic
embouchure/oral cavity adjustment, actually going considerably below the
normal setting for the chalumeau note. Then, as soon as it is sounding,
assume the correct setting so that the resulting note is not flat in
pitch. If prcticed diligently you can procuce the chalumeau note on time
and execute the setting adjustments so quickly that you are scarcely
aware of them.
This exercise can be extended. Note NO regester key is used.
F 1rst space - C above staff - F above staff - slur back to C -
F above staff - slur to C - then slur back down to the F.
Continue down chormaticly until you are E/B/G/B/G/B/E
You'll find that you lower you get the harder this is to do.
Well what do you all think? I admidt that these exercises and ones like
it have helped me over the years. I would really like to hear comments
Perhaps you could convince him to constantly think about his lips
forming the syllable "o". This is the basis for a good embouchure anyway. It
sounds like he feels that anything other than a "wood clamp" embouchure doesn't
allow himself enough control (I certainly used to!). While he changes his
mouth shape, he can be pushing the mp a bit harder against his top lip to
remove pressure on the bottom. By the way, the fact that his jaw moves invites
the question - did he ever play brass instruments? The constant "o" shape
will prevent him from moving his jaw, I think. First, however, he has to
want to improve and can see the benefits - can you demonstrate for him what he
sounds like when he does this and then show him how an improved embouchure
would benefit him? I am currently changing my embouchure to an "o" shape and
I did find it very difficult for a few weeks to maintain that without feeling
as if my bottom lip had no place to go and nothing to do (obviously it had had
too much to do before!) and that I couldn't control the sound. The feeling
of "o" was so unusual that whenever I took the mp out of my mouth and then
wanted to play again, I had to re-form the shape, then slip the mp into my mouth.
Also, have him think about his embouchure as a bed of roses. The person who
mentioned this to me last week didn't really explain it, but I imagine
it means that the bottom lip should feel as if it's resting on a bed of roses.
The fact that his jaw and fingers move together can be helped by putting him in
front of a mirror to see what's happening. Also, if you turn his instrument
around and play a song while he blows steadily, he'll see/hear that jaw-finger
movement is unnecessary. Forgive me if you've tried all of this already. I relate
all this as a student, but as one who sees/hears the benefits of more
beautiful sound and greatly increased endurance with an "o" shaped embouchure. I
hope this helps a bit. Maybe the pros on the list could comment further.
All the best
Books about how to play wind instruments often talk rather vaguely about
the diaphragm, and teachers of wind instruments seem to be agreed about
its importance in playing. However, in my view it is not so often
related to a player's actual experience, nor indeed
explained to a
student's satisfaction. This essay suggests
a reason why this is so,
and makes a connection between the action of the muscle and our
experience of playing, via the ideas of 'opposition' and 'support'.
If we fully understand the paradox that the action of the diaphragm is
in a sense outside our experience, yet
nevertheless under our control,
our playing becomes simpler, and we are better able to trust ourselves.
CAN WE FEEL OUR DIAPHRAGM?
It seems that we don't have a direct
experience of our diaphragm, the
muscle that we use whenever we take a breath. Anatomists tell us this
is because the diaphragm contains no efferent nerves. That is, no
sensory nerves run from the diaphragm itself to the brain, so we don't
know when we're using it except by noticing the things it does; and the
muscle can't feel tired to us, for example.
But we can get a bit closer to it if we
flex our abdominal muscles and
try taking a breath whilst keeping them flexed. (By the expression
'flex the abdominal muscles' I mean the act of making the lower front of
the body hard, as if to protect ourselves against a gentle punch in the
middle -- but without pulling our bellies in.)
Normally, when we flex our abdominal muscles, we prevent the air in our
lungs from escaping outwards by a blocking action somewhere in the
throat. In order to breathe in with our abdominal muscles flexed, we
have first to lift this block. When we do so, we may find (as my friend
and colleague Phillip Eastop recently pointed out to me) that the
experience of breathing in is very close to the experience of yawning.
We are breathing in against the resistance of our abdominal muscles, so
the diaphragm has to work a bit harder than usual in order to overcome
the resistance. It still isn't quite true to say that we can *feel* the
diaphragm working -- we can feel *working*, and a bit of discomfort
perhaps, but this is mostly the sensation of the flexed abdominal
muscles and the solar plexus being pushed downwards and outwards; the
diaphragm, which is what is doing the pushing, is still not directly
accessible to our experience. Anyway, the anatomists tell us it can't
Most of the important actions of our bodies -- important for survival
that is -- occurИ by themselves
without our conscious control, so perhaps
it shouldn't be surprising that our diaphragm can't be felt directly. We
can't feel the working of our heart directly either, and rather
fortunately it beats without requiring us to remind it to. Choosing an
even more extreme example, we would obviously have absolutely no chance
at all of carrying out the incredibly intricate processes of our
biochemistry with our conscious intellects, even if we understood these
processes and could by some magic interfere directly. There's no
advantage for us to be able to feel ourselves consciously doing all the
things that get done in our bodies, so evolution just hasn't set it up
LEARNING WITHOUT 'KNOWING HOW'
Of course it is still an open question how much we can, by various sorts
of self-training, come to be able to influence these actions. Experiment
shows that, surprisingly, we can learn to control the speed of our
heartbeat, and even the surface temperature and electrical conductivity
of our skin; some would say that even our biochemistry is not as
inaccessible as it would appear.
This sort of learning, however, doesn't conform to our normal model of
what it's like to learn to do things. Mostly, when we learn a
technique, we have a direct experience of doing something. But there is
no direct experience associated with a change in the electrical
conductivity of our skin, for example. To be aware of such changes we
have to connect ourselves to a meter, and then we can learn to control
them and see the effect of our learning -- the needle on the dial moves.
But we can't feel any change in our body.
I think most people feel, or would feel, uncomfortable learning in this
way. Somehow it seems strange, almost creepy. But it is important for
us to have a frame of mind which will accept this sort of strangeness.
An insistence on knowing exactly how we are doing something can
interfere with our learning to do it better. Quite independently of
whether we have an actual experience of performing a task, it is often
best to proceed as though our conscious minds were independent observers
of our actions, and to let those actions occur according to their own
logic. This is especially true if the task is a complex one. As
musical performers, we are frequently concerned with preventing our
minds from interfering with our abilities.
Breath control doesn't quite come into this category, you might think.
We simply have to learn how to blow the instrument effectively. Although
we use our diaphragm to breathe in, we don't need to experience it, and
anyway we only know about it in the first place because we've been told
about it, so -- why not just forget it? Indeed many excellent teachers
and performers you speak to would say just that. And so would I have
done, until recently.
However, I then discovered a more useful metaphor to apply to breathing
and blowing the instrument; which metaphor is what I want to explain
In this essay, I shall say that we are 'using a metaphor' whenever we
give a picture or description of what we do on the instrument that is
not technically specific -- in other words, a description that does not
tell us in detail what we should do. A metaphor says, rather: while
playing the instrument at this point, think of the situation as if it
were *like something else*. For example, I was taught as a very young
player to imagine the sound of the instrument as a
smooth, solid tube
that began deep inside me, passed through the clarinet and stretched out
into the room. I still think this is a very good image for a beginning
Good teachers have always been aware that the transmission of subtle
skills involves the creation of suitable metaphors for a student, even
if only as an interim device. These metaphors work better than explicit
instruction. In fact, fully explicit instruction is actually
impossible, because even the best teacher cannot say in detail exactly
what he or she does. Indeed, usually the teacher too is operating out of
a personal metaphor. It is a question of leading the student into a
successful experience by describing the situation in such a way as to
help with a particular difficulty.
So metaphors constitute an indispensable tool for a teacher. They vary
in generality, from those designed to address the student's attitude to
her whole being with the instrument, to those concerned with the
character of a particular phrase or note. In fact, given the great
complexity and multi-levelled nature of what we do when we play, you
would have to say that even the most careful scientific description is
metaphorical too, being necessarily a simplified model of the situation.
We may not always notice that we simplify in this way. (Sometimes it is
surprising that someone else fails to understand us -- after all, *we*
find the matter perfectly clear.) On the other hand, adopting the
metaphorical attitude allows us, if we wish, deliberately to go
*against* scientific description. It may be a better tactic to allow a
student to discover the physical solution to his problem whilst trying
to do something which is literally impossible.
A good example is what is called in brass teaching 'the no-pressure
embouchure system', which is a very helpful metaphor. This is so
despite the fact that the magazine New Scientist was able to show a few
years ago, by careful experiment using strain gauges, that no
professional actually played using this system, even though some of them
said they did. The fact is that you play better by thinking of what you
are doing as 'not pressing the mouthpiece against your lips' than you do
otherwise. This is true whether or not you actually are pressing
slightly, as shown by a strain gauge attached to the instrument. Though
the 'no-pressure system' is in one sense a lie, it is what we might call
a *useful* lie; one that is worth telling oneself when playing, and
worth transmitting to students.
Another example would be my 'smooth tube of sound'. This tube of sound
doesn't *really* come from deep inside me, even though I may be better
off imagining that it does.
Yet clearly, when we use a metaphor, there is a danger of saying
something that is both wrong *and* not useful.
'PLAYING FROM THE DIAPHRAGM'
In fact, I believe that there are some people who talk about the
diaphragm in their teaching both inaccurately and unhelpfully. The
central fact that must not be obscured is that the diaphragm is a muscle
that can only exert force *downwards*, i.e. to draw air into the lungs.
As a passive membrane dividing the abdomen from the thoracic cavity it
is pushed up by the abdominal muscles in the usual action of blowing an
instrument (as contrasted with the universally condemned method of
pulling down the previously raised ribcage), and perhaps this is what is
meant when many people speak of 'playing from the diaphragm'. But this
is not the same as using your diaphragm as a muscle in order to blow,
which is a physical impossibility.
What I want to bring out in this essay is one aspect of breathing and
blowing which does have surprising and unusual experiential
characteristics when we compare it to most of the rest of our actions as
we play an instrument. The technique itself is mentioned in wind
instrument methods, and certainly employed by able players, who
communicate it with varying success in their teaching, but it is rarely
discussed in such a way as to make the situation usefully clear, at any
rate to me; and it hasn't been approached exactly from the position I
propose to take, as far as I know. Moreover I think the 'surprise'
connected with it has been almost universally overlooked.
I always liked, and often repeated to students, Paul Harvey's advice to
'keep your trousers up' when playing. He told the story of how he
forgot his belt (or was it braces?) one day when he had to play a
concert, and found that his performance was improved as a side effect of
his effort to make his abdomen as large as possible. I've also found
this a useful metaphor in practice. But there is another variable we
can control whilst we have our attention on our abdomen, which is to
what degree the abdominal muscles are flexed as we are blowing.
When muscles are working against very little resistance, we don't
experience tension in them. They work smoothly, and the resultant
motions look relaxed and fluid. But if I flex the opposing muscles in
my arm, both sets of muscles become hard, and my biceps stand out if the
effort in both is sufficiently large. If my arm is motionless, I can
tell without looking that my triceps are flexed by the fact that my
biceps are flexed in this way. (The triceps are the ones on the back of
the upper arm.) So it is with the opposition abdomen/diaphragm. I know
(if my airway is open) that if no air is going in or out, and my
abdominal muscles are flexed, that my diaphragm is also flexed. (Indeed,
this is the only way I can know it! After all, it's inside, so I can't
see it, and I can't feel it directly, as we've said.)
When we want to make precise and controlled movements, we do generally
use opposing sets of muscles, and here a danger is that we will use too
much force in both sets, since the output is unaffected by an equal
increase in tension in both. But this danger is well understood. We
may use metaphors in our teaching to avoid this danger: 'Float the
sound...imagine that your arms and instrument are balloons filled with a
light gas ...' etc. etc.
Precise and controlled movements are of course central to any art, just
as much as freely expressive ones. A perfectly executed trill, a fine
piece of handwriting, an elegant pirouette -- all these require the
delicate balance of pairs of opposing forces, each supporting its
counterpart, under the overall orchestration of a guiding intelligence
and expressive impulse. And the word 'support' is crucial, both for
precision of adjustment and speed of response. It's why we push our
hand against a surface when we write on it (or use a special
signwriter's support stick), and why we poise ourselves ready to spring
when we wait for the serve at tennis.
How does all this apply to the diaphragm?
Normally, when we breathe in, the diaphragm encounters no opposition
other than the elasticity of the viscera. This elasticity causes the
diaphragm to return to its normal position when it relaxes. Similarly,
when we blow out air using the abdominal muscles, the diaphragm is
relaxed, and so the only opposition is the inertia of the lungs and the
outgoing air. Opposition occurs when the diaphragm and abdominal
muscles are both working *at the same time*.
The characteristic of muscles balanced in opposition is that both are
slightly flexed. So, if you perform the experiment of breathing in with
your abdominal muscles flexed (not too much), you will find that you can
achieve a point of equilibrium where the air isn't moving. And then,
putting your clarinet in your mouth, you can play a note, still with
your abdominal muscles flexed. (If you prefer, and indeed this is the
more usual way of proceeding, you need not breathe in with your
abdominal muscles flexed -- you can flex them afterwards. As we said
before, being aware of our abdominal muscles working is the only way we
can know that our diaphragm is also working.) Now, you will find you
can perform a crescendo, and a diminuendo, still with your abdominal
muscles flexed to the same degree.
SUPPORT, AND THE 'MAGIC DIMINUENDO'
So what? you might ask.
Here's the point I never noticed, and which I now find makes such a
difference, not to begin with to what I do, but to how I imagine what I
do (i.e. to my personal metaphor), and therefore, in the end, to almost
everything. It is that the crescendo, and perhaps even more clearly,
the diminuendo, can occur in this situation without anything else at all
happening in your experience. You imagine a diminuendo -- hey presto, a
diminuendo. You want a faster diminuendo? -- no problem.
I don't just mean that the process of doing it has been submerged, in
the same way that the actions of driving a car, say, in the end become
automatic. In this case you can call up the experience into
consciousness by paying attention, even though you weren't aware of it
before. No, I mean that you can't call up any physical experience
corresponding to the change in dynamic. Everything stays the same.
Perhaps you can feel a slightly different movement of air in the mouth
as the dynamic changes, or a different embouchure. But nothing in the
You don't do anything -- you just imagine it. The only change is in the
sound. You shouldn't take my word for this -- you have to try it
yourself. Play about with it for a bit. Convince yourself that you
really are keeping everything else the same in your experience.
Remember the 'no-pressure system' -- well, this is the 'no-doing
The strangeness of all this is rather like the strangeness of the
experiment with the electrical conductivity of your skin. There, you
couldn't be sure what you were doing to produce the required result. In
this case, equally, you're no longer listening to whether it's coming
out the way you think you *did* it. Now it seems you're not *doing*
anything; once you've set it up, there isn't anything else to *do* but
listen to the result.
In other words, to imagine it (and listen to it), *is to do it*.
The explanation for this, of course, is that the diaphragm is resisting
the abdominal muscles (which remain at constant tension) to a varying
degree. But that is inaccessible to experience. So our only feedback
is to listen to the result, and thus we establish a direct link with our
How did I (we?) miss this? I suppose, like most things, by not paying
close enough attention at the crucial moment. Also, it's very much not
what you'd expect, and you have to be very careful to hold everything
constant to appreciate it. But, as I shall spell out in a bit more
detail later, it explains lots, like how passagework becomes even by
itself, if we listen to it, and why we can play fast dotted rhythms
seemingly without effort if we *support* -- and here's the magic word!
Have you been confused, like me, by the way different people use this
term? Doesn't it help to know it means the exact opposite of blowing?
or rather that it's an opposition or complement to blowing -- part of a
magic technique which works by your setting the only variable you leave
available to yourself (the flexion in your abdomen), at one strength and
then allowing the result to change according to your whim? -- a sort of
black box that you can't fiddle with, only use? -- dealer only service?
Isn't that wonderful? (Doesn't it make you want to sing and shout?)
You can see that looking at it this way is a reversal of how support is
normally envisaged. Normally, support is what stays constant while
action varies. If we assign the role of support to the diaphragm, then
here it's the support that varies, whilst the action stays constant. We
could of course say that you support with your abdomen and act with your
diaphragm outside your experience, in the opposite direction, and people
who are really clear about all this already (perhaps there are lots, I
don't know) may speak about it that way round.
At any rate, the situation is strange enough to be worthy of more
informed discussion than it gets.
Perhaps we can tie in here a well-known phenomenon on voice and flute,
looked at from this slightly different perspective. Most singers and
flute players (though few clarinettists) have what is called a
'diaphragm vibrato', which they acquire and then refine, many of them
without really knowing how they do it. Vibrato is spoken of in much the
same way as I have been speaking of support -- as a rather mysterious
and even magical part of playing which seems very closely connected with
the innermost being of the performer. Teaching it seems to be largely a
question of setting up circumstances in which the student will "catch
on. physically to the idea. It seems plausible to conjecture that this
is because the mechanism is a periodic variation of diaphragm flexion
outside awareness, and I find it possible to imagine that this sort of
vibrato occurs most naturally in circumstances where the opposition
abdomen/diaphragm is relatively small. (Intuitively, when our movements
are larger, or faster and more free, we want to be as relaxed as
possible for best effect. The forces 'tied up' in the oppositions
simply generate heat and tire us.) Clarinet players have a slower
airstream, need more precise control, and so tend to play with stronger
support than flautists or singers; my guess is that this minimises the
chance that a diaphragm oscillation will arise and be developed as an
expressive device. Notice that diaphragm vibrato is not unknown on the
more free-blowing saxophone, though of course stylistic considerations
enter considerably here. Clarinet players who want to use vibrato
usually employ other means to achieve it.
THE PROS AND CONS OF USING SUPPORT
When your abdominal muscles are flexed more than is required simply to
play at the dynamic you are delivering, you're using diaphragm support.
Your diaphragm is resisting your blowing, but you have the advantage of
very precise control over dynamics. However, you still have to judge
whether the effect is what the music requires. The rather 'careful'
quality of such dynamic control has a way of spilling over into other
aspects of one's playing, and this can need guarding against. I am
thinking in particular of the sort of restrictions we can make in the
air column, limiting the resonance of our playing by, for example,
closing the throat. It is easier to do this by mistake if we are
already committed to the diaphragm/abdomen opposition. So it's worth
while practising keeping the air column as open as possible with maximum
support, rather as we sometimes practise playing fortissimo with a most
delicate finger action, and vice-versa.
But it has to be said that a very valid musical effect can be obtained
by precisely controlled resistance all along the line. Debussy's 'doux
et penetrant' in the Rhapsodie, for example, can be played in this way.
And I've always felt that it isn't enough to play the solo in
Tschaikovsky's Pathetique merely beautifully. It must represent the
loneliness that comes from expression through reluctance to express,
which reluctance has also to find expression.
Of course, you don't have to play with support. Often, playing without
it has a light quality in low dynamics, suitable for short, floaty
phrases, and a grand, gestural quality when loud. All the other
variables of tone-colour, resonance are still available. The
appropriateness in the context of the music is always what counts.
MORE ON WHY IT WORKS
I mentioned before that tennis players use opposition when they are
waiting for the serve. Another way of describing what they are doing is
to say that they are storing energy so that it can be delivered fast,
and in the required direction, immediately they find out what that
direction is. It is as though they are springing both to the left and
to the right at the moment the other player serves, but because the
muscles that would drive them to the left exactly balance the muscles
that would drive them to the right, there is no overall effect. When it
turns out that the serve goes to the right, they simultaneously relax
the muscles driving them to the left, and begin to work harder with the
opposing set. But they have a flying start, because of the initial
working of the muscles driving them to the right.
A bow-and-arrow is an energy storage system. We do all the work of
bending the bow *before* we shoot, storing the energy that will be
released over a much shorter interval in order to throw the arrow far
faster and farther than we could by hand alone.
There is a useful analogy between the bent bow, which embodies a bow/arm
opposition, and playing with support, which embodies an
In this analogy, the abdominal muscles correspond to the bow, and the
diaphragm to the arm. The sudden delivery of energy common to both
would in the case of playing a wind instrument be what is required
either for a sudden change of dynamic between an adjacent pair of notes
(a sforzando or subito piano); or for a precisely controlled change of
air pressure to equalise the dynamic of an adjacent pair of notes with
different responses on the instrument. Support enables us to do both of
these things easily and elegantly, and moreover *without knowing
precisely how*, so that it seems an automatic and natural ability.
Support is also useful for taking a fast, inconspicuous breath. In the
bow-and-arrow analogy this would be like letting go the bow rather than
the arrow, which wouldn't be very useful -- but clearly relaxing the
abdominal muscles with the diaphragm already strongly flexed would
result in a maximum delivery of energy to draw in air over a short
timespan, which is precisely what we want. And so it proves: to play
with support just before taking a breath guarantees both maximum
air-intake and precision of return to the playing position. How? We
simply bring our abdominal muscles back to the state of flexion they
were in just before the breath, and continue with the phrase.
The usefulness of this little discovery for me is that I find I'm now
much more able to accept and trust as rational what I often did before
instinctively, and to simplify my actions so that they have more chance
of success. The support mechanism can be calibrated at the beginning of
a difficulty (translated: you decide how hard your abdomen should be)
and the calibration then changed until the setting that produces the
best effect is reached. After practising in this way I find I often
need to do, and compute, less than I'd thought. When teaching, it's
still difficult to stop people sticking to one way of playing which
isn't working, and now some of them think you should flex your abdomen
all the time, but -- 'twas ever thus.
A few more things to try: what we mostly did already for an upward leap
-- support on the low note -- then, imagine the upper note as clearly as
possible, but concentrate on keeping the support constant.
Before a 'difficult' entry: breathe in against opposition, rather like
yawning, and time the top of the yawn to coincide with the moment of
entry. As well as guaranteeing precise control, this tactic gives you
something to think about other than the thought that you may miss the
In medium speed articulation (like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: repeated
pianissimo 'A's in the clarinet register) -- where it's often difficult
to guarantee an even response -- support, and then ask your diaphragm to
help! The quality of this 'request' is important. I don't mean you
actually do anything, in fact, quite the opposite, as I've explained.
It's more like letting go of the worry about having it be even,
realising that there's an inaccessible mechanism at work which may know
or learn what's necessary. If you like, imagine writing your request on
a small piece of paper and swallowing it! You have to realise that you,
consciously, have really no control over it. I think this realisation
is most powerful. The idea of giving in to a wiser self has often been
held out as the key to mastery in all sorts of traditions. The
relinquishing of the idea of control is often all that's needed in this
I hope this little essay may stimulate some people to make discoveries
for themselves. As I said before, I think the subject hasn't been well
served. I've outlined one particular metaphor for playing that I find
useful, but anyone who wants to extend that metaphor is welcome to do
so, with the proviso that it should be a helpful extension. There are
many connections to be made with other aspects of playing, and the
possibility of technical detachment going hand in hand with expressive
involvement is an ongoing project for all of us.
The creation of metaphors is arguably what we are about in all aspects
of music, but it's important to bear in mind that whilst these must have
some coherence, they are above all *personal*.
Antony Pay 1996
register and related issues including "air support", I wondered if any one
would be interested in some comments about what air support might mean and if
any one had any comments of their own pro or contra? This is something I had
in mind for an article but never fully completed it except in this rough form
(Everett J Austin, MD San Francisco)
Blowing the single-reed instruments: some comments on the abdominal and
especially laryngeal (glottal) functions
Wind is one of the most vital elements in the playing of any wind
instrument, and this is certainly the case with the single reed instruments.
A host of factors go into making music beautifully (or otherwise!) on these
instruments, but many if not most will agree that control of the "air column"
(la colonne d'air in French) is fundamental to good tone, intonation and to
attaining a range of expressive capacity in the areas of dynamics and tone
color. The instrumental variables are enormous as well, but assuming an
instrument that is well-designed and in good repair, a good mouthpiece
(easier said than done!) with a good reed balanced and matched to its facing,
a variety of very musical sounds can be produced, determined in large part by
what the player's ear wants, and not dictated completely by the instrument
and the player's anatomy (without denying the obvious influence of these
mechanical and anatomical factors!).
Perhaps this is why it is often easy to recognize the "sound" of a given
player, even when they play a different "set-up", and why one cannot always
tell whether a clarinetist is playing on a clarinet of French, English,
German or Viennese design: the desire to produce a certain sound helps our
bodies find a way to bring it to our ears if the instrument does not
interpose physically unsurmountable barriers. Pamela Weston's book, Clarinet
Virtuosi is full of references to this phenomenon.
To manufacture an absurd example (a "thought experiment" that physicists are
so fond of): what if Acker Bilk and Karl Leister "swapped horns"? For
hygienic and geographical reasons this would probably never occur, but if it
did, one can be fairly certain that each would sound much more like himself
than the other, because that is how he wants to sound. How could this be?
Partly due to their anatomical differences (size and shape of oral, nasal
and chest cavities, etc.) and use of embouchure, but probably in large part
to how the airflow is managed (consciously or subconsciously) in relation to
these relatively fixed instrumental and physical factors (which, of course
are extremely important, but are not the focus of this discussion, except to
affirm here that it seems to be fixed physical characteristics which seem to
guarantee a certain uniqueness of sound, sometimes to the frustration of the
player who may wish to emulate exactly a much-admired model.) In this short
essay, I would like to specify some of the ways in which control of the wind
occurs in the body of the player, in the hope that an awareness of this
anatomy may help players get the sounds that their ear desires more reliably.
Air control is often emphasized in didactic writings, usually an exhortation
to "provide adequate air support", but rarely are all anatomical variables
accurately described. The term "diaphragm" is often incorrectly used to
refer to the supportive muscles of the abdominal wall and back and imaginary
diaphragmatic functions such as forceful exhalation may be conjured up.
Whereas the diaphragm is an important but fairly thin muscular partition
between the abdominal and thoracic (chest) cavities. The main function of
the diaphragm is to prevent entry of the intestines into the chest and to
expand the lungs during inspiration (breathing in). Expiration (blowing out)
and "air support" is a function of the elastic properties of the thorax and
of the muscular contraction of the abdominal, intercostal (rib) and flank
muscles. A recent article in The Clarinet should clarify these notions for
most. The most dimly understood areas of the respiratory apparatus,
however, appear to be the larynx ("voice box") and oropharynx ("throat").
Keith Stein makes a passing reference to the larynx in his superb treatise
on playing the clarinet and David Liebman makes specific reference to it in
his book on saxophone tone production. Fred Hemke is fairly explicit about
this in his short and cogent but unfortunately out of print pamphlet on the
saxophone (at one time available from Selmer), but by and large the "throat"
is a mysterious dark cavern to most players and teachers, even though
consciously or subconsciously it is can have very important positive and
negative influences on tone and intonation.
The larynx (glottis) has obvious functions in speaking and singing: this is
where phonation occurs (where the sound is made). In whispering and in
playing an instrument like the clarinet or saxophone, the larynx assumes a
slightly different role, that of an essentially silent valve (a pair of folds
of tissue held at various distances apart to regulate air passage into the
throat from the lungs) regulating air flow and balancing the pressure of the
abdominal (respiratory) muscles. John Jessen in Seattle made me aware of
this function, since it has always been one of the central points of his
teaching of good centered tone and intonation on single reed instruments.
Now in his mid-eighties, he credits his early teacher Merle Johnson for this
and was told by Johnson that these concepts came from study with French
players such as Marcel Mule. I have informally surveyed a number of teachers
and players about this about the larynx or "throat" and generally find that
they are at best vague about this region of the anatomy. I suspect in most
good players it is entirely unconsciously controlled. I spoke with an ear
nose and throat surgeon who is a excellent clarinet player and former student
of Ralph McLane and Daniel Bonade, who knows this anatomy quite intimately
and acknowledged its relevance, but had never given it much thought in his
playing, nor did his teachers.
The most familiar physical analogy for the glottal or laryngeal function
would be the garden hose analogy: the faucet (respiratory muscles) varies
the pressure of the water (air column) and the nozzle (larynx) controls the
size of the opening through which the water (air) may flow. Thus, the water
pressure at the faucet and the opening of the nozzle are two independent
variables which produce a wide variety of combinations of water (air)
velocity (speed) and flow-rate (volume of water (air) per unit time). If the
faucet is opened we get more volume and pressure and some increase in
velocity and if the nozzle is closed we get the same volume but at a much
Of course, this is all very simple, and playing a variety of instruments
from the bass saxophone to the E-flat clarinet is not, but the concept is
still potentially useful in understanding what goes on in ideal conditions
and also in trouble-shooting. There are other variables including the
resistance (impedance) of the reed-mouthpiece/instrument combination and how
that varies with different pitches and also different embouchure variables
(pressure, longitudinal placement on the reed, etc). In general, however,
the instrumental resistance should be less than that of the larynx:
otherwise, one is not "supporting the air column", but blowing against the
instrument. This latter approach can be done and has been advocated with an
extremely resistant set-up, but would seem to allow for considerably less
tonal flexibility and more precarious intonation. Thus this discussion
assumes a resistant but somewhat somewhat free-blowing (responsive)
Now to give this abstract discussion a concrete example which should be
easily appreciated, except by specialists, compare the proper blowing of a
low saxophone with that of a high clarinet (or any sax with any clarinet). A
bass or baritone saxophone requires a large voume of air at a slow air speed
to produce a full, centered sound, so the larynx is wide open or nearly so
and the respiratory muscles are making a big controlled exhalation. The
E-flat or B-flat clarinet require a much smaller volume of air at a much
higher air speed to produce a properly centered tone with good intonation ,
so the abdominal muscles are firmer and the glottal opening smaller to give a
jet of air to the reed. If the high clarinet is blown like a saxophone, it
may sound ok ("big" perhaps?) but not round and centered and will lack
projection and add intonation problems (in particular flat and
unfocussed/blaring/flaring in the upper clarion and higher) to an already
imperfect instrument. If the big saxophone is blown like the small clarinet?
Expect a visit from the Humane Society. Within the clarinet and the
saxophone families, similar considerations regarding the general ranges of
air speed and volume apply depending largely on the size of the instrument in
relation to its sibs, but not as dramatic as in the above example.
The details of exactly how the airflow should be ideally varied in the
playing of various individual clarinets and saxophones is a fairly detailed
and complex subject to articulate, and in the end is determined by the
player's desire to sound a certain way, by intent listening and by the the
player's body ultimately making the adjustments necessary to satisfy the ear
(brain) of the player. I will not go into these details here, but in general
terms the low notes on these instruments require a greater volume of air at a
slower speed and the higher notes require a higher air speed with generally
less volume. Variation in dynamics introduces an additional complication,
whereby (in one school of playing) playing softer takes less air volume but a
firm support with a correspondingly faster airjet to maintain focus and
pitch. At this point, still other potential (and useful) variables can be
cautiously mentioned, which must themselves be understood, mastered and put
in their proper place. These include: tongue position (generally should not
be obstructive but should focus the airstream at the tip of the reed, raising
arch of tongue raises pitch and may assist altissimo, lowering tongue arch
lowers pitch), as well as embouchure pressure and pivot point of jaw pressure
on reed (should not overly inhibit reed vibration, rolling jaw forward
slightly assists production of altissimo).
What is the point of all these references to human anatomy and elementary
physics in the context of the art of music? Mainly that the analysis and
real understanding of technique can extend profitably beyond more
approachable areas like fingerings and fiddling with reeds and sometimes help
us know what we are doing right and what we might do better. Ultimately,
however, after these matters have been consciously processed, they should
again become largely unconscious good habits which are merely the wherewithal
for making music they way we would like to hear it, which is our raison
Everett J. Austin, MD September 3, 1995
difficulty sustaining breath support while playing. In my attempt to
address their question, I found myself several hours later in the middle
of a lengthy explication on the subject of breathing technique and phy-
sical relaxation. I decided to go ahead and finish that essay, and invite
all of you to read it and make comments, as well as ask questions. I
cite no references in this essay, because my only source for the infor-
mation is my own experience as a player. Thus, all statements are
tacitly preceded by the caveat, “In my opinion…”
> My problem is: my long tones last 15 seconds (and the
> last seconds my body became so stiff)
I assumeПРЕДПОЛАГАТЬ that you wish to extendПРОДЛИТЬ the length of time that you
can play a passage before you need to take a breath. Your sen-
tenceПРЕДЛОЖЕНИЕ above, especially the portion
in parenthesesИНТЕРМЕДИЯ, reveal s ОБНАРУЖИВАТЬ a
sort of ‘secret’ about clarinet playing that many players never
actually recognizeПРИЗНАВАТЬ УЗНАВАТЬ. I need to say a few more things before I
discuss the secret.
The most difficult and important obstacle that a clarinet player
must solve while developing their technique does not pertain to
the fingers, or the tongue, or the embouchure -- although each of
these areas is greatly affected by the obstacle in question. I'm
talking about physical tension. In your sentence above, you write,
"...and in the last seconds my body becomes stiff." When your body
becomes stiff, your muscles contract, you grip the instrument more
tightly than normal, and nothing seems to work quite properly any
more. The primary reason that most clarinetists never reach their
full technical potential on the instrument is that they never devel-
op the ability to invoke and sustain physical relaxation on command.
If you can develop the ability to relax your muscles and allow them to
*remain* relaxed while you play, all other difficulties (embouchure,
air, tongue, fingers, etc.) become much easier to resolve and refine.
With the presence of physical tension, you will never reach the point
where playing the clarinet is effortless. It is my philosophy that
all players should strive for the point where playing the clarinet
is a relaxing, effortless activity. You will meet very few clarinet
players who claim to have achieved this -- even among profession-
Achieving excellence on the clarinet largely involves "getting out
of your own way." Rather than being an issue of undeveloped muscle
memory and inadequately developed technique (things that are very
easily rectified), much of what keeps people from becoming better
players is the interference of negative habits and techniques that
already exist when they play. Many of these problems are completely
invisible to the player, which is why it's so valuable to receive
feedback from a teacher or fellow player, to point out things in your
playing of which you may not be consciously aware. The main point:
most of these bad habits and poor techniques arise in an unconscious
attempt to compensate for muscles that are too tense to operate ef-
fectively. Eliminate the tension, and the path is cleared for those
muscles to be reconditioned to operate to their optimum capacity and
effect. I am convinced that if the technique for conscious physical
relaxation were emphasized with equal consistency as embouchure,
finger, and tongue exercises, the beginning player would develop
twice as quickly as is typically the case.
Okay, so what's the 'secret'? You alluded to part of it in your very
first sentence. You indicated that, as you exhausted your air supply,
your body became stiff and tense. This is a conditioned reflex, not an
autonomic function of the body. It is possible to replace this reflex
with a habit that enables you to remain relaxed as you play. And, quite
naturally, once the new positive reflex is in place, you will discover
that you've also succeeded in extending the length of time that you can
play without needing to take a breath -- your original goal. But this
is merely one of dozens of technical doors which will open wider for
you as a result of avoiding physical tension. Potential will rise
dramatically in all areas of technique, from the embouchure to the
tongue to the fingers, and everywhere else. Intuitively, you might
think that running out of air is what originally caused you to become
physically tense. But there is a conceptual layer one level beneath:
had you been genuinely relaxed before you released the original breath,
you would not have run out of air nearly as quickly in the first place,
nor would you have experienced the debilitating physical tension that
you subsequently described.
Generating physical relaxation or, more accurately, conditioning
your body such that tension-inducing reflexes no longer occur, is
a three-part process. And yes, the diaphragm and abdominal muscles
are naturally part of it -- Part 1. Parts 2 and 3 deal more (al-
though not exclusively) with psychology and conceptual understand-
ing than with direct physical action.
As has been understood for some time, the diaphragm is an involun-
tary muscle which expands as part of the body's autonomic breathing
function. When you're not thinking about how to breathe, your brain
does it for you by automatically expanding the diaphragm outward,
which (somehow) creates a vacuum in your lungs and draws air inward.
When the brain senses that enough oxygen has been received, it relaxes
the diaphragm and lets the abdominal muscles push the abdomen back
into a normal state of rest. This causes the air in the lungs to be
expelled, and the process is repeated, ad infinitum (we wish).
Now we get to the real substance of the issue. Playing the clarinet
is not an autonomic function (although people like Karl Leister make
you wonder sometimes), and the act of breathing is a conscious one
in this case. This is actually to our advantage -- it would be a
serious problem if we could not assume manual control of our breath-
ing process on command. Whether conscious or autonomic, it is only
when the diaphragm is relaxed that the abdominal muscles will automat-
ically compress the abdomen back into a state of rest, expelling the
air from the lungs in the process. It stands to reason, then, that
if we can somehow prevent the diaphragm from relaxing (when the lungs
have been filled with air), the abdominal muscles will not contract,
and the air will not be forced out of the lungs nearly as quickly as
when we breathe unconsciously. In fact, if the diaphragm is forced
to remain in a perpetually expanded state, the air in the lungs will
never be expelled at all. We're shooting for something a little less
extreme than this, but not by very much. Here's part 1 of the re-
laxation technique, which is inextricably linked to how we breathe
when playing the clarinet, as well as to what we do with our bodies
before and after the air has been inhaled. Mind you, this is only a
third of the prescription, and is not meant to be applied in isolation.
You must apply parts 1, 2, and 3 together in order to get the full ef-
fect of the technique:
1. WithOUT the clarinet in hand, inhaleВДЫХАТЬ
deeplyГЛУБОКО by expandingРАСШИРЕНИЯ first
from the diaphragm area, such that the abdomen is fully extendedРАСШИРИТСЯ.
When teaching this technique to fellow undergraduate students, I
often found myself using the phrase, "Make yourself look fat."
When it didn't get chuckles, the idea seemed to produce the
Now let me repeat a phrase from a previous paragraph:
"If the diaphragm is forced to remainОСТАВАТЬСЯ in a perpetuallyПОСТОЯННО expanded
state, the air in the lungs will never be expelledВЫТОЛКАН."
Once you've experienced this concept in application, and actually
understand it viscerally, it's a short step forward to recognize
its power when applied to clarinet technique. If the diaphragm is
forced to remain in an ALMOST completely expanded state while play-
ing clarinet, you suddenly achieve enormous control over how much
-- and how quickly -- the air is expelled from the lungs.
2. Apply the above breathing instructions in the context of taking a
breath, for the purpose of producing a tone on the clarinet. However:
do not relax the diaphragm when you begin to release the air across
the reed and into the mouthpiece. Continue to "make yourself look
fat". Clearly, according to my own description, the diaphragm must
relax at least a tiny bit in order for the abdominal muscles to push
the air out of the lungs. The power of this technique is in the know-
ledge that you possess total control over how quickly those abdominal
muscles will be allowed to contract, based entirely on how much you
decide to relax the diaphragm. Remember, the abdominal muscles will
only contract and expel the air to the degree to which you allow the
diaphragm to relax.
3. 1 & 2 above may remain opaque or nebulous in terms of practicality
until Parts 2 and 3 below are applied in conjunction.
You will remember that the early part of this essay focused heavily
on the effects of physical tension relative to clarinet technique. I
promised that I would provide a means for consciously invoking physical
relaxation on command and, in fact, I already have. Part 1 (above) is
that technique, albeit incomplete. Here's the rest:
1. Physical tension is non-discriminatory. It has no preference relative to
where it ultimately resides in the body, and only responds to muscle ac-
tions and reflexes that we cause to occur, consciously and otherwise. Most
often, it is generated subconsciously. Since it can form and manifest it-
self in any given area of the body, the only practical way to avoid it is
to develop a means for preventing it from occurring *anywhere* in the body,
from the very start.
2. There is only one place in the entire body where tension has no negative
effect on clarinet technique. This is also the only place in the body where
tension actually has a *positive* effect, because of the simultaneous con-
trol and physical relaxation that it produces everywhere *else*. Where is
this magical place? You guessed it: the diaphragm. Here's why:
a. Tension in any muscular group other than the diaphragm causes those
muscles to lose their optimal flexibility and strength, be they in the
face, the fingers, the throat, or inside the mouth (i.e.; the tongue).
This restricts your ability to consciously manipulate those muscles
to optimum effect. Your goal is optimal functionality of all muscle
groups, even the ones not directly involved in playing the clarinet,
unrestricted by any involuntary contractive impulses and, simulta-
neously, facilitated by relevant muscle memory reflexes that have
been developed in favor of optimal clarinet technique.
Example: finger dexterity and smoothness of technique are at their
most refined when the fingers are placed a certain very close distance
away from their corresponding tone holes and keys at all times. The
fingers do not assume this optimal distance automatically, and must be
conditioned via slow practice and repetition over time to do so. Fur-
thermore, even when the fingers have been conditioned to assume the
optimal configuration, they will not necessarily operate in the desired
smooth and facile manner that was intended. Unconscious tension in
the fingers (which may have been there from the start, or may have
traveled via the legs, to the shoulders, to the arms and hands) will
confound any advantage that has been created via optimally programmed
muscle memory. When tension is introduced into a given muscle group,
muscle memory does not work as well as intended. Whether the tension
was in the fingers from the start, or whether it started elsewhere and
traveled to the fingers, all of your hard work at conditioning the fing-
ers to be poised close to the instrument will never come to full frui-
tion until you simultaneously develop a reflex to prevent tension from
entering those wonderfully conditioned muscles.
Another example: a light and agileЛОВКИЙ,ПРОВОРНЫЙ tongue – one that can move quickly
and also effortlessly effect the full range of articulation styles – must
be conditioned to poise itself very close to the tip of the reed at all
times. Much like with the fingers, optimal functionality of the tongue
involves very fine muscular motion within a very narrowly defined range
of distance. It is this fine muscle control – whichever area of clarinet
technique is being discussed – that is confounded by unwanted physical
tension, causing the muscle to work against the memory which has been so
meticulously conditioned into it.
b. Tension will travel from one muscle group to another in response to
c. Since control of the diaphragm is an issue of consciously forcing it
to remain expanded outward (in order to manipulate the volume and
speed of air release,) constant muscular force is required with the
d. (Following from b. and c.) When constant muscular force is applied
to keeping the diaphragm expanded, it is possible to release all
superfluous muscular force being applied everywhere else (i.e.; fing-
ers, tongue, throat, embouchure). This is key, per the examples pro-
vided above, since the absence of tension enables positively condi-
tioned reflexes to work in an optimal fashion.
3. Muscular tension in any muscle group *beyond* the fingers, face, throat,
and tongue (e.g.; the shoulders, the quadriceps, the biceps, the neck, etc.)
will unavoidably travel to one of these aforementioned vital muscle groups
and confound optimal functionality -- unless a mechanism is engaged that
will prevent this tension from being generated anywhere in the first place.
Usage of the diaphragm, as described in Part 1, is the mechanism in question.
a. Again: the diaphragm is the only muscle (it’s a muscular membrane)
that has a positive effect on clarinet playing when compelledЗАСТАВЛЯТЬ to re-
main in a state of flexion. When air is inhaled, and the diaphragm
is consciously expanded and held in place, all other muscle groups
in the body are free to relax and release whatever flexion may exist
prior to taking in the breath of air. For the purpose of clarinet
playing, those muscles should relax and release *before* the dia-
phragm is expanded and the air inhaled into the lungs. Start by
allowing all muscles to relax first, *then* simultaneously expand
the diaphragm and inhale.
Most players are so accustomed to the presence of physical tension throughout
Their bodies that it feels awkward and unsettling to play without it. Tension
provides an unproductive psychological anchor to which many players cling,
thinking that without this counter-productive muscular resistance, they have
no means to manipulate those muscles when playing. Only when playing has
been experienced without this tension will the power of fine muscular control
and motion become fully accessible.* Then it becomes a matter of developing
the muscles such that *only* that fine type of control is ever used – never to
return to the coarse and exaggerated motion which characterized the originally
tension-ridden playing. Once the floating sensation of playing without tension
is experienced and identified, it becomes a matter of invoking that sensation
every time you play, in exactly the same manner that you condition certain
muscles to operate within a narrow range of physical distance. How?
Practice, of course.
* (This “power” takes different forms, depending on the clarinet technique in
question. In the embouchure, for example, it takes the form of delicate yet
firm support of the mouthpiece and reed, using only the lips in an “ooh”
configuration, as if sucking on a drinking straw, except that you are blow-
ing. No jaw motion. Manipulations of tone quality, of intonation, of reed
response – all occur via infinitesimal muscular adjustments in the embou-
chure, imperceptible to the naked eye, yet fully perceptible and control-
able by the player, in conjunction with limitless control of the air
stream via the diaphragm.)
The following statements use similar language, but each is a separate concept
in the sequence of learning how to play without physical tension, ultimately
effecting optimum functionality in all areas of clarinet technique toward ef-
fortless playing. Maxim: if you find something difficult about playing the
clarinet, look first to identify any sources of tension. Address the tension
first, then move forward with the conditioning of those muscles involved in
making that area of performance an effortless one.
1. After learning how to manipulate air flow via an expanded diaphragm,
you must practice *maintaining* the diaphragm in an expanded state at
all times while playing, systemically focusing all physical tension in
that single area of the body, thereby allowing all other muscles to relax.
2. After learning how to maintain the diaphragm in an extended state while
playing, you must practice releasing the tension and flexion in all other
muscles *before* invoking the diaphragm technique in the first place.
Let the body relax as you sit or stand. From this state of rest, breathe
in and expand the diaphragm.
3. After learning how to relax all other muscles prior to inhaling, you must
practice maintaining that relaxation after releasing the air into the instru-
ment, which involves focusing your mental attention simultaneously on (1) the
physical sensation of maintaining a continuously expanded diaphragm and (2)
the physical sensation of the fact that all other muscles are still free of
tension while you play.
4. After learning how to begin and continue playing with relaxed muscles,
where the diaphragm is the only muscle in the body that is actively and
consciously flexed at all times, you are at liberty to develop maximum
facility of fine muscular motion in all areas of clarinet technique, which
will result in the realization of your maximum potential as a clarinetist.
a. Optimum facility of fine muscular motion is easy to develop, but it
takes time and discipline. It first involves constant vigilance to en-
sure that tension never creeps back into the body, something that can
be assured by maintaining the diaphragm in its extended state.
b. Further definition of what constitutes proper development of fine
muscular control and motion requires face-to-face guidance, which
is plainly beyond the scope of this essay.
This is about as much as I can say on the subject of breathing technique
and physical relaxation without feedback from readers, i.e.; comments and
questions relative to the content of this essay. I will make one last obser-
Have you ever been excited or upset or agitated, and somebody said to you,
“Calm down. Take a deep breath.”? If you heeded their advice, you may
have noticed that the act of taking a deep breath did indeed have a calming
effect on your state-of-mind and body. This is an issue I did not formally
discuss in the above essay, yet it is useful to recognize it as a facilitat-
ing by-product of proper breathing technique on the clarinet. The brain
craves oxygen at all times. When the brain senses that it is not receiving
enough oxygenated blood, it will send signals to the rest of the body and
quickly force you to address the issue. That’s what yawning is all about.
When you’re physically fatigued, the body’s autonomic breathing function is
slightly repressed, and you take in less oxygen than the brain considers
acceptable. The brain triggers the yawn reflex in this case, in effect forc-
ing you to compensate for the fact that you’re not breathing as deeply as
This wraps nicely around to the person’s question which prompted the
entire essay above. A person wrote to me, “My problem is: my long tones
last 15 seconds (and in the last seconds my body becomes stiff).” That
stiffness – the physical tension that arises as we run out of air while play-
ing – is an autonomic reflex of the brain, which “thinks” that it is being
denied the oxygen it requires to function. Relaxing the muscles before
playing, then breathing deeply, establishes a foundation of relaxation upon
which the playing you’re going to do may be optimally constructed. The
brain receives a fresh dose of oxygenated blood, prompting it to allow your
body’s muscles to *stay* relaxed while you use your air to generate a tone
on the clarinet. Via the diaphragm, you draw all tension away from the
body’s muscles, centering it in the abdominal region, allowing you to
sustain physical relaxation in all other muscle locations, even as you
reach the point of fully exhausting that original intake of air. Hence,
all areas of technique will remain consistent to the end of the musical
phrase. Your tone will not go thin or sharp, your fingers will not begin
to slow down and grip the instrument more tightly, your embouchure
will not pinch down on the reed as if in an attempt to squeeze more
oxygen out of it for consumption by the brain. And when you reach
the end of the air supply for that phrase, you simply take in more air,
continuing to use the expanded diaphragm technique to manage and
manipulate air flow and physical relaxation. When these things are
working well together, it’s natural that the mind begins to relax as
well. This is when it becomes possible to achieve effortless playing
of the clarinet.
> One of the major elements of "centering" your sound, and producing a
> "clear", "free blowing" sound is properly aligning the reed resonance with
> one of the strong resonance peeks of the air column.
John follows the above statement with further scientific data concerning
nodes and pitch frequencies and resonance cutoff points and such. I've not
seen any responses to his recent posts which engaged him specifically in
terms of his technical discourse -- most likely because very few of us
really understand how the data relate to our desire to improve as players.
Physicists and acousticians on the list may very well be nodding their heads
in favorable observation of scientific principles being used to explain
phsyical phenomena -- and indeed, it is invaluable for those with a desire
to understand *why* nodes and frequencies and resonance cutoff points affect
our playing. But when talking about improving one's abilities as a
clarinetist, I suspect more interest is directed toward clarinet-specific
experience and terminology, offering understanding of *how* to play better,
as opposed to why it works in narrow scientific terms.
For those clarinetists on the list who also understand wave theory and the
physics of sound production, John's comments probably make perfect sense
and might even help a few of them answer questions about their own playing.
But for the rest of us, John, can you offer us information based more on your
personal experiences...how experience of your own growth process and
physical sensations informed you in the direction of arriving at your
present level of playing excellence? Or did you really learn clarinet by
consciously applying physical scientific principles to your daily
practice regimen as a student? We want to tap into your knowledge and
experience, but we also want to understand what you're saying. Help!
> Now there are only two variables (assuming a fixed mouthpiece, reed and
> ligature) that we can control to effect reed resonance. Those two
> variables are amount of pressure and PLACEMENT of pressure. And they
> accomplish different things (so you cannot substitute one for the other).
I won't attempt to contest this statement, because I can neither prove
nor disprove its validity. I simply don't know enough about the physics
(or the relevance, for that matter) of "reed resonance" to digest what
has been written above. I'll just assume it is correct and try to
add something more to it. My own experience of achieving optimum reed
response and clarinet tone -- and thus, flexibility in all areas of tone
production -- involves determining on a per-reed basis the lowest
possible contact point between the reed and my lower lip which will
still allow me to produce a controllable tone. As I stated in a recent
post, emphasis on the embouchure as some kind of device for *producing*
tone is a mistake (John does not say this, but he also makes no mention
of certain other highly germane elements of tone production). I believe,
based on my own personal results, that formation and conditioning of the
embouchure should be undertaken contingent upon allowing a focused air
stream to initiate and manipulate the quality of tone. The embouchure
muscles need to be conditioned and well-developed, without question,
because their primary function is to facilitate, via the air stream, free
vibration of the reed. Where many students perceive the embouchure
muscles as things which press inward upon the reed and mouthpiece, I
suggest that merely the lips and sides of the mouth should exert any
pressure, and the surrounding facial muscles -- and jaw bone -- should be
conditioned to relax, allowing the air stream to do the "work". Much
like conditioning the diaphragm muscle to push downward and outward when
playing -- which is in direct opposition to how it is designed to naturally
*contract* -- one should endeavor to condition the facial muscles to
relax rather than push purposefully inward against the mouthpiece and
reed. Once the muscles have been toned and conditioned to relax,
attention should focus on the delicate vibratory sensations detectable
(very acutely) by the lips alone, in combination with manipulating the *air
stream* when attempting to manipulate tone and response.
How does one bring all of this mumbo-jumbo to fruition? Drop the jaw --
open the mouth with the embouchure intact on the mouthpiece -- as far as
you possibly can. In fact, even before involving the embouchure, start by
opening your mouth as wide as you possibly can, in an "ahhhh" formation,
as if you had just won the lottery and were registering the surprise on
your face (no need to open the eyes wide, in this case). With your jaw
fully extended downward like this, one of the first things you notice is
that the sides of the mouth are automatically pulled taut and inward toward
the center. What you also notice, if you're looking in a mirror, is that the
chin is wonderfully, perfectly flat -- and if you merely curled the lower
lip inward a little bit while keeping your mouth wide open, you would
have a picture-perfect lower half of your embouchure. In other words,
make an "oh" with your lips while your mouth is still wide open.
Having performed the above, close your mouth again and relax a little.
Breathe perfectly normally throughout the following exercise, through
your nose when necessary. Now, with your clarinet assembled and your
mouthpiece attached (including a reed), do the following: Open your mouth
-- not all the way this time, but enough that you can insert the mouthpiece
without making any contact with your lips. Now insert the tip of the
mouthpiece into your mouth normally -- as if you were about to play -- and
simply enclose the mouthpiece with your lips *without_exerting_ANY_muscular_
_pressure_whatsoever* from the lips, the facial muscles, or the jaw. Your
whole face should be completely relaxed, such that the lips are merely in
contact with the mouthpiece, enclosing it with a light seal. In this
configuration, now drop the jaw like you did before -- as open as you
possibly can -- while keeping the embouchure on the mouthpiece. With the
mouthpiece in the mouth, and the jaw dropped all the way, form an "oh" or
an "ooh" -- with the LIPS. Remember, no tension or flexion of the facial
muscles at any point -- just the lips. You may find, when you drop the
jaw, that the lower lip comes off of the mouthpiece. What this tells you
is something you already knew: the jaw is able to drop to such an extent
that the lower lip can be pulled _completely_off_of_the_reed by dropping
the jaw. This piece of information is important because it demonstrates
that the embouchure can be in contact with the reed without any pressure
from the jaw whatsoever. This is what you're shooting for. The way to
achieve it is just like I explained: Form the embouchure and then drop the
jaw as far as you can, to the point immediately before the lower lip
comes off of the reed. Now say "oh" with the lips while still pushing the
jaw downward, and voila: you've achieved the perfect embouchure. What's
left is conditioning and strengthening the facial muscles in this
position, in addition to learning how to create and sustain a focused air
stream. Then you have to combine the two elements, which is an even
Think of the facial muscles and embouchure in analogous terms to how you
should also understand use of the air supply: It doesn't take very much air
at all to initiate vibration of the reed. Beginning students, who have no
concept whatsoever of what it means to support or focus an air stream, equate
volume of sound with the volume of air being released into the mouthpiece. An
advanced player capitalizes on the power of the diaphragm -- NOT by using this
powerful muscle to force more air into the mouthpiece, but by sustaining
abdominal pressure which, in turn, sustains a continuously forward-directed
air stream from the lungs, through the wind pipe, into the oral cavity,
and across the reed into the clarinet. By developing the diaphragm's
strength and ability to sustain and support an air stream, one is able to
use an increasingly *smaller* quantity of air to produce *greater* volume
for longer periods of time. How? If the air is produced under constant
pressure from the diaphragm, there must be another way to regulate its
velocity, such that it can be used to manipulate reed vibration and
response. When you run water through a garden hose, diminishing the
opening of the hose with the tip of your finger causes the water to rush out
faster, while less of it seems to be escaping at the same time. You can
do that with your air as well, by manipulating the throat, tongue, and oral
cavity such that the air which does escape is focused prior to reaching
the embouchure. That's the key to using the diaphragm as a SUPPORT
device, rather than using it as a FORCE device. You use it only to
pressurize the air, while using other "body parts" to manipulate the
otherwise unfocused (but supported) air stream before it reaches the
This idea of support vs. force applies to the embouchure itself. If you
use the concepts from the previous paragraph analogously, you can equate
the lips with the air stream, and the surrounding facial muscles with the
diaphragm. The lips are the only part of the face which are in any
contact with the reed and mouthpiece. Again, no upward pressure from the
jaw pushing the lower teeth into the lower lip. The jaw is pushed
downward as far away from the reed as possible without actually
disengaging the lower lip. "But then how does the embouchure support the
air stream and vibration of the reed?" The lips themselves aren't very
strong. But those surrounding muscles -- in the sides of the mouth,
above the upper lips, and *especially* in the chin and outlining the jaw --
are quite strong. Think again about the air. If just the lungs and chest
are used to blow air into the mouthpiece, it's a feeble stream of air at best.
But by invoking the power of the diaphragm, you are able to bolster the
force and velocity of the air stream dramatically without any additional
strain on the chest or lungs (beyond breathing deeply and filling them up
with air, of course). While the lips are not powerful, you can use the
surrounding musculature to lend the necessary support in order to support
the air stream and reed vibration. And it takes practice. You have to
practice *using* those muscles, invoking them by making yourself refrain
from using the jaw, making sure that only the lips are exerting pressure
on the mouthpiece. As I said in a previous post, there is absolutely no
way the lips, by themselves, can exert the kind of pressure which could
possibly inhibit vibration of the reed. And something I failed to
mentioned earlier in the exercise concerning opening your mouth wide: it
obviously increases the volume of your oral cavity. This gives the
tongue room to position itself for optimum articulation, and for optimum
flexibility when focusing the air stream.
> Certainly, it is possible to find an optimal average placement of the
> pressure on a reed. And this is of course what we should refer to in
> teaching students a nice "stable" embouchure. Equally as certain,
> however, is that without some adjustments to the PLACEMENT, in addition
> to the amount, of pressure one CANNOT achieve optimal sound production
> on all notes of the clarinet. >
I partially disagree with this notion and, in essence, I believe I also
disagree with its fundamental assertion. Something I stated earlier in
this post was with respect to placement of the lower lip on the reed. My
very successful practice has been to determine, on a per-reed basis, the
lowest possible contact point between my lower lip and the reed, which
will still enable me to produce a controllable tone in all registers, given
my ability to manipulate the air stream and the very subtle pressure
modulations from my embouchure. I take in a commensurate amount of
mouthpiece in order to accomodate how low on the reed I go. Regardless
of mouthpiece and ligature considerations, it is a very simple matter to
determine how much reed can be taken into the mouth before it is
impossible not to squeak -- assuming the reed is not prone to squeaking
as a design flaw. I look for that point and then place the lower lip
just above it on the reed. I've effectively discovered the lowest
fulcrum point, where the greatest possible amount of reed is vibrating,
subject now simply to minute adjustments of embouchure pressure and air
stream focus in order to manipulate the sound and make music. Any
adjustments of embouchure are with respect to pressure only (and are of
the smallest and most delicate degree), for I do not modulate the contact
point between my lower lip and the reed in question. When I take a
breath during performance, I've already memorized how much mouthpiece to
take in and know exactly where to replace my lower lip. If you were to
watch my embouchure during peformance, you would see practically no
movement whatsoever, and certainly no adjustment of placement on the reed.
> However, to those who would advocate this position, I would ask:
> What is your reason for limiting your playing capability?
What I've discovered is that by determining a given reed's greatest
potential for vibration prior to uncontrollabe squeaking, I've
effectively eliminated the reed as a variable and have made it part of
the "control" in the grand clarinet playing "experiment" each time I
play. I achieve the greatest possible range in dynamics and expression for
that given reed by giving it the greatest opportunity to produce sound within
its potential. The rest of the adjustments come from me, where my ability to
adjust air stream focus, velocity, and volume -- in addition to infinitesimal
modulations of pressure from my lips -- facilitate every manner of
expressive capacity on the instrument.
> And remember the answer "Well, when I move my embouchure, I have
> difficulties," is not a valid answer, as that is a blanket
> statement that is true of any new technique being learned.
I used to adjust position on the reed, and then I discovered how powerful
and flexible my air could be...and the embouchure eventually just became a
fixed yet facile aperture which allowed the air to do the work almost
entirely by itself.
I was teaching an adult student a few years back, and we were working on the concept of tonguing. I would
demonstrate how to blow air and then use the tongue to interrupt the reed without interrupting the air flow.
Try as she might, the student could not keep the air going while placing the tongue against the reed. In subsequent
lessons, we discussed the concept of air support, what it is, and how she could use air speed to influence pitch, tone
quality, dynamic control, and attacks in the upper clarion register. It was during this lesson that my student said, "
I have determined that the reason I cannot do what you are demonstrating is that I need to develop better control
over the way I use my air." On her own, she had deduced that control of the air speed was paramount to achieving
the next level of control in her playing.
What exactly is air speed? I have heard it referred to as air support, air temperature, air flow, constant air, "pushing,"
flexed diaphragm, and a host of other descriptors. For the purposes of this article, air speed will be defined as the
speed of the air determined by the size of the air stream that we imagine is directed at the reed. For example, if one
were to think of a tiny plastic straw and the amount of air they could blow through that straw and still blow out a
candle flame on the opposite side of the straw, that would be fast air. The adverse would be to blow a very warm air
stream through a toilet paper tube at the same candle - just enough to get the flame to bend a little. One can also
think of air speed as equivalent to air temperature. Try this experiment: Holding your hand in front of your nose and
mouth, form an embouchure and breathe very warm, almost hot, air onto the palm of your hand. Notice the speed of
the air is slow. Now repeat the exercise, this time blowing a very cold air stream against the palm of your hand. Again,
notice the speed of the air is faster than before. Where exactly is the change taking place that allows one air stream to
be warm (slow) and the other to be fast (cold)? Is the air support different, or is the air speed separate from the
support system? If the latter, what controls the speed of the air?
The problem with using air speed as a teaching tool is synonymous with using tongue position as a teaching tool: both
can be so confusing to the student that something undesirable in the playing could occur, thus compounding the issue
at hand. Change of air speed should and can be as subconscious a technique as forming the embouchure or tonguing
on the reed. Still, knowing how and when to use slow air vs. fast air will ultimately give a person control over their
When I was in college, I used to think of long tone exercises as a means to developing embouchure strength. In fact,
it is a very good way to develop superb embouchure strength and tiny muscle control. However, it is even more
valuable as a means for developing control over the air stream in conjunction with the embouchure. A good example
of a long tone exercise might be to start on an open G with the tongue on the reed at the softest controlled volume
possible, crescendo to the loudest controlled volume - sustain for a few seconds, and then fade out to nothing.
Repeat this exercise for every note of the chromatic scale down to low E. Control upper lip, corners, quality of tone
for every note and dynamic played. Every shade of grey should be heard in the volume on both the way up and
especially the way down. During each note's crescendo and decresendo, monitor the tone. Is it clear and controlled?
Is there any "garbage" in the sound (reed hiss, air hiss, tip buzz, etc.)? Does the note begin exactly when you want it to?
Can you hear every detail of the tone as it descrescendos to absolute niente? Did the sound cut out on you or fade in
and out? If the latter two occurred, you were squeezing off the reed or you were allowing the back of the throat
(tongue) to negatively affect the air stream. Perhaps the most important realization that comes from doing long
tones is that slow air can be equated to softer dynamics, and fast air is often associated with louder dynamics.
While playing the long tones, were you aware of a point at which the slow air stream (warm) gradually turned to a
faster (colder) air stream? That point of departure should be one that is seamless from air speed to air speed, and
it is the critical skill to develop. Once successful with the chromatic long tones in the chalumeau register, repeat
the exercise in the clarion register beginning on long B and ascending chromatically to high C. The position in the
back of the throat (tongue) will be much less exaggerated than for the low register, and any slight movement during
the long tone will have a much greater impact in the clarion register than it did in the chalumeau. Notice the way the
embouchure, lips, and muscles surrounding the nose, upper lip, and cheeks work to make each note clear and
controlled. Most teachers (myself included) stress no movement in the embouchure, but, in fact, there is always
microscopic movement and adjustment on each note.
The air speed is related to the back of the throat tongue position. Think "Heee" and breathe out. A hiss results. By
keeping steady support and pushing air through a smaller opening, the air speeds up. Now think "Hah" and breathe
out. The tongue in the back has dropped and the aural cavity has become bigger. The air is now more spread in it's
approach to the reed, resulting in a slower air speed. Tongue position in the back should not be confused with what
the middle of the tongue and the soft palate are doing. Say "Yew" and notice where the back of the tongue is during
the word. Now repeat the word and see where the middle of the tongue begins the word and where it ends up at the
end of the word. Repeat the procedure with the word "Yo." The positions you notice, both in the back of the throat
and in the middle tongue position, affect ability to realize different registers on the instrument. You can further
experiment by overblowing the partial for open G. The next "squeak" to come out is high D. Be aware of the
difference in tongue position for these two notes. The D position is the correct tongue placement for the beginning
of the altissimo register. Notice how the embouchure didn't have to change and no squeezing of the reed was
necessary? Repeat this procedure moving down from open G to F, E, D, and C. You should be able to get two
overblown partials out for E (high B, and altissimo G). The notes that come out in the upper partials, without
the aid of the register key, will be flat in pitch. Don't be concerned about the pitch issue. Once the correct fingerings
are used, the note, if played the same tongue position used in overblowing the partial, will be very close to in tune.
The point I am making with regard to back of the tongue placement for air speed and middle of the tongue position
for register changes is that the tongue serves several functions beyond articulation. It is easy to get them mixed up.
For general playing, we tend to use moderately fast to very fast air. In band, students spend most of their time playing
with fast air. It is for this reason that most students do not control slow (warm) air as well as they do fast (cold) air.
This is why high school and jr. high school band directors are frustrated with pitch and control of very soft playing
by the clarinet section. Most students are trying to play the soft passage by using fast air and biting or squeezing to
get softer. This causes the pitch to rise, the tip of the reed to buzz, and the tone to occasionally cut out on the student.
In fact, it is most noticeable in the clarion register (eg. from G on the top of the staff up to high C).
A great example for use of warm air is the opening of the Adagio movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, K. 622.
To begin with, most students do not attack the first note at the dynamic of piano with a perfect, resonant tone.
Beyond the initial attack, all of the skips between notes within the first eight measures are usually accompanied
by a sub-tone or hesitation before the upper note. Sub-tones can and usually are caused by incorrect tongue position
(back of throat) - most often for clarion A, B, and high C. Sometimes the student is close enough to the correct tongue
position that using a slower air speed will allow the notes to connect quite nicely. More often than not, however, the
student is trying to play the entire opening with fast air speed, very little mouthpiece, and is squeezing the reed to play
softer. This kind of approach will result in sharp pitch on some notes, lack of flexibility between intervals, and a thinner,
less resonant sound quality.
Another example for use of warm air is Exercise No. 1 from Rose 40 Etudes. The first two measures contain everything
needed to tell the student if they are using the correct speed of air. While most teachers use this exercise as a platform
for teaching legato finger technique, it is also great for developing correct air speed. If the notes are not connecting
perfectly at quarter = 72, and if fingers are working properly, the issue will most likely be how air is getting to the reed.
A more advanced work that requires enormous control of air speed is the Premiere Rhapsody by Claude Debussy. The
first line of the Rhapsody requires very slow air - that is - until the last measure in which the rapid crescendo occurs. It
is critical that the student be capable of seamlessly moving between slow to fast air and back. The ascending
arpeggiated motifs that occur just before the accelerated and articulated cadenza on the first page are very good
examples of technique that works best with a slow air speed. Many students try to play these passages with fast air
, and the tone sounds more "forced" than it does natural.
Finally, control of the air speed can do a lot to help a clarinetist do a lot to conserve air and use it efficiently over long
phrases. I was working with a student this past week on the Baermann cadenza in the First Concerto by von Weber
and he was unable to make the entire phrase in one breath. He was using fast air to play the technical passage - very
fast air. Register skips were not connecting, the tone between registers was changing character, and he was running
out of air much faster than he should have. By asking him to play a long tone on clarion G (top of the staff), and then
play the entire passage with the kind of air speed he used on the end of the long tone (descrescendo), he made the
passage in one breath! I think it was a revelation to him to see how controlling of the speed of the air helped his
efficiency in using the air over a longer passage. It will be interesting to see how he uses that knowledge in future
Understanding how air gets to the reed and at what speed the air controls a particular passage in a given register is a
great tool to have available. Some general guidelines then:
Practice long tones daily - in the lowest and clarion registers. Be picky about them.
Practice intervals beginning on long C (third space on the staff) - moving up one step to D, back to C, up to E, back to
C, up to F, back to C and so forth until reaching high C. Play it all piano and make sure every note connects perfectly.
Practice intervals beginning on high C - moving one ? step lower to B, back to C, down to A, back to C, down to G,
back to C and so forth until reaching long C. Be sure to increase air for the lower notes and readjust air for the skip
back to high C without negatively affecting the connection between the two.
Always maintain a "correct" embouchure - without the freedom the correct embouchure gives the reed, air speed will
make very little difference.
Know that air speed is a result of how air is shaped in the back of the throat - NOT a result of less air in.
Always take a deep breath!
Tongue position in the back of the throat is related to air speed. Explore the infinite differences between an "Eeee"
position and an "Ahhhh" position.
Don't mix up tongue position as it relates to air speed and tongue position as it relates to register changes.
Roger Garrett is currently the full time Clarinet Professor at Illinois Wesleyan University where he teaches clarinet,
conducts the Symphonic Winds, and teaches conducting. Prior to teaching at Illinois Wesleyan University, Mr. Garrett
taught in the public schools of Longview, WA and Bozeman, MT. He earned his degrees from the University of
Michigan where he studied clarinet with David Shifrin, Herbert Blayman, and John Mohler. Mr. Garrett is currently
principal clarinetist with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra in Peoria, IL.
that I have used in the classroom and studio for 17 years with good success. My goal is to provide some input for the
non-clarinetist band director, or for a student that doesn't study privately.
To establish the feel of a good attack, place the tongue on the reed 1/4 inch back from the tip of the reed. To start the
tone, build up wind pressure against the tongue and say the syllable "tee". Saying the syllable "tee" when starting the
tone keeps the tongue arched. The consonant "t" starts the attack. The vowel sound "ee" maintains the arch and
minimizes the distance for the tongue to move. Only the tip of the tongue actually moves. The tongue should be
released from the reed precisely with the start of the air. Compare the sensation to the water in a garden hose being
released. The water pressure doesn't stop when you release the nozzle trigger; thus, your wind doesn't stop when you
start your attack. The attack is only established when there is continual pressure of air against the mouthpiece with
abdominal support. The tongue acts as a valve, releasing and stopping the flow of air through the instrument with the
pressure remaining constant (like the garden hose).
Below is a good approach to use in initially developing the tongue action. It is an exercise by Janis A. Brown, Clarinet
Instructor at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas. I use it with minor modifications to match my
teaching style. This exercise is excellent for producing a good attack and also for assuring a proper tongue arch.
Carefully follow the instructions below:
1. Have the student whisper: "he, he, he, he" repeatedly on quarter notes.
2. Change the syllable "he, he, he, he" to "tee, tee, tee, tee."
Your tongue should be near the roof of your mouth and the tip of your tongue near the tip of the reed. Work with
only the mouthpiece and barrel; try to achieve a crispness in each attack. Concentrate on moving only the tip of
the tongue, tonguing 1/4 inch back from the reed tip.
Common Articulation Problems
The list of problems below (1-5) are the list of problems described in the Westphal's Guide to Teaching Woodwinds,
William C Brown, publisher. They deal with the most common problems of young clarinetists; again I have adapted
them to my teaching style.
1. Movement of the jaw in tonguing. Caused by too large or too violent movements from the tongue. Care should be
taken to keep the base of the tongue motionless.
Solution: Practice basic principles of articulation in the mirror. Carefully observe the jaw for any unnecessary motion.
2. Sluggish tongue. Caused by improper tongue placement onto the reed.
Solution: Work on tongue placement. Practice slowly with a rhythmic approach exercises that let you think about the
tongue placement and position. Try practicing quarter notes, eighths, triplets, sixteenths and then thirty second notes
on a variety of ranges.
3. Hard attack. Caused by too much tongue pressure against the reed/or too much tongue is in contact with the reed.
Solution: Work for lighter attacks and getting the tongue 1/4" back from the tip of the reed.
4. Poor staccato. Caused by lack of breath support (assuming the tongue placement is correct).
Solution: Sustained, continuous breath support is needed. The support should be relaxed between staccato notes, then tightened simultaneously with the beginning of the note. Review the tonguing concepts at the top of the page so you can properly analyze your approach. In order to analyze your tonguing motion, staccato should be practiced slowly at first. Strive for the same arc on each attack, with the same amount of impact of the tongue on the reed. The Klose 25 Daily Exercises (New York: Carl Fisher) is excellent for staccato practice. Another valuable book for both staccato and legato playing is the Rose 40 Studies for Clarinet (New York: Carl Fisher) number 5, 6, 8, 11, 16, 17 and 19 are great staccato exercises.
5. Lack of coordination between the tongue and fingers. This is the result of practicing and playing too fast without the
essential slow working out process. Foundation is built from slow repetition. Usually it is the fingers that are too slow.
Solution: Practice at slow, manageable tempos at first. Practice "driving" your fingers ahead when you are aware they are late. Avoid the temptation to "slam" the fingers down as it cause unevenness and tension in playing. Fingers must move the same distance, slightly above the keys.
Other problems to be on the lookout for are the following:
-- relaxing the air at the end of a note;
-- "gushing" air at the start of each note;
-- undefined (or fuzzy) attacks due to using an improper syllable starting the note.
Care should be taken on entrances to make sure the tongue and air start simultaneously. A big, full sound is more
conducive to good articulation than an unsupported tone. No noticeable throat motion should be evident. If the throat
is moving it usually means you are using too much tongue for each attack.
Exercises for the tongue involve many other aspects of clarinet technique (the
air column, most predominantly), but the fundamental tenet for proper
articulation technique resides in physical relaxation. It is impossible to
effect clear articulation when the tongue (which is just another muscle) is
tense. While not set in stone as a rule, it is highly recommeded that tonguing
exercises be performed in conjunction with a metronome, in order to develop
rhythmic sensitivity, as well as to guage one's progress in the quest for even,
accurate, and rapid articulation.
One possible exercise: Set your metronome at around 50 beats per minute, where
each beat is a quarter note. This is a legato exercise, intended to develop
sensitivity between the tip of the tongue and the tip of the reed. Begin with
a full breath, tonguing one note per beat on, say, throat G (or throat E for
stability, if you like) for as long as you can sustain the note. Attempt to
create as smooth a connection as possible between each repetition of the note,
allowing the tip of the tongue to merely brush gently across the tip of the
reed, creating as miniscule a separation as possible between each rendering of
the note. Do this exercise a couple of times, taking in a full breath each
time and playing the study until you run out of air. Attempt to sustain the
note with the air, allowing the tongue to "ride" on the stream of air, as
relaxed as possible.
Performing a slow exercise such as the one above will allow you to concentrate
separately on a number of different aspects pertaining to well-defined
* The tip of the tongue should not be very far from the tip of the reed
* The same area of the tongue's tip should strike the reed _every single time_
* The tongue should be raised in the back, focusing the air stream, allowing
the air to relax the tongue muscle (which means you're supporting amply from
the diaphragm) and sustain the vibration of the reed without any distortion
of sound with each release of the tongue from the reed
* The embouchure must be firmly set (not tense, mind you), such that the reed
is allowed to vibrate evenly and without inhibition
* The AIR initiates and sustains the sound - not the tongue. This is why it's
so important to relax the tongue - in order to allow the air to do its work.
If the tongue is tense, that tension will carry over into the embouchure
vice versa), interfering with vibration of the reed and frustrating the
It is common knowledge that articulation studies also have a remedial effect on
a weak or poorly defined embouchure. Basically stated, it's impossible to
effect a good staccatto when the embouchure is improperly or inadequately
developed. Interestingly, the simply act of articulation studies has a way of
exercising the muscles of the embouchure, as well as conditioning one to
properly focus the air stream in order to effect the most desirable
Another possible exercise: Set the metronome between 50 and 60 beats per
minute, where each beat is a quarter note. This whole exercise should be
played in the key of C, with no accidentals. Starting on chalumeau C (below
the staff), slur from C to G in 16th notes (as if you were playing the scale)
and back down again. Upon arrival at C again, play it staccatto and reverse
direction, ascending up the first five notes of the scale STACCATTO, and
staccatto back down again. You are, in effect, playing up and down the first
five notes of the scale - legato the first time, staccato the second. When
descending the scale the second time, in staccato, do not continue all the way
back down to C again. Instead, stop at D and use it as a new starting point.
When you reach D on your staccatto descent, play it twice - once staccatto as a
completion of the first scale, and then play it legato as the starting point of
a new scale beginning on that note. All of this should be done in tempo.
The logic behind playing a scale segment legato first, and THEN staccatto, is
that you are first acquainting yourself with the sensation of allowing the
notes to be created and sustained solely by the air column. Repeating the
segment staccatto is merely an introduction of an interruptive mechanism to the
reed (not the air!), wherein the reed is momentarily prevented from vibrating,
but the air column remains CONSTANT. This is crucial. Allow the air to do the
work, sustaining the note, sustaining the vibration of the reed, and allowing
the tongue to relax as it moves ever-so-slightly forward (assuming it isn't
very far from the reed tip to begin) and lightly brushes across the tip of the
reed to halt its vibration for a fraction of a milisecond.
Continue the exercise from chalumeau to clarion C, and then back down again,
five notes at a time.
If you're wondering where I got all of this from, the exercises are from my
teacher. The logic and rationale behind them were gleaned purely by
experience, by doing the exercises consistently and understanding their worth
as my articulation technique developed. All aspects of clarinet technique
ultimately come down to physical relaxation, as facilitated by proper use of
the air supply, which in turn fuels the rest of the technical mechanism of
clarinet playing. I'm rusty nowadays, but the above exercises, in combination
with a balanced approach to technical development in all areas, enabled me to
reach a smooth, effortless, and (perhaps most relevant) sustainable
articulation speed of 160 - single tongue. I'm doing those exercises now, and
expect to regain proper and refined articulation technique in a very short
period of time.
As far as articulation is concerned, you are supposed to keep the
air going through the clarinet, and lightly (and gently) strike the reed
with your tongue repeaedly. I personally would call the sound
"du--du--du--du--du", but other people on the list may think
"dee--dee--dee--dee" or have another syllable. As you practice your
"du--du's" or "dee-dee's", you are learning to play a beautiful legato
articulation. I am teaching all of my students how to slur their scales
and articulate them in a legato style. I don't even bother to think
about staccato until the legato sounds really good. Most of their
staccato's sound terrible, like "chwut--chwut", and I feel that it is
important to get control of the continuous air with the tongue
interrupting the air, cleanly, before going on to staccato. With
staccato, you just leave the toungue on the reed longer, making a longer
space between notes. Eventually you are able to play "staccatismo" (is
their such a word?) phrases gracefully, without those terrible "chwut"
and "thud"-like sounds. Daniel Bonade talked about articulation in is
publication "Compendium" for clarinet, where he tries to explain
articulation and has exercises for it. I believe that STARK also has 2
volumes of articulation studies.
When I teach articulation, I start with a basic rhythm pattern on
one note, say for example, straight sixteenths, or eighths and
sixteenths, for one or 2 bars in 4/4 time, and then move up the scale
diatonically repeating the pattern, so that it feels comfortable on each
degree of the scale. Then play the scale up-&-down in eights,
repeatedly. I have a few 11-year olds who can bounce up & down their
scales (up to 3 #'s and 3 b's) very nicely (usually). They have some
idiot band directors who encourage them to "thud"and "chwut", which
makes it hard to maintain good articulation. The band directors, usually
brass players, are trying to "demand" staccato immediately, so that
(they think) their bands will sound "better".
Articulation is an ongoing process of stiking the reed just right
with the air still going. Most young people want to stop blowing in
between notes and stab at them, like with a knife or machine gun.
Something which my old teacher once said to me was, "You have to have a
good embouchure in order to have a good staccato." I didn't understand
his logic at the time, but I decided to apply the concept in reverse,
thinking, "Well, maybe working on my tonguing technique will spark some
development in my embouchure along the way."
His recommendation for the process was to learn how to play as perfectly
a legato articulation as possible, to the level where the separation
between notes was nearly imperceptible. This requires the tongue to be
very very light, which in turn requires a great deal of relaxation.
I began by picking throat G with the metronome set at somewhere in the
40 range. The complete exercise involved simply playing legato quarter
notes (4 of them), followed by four 8th-note couplets (8 notes total),
followed by four 8th-note triplets (12 notes total), followed by four
16th note quadruplets (16 notes total). As I played this seemingly
brainless exercise, I began to focus my attention on a number of
different areas of technique, beginning with the point of contact
between my tongue and the reed. Because the exercise proceeded at such a
slow tempo, I had time to focus one-at-a-time on each area of relevance
and pay serious attention to indicators which let me know whether I was
moving in the right direction.
Point of Contact Between Tongue and Reed
Many players advocate that the point of contact upon the reed by the
tongue should be slightly back from the very tip of the tongue.
Everybody figures out what works best for them, and having the tongue
contact the reed precisely at the tip of the tongue turned out to be the
best configuration for me. As I performed the exercise, I "searched" for
the physical sensation, by my tongue, which informed me that the very
tip of the tongue was, in fact, making contact with the reed. Over the
course of time and development (this may seem a little gross), I began
to practice articulation studies so much that the tip of my tongue
actually bled a little bit. This wasn't a problem, for the tongue heals
very quickly (I've heard it's one of the fastest healing parts of the
body, for whatever reason). Paying attention to the physical sensation,
in conjunction with the red "marker" made it very clear whether or not I
was using the correct area of my tongue when articulating. As an aside,
I heard an anecdote where Robert Marcellus worked so hard at his
tonguing during one particular practice session that his embouchure
began to "give out", and he started spewing spit and blood out the sides
of his mouth as a result, not satisfied with the progress he was making.
This diminished my alarm when I would finish a practice session and find
my reed saturated red, a small chunk of flesh missing from the tip of my
tongue. Needless to say, I don't think this type of extremism is at all
necessary for steady advance in the area. The blood & stuff will NOT
occur, by the way, merely from the legato exercise described above.
Air velocity and support
Something that every developing clarinetist must work on over the course
of his/her growth is long tones. Doing long tones has countless benefits
when done consistently and with good mental focus. Performing the
aforementioned legato tonguing exercise also does double-duty as a long
tone exercise, the difference from "normal" long tones merely being that
you insert the tongue at a steady interval while sustaining the flow of
air upon the reed. Why is this helpful? Because in order to achieve the
ultimate lightness and legato in the tongue, you must teach yourself to
let the air: a) relax the tongue and b) facilitate uninterrupted
vibration of the reed. These two components in tandem will pave the way
to effortless tonguing at as fast a speed as you are potentially
Bear in mind that learning any manifold skill is an additive process
whereby the endgame is to integrate all disparate elements of the skill
into a singularly unified concept, actuated via a single mechanism. In
the case of tonguing (as in the case of so many other areas of
consummate clarinet technique), the advanced and proper use of the air
stream is the actuating mechanism. Your goal is to be able to simply
breathe deeply and have the tongue assume the proper relaxed
configuration inside the oral cavity automatically, where its function
is subordinate to the flowing air column, and it makes contact with the
reed at the proper contact point all by itself.
Thus, while you are lightly brush-stroking the tip of the reed with the
tip of your tongue (say "tee-ahh", or perhaps "Lee-ahh" while your lips
say, "oh" -- these two ideas can be integrated by saying "tee-ew"),
switch focus in the middle of the exercise and notice what you are doing
with your airstream. If your tongue is properly shaped (arched in the
back of your mouth, touching the back molars with the sides, but flat
and low in the front), the air should flow over the arched tongue in the
back, automatically directing a focused air stream toward the front
across the reed (not down into the mouthpiece). That air stream must be
under continuous support from the diaphragm, and the diaphragm is the
only part of your anatomy which should manifest any physical "tension"
whatsoever while you play. This applies at all times, regardless of
context. If you are sustaining proper diaphragmatic support, then begin
to focus on the velocity of the air stream as it passes through your
embouchure and across the reed. At lower dynamic levels, your air
support and velocity need to be increased in order to sustain consistent
vibration of the reed, lest physical tension arise in the lips or jaw
and work against free reed vibration. At all times, in all playing
contexts, the physical cause of unwanted tension in the body during
playing is a result of an unsupported air stream, where the diaphragm
relaxes and tension travels to another body part, confounding relaxation
and control. This includes the tongue. Once the transfer of physical
tension has begun, it is often difficult to counteract, even when ample
air intake and support are restored.
In order for the air to do its job, all other variables in technique
must be individually and systematically eliminated. Stable tongue
position is vital, which means you must establish the correct
configuration and then recreate it on command every time. The tip of the
tongue at all times should be positioned as close to the reed as
possible without actually making contact. This makes the process of
articulation a very subtle one, requiring the utmost relaxation and
control, especially at the very tip. When the tongue is arched in the
back using the syllable "ew" while saying "oh" with the lips, the tip of
the tongue should automatically drop flat in the front of the mouth,
conveniently placing it in a position level with the tip of the reed.
The act of articulation at this point is then a "simple" matter of
moving the tongue a couple of millimeters forward, making contact with
the reed, and then quickly pulling it back those same two millimeters to
its starting position. The principle is very simple, but the process of
conditioning the tongue muscle to assume the correct position and then
be relaxed enough to quickly/delicately touch the reed tip and pull away
again demands much meticulous focus and attention to physical sensation
and sound effect.
TONGUING AND ARTICULATION:
I have discovered through experience that the double tonguing part of the
technique is not only easier than the triple tonguing, but it is also more
useful. I use triple tonguing wherever it is appropriate, of course, but
double tonguing is needed more often. For this reason, if you have much
greater difficulty with the triple tonguing, you should forget all about
it until you have practiced on-the-reed double tonguing for quite some
time. Let several months pass, if necessary, between learning double and
triple tonging. For some clarinetists, of course, triple tonguing will
present no more problems than double tonguing.
Finally, if you have terrible difficulties coordinating the tonguing
technique with your moving fingers, the cause of the trouble will be,
almost invariably, the tongue's moving far too quickly! It is your tongue
that is ahead, not your fingers that are behind. Remember that you have
literaly doubled the effective speed of your tongue tip. You must remind
yourself that you have become capable of tremendously fast tongue speeds,
while the tongue itself should feel lazy, relaxed, and slow. I had one
student whose only difficulty with double tonguing, from the very first
day he tried it, was to slow it down enough so that his speed could be
measured on a metronome! After several minutes of experimentation he
finally slowed it down enough that, while he held a long open G, I
"clocked" his double tonguing tempo at four beautifully tongued notes per
beat at a metronome marking of 160.
On-the-reed multiple tonguing, as I have described it, continues to please
me very much. I have now used it for several years and I have taught it
successfully to players who have been interested in learning it. I spent
most of one summer gaining a command of the technique, and during that
time I never let it take up too much of my practice time at any one
sitting. During the following fall, I felt confident enough to use
on-the-reed double tonguing during one of my solo clarinet recitals. My
naturally slow tongue need never be a problem again, and that is
THE PROCEDURE FOR LEARNING ON-THE-REED MULTIPLE TONGUING
PART1: The Introduction to the Technique
Record the metronome markings at which you can single-tongue repeated open
Gs both four to a beat and three to a beat.
Momentarily putting the clarinet aside, simply sit in a good playing
position and say the words "Tuttle-uttle-uttle-uttle" (etc.) making sure
that the tongue remains low, relaxed, and wide across the middle; not
Take up the clarinet and single-tongue a few repetitions of open G again,
this time at only a medium tempo. This is just to become reacquainted with
the reed, and to relax the tongue. Begin a fairly long open G with a
regular single-tongued stroke, taking care to pronounce it "Tuh" as in the
first syllable of the word "Tuttle." Do this a few times, totally relaxing
the tongue during each held tone.
Begin another open G with "Tuh" but this time finish the word "Tuttle" by
returning the tongue to the reed after "Tuh" in the manner of "tle." This
second stroke should carry the tip of the tongue up past the tip of the
reed to the roof of the mouth, and it should leave the middle of the
tongue relaxed and broad across the bottom of the mouth.
Staying relaxed, return the tip of the tongue to its resting position b y
passing it downward over the tip of the reed, pronouncing the s yllable
The tongue is now ready for another upward stroke, as in pronouncing a
nother "tle," and to be brushed past the reed tip again on its way t
owards the roof of the mouth. Now another downward stroke, brushing past
the reed tip again, to r eturn to the resting position in the bottom of
the mouth. Repeat this whole process, quicker but still without extreme
speed; in o ther words, do a very relaxed, smooth, and even
"Tuttle-uttle-Uh." The last syllable could also be "Ah" if desired. Remove
the reed and mouthpiece from the mouth and say again, "
Tuttle-uttle-uttle-uttle" (etc.). Replace the clarinet into the embouchure
and do it again on the open G, this time adding another stroke:
"Tuttle-uttle-uttle-uttle-Uh." Stay relaxed throughout, aim for evenness.
Keep practicing this on open G until the double tonguing begins to sound
like very fast single tonguing, very smooth, even, and homogeneous. The
tongue need not move quickly to achieve this similarity.
At this point you should stop practicing this technique. It is very
important to let the tongue rest now. Normal practicing, using only the
usual single tonguing technique, may be resumed. Follow this procedure
again later at other practice sessions, still using open G only, until you
are satisfied that the effect is a good one, and that the up-and-down
strokes sound identical to a listener.
After you are satisfied with the effect, record the metronome marking at
which you can tongue four open Gs to the beat by using this form of double
tonguing. Compare this with your fastest tempo for single tonguing four
notes to the beat. (Triple tonguing comes later.)
PART II: The Development of Double Tonguing
Extend the procedure (a tong tone followed by
"Tuttl-uttle-tuttle-uttle-Uh," etc.) from open G to thumb F, low C, low F,
thumb F again, top-line F, fourth-space E, throat E, low E, low F again,
low C again, and finally thumb F again.
After doing that exercise on thumb F, do the following also on that note:
Tuh-tuttle-uttle-uttle-Uh" in the rhythm of: (music). Repeat the foregoing
exercise, and then slur this passage: (music)
Now, using the double-tonguing technique, play the following exercise:
The next step is to repeat the last exercise, this time tonguing every
note in all four measures rather than slurring the last two. In this
manner, double tonguing has been accomplished while rapidly changing
pitches. Now do the following two four-measure exercises (first, the one
containing a slurred scale; second, the same one played all tongued) up a
whole step, thus transposing them from F major to G major: (music)
Transpose all eight measures (the two exercises together have become one
longer one) down to E pure minor in the lowest octave of the clarinet's
range. Now transpose the eight-measure exercise back to F major, then to G
major, and then to E minor again. A rest for the tongue should occur here;
put off further practice of the technique until another occasion.
The next transposition of the eight-measure exercise is to G major in the
second octave. In other words, play the exercise as it is printed above,
in the key of G, but take it up an octave. When satisfied with that, next
do it in F major down a whole step, so that its range begins on top-line F
and ends on thumb F.
The next step is to transpose the same exercise into any or all descending
one-octave major or minor scales, but avoid the range above G on top of
the staff. Do this until crossing the "break" downward is satisfactory.
Having become satisfied with your execution of one-octave descending major
and minor scales over the "break," double-tongue the following exercise.
In syllables this exercise would be pronounced "Tuh-tuttle-uttle-uttle-Uh,
tuttle-uttle-uttle-Uh." (Again, the last syllable could be "Ah" if that
seems more natural.)
Double-tongue this last exercise as slowly as possible and as fast as
possible. Rest from this by throwing in an occasional run-through at a
medium, comfortable tempo.
Transpose it now up a step to G major, and then to G minor at the same
pitch. For variety, do all three forms of G minor. Now transpose it up an
octave to G minor beginning on the G on top of the staff. In this manner
you encounter double tonguing over the "break" ascending. (Do not try that
particular octave yet in G major.) Now rest the Tongue.
When rested, or at a later practice session, transpose that exercise down
a step to F major (not F minor yet). Make that work satisfactorily by
employing the same over-the-break principles you have always used: Keep
the fingers relaxed, the air flowing smoothly, and use as little finger
movement as possible. It will probably help to put the right hand down
when ascending from B-flat to C-natural at the "break."
Next, go back to the G scale up a step again, this time playing it in
major. Now the "break" will occur between A-natural and B-natural. Employ
the same principles of smoothness and relaxation. After this can be done
to good effect, transpose the same exercise to any and all major and minor
scales for one octave, using the range again from low E up to no higher
than G on top of the staff.
Continue exactly the same thing, but now extend the range of the scale
exercise higher, going no higher than high C-natural. Now the exercise
must be reversed.
Take this new exercise up one octave.
Now take it up another octave, which which will extend your
double-tonguing range to high F. Now up one step to G major, which extends
the double-tonguing range to high G.
Next, practice two- and three-octave major and minor scales, four notes to
the beat, all over the range of the clarinet. Begin each new octave of the
scales with this rhythm: (music)
Double tonguing has now been accomplished over the entire range of the
instrument, since it will be quite easy now to extend it even beyond high
G. You are now ready for the printed page.
Obtain a copy of Reginald Kell's "Seventeen Staccato Studies"
(International Music Company) and look at the first study. Disregard the
words at the top of the page, which are directed toward single tonguing
The entire study reiterates the "eighth-and-two-sixteenths" rhythmic
pattern. Practice the study first all slurred to become completely
familiar with the notes.
Next, at a comfortable tempo, practice the piece using the usual single
tonguing. Do not bother to make much, if anything, of the dynamics in
order to concentrate on smoothly flowing air. When you are thoroughly
familiar with the piece, completely disregard the dynamics this time, and
apply double tonguing to it in this manner: "Tuh-tuttle-Uh-tuttle-Uh," and
so on. Maintain a good forte volume throughout.
If you feel musically and technically ready, you could try playing the
piece observing the dynamics now; however, it will be absolutely necessary
to use continuous breath support as well as concentrated tongue control.
Dynamic variation, executed simultaneously with double tonguing, will
become easier to achieve later on.
PART III: How to Practice Double Tonguing
On-the-reed double tonguing should now be established. Proceed with the
Kell Study No. 2, one beat to the measure, after practicing it first
slurred and then single-tongued, just as you prepared No.1 earlier.
Systematic practice should proceed essentially as follows: First, with a
metronome, find a comfortable tempo at which you can double-tongue four
notes to a beat, and do the following exercise at that tempo, using the
Now set the metronome only one notch faster, and do the exercise again.
Continue setting the metronome one notch faster and repeating the exercise
until you cannot double-tongue any faster on that exercise. Now set the
metronome one notch slower and repeat the exercise.
Continue setting the metronome one notch slower and repeating the
exercise. Soon you will be back to your starting point on the metronome,
but continue setting it one notch slower and repeating the exercise until
your double tonguing cannot be slowed down anymore. By following this
procedure you will greatly extend the tempo range of your double tonguing.
Also extend your new double tonguing to the solo literature for clarinet.
Try tonguing the long sixteenth-note passages in the fast movements of the
Mozart Concerto and in the various solo pieces of Weber, for example.
When this sort of thing happens in music: (music) you must put the tongue
"in gear" by single-tonguing the first note (E) and beginning the
"Tuttles" on the next notes (F and G). In addition to using the clarinet's
solo literature, applying double tonguing to other music will be
profitable. Use more of the Kell studies, other studies, and ensemble
> between piano and organ. On the piano, the articulation is created
> primarily by how one strikes the key, whereas on the organ, it is
> created by the release of the key. If the tongue remains on the reed
> for long it pretty much closes things up, so the tongue can be seen
> much as a valve (?) opening an organ pipe; when one releases the key,
> the pipe is open. When the tongue is removed, the clarinet sounds.
I think metaphors are an essential tool in the communication of skills
like articulation. A few years ago I wrote a series of articles
collecting a number of metaphors that could apply to clarinet playing.
(Some of them are similar to the ones you use:-)
Probably in the end I will publish a small book. Some of this material
has appeared in the "Cambridge Companion to the Clarinet", CUP.
Here is a fuller version of what is there on the subject of "Tonguing".
It complements and refers also to another article I've reproduced here,
called "All that stuff about the diaphragm", and repeats in a different
form some of the content of that article.
METAPHORS FOR ARTICULATION
Why are metaphors useful?
The ability to perform some complex skill (like playing a clarinet) is
experienced by the performer as a whole. It is impossible to teach this
whole to another directly. We could say that it has various components
-- physical, intellectual and emotional. Any way in which we describe it
has to be incomplete.
When we begin learning a skill, obviously we make mistakes. If those
mistakes go uncorrected, and get built into our performance, we create
another whole, different from the one we were aiming at. It may then be
difficult to take this counterproductive 'whole' apart and find out
where we might change things in order to get better. It may even be the
case that we have several things wrong, and changing just one of them
won't be good enough to show us we are on the right track.
Wise teachers, or wise students, will try a number of different ways of
approaching the problem. These approaches may be in the realm of direct
instruction; but they will almost always be more successful if they
operate also on a higher level of experience, so that they take
advantage of the naturalness of our already highly sophisticated
experience of how the world works.
One thing we can try is to ask the student, or ourselves, to imagine the
experience of playing as though it is like the experience of *something
else*. This 'something else' will usually have been generated by
someone who already has a successful experience of the particular
technique. If we try out a number of things that a more expert player
knows the experience is like for him or her, we stand a chance of
catching on to that expertise for ourselves.
It may be that we are already imagining the experience in terms of a
wrong 'something else', which holds us in a grip that we must break.
Indeed, we may be reinforcing this grip by the way in which we 'talk
about' the situation to ourselves.
Language is constructed metaphorically. Often we are not aware that we
are held by a metaphor, because it is built into an idiom of our
language that we use without thinking about it.
'Languaging' a point of view
Here is an example of how we may make such an assumption, without
noticing it, and lead ourselves astray.
If we say of someone, "he is full of anger," we inevitably talk
ourselves into a 'container' metaphor for emotions. We imagine his
anger 'filling' him in some sense. Then, the normal behaviour of
containers filled with things influences us in our assessment ot the
possibilities open to him, and therefore, on other occasions, to
ourselves. Whether this is a good idea or not depends on the
One consequence might be that we think of our anger as something that we
can only 'let out' or 'hold in'. On the other hand, we might imagine
instead that anger is a substance that can 'evaporate' -- this is of
course a further metaphor, and possibly a more useful one on occasion.
But now consider a superficially similar concept, that of 'confidence'.
Here the 'container' metaphor is almost wholly counterproductive.
Someone who observes another's inspiring and 'confident' performance may
be tempted to say "she is full of confidence," and then work on getting
himself full of this elusive substance. Evaporation might be even more
counterproductive! In any case, the similarity of language has
concealed the fact that confidence and anger have different structures.
(As we shall see in a later chapter, confidence is best thought of not
as an emotion.)
So one way of proceeding when we are improving any skill is:
First, to notice, if we can, what sort of metaphor we are already using.
How can we do this? The best way is to try out another metaphor. If
there is a collision -- that is, if the metaphors are inconsistent -- we
may be able to see how we are limiting ourselves.
Second, to work towards a whole, successful experience of the skill in
the context of better chosen metaphors.
Unfortunately, neither of these instructions is easy to follow. But one
thing is certain: if we find that we are going through struggle and
effort, then it makes sense to look at the assumptions we are making.
The hard work of real self-examination may be less painful.
Any really able exponent of an instrument demonstrates that playing need
not be experienced as difficult. It is as though we are clearly shown
what is required: that we find out what works and what doesn't work ™-
and then do what works rather than what doesn't.
With all this in mind, let us look first at how all English-speaking
people are prone to deal with the notion of staccato.
How we 'language' staccato is a problem.
The very first step ™- the verb "to tongue" ™- is a major difficulty.
This is because in common usage it can be applied to a single note (as
in, "that note is tongued"), and it carries the implication that it is
something that we do to that note, with our tongue, at its beginning.
Conductors sometimes ask us to "tongue that note harder" when they want
more of an attack. This use of the verb again gives the impression that
it is the action of the tongue that begins the note. Moreover, it
suggests that the harder we tongue, the louder will be the beginning.
In fact, the tongue begins the note only in the same sense that the
light-switch lights the room. We don't get more light if we push it
harder! Many people, though, start off by making this sort of mistake
on the clarinet.
In Italian, staccato means 'separated', which is more suggestive of the
idea that the action of the tongue will occur both at the beginning and
the end of the note, if we are to use the tongue to perform the
A better English word for our purposes is 'articulation'. This word is
suggestive of both separating and joining.
For example, we speak of the elbow as an 'articulated' joint, and use
the phrase 'articulated lorry'; it is clear in each case that both arm
and lorry can be regarded as one and as two things.
The word 'articulation' also applies naturally to a group of notes,
indicating that those notes are to be separated to a greater or lesser
degree whilst nevertheless remaining a group.
We can say, "this group of semiquavers is to be articulated", meaning,
"what we have to do is separate these joined-up notes".
Each of the sequence of metaphors I am about to outline communicates
this experience of unity in separation. The metaphors approach the
experience in a variety of ways, via language, mental images and
Metaphor 1 -- 'Mud'
If we imagine a series of notes that we want to be staccato, or
articulated, we may think of them as represented in the diagram.
<The diagram is a series of shaded rectangles, representing the notes
which appear above them, separated by silences. Under each silence is
the letter 'd', and under each rectangle is the letter 'u'.>
This is a very schematic representation. The idea is that the shaded
rectangles represent the sound of the semiquavers above them. The
letters underneath are the usual vocalisations, with the letter d
occurring where the tongue is on the reed and the letter u where it
comes off, allowing the reed to vibrate.
It is a sort of graph of sound intensity against time, although in
reality such a graph would not have sharp corners, or even be
rectangular. The reed takes a moment to begin vibrating, and the air
inside the clarinet continues to vibrate for a moment when the reed
stops, so the result would be much less mechanical. Even so, it is a
preliminary picture we might make of a crisply articulated short burst
In the conventional vocal representation of staccato, we are often asked
to say the syllables du-du-du-du-du etc. This again has the effect that
we are likely to imagine the d initiating each note.
Looking at the middle of the passage, though, there is no particular
reason to group the d and the u in this way. We can just as well say
the syllables ud-ud-ud-ud-ud, or, as I would suggest, creating a real
English word, mud-ud-ud-ud-ud etc. We can imagine ourselves continually
interrupting the word 'mud'.
The advantage of this move is twofold. Firstly it has the effect of
emphasising the unity of the passage -- there is just one word 'mud' to
be interrupted. Secondly, it makes clear that each individual note
begins with a pure sound, one that is created by the air pressure.
There is no percussive 'clonk' made by the tongue. Rather than
imagining that we start a note with the tongue, we imagine that we 'stop
stopping' the previous one.
Now, the question immediately arises: how much force does it require to
stop a note? Taking this question as a sort of research project, we can
begin to experience the process of articulation from a diametrically
opposed viewpoint to that suggested by the word "tonguing". (You've got
to do it with the clarinet, though -- thinking about it isn't enough.)
First you must be sure that you really are producing a good firm sound
before proceeding. Then, if you play a low E, say, it is possible to
place the tongue gently on the reed without stopping the sound. The
pitch of the note becomes flatter, but the reed is able to continue to
vibrate even though it has a 'passenger' to carry.
It's absolutely necessary to continue blowing strongly throughout the
process. Some people find this difficult to do, because their tongue
action is already bound up with their blowing. For them, breaking this
connection is perhaps the most powerful move they can make to improve
their playing, quite apart from their staccato. In fact, with a little
practice, by changing the embouchure and tongue position and increasing
the air pressure, we can in this way play quite a strong note at the
pitch almost of an E flat.
Speaking technically, the reed is able to vibrate, despite extra
damping, but the vibration has to carry an added mass. The elementary
theory of oscillations then tells us that the result will be a lower
frequency of vibration -- hence, a lower note.
By contrast, and quite strikingly, in the upper register it is
impossible to touch the reed at all without immediately stopping the
note. This can come as a great surprise to many players. Those of us
who have had the misfortune to get a small particle of biscuit or other
material between the reed and the mouthpiece whilst playing will find
it, on reflection, less strange. (You can almost tell which are the
reed players among other orchestral musicians by the fact that they
always finish their coffee break with several mouthfuls of coffee ™ or
even skip the biscuit entirely.)
Anyhow, we immediately become aware of a possible difference in the
action of the tongue, depending on the register of the passage. Notice
that this discovery is the result of an experiment that we could not
have thought of making had we not been open to the idea that the job of
the tongue in "tonguing" may be to stop rather than to start a note.
It also becomes clear that in articulating a passage we must never blow
less. In fact, if we don't blow strongly enough, so that there is
insufficient pressure difference between the inside of the mouth and the
inside of the mouthpiece, the reed is unlikely to start to vibrate again
in a smooth and well-behaved way (particularly in the high register)
when we 'stop stopping' it.
Metaphor 2 ™ A Pendulum
One way to think about the situation involves another metaphor. The
idea is to imagine that the reed behaves like a pendulum of greater or
lesser length, according to whether it is vibrating to produce a low
note or a high note. This mini-pendulum comes to an abrupt halt if we
stop blowing. Real pendulums oscillate much more slowly, and also
gradually come to a standstill, unless their oscillation is maintained
by an applied force. In a clock, this force is supplied either by a
spring or by an electromagnetic system.
The vibration of the reed is similarly maintained, in this case by the
pressure difference between the air in the mouth and the air inside the
We can imagine, then, that a high note, looked at in slow motion, is
like a fast-swinging, light and delicate pendulum, and a low note like a
long, slow-swinging and massive one.
Now imagine stopping each of these pendulums, just as we imagined
stopping the reed with the tongue. We would clearly need a stronger
grip to stop the long and massive pendulum. We might only use two
fingers for the small one. Also, if we needed to release a pendulum
afterwards so that it went on swinging nicely as before, we would be
careful about precisely how we gripped it in stopping it. Probably we
would hold the small one particularly carefully, so that it would begin
again by slipping between our two fingers as we opened them slightly.
All of these considerations have their analogues in how we touch the
reed with the tongue. The simplest and most delicate action that
succeeds in stopping the reed is likely to be the most effective in
allowing it to start when we let it go again. This is why we are often
recommended to touch the reed at the tip. But if we try to give more
specific details of how the tongue should touch the reed, we begin to be
in trouble. Because players have very different physiques, including
differing lengths and shapes of tongue, what works well for one player
may be useless for another, We have to be flexible in our approach.
Every player has the opportunity to find out personally what works best;
though there is more than one way of going about this, too, and not
every method has an equal chance of success.
Controlling the tongue
You can try out how much control you have over your tongue by sticking
it out at yourself in a mirror, and telling it to keep still.
If you can do this at all, it will be with great difficulty. It seems
that the tongue can perform miraculous feats, but resists direct,
precise instruction. Children beginning to talk learn to perform
incredibly subtle movements of the tongue, though they have no sense of
directing their own physical actions. They can even talk and eat at the
So if you are trying to instruct yourself or others in related skills,
such as articulation, a delicate approach is in order. It has rightly
been said that if it were possible for us to teach children to speak
directly, by telling them exactly how to do it, they would probably
Of course, it is impossible for us to interfere, because children can
already deal with much of the mechanics of speaking by the time they can
understand any such instruction. It's a sobering thought, though, that
if we could in some way offer direct instruction, we would not only rush
in to do it, but also probably have competing systems, and experts, and
lots of reasons why it wasn't working.
As children, we learn skills like speaking or singing by imitation,
approximating more and more closely the sounds around us. As adults, we
have the tendency to introduce an intermediate stage in this process:
we try to find out and then describe to ourselves what we should do to
achieve the required result, and then concentrate on doing that thing.
We try, in other words, to tell ourselves how to do it.
Sometimes this may be a sensible move, particularly if the time-scale we
are dealing with is long, as when we are planning a picnic; but it is
wise to moderate the process by trusting ourselves to learn even without
knowing how. This is particularly true when the complication of what we
have to do is such that we cannot keep track of our actions. In this
way we are also less likely to make the mistake of being so interested
in the intermediate stage that we lose sight of what we were trying to
do in the first place.
Several interesting and useful books have been written about the
possibilities of this approach, mostly as applied to sports. (A famous
violin player is quoted as saying that 'The Inner Game of Tennis' by
Timothy Gallwey is the best book about playing the violin he knows.)
Essentially, the idea is to have a good model or notion of what you want
to achieve, and then perform the action whilst remaining as conscious or
aware as possible of one aspect of your experience, always in a
This particular aspect might be a body sensation or behaviour, or
alternatively part of the actual result obtained. After a while, it
becomes possible to make an intelligent choice of what to concentrate on
at any given moment. Progress is often much more fluent and natural
than with a more traditional method of immediate error-correction. What
happens is that we tie up our conscious mind with the job of describing
something useful for us to know in some sense, with the added advantage
that our intellect is disabled from delivering its customary
evaluations, instructions and fears, most of which would be too late to
be effective even if they were appropriate.
In many ways, these activities of our mind are our greatest enemy, and
constitute the opponent in Gallwey's metaphor of the 'inner game'. They
also give rise to the vicious circle of the psychological block, as we
shall see, where the anxiety arising from our fear of failure is the
fuel of that very fear.
It is easy to approach staccato on the clarinet with too rigid an
attitude to controlling the tongue. In finding how the tongue can most
effectively stop the reed from vibrating, and move neatly away in order
to allow it to continue, we do best by indulging freely in experiment.
When we already have a problem, our experience of playing the instrument
tend to fix many of the variables we may want to alter, immediately we
put the instrument in our mouth. This makes experiment difficult,
because though we may feel uncomfortable about the defects in our
playing we already know about, we feel even more uncomfortable about
ones that we are generating and observing for the first time.
The metaphors I have already described constitute a minimally
confronting context for such experiment. Fundamentally, they move our
actions in the direction of using much less force, particularly in the
higher register, and encourage us to think of the action of the tongue
more like that of a switch than that of an impulse. Here is a further
metaphor that may help.
Metaphor 3 -- Pickup and Turntable
Imagine we have a hi-fi gramophone with a powerful amplifier and speaker
at our disposal. We have also a recording that includes a loud
sustained passage, and our job is to produce a loud, clear, short sound
(i.e. a staccato chord) from the equipment. How would we go about it?
If we turn up the volume control, we can lower the stylus of the pickup
arm until it is just above the part of the rotating record that contains
the loud passage. At this point we can delicately lower the stylus on
to the record for an instant, thereby producing the loud, abrupt chord.
But notice that there is nothing in our action that corresponds to the
abruptness or the energy of the result. The powerful component of the
system is the amplifier, which is operating constantly at the same
level. In fact, if we were to match the intended loudness with a
similarly violent action with the pickup arm, we would most likely
fail to achieve our objective.
The same situation obtains when we play a loud short note on the
clarinet. The power comes from the air-stream, which is what causes the
note to begin as the tongue stops stopping it.
Compare the situation when we enunciate a very loud syllable, beginning
and ending with a 'd'. Here it really does seem that the tongue is
working hard, especially just before and just afterwards. But this is
because the tongue has to hold back the airstream, which indeed must be
forceful. Admittedly it does also seem that a violent action of the
tongue is being performed when we hear a fortissimo staccato note on the
clarinet. But as we have seen from our experiment, it takes very little
contact with the tongue to stop the reed, even when it is vibrating
The helpful analogy for the action of the tongue is the analogy with a
control system, rather than a power system. Remember the light switch!
You can play a very loud short note with a very delicate and precise
tongue action, just as, in principle, you could turn on and off even an
atomic power station with your little finger.
This last analogy might seem ridiculously extreme. But in the world of
our imagination, it may be really useful. Many players are very
surprised to discover quite how much they habitually overestimate the
amount of tongue action required. We really need practically no contact
between tongue and reed in the high register. The area of contact can
be reduced almost to nothing and the effect still achieved, even in
fortissimo. Nor is it necessary to specify exactly how the tongue
I personally find that in the higher register I tend to touch the reed
with the underside of the tip of my tongue, which seems to alter shape
rather than move bodily, especially in fast passages, whilst lower down
the action is larger. (A student once said to me, "But, my teacher says
that's *wrong*!") Also the degree of tension in the tongue can vary.
Perhaps those with a very fast staccato have succeeded in controlling
the sort of oscillations that we sometimes get in flexed groups of
muscles, though in general, in my experience, less rather than more
tension is to be encouraged.
We are really lucky to have this flexibility of control with the reed.
We can play a staccato that is more rapid than the speed at which we
could fully interrupt the word "mud" in reasonably loud speech. To do
so, we must be able to touch the reed without interrupting the airstream
or compromising the embouchure, which is another reason why
experimenting with stopping the note whilst still blowing is so
important. Sometimes players with long tongues find this difficult, but
they have all learned to talk acceptably, which required some gymnastic
lingual ability. Playing staccato on the clarinet is a minor feat by
Some players have a phenomenally fast, "rattlesnake" staccato, and it is
probably hoping too much to think of developing such a special ability
from scratch; but a good medium-fast tongue action, fast enough for the
classical repertoire, and above all variable in its weight and area of
contact, should be accessible to most if not all players.
Metaphor 4 -- Half full or half empty?
The next metaphor is a sort of correction or complement to the first
three. The metaphors so far have involved giving centre-stage in
consciousness to the airstream, reducing concern with the precise
details of the tongue action, even to the point of allowing these
details be unconscious. Now I want to return to the business of
becoming aware of the tongue, but with the idea that we may be more
spectators than participants in its action. We can switch between two
ways of looking at the situation, keeping the relative energies of the
airstream and tongue action as they were. The only movement, as they
say in Zen, is in the mind.
We are all familiar with the figure/ground reversal whereby a white
goblet on a black background appears to turn into two faces in
silhouette against a white background. We know that we can also describe
the land as being the part of the seabed that is out of water, or
alternatively the bottom of the sea as the part of the land that is
underwater; or a glass of wine as half-full or half-empty. A cousin of
these sorts of reversal of perception occurred when we changed the
organisation of the 'd' and the 'u' in Metaphor 1 from the grouping du-du-du
to the grouping ud-ud-ud. The idea was to break the association of the
d with the beginning of the note so that we could experiment with the
idea that the tongue stops the note.
Independently of the sound, though, we can look on the action of the
tongue in a sequence of staccato notes in two complementary ways: as
resting gently on the reed and leaving it momentarily, or as poised near
the reed and visiting it momentarily.
The first way of looking at the situation gives a clearer experience of
how lightly or firmly, and where, the tongue rests on the reed, and
mostly gives rise to a short staccato, whilst the other gives a clearer
experience of the distance the tongue withdraws from the reed, and
mostly gives a longer or mezzo-staccato. It's worth trying both in turn
for a passage that is giving difficulty. Sometimes I find that thinking
about the distance of my tongue from the reed (second point of view)
helps me to slow down and control a staccato that is suddenly moving too
fast for the context.
The sound in staccato
Anyone who has tried to emulate Danny Kaye doing his virtuoso
tongue-twisting prestissimo "patter" will know from personal experience
that one particular sort of voice works better than any other. The
sound that gives clarity to his breakneck verbal delivery is quite light
and bright ™ there are lots of consonants, too.
(Danny Kaye, by the way, was a very good musician. We can all learn
from his performances conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.)
But why is it that fast, dense passages seem to require this particular
timbre to sound at their best?
Before answering this question, we should convince ourselves that we
indeed are capable of producing a variety of basic sounds on the
clarinet, by varying, among other things, the embouchure and the
resonance of the cavity behind the reed, which includes the mouth, the
larynx and probably more. When we speak of someone having a good sound,
it is not always realised that a really able player uses a number of
different sounds, or, more accurately changes the sound from moment to
moment, even if we as listeners perceive just one basic quality.
The reason why faster moving music needs a timbre with more higher
frequencies in it, in order to sound as clear as slower music for a
given acoustic, is this. Lower frequencies persist longer, and muddy
the change from one note to the next, if they are predominant in the
sound. We know (from listening to late-night parties next door) that
bass notes resist absorption more effectively than the higher partials.
If these higher partials are present, they die faster, and form a
non-overlapping sequence in a fast moving passage. The result is a
clarity of movement from one note to the next. This is why we find we
need softer reeds, which produce more defined high partials, in a very
It is also easier for us to stop a high frequency vibration than a lower
one. The effect of articulation is therefore more marked when the sound
is more brilliant. Even when we have completely stopped the reed,
doubtless the tube vibrates for a moment longer, and the hall for longer
than that. Again, the high frequencies dominate the perceived division
between one note and its successor, and so it makes sense to keep the
sound rich in upper partials.
A large resonating cavity behind the reed makes the sound richer in the
medium range harmonics, which doesn't help with this clarity. Therefore
it may be better to choose a smaller mouth shape and an embouchure that
brightens the sound, as we might naturally do for fast legato
This is just a biasing of the sorts of movements of tongue and
embouchure we make when we play any passage. In the end it is probable
that any passage, however articulated, requires a whole range of tongue
movements or techniques, modulated not consciously but after the manner
of speech, which is to say governed by the character of the executant's
intention or view of the music.
Beginnings and Phrasing
Till now, we have looked at articulation as something best thought of
not as an action that begins a note, but instead as an action mostly to
do with the end of the previous note.
But then, how do we deal with the awkward question of how we use the
tongue when there are no other notes? In other words, what metaphor do
we use when we begin a smooth phrase, or just one note?
Firstly, it's useful to clear aside the idea that there is one 'right'
way to do it. If you speak to professional players, you will find a
variety of responses on the subject. Some players almost always use the
tongue, others sometimes do and sometimes don't, depending on the
context. We should have at our disposal metaphors that can embrace all
the techniques that successful players use.
It is said: there was a famous magician who specialised in card tricks.
He was a renowned technician, but one trick in particular baffled his
colleagues. It became an obsession with them to discover his secret.
Every time he performed it, they would watch closely, and from time to
time one of them was convinced he had solved the riddle. But
immediately the master magician would smile, and do the trick again in
such a way that it was obvious that the proposed solution was not the
Finally, when he retired, he put his colleagues out of their misery.
There was no one trick. He had three or four ways of producing the same
illusion, and when anyone thought they had him cornered, he would switch
to another method.
There is a moral in this story that has a wider application than the
present discussion. When someone is expert at something that we find
difficult, we tend to think that their playing contains some 'secret
ingredient'. Perhaps it's the make of reeds, or mouthpiece, or the
shape of their mouth, or the strength of their embouchure and so on.
Students sometimes mob famous players after concerts in search of this
sort of information. But like the 'good sound' which is in fact many
sounds, the answer is almost always more plural. We may need to enrich
our own plurality and flexibility to succeed.
So, the metaphors are as follows.
Metaphors 5 and 6 -- The Bow and the Hosepipe
The diagram illustrates, again in schematic form, the beginning of a
note, supposed to be begun without the tongue.
<The diagram is a sharply rising curve, starting from nothing, that
reaches a maximum after a short time, and remains steady thereafter.>
There are a number of possible shapes, depending on the steepness of the
beginning of the curve, and the variety of these shapes is mediated by
the details of the muscular opposition abdominal/diaphragm which we
usually call support. As I pointed out in "All that stuff about the
diaphragm", this process is mostly unconscious, occurs when we have the
opposition set up as we begin the note, and allows the result to follow
the sort of shape that we have imagined. You can, for example, imagine
a shallower or a steeper curve to begin with, and continue the shape
after the high point, either maintaining the dynamic or making a gradual
As the opposition is set up, we can imagine a drawn bow, about to shoot
an arrow. The abdominal muscles take the role of the bow, whilst the
diaphragm corresponds to the hand and arm, which provide the equal and
opposite force holding the system in equilibrium. The more the support,
the more the bow is drawn and the greater are the forces involved. More
support thus means a steeper initial curve in the diagram if the
diaphragm is suddenly relaxed, whilst very little support gives a more
gentle entry. But this is as though we actually shoot the arrow.
Sometimes we will want to maintain control through the initial curve, as
though we simply allow the arrow to move forward as the force of the bow
overcomes the reduced pull of our arm. If we maintain the support in
this way, we can often achieve a very focussed and precise entry, even
without the use of the tongue, and control of how the note subseqently
develops can give all the varieties of accent, fortepiano and
phrase-shaping which are the life-blood especially of slow and
The one thing we cannot do in this way is to completely eradicate the
initial upward curve.
But we can do so using the tongue. The effect is as though by very
delicately stroking the reed at the beginning of the note, we shave off
the initial curve, so that the note reaches the peak almost immediately.
Remember, the note begins when we imagine it beginning (see, 'All that
stuff about the diaphragm'), not when we experience doing something to
begin it -- so, here, we imagine it beginning and then simultaneously
perform the tongue stroke. The duration of contact of the tongue with
the reed is very short, and the touch very gentle (imagine a feather).
Even if we want an explosive accent, the holding back of the attack is
done by the diaphragm.
The important point is that the action of the tongue can be cosmetic.
We can imagine the attack first and then clean it up with the tongue as
The 'hosepipe' metaphor applies to the situation where it is just the
tongue that holds back the attack. We play without support ™ and then
the action of the tongue takes longer, because it must remain on the
reed during the build up of air pressure from the abdominal muscles.
When the air pressure is at the level we require, we release the reed,
which begins to vibrate. The analogy is with a garden hose, controlled
at the 'business end' by a valve (or a thumb). The water pressure is
constant after the tap connecting the hose to the water supply is turned
Personally I usually find this less satisfactory, because I dislike the
artificial feeling of the air pushing against a non-vibrating reed for
such a long time. Also it is possible to achieve effects of any
subtlety as we articulate notes in quiet dynamcs only by using a
combination of tongue and diaphragm, or diaphragm alone. Still, using
the tongue alone can be useful, though it seems ironic that this less
flexible method is the one that is most commonly taught. The 'hosepipe'
method is in fact the special case of the 'bow plus cleanup' method in
the limiting case where we don't use support.
Finally, on the subject of support in fast staccato passages, we should
note that very often sub-phrasing needs to be shown. Playing with
support is the ideal way to do this, as then we have a natural control
of the dynamic envelope, as we would in legato. Yet there is no
interruption of the airstream, so the reed still behaves well.
It is not my purpose here to provide exercises for staccato, which can
be found in many books, methods and tutors. Moreover, exercises
divorced from music have the disadvantage that they lead to the habit of
regarding articulation as a monochrome technique. I want to hear a
staccato that makes it clear to me why it is being used. There is
brilliant staccato; and also staccato to make notes light, staccato to
make notes heavy, staccato to make audible, bubbly staccato,
'travelling' staccato and many more. I could have said virtuoso
staccato instead of brilliant staccato and not been misunderstood, but
this is a detestable use of the word 'virtuoso'. True virtuosity
consists of the ability to make a piece sound necessary in its own
terms, so that the response of the public might well be to say, "What
wonderful music!" more than, "What a wonderful player!" Thus staccato
should always be studied relative to a musical context.
However, it's worthwhile mentioning one small exercise that is
sufficiently effective and innocent to be worth recommendation.
I said before that it's often advantageous to get one's mind out of the
way to allow one's body to learn more fluently and naturally (the 'inner
game' techniques). If we tie our minds up with another difficulty than
the one of articulating, our minds can't interfere.
Now, one of the abilities we sometimes need when we play music is the
ability to change between semiquavers and triplets, say, or between
straight quavers and quintuplets, whilst the beat itself remains
constant. This can be made into an exercise in staccato, using a
metronome. We switch at random between groupings of two, three, four,
five and even six to a beat, against a constant pulse. The mental
difficulty of imagining the shift accurately and adjusting when we prove
mistaken I find an excellent context in which to develop basic
© Antony Pay 1993/1997
Many Clarinet Tutors speak of finger movement as something we should try
to minimise. On the principle that economy is in general a good thing,
and having seen players failing to play accurately whilst moving their
fingers a lot, most of us would tend to agree. I remember designing and
making a gadget out of a coathanger to encourage myself to play with my
fingers closer to the keys. A length of wire ran from the barrel of the
instrument to the bell, about an inch and a half above the holes.
Whenever my fingers moved further than this distance from the keys, they
struck the wire and brought the matter to my attention. I recommended
the system to my students, but found that I used it little myself.
However, I have since come to think that the instruction to minimise
finger movement can be misguided. It's true that there are
clarinettists of great ability who move their fingers only a small
distance, but equally there are others just as fluent who use larger
movements. Sometimes it seems as though the concentration on small
finger actions in some way inhibits the expressivity of yet a third
group -- they may be able to play the passages, but somehow they seem to
lack character, as though they are too distanced from what they are
I think the problem is that the instruction is a negative one. Clearly,
we want to avoid the desperate thrashing of fingers that we sometimes
observe with inexpert players, but perhaps we can do better than the
usual approach. I would like to recommend an alternative way of
thinking about the situation which leads to our playing with small
movements when it's really necessary, but allows us to use larger
movements without deleterious effect when it's not.
What moves fast?
If we play a one-octave ascending F major scale in the chalumeau
register of the clarinet, first slowly and then quite substantially
faster, a question we can ask, either of a student or of ourselves, is:
supposing the second version of the scale to be, say, three times faster
than the first, how many times faster do we have to move our fingers in
order to play it?
I have found that people react in different ways to this question. Some
find it trivially easy to answer correctly, whilst others find it
confusing. A careful consideration of the answer (that the speed of the
run is in fact independent of the speed of our fingers) and subsequent
experiment is nevertheless enabling for any player, firstly because we
tend to forget these things, and secondly because information that know
intellectually may not impact our performance. We need to experience
the situation directly.
Reflection shows that clearly nothing physical need move fast. All that
is required is that each successive finger begin to move away from the
corresponding key or hole sufficiently soon after its predecessor. In
this situation, therefore, neither fast nor small finger movements are
demanded. To put it technically, the high speed of the run is
guaranteed if there is a high phase velocity associated with the finger
movements. What is required is *precision* of movement.
Of course, I have chosen an extreme case. Here, once a finger has
moved, it does not participate further in the run. Not all fast
passages are like this, though I suspect that most players will be
surprised by how large a proportion of any particular passage does turn
out to be of this type.
It's instructive to examine the opposite extreme, which is that of a
trill. In this situation faster finger movement is required, because
the same finger must continually change direction to produce each and
every sub-element of the trill. In practising a trill, moreover, it's
useful to notice that we can produce a different musical effect by
assigning differing lengths to the two notes. (The trill is either 'on,
coming off' or 'off, going on'.) So the perceived proportion of the two
notes in the 'mixture' of the trill is a variable we have at our
disposal. As we experiment with this variety, we may notice that the
distance we are moving our finger, though generally small in order to
achieve the required trill speed, nevertheless changes to produce the
effect. Perhaps we might create a metaphor to generate the notion that
the same amplitude of 'waggle' when the finger is closer to the
instrument produces more of the lower note than when the finger is
higher up, thus: if you imagine contact with the instrument to be like
putting your finger into water, you can think of the longer time you are
on the lower note to be associated with going deeper under the water,
and therefore being there longer, even though in reality the finger
cannot move further once it's has touched the instrument. (The opposite
is the case if we are higher above the surface; then we are out of water
for the greater part of the cycle.) At any rate, the variety of finger
distance occurs naturally, is a variation of something small, and this
smallness occurs naturally instead of being imposed.
Varying finger speed
For me the important part of all of this is that it leads to a natural
classification of the various parts of a passage of fast music as either
requiring fast finger movements, or not. In general it's best to begin
by regarding all of a passage as a candidate for slow finger movement,
as it seems that faster movements occur more naturally in the context of
slow ones than the reverse, and anyway we are likely to be erring in the
opposite direction out of our natural response to the speed of the
passage. We need not experience slow movement as a negative instruction
if we think of it as a 'relaxing' one. Perhaps the advantage of the
instruction to move slowly over the instruction to move less is that the
latter can result in greater tension. Also slower movements take longer
to execute, even if the run itself is still fast. One of the noticeable
characteristics of expert playing is the elegance of it; there seems to
be more time available to a master player than we experience. To engage
with our own mastery, we mostly need to create for ourselves the
illusion that we have more time.
It's often advantageous to isolate the parts of a passage which give us
difficulty. One of the traps into which we can fall is that of
generalisation; as when we say, "this passage is difficult" when it
would be more accurate to say, "I find these three notes awkwardнеуклюжими", or
even better, "I tend to play an extra note between these two", or,
finally, "that time, I played a rather flat G natural between the A and
the F." If we know the moments that require fast finger movement, we
can practise them intelligently.
In addition, we need an overall view of a passage in order to master it,
both technically and stylistically; what we might want to call some
altitude with respect to it. This overall view needs to be a complete
one, or at least the sketch of a complete one -- it's no use practising
a passage that will need to be light and delicate with a technique
appropriate to energy and drama, unless this is a deliberate and
consciously undergone attempt to enlarge our musical conception. Any
mode of study which reminds us of the overall view, or which requires us
to consider the passage in its totality with regard to some system of
classification, contributes to this quality of our response to it.
(This is part of the reason why looking at the harmonic structure of a
passage can help us to play it.)
We may recognise the process as an example of the phenomenon called
chunking, which is what we do when we group a large quantity of
information into smaller, more manageable 'chunks'. We then learn to
handle these chunks as though they were the basic units. When we learn
a skill, we repeat this process several times, each step chunking the
previously created chunks, and ending up with an action which has the
unity that we have imagined from the beginning, with its qualities
reflected in each stage of the hierarchy.
It's amusing and instructive to try playing the ascending F major scale,
always with slower and slower fingers, faster and faster until the notes
fly out at a dizzying speed! The experience is exhilarating. Be
careful to keep the dynamic strong and the sound bright even though the
fingers are much more relaxed. Try following it up with selected
passages from Weber, who nearly always writes so that we can play, if we
wish, really fast without major difficulty (except that of being heard
clearly). The result is hardly musical, but it's an indication of how
easy it can feel if we let it.
As always, we need to make some remarks about the subtleties that should
still be available after we have made the initial move towards slow
fingers. There are some circumstances where it's advantageous to move
our fingers almost fast enough for the actual closing of a hole to be
audible as a sound in its own right. 'Brilliant' passagework sometimes
has this quality. It can be advantageous to regard a passage as having
a structure consisting of smaller movements as submovements of larger
ones, with the larger ones slower than the smaller. (Some passages
around the break, as well as those using the thumb keys in the extreme
low register of the larger clarinets, respond well to this approach.)
Also, although we will mostly find ourselves making the most economical
movement consistent with the execution of a passage, sometimes we will
also find ourselves wanting to add further movement, even of the
fingers, in order to be congruent with the other expressive
characteristics of the music. Sometimes this sort of physical
expression can become exaggerated, but it's unwise to react by reducing
it to an absolute minimum. Almost all expressive players indulge in
some degree of movement, though with the best this stops short of being
a distraction to the audience and does not interfere with their ability
Is this the standard beta blocker?
> Perhaps I'm opening a can of worms, but does anyone have experience -
> personal or hearsay - with propranolol (commonest trade name is
> Inderal) for performance anxiety? It was recommended to me before my
> music school auditions - recommended by my doctor, actually, as I was
> undergoing extensive thyroid hormone therapy at the time and subject
> to physical and emotional swings I couldn't control. It helped
> greatly, and I have used it on and off since under performance-type
> stress. For the uninitiated, it's a blood-pressure and heartbeat
> regulator that does not dope you but helps calm the physical symptoms
> accompanying stage fright - the shaking hands, trembling voice, etc.
> The better educated among us can certainly provide a more
> scientifically accurate description of its function. Another thing I
> have been told my MD is that Prozac has a similar effect on
> performance anxiety and can be used symptomatically when one is under
> stress of this sort.
> Another thing I have wondered about is the use of psychological
> technique (perhaps in conjunction with drugs, perhaps not) to control
> performance/audition anxiety. A friend of mine was doing a master's in
> sport psychology, and I attended a class with her and bought the
> textbook on a lark. The subject was the use of imagery and the like to
> project a strong belief in your own success onto the situation in
> question - in the case of this class, the situation was the elite
> athlete trying to optimize his or her performance. It occurred to me
> then that performance anxiety is really an interdisciplinary problem
> and that performance psychology can be an interdisciplinary form of
> treatment. It even occurred to me to design a college degree program
> in performance psychology for performing artists, but I never did. I
> was much more interested in the clarinet itself.
> But the question behind this digression is whether anyone knows of
> such a non-pharmaceutical approach - or combination of approaches - to
> performance and/or audition anxiety.
> Gott hop. Children beating each other up on their day off school.
> PS: Yes, it is pretty here in Iceland (which is greener than
> Greenland, by the way). The people are doing their dag-nab blue-eyed
> best to crud it up, but they haven't won yet. Nancy, if you make it
> here again, let me know.
MUSIC IS FAN
I suffer from extreme performance/audition anxiety,
which for years strangled me through college and
professionally. Recently at a Clarinet workshop, beta
blockers were recommended to me and I did research on
them. For me personally, I realized it wasn't the best
approach. However Tom Martin, Principal Cl. of the
Boston Pops recommended the book "The Inner Game of
Music" (ISBN 0-385-23126-1) written by Barry Green a
string bassist I absolutely loved the book. I was
able to apply various techniques to help control my
anxiety. Yes I still have it, but its manageable so
my performance doesn't suffer. Another thing I do is
eat a couple of bananas prior to playing, it is
supposedly a natural beta blocker. Honestly, I don't
know if the banana thing works, or maybe I just
psyched myself into believing it does...LOL Anyway,
good luck with whatever method works for you.
Skills practice incorporates tone production (or "long tones"), scales, and other exercises designed to build and
maintain your clarinet-playing ability independent of specific music. This should be your first practice session of
the day, possibly your only practice session of the day. Make sure you follow the proper technique from the very
first note you play; the following checklists might help:
Teeth on top of mouthpiece.
Left thumb on ring, pointing at 2 o'clock.
Right first finger over bottom trill key, NOT ON THE ROD!
Both little fingers on long keys, NOT BEHIND THE CLARINET!
Decide on a tempo before you start. Mentally count yourself off.
Always start with the tongue on the reed.
Feeling of blowing through the front of the mouthpiece, NOT down the horn.
Support: Breathe from the diaphragm. Keep pushing out as you play.
Plan your breaths. Anticipate the feeling of the upcoming breath.
Try to hear the upcoming note before you play it.
Trouble over the break? Keep blowing. Make sure your left thumb isn't late, and that it stays on the ring.
Trouble moving to the altissimo register? Imagine supporting those notes while you're still in the lower registers.
Using your Time
Divide your practice time as follows. For younger students who cannot practice for a long time, I've included time
to work on assigned music or band music. More advanced students should add another practice session after an hour
of skills practice to work on repertoire, orchestral excerpts, or special projects.
10 minutes: Tone production
10 minutes: Scales
10 minutes: Assigned music
15 minutes: Tone production
15 minutes: Scales and Arpeggios
15 minutes: Assigned music
15 minutes: Tone production
15 minutes: Scales and Arpeggios
15 minutes: Etudes
15 minutes: Assigned music
More? Practice skills for an hour as below, take a break, and practice repertoire or excerpts in another
20 minutes: Tone production
25 minutes: Scales and Arpeggios
15 minutes: Technical Etudes, Tonguing Practice, etc.
Long tones and similar exercises are the "push-ups" in the sport of clarinet playing. They teach you true legato and
develop the muscles in your embouchure and air-support column. Twelfths, octaves and fifths are helpful to train your
ear. Concentrate on support and airflow. Listen; keep the tone color consistent throughout the range. Keep perfect
posture, hand position, and embouchure. Practice relaxing.
Try this exercise: Pick any note in the lowest octave. Play a major scale starting on that note in this pattern:
1st note-2nd note-1st note (rest, breathe) 1st note-3rd note-1st note (etc.). Continue for two octaves. Play very, very
slowly; every note should be quite long. Tongue to begin the first note, slur up, tongue lightly to return. Listen carefully.
Imagine the second note of each set before you play it, then move to it. Is it in tune? Was the slur smooth? Did you
continue blowing as you changed notes? Is the tone color the same? Did you return to the exact same pitch you
Start each practice session with some "perfect" sounds. Hopefully it will become a habit.
If you learn all your scales and arpeggios, you have 95% of the technique of music under your fingers. Start with C
major, then add sharps and flats until you can play all your major scales from memory. Then learn the minors, both
harmonic and melodic forms. Play at least two octaves; three octaves as high as you can. Keep the sound consistent
from bottom to top and back. Make sure the register breaks are smooth. Practice slurred and tongued. Practice slow
and fast. ALWAYS USE A METRONOME.
This site contains all major and minor scales that you can read or print (low resolution, unfortunately).
For daily scale practice, try the Klose set, all your majors and melodic minors in two minutes (very good to warm up
before a performance). Also, Baermann Book 3 will help extend your range. Try extending the Baermann scales even
higher than written, you have to learn to play up there sometime.
Remember in scale practice it's not enough to just play the right notes. The sound has to be even and every note has to
be in tune. When slurred, work for absolute legato. When tongued, work for the same attack on every note.
"Play musically!" "Play with feeling!" "Play with expression!" How many times have we been told these things by
our teachers and conductors? The words musicality, feeling and expression have often had a mysteriousness attached
to them. It is frequently said that one either has musical talent or not. Unfortunately students are not always told
specifically how to produce these effects to stir the emotions of the listener.
In music, as in speech, these expressive gestures are produced by "phrasing" the musical line. In order to remove
the mysteriousness from musical phrasing, it might be helpful to compare a musician to a craftsman. The craftsman
has a tool box with which she or he selects tools to perform their craft. They select the proper tools for the proper
job-a hammer to bang a nail, a screw driver to drive a screw or a wrench to loosen a bolt. When executing a musical
phrase the musician also has a tool box which helps them perform their job well.
This tool box has two trays. The top tray is the Analysis Tray and the bottom tray is the Execution Tray. Each tray
has tools in it.
Shape and Contour of the Musical Line
Important Structural Notes
Melodic and Motivic Material
Context and Stylistic Tendencies
Articulation and Legato
Like a craftsman sizing up the job before beginning, the musician must first study the music before performing it.
The first tool from the Analysis Tray is the Harmony. When examining and playing a piece of music we must always
be aware of the harmonies that are spelled out or implied by the melodic line.
The harmony will help create the tensions and releases in the musical line. This is because non chord tones in a phrase
sound like they need to resolve to more stable chord tones. If they do resolve, the tension in the line is then released.
If they don't then tension is created. An example might be the minor 7th in a dominant 7th chord. The unstable sound
of the 7th becomes more stable if the 7th were to resolve to the 3rd of the I (one) chord.
The Shape and Contour of the musical line often give clues as to where the climax is-which might be (but not always)
the highest point in the line. It also can help the performer pace his/her dynamics throughout the phrase so they don't
reach the high point of the phrase too soon.
By looking at the shape and contour of the line and harmony that go along with the melodic line, one can determine
the Important Structural Notes of a phrase. An example might be a line that has the shape of an arc where the
beginning and end of the phrase are both stable chords beneath the melody (such as a I chord). The high point in the
middle of the arc has a V7 chord. The chords are then (I-V7-I). Therefore the middle of the phrase (the V7 chord) has
the most tension. The important notes are the ones in the beginning, middle and end which imply the I-V7-I chords.
The other notes in between are not as crucial and the composer probably used them to help approach the important
structural notes in a smooth or unique way.
The Melodic Motives in a musical line give clues usually through their repetition or development. If a melody or
fragment of a melody is repeated or developed later in the phrase there is often a chance for the performer to do
something with the repeated or developed material to create interest for the listener, such as play the repetition
softer or louder.
An understanding of the Context and Stylistic Tendencies of the period of music being played will give the performer
clues as to how to approach the music in a literate fashion. For instance, when playing Mozart, a dot over a note does
not mean to play the note extremely staccato. In that period of music the dots meant to play the note separated but
not in a pecky extremely short fashion.
Another Mozart example is the interpretation of dynamics. Mozart's dynamics are somewhat terraced. There are
crescendos and diminuendos but they are not of the extended dramatic type that we find later in the Romantic period.
So by understanding this, we might tend to exaggerate the contrast in dynamic markings like "piano" and "forte",
rather than phrasing with "swells" of crescendos and diminuendos.
After our analysis is complete, we are much better prepared to "execute" the phrases convincingly. There is a
fundamental difference though between a craftsman and a musician. The musician produces sounds, which can be
helpful in our analysis. So don't become too bogged down with the analysis before playing a note. Sometimes first
playing through a piece slowly and hearing it will help us to understand it's construction better.
Reaching into the Execution tray of our tool box we pull out our Dynamics tool. This can be one of the most effective
tools in capturing the listener's attention. Simply by playing a phrase louder or softer or by using a diminuendo or
crescendo the listener is immediately captured for a moment. When a motive is repeated a number of times, changing
the dynamic may help add interest to the line.
Next we find our Tempo Variation tool. By using accellerandos and ritards, tension and intensity are created. The
listener hears that something fundamental is changing and is captured for the moment. Taking liberties with the
tempo by slowing down or speeding up is a common technique in vocal music, especially opera. Nineteenth century
French, Italian and German music all employed this technique freely. Since singing is probably the most natural and
organic form of musical expression, it is helpful for instrumentalists to listen to singers.
Our next tool, Articulation and Legato, (the connection or separation of notes ) is crucial to phrasing properly.
This tool will allow the performer to group together specific groups of notes so they sound as if they are part of the
same phrase. Without the separation or the smooth connection of notes one wouldn't be able to tell where one phrase
ends and the next begins.
At first one may not think of Vibrato as a tool to help phrase music convincingly. But realize that anything which stirs
the listener and captures their attention for a moment is an effective phrasing tool. As small a tool as vibrato is, it has
its merits. The fast or slow speed of the vibrato can help intensify or relax a note. This, coupled with a crescendo
(our dynamic tool), can make a listener sit on the edge of his/her chair.
Though some may be more inately talented than others, one can "learn" how to play with musicality, feeling and
expression. As we learned to speak and write in school by studying nouns, vowels and sentence structure, we learn
the analogous tools when speaking the language of music. With study and practice, we tend to forget the "rules," and
speak and write naturally without thinking about what we are doing. In a sense we pass over the process of "thinking"
and simply do it. This "natural ability" in music will improve with consistent study, practice and performance using
the tools in our phrasing tool box. We will then be able to "speak in musical sentences."
You know the drill. The piece is full of sixteenth-note passages, it's fast, and your teacher tells you "Go home and learn it." The following suggestions relate to practicing these sorts of technical passages. Though geared towards sixteenth notes in 4/4 time, these techniques can be adapted for other sorts of passages.
The following example is a sample measure from the middle of a lot of measures of sixteenth-notes:
Kind of hard, and a little confusing, right? The first thing you should do is to mark in some things that might help: some cautionary accidentals and a reminder to use the alternate low B-natural fingering:
There's really not much to say about this. Put a metronome on a slow click, like quarter note=50. In fact, it's better to set the metronome to double that (100) and use that as the eighth-note beat. Work until you can play it evenly and comfortably. Try to notice if you have a technical problem that is making things harder. For example, it might be the move from the 2nd to the 3rd note: G to E-flat. A lot of students will be late with the left-hand thumb and the E-flat will speak late. Work those two notes only until that is smooth. Once you get it right, REPEAT IT IMMEDIATELY! You want to ingrain doing it correctly, and wipe out the memory of all the times you did it wrong before it finally clicked. I sometimes use the "penny game." Start with 5 pennies (or reeds, or other counters) on one side of your stand. When you play the passage with no mistakes, move one over and try again. If you make even one mistake, all the pennies go back to the other side and you start over. This will force you to play the passage five times correctly in a row. This brings us to the first "carved-in-stone" law of practicing:
Thou shalt immediately repeat a passage oncest thou gettest it right.
Now that you have it, increase the metronome a couple of clicks and repeat the process. You will eventually get to a point where you want to make the metronome beat a quarter-note instead of an eighth-note and keep increasing that. For the best possible results, practice the passage up to a tempo a few clicks faster that you intend to play it.
You notice the word "metronome" has been used a lot. This brings us to the second law of practicing:
Thou shalt ALWAYS practice technical passages with thy metronome.
The metronome has several advantages. It helps you to play evenly. It trains you to keep a steady rhythm. It will eventually give you a sense of tempos (many professional musicians can read something like "quarter-note=96" and instantly give you the right tempo within a click or two). The metronome is also like a stopwatch to a runner; it allows you to chart your progress and slowly strive to increase it.
Practicing slowly and increasing speed will work, but it is deadly dull. It's best to combine it with a technique such as:
Set the metronome to a speed perhaps a little slower than marked, but not really slow. Then practice the first five notes like so:
Play until it is even and comfortable. You might use the "penny game" as described above. When you have it (and have repeated it many times...), start with the second beat and play five notes:
"Why five notes?" I hear you ask, "it's in four-note groups." If you just practice the four-note groups, you will never practice the connections between them. You will also not be as aware of the "anchor notes"- the notes that fall on the beats of the measure. This is extremely important, so we will make it another law:
Thou shalt practice small groups from STRONG BEAT to STRONG BEAT.
Once you have the groups of five worked out, try them like this:
Now try groups of (not eight but) nine:
Repeat for the next few groups. You're probably ready now to try the whole passage, and you're a lot closer to the target tempo than you would be if you were simply working it up one click at a time from "dead slow."
Another technique that is especially good for things like scales is:
Just start, at full tempo, with the smallest grouping you can play, and go one note further. Once you can play that, go one more note:
Repeat until done. This technique does not ground you rhythmically as well as the previous, and it is a bit tedious, but it works.
Now that you have the notes, you can work on playing the passage evenly:
For each group of four notes, change the rhythm to:
For a metronome marking, use the fast tempo, but for the eighth-note (you really can't do this at full tempo). Now for the harder part, reverse the above rhythm to read:
As always, if a particular interval is a problem, try to figure out what you are doing wrong physically to cause trouble. Is a finger late? Are you not blowing/supporting between the notes? Do you need to concentrate on one particular motion?
Now we re-write the passage in triple time with two long notes and two short notes (there are three different combinations (that don't involve syncopation)):
You can try this with the metronome set to something like 72 to the dotted-quarter-note or, if that's a little too hard, set to something like 120 to the eighth-note. As above, don't try to work this up to the marked tempo - this practice version doesn't really compare beat-for-beat with the original.
In practicing technical passages you really have two goals: to teach your fingers to play the passage evenly and correctly, and to partially memorize the passage so that your reading of it doesn't slow you down. The techniques above will help to do that, and have always worked for me. Let's end by re-stating the three laws of technical practice:
1. Thou shalt immediately repeat a passage oncest thou gettest it right.
2. Thou shalt ALWAYS practice technical passages with thy metronome.
3. Thou shalt practice small groups from STRONG BEAT to STRONG BEAT.
Now, go learn the opening to Daphnis and Chloé!
At some point in our musical lives, each of us has certainly heard the following from our teachers when attempting to perform fast, technical passages...
it again... slowly."
In addition to the above, we've all surely also heard the following... "Don't just play through it... practice it." Therefore, the full message seems to be: the slow practice of fast, technical passages has a great value, but just playing through something slowly is not the complete answer. We have to somehow practice correctly while playing slowly. How do we accomplish this? The answer - and it is truly a very beneficial answer - appears when we examine the nature of what our fingers actually do when we play fast.
When we play fast passages, our fingers move quickly from one position on the instrument to the next. I know what you are thinking... "of course they do!" But that's not quite the full story. During fast passages, our fingers not only move quickly from one note to the next, but they do so without stopping; they do so without any pause between the various intervals.
Let's consider a group of sixteenth notes in the left hand: C-D-E-F-G. To play this passage rapidly, we begin by quickly lifting the fourth finger. Then, without pause, we quickly lift the middle finger. Again without pause, we rapidly lift the index finger. Similarly, and again without pause, we quickly lift the thumb. So what we have here are are series of rapid finger motions, all in quick succession. It is the phrase "all in quick succession" that is of interest here.
Of course, the above example is quite easy to play rapidly. But imagine some sequence of notes that is not quite so easy. Any one will do. A close analysis reveals that the problem is not actually getting from note 1 to note 2 quickly. Nor is it a problem to rapidly get from note 2 to note 3, or from note 3 to note 4, etc. We can rapidly play any one of the intervals, in isolation. It is the rapid sequence of intervals that causes problems... stringing all the rapid intervals together is what actually creates difficulty.
This is where slow practice can be helpful, if it is done correctly. What constitutes the correct slow practice of fast, technical passages? The key concept is to practice at a very slow tempo, while moving the fingers rapidly and precisely when changing notes. I call this "practicing fast, slowly." It is not a contradiction!
Slow fingers... fast fingers... do you see the difference? "Slow fingers" move with a languid, flowing motion. The fingers seem to help blend the notes together, enhancing the legato effect. "Fast fingers" change notes quickly, deliberately, precisely, and immediately, helping to clearly enunciate each note.
Practicing slowly with "slow fingers" does little to improve fast passage work when the correct tempo is later taken up. However, practicing slowly with "fast fingers" can work wonders for improving rapid, technical passages. To "practice fast, slowly," select a very slow tempo with long note values substituted for short values. Move the fingers quickly and precisely at the exact moment the notes change. It may feel as if you are "suddenly jerking" the fingers from one note to the next.
During slow practice with "fast fingers," your fingers are actually moving through the intervals just as rapidly as they will when you later speed up the tempo. However, since the tempo is slow, you have removed the obstacle of rapid succession. In reality, the fingers move through the notes quickly, but since they move one interval at a time, the passage is now completely manageable. Most important of all, you are practicing the very motions - the rapid changes of finger position - that you need to make at the fast tempo. What you now have is effective slow practice of rapid, technical passages.
As you can see, there is a great deal of difference between simply practicing slowly and practicing slowly with "fast fingers." There is still a bit more to say; in fact, there are two more items of importance. First, as you "practice fast, slowly," pay very careful attention to eliminating all extraneous motion of the fingers as you change pitches. Any extraneous motion will be magnified when you later increase the tempo, causing unevenness or even resulting in missed notes. Precise, immediate motions are the goal. Focus your ear on listening for clean intervals. If it feels (and sounds) a bit mechanical, that's fine... you are training the fingers to "remember" how to play these passages.
Secondly, don't overdo it. There is no need to repeat each passage dozens of times at one sitting. You are training the fingers, and an important part of the training concept is rest (or recovery). Play the passage in question "fast, but slowly" four to eight times; pause a moment, then go on to another passage. Come back to the passage the next day and again play it "fast, slowly" four to eight times. There is immensely more value (i.e., more beneficial "training" occurs) in playing a passage eight times a day, every day, for one week, than there is in playing a passage fifty-six times in one sitting. The body learns things over the course of time; don't let your mind - and your desire for quick results - get in the way of true progress.
The patient application of the method outlined above will do much to solve even the knottiest technical difficulties, and I commend it to you with great confidence. As you apply this method you, too, will gain confidence in it, because you will see results. These results will breathe a new vitality into your approach to practicing. All this because of a seeming contradition... we learn to play fast by practicing fast...slowly!
Please email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
It seems every time I think of putting together my thoughts regarding a subject surrounding clarinet pedagogy, those thoughts are nurtured by a recent lesson with a student. This one is no exception.
This past week, I asked one of my university clarinet students, a music education major, how soon she would move a beginning clarinetist in the public school band program from the chalumeau register to the clarion and altissimo registers. We discussed the idea that the upper clarion and, perhaps more often than not, the lower altissimo registers were more in line with a students' natural use of the aural cavity. In other words, the way a youngster uses their mouth and tongue to speak may be more akin to a position used to play in the clarion and altissimo registers than the chalumeau. Despite this fact, neither of us could find any reasons that would support movement away from the chalumeau until students were "ready." As it turned out, the student was unsure of when "ready" might be, and we entered into a fun and spirited exchange of when that might be. Several things came out of that dialogue that might be important for the beginning teacher or the non-clarinetist band teacher to know about a "correct" timetable for beginning clarinets.
First of all, as a disclaimer, I want to state at the outset that this timetable is designed for the greatest success with all teachers - clarinetists and non-clarinetists. In the hands of a clarinet specialist, a young student may move more quickly or naturally in a particular direction. This article is not written with that kind of student in mind - although this approach will work for anyone.
My feeling is that young students are most excited and ready to work hard at the very beginning of their experience. Regardless of the task, students want to achieve, and they want to do well. Learning a musical instrument is no exception. Luckily the clarinet, it is not a particularly difficult instrument to produce a good, characteristic sound on. Unlike the french horn, tuba, oboe, or bassoon, the clarinet requires very little beyond the ability to form the embouchure and blow air in a specific way. However, there are some very important fundamental concepts that are absolutely required in order to proceed to the more "advanced" areas of playing, and making use of a student's excitement at the very beginning can help form these concepts early. This article focuses on a basic time table for the beginning band clarinetist. For the purposes of clarity, this article defines a beginning band clarinetist as a 5th grade student within the first 8 months of playing clarinet for the first time.
Develop Students' Awareness of a Beautiful Sound
Everyone means well when they begin a student. Sadly, once the embouchure is formed and playing begins, students change their embouchure to eliminate the accidental overblown harmonic (squeak). Demonstrate a beautiful tone in your playing for the student, or have characteristic examples for students to hear and see. Without these things, students can't possibly imitate and produce a great tone. In order of importance during the first lesson:
1. Have students form the embouchure without the clarinet (there are lots of terrific articles and items written about embouchure formation - this article is more about the timetable and what to teach when than the "how to" approach).
2. Have students form the embouchure with the clarinet in hand and the mouthpiece in the mouth - but without blowing.
3. Using a correct embouchure, have the students blow an air stream without the clarinet.
4. Using a correct embouchure, have students blow another airstream, but this time ask them to blow warm air and cold air on their hand.
5. Have students sing a first space F as you play it on the clarinet or piano.
6. Have students play an open G (concert pitch of F) with the correct embouchure -using "warm" air. If successful, ask them to repeat with "cold" air.
7. Explain why students may experience the overblown altissimo D when they try to play an open G, and work with those students briefly. If squeaking continues, have students reduce the amount of mouthpiece they take until the G sounds. Gradually increase amount of mouthpiece until the correct amount is being used.
8. Rotate the instrument at the barrel so that the keys are facing the student. Individually, have each student hold the barrel of the instrument and play an open G as you (the teacher) finger the notes on the instrument for them. They will be very surprised at the nice sound they get as they blow with a correct embouchure and you finger the notes G, F, E, D, C and back up. Stress that they didn't have to move embouchure or change air stream to get those notes.
number 8 by extending the range from Open G down to Low F and back.
Experiment with the student trying it with their own fingers.
10. If successful, have the student attempt starting on a lower note in the range - a low G or low F. If they overblow the harmonic, have them take less mouthpiece until they are able to "feel" (in the mouth, throat, tongue position) where the position is correct for the low notes. Then gradually have them increase the amount of mouthpiece taken on repeated tries. Some students may have problems covering the holes with their fingers or bump other keys that open - thus causing squeaks. Identify and correct as much as possible.
In this area of instruction, it is not enough to, as one young teacher has stated, "teach the clarinet down to low E and make sure that the student has a good understanding of what it takes to produce a good sound on the clarinet," before moving to another register. Understanding can only be demonstrated by the students' exhibit of a good tone throughout the chalumeau - and that takes weeks, sometimes months to solidify before the embouchure is ready to handle the issues associated with the clarion. The embouchure will most certainly not be able to play well in the altissimo during this time, although an occasional game or two in that area won't hurt anything. It is actually very easy to play around in the altissimo register - as evidenced by the frequent squeak experienced by trying to play in the chalumeau. Experimentation in this area will allow students to see what notes they are actually able to play with almost no effort. It also helps focus them back into producing a good sound in the lowest register. However, embouchure strength, endurance, and, above all, consistency, is a must before moving into any other register. When in doubt, wait!
Test students' understanding of what a good tone is by expecting them to play with a full, reedy, clear, and controlled resonant tone with a centered pitch. This is the test for a "good understanding" of what is involved with playing a characteristically good tone on the instrument. Again, I cannot stress enough the importance of providing a model for the student to hear on a regular basis.
Focus on tone quality and air support first and worry about tonguing issues later
An often overlooked factor amongst
beginning clarinetists (or any wind instrument for that matter) is training
students to get plenty of air in, and then training them to blow the air out.
There are many techniques for doing this well, and the best "how to"
approach is not a primary focus of this article. My point in mentioning use of
air is that this needs to be as important a focus of sound production -
primarily because air is sound production. Whatever techniques you use to
develop good breathing habits, make sure the students spend the first week or
two playing everything at MF or F - with the correct embouchure. Don't allow
them to breathe every measure; rather, ask them to make it through four
measures at quarter note = 80. For some this will be a difficult task - so this
is a good time to review cold air and warm air concepts. Playing at the louder
volumes requires students to flex the embouchure and grip the mouthpiece
correctly, so they will tire quickly in the beginning. Plan rest periods and
instruct to other students during this time. By monitoring pitch and/or tonal
colors (baggy, saggy, buzzy, fuzzy for the negative, and firm, clear and big
for the positive), it is easy to tell if a student has the mouthpiece firmly
against the upper teeth, is biting too much or not enough, and is blowing the
right amount of air. The flex of the embouchure works the muscles around the
corners and upper lip, and students will gain strength and endurance quickly by
holding longer notes at louder volumes.
When in doubt, Stay in the Chalumeau
The temptation to move into the clarion is always great. Moving into the clarion or the altissimo too soon can be akin to trying to get a toddler to walk sooner than he should, or, better, putting a beginning driver on the freeway too soon. Once he's there, you've got a lot more on your hands than you did before. Many band method books put the clarinet students into the Clarion register much too soon. And, perhaps most often, teachers allow embouchures to move and stray from the initially taught embouchure at the same time as the move to the Clarion; this causes awful problems later. In most cases, it's best to wait and be sure that hand position, embouchure, use of air, and ability to maneuver around the chalumeau register is working well prior to the big move. Frankly, this is a good time to focus seriously on articulation - beginning with legato and moving to more separated sounds. Stress interruption of the reed for only brief nanoseconds - always reminding students that the tip of the tongue flicks the top of the reed. Avoid allowing students to anchor tongue (leaving the tip of the tongue behind the lower teeth while using the middle of the tongue to interrupt the top of the reed). While this is an acceptable form of tonguing, it also causes issues later with regard to flexibility that are much more difficult to deal with than tip to tip tonguing.
As an aside, while some people believe the clarion and altissimo are a natural area to play in, these are also cause the most difficulty by virtue of disguising articulation problems. The Chalumeau is a great register for dealing with both of these skills - if problems are going to occur; they will be more easily diagnosed in this range. Let's not forget that we are developing ears as well as playing ability. Young students take time to develop good habits that remain. I have heard one person state that, while students should have an understanding and be able to demonstrate the understanding of good mechanics and architecture in embouchure formation, there does not need to be a more mature tonal center established before addressing the altissimo register playing. I would submit that a student who demonstrates an understanding of good mechanics and architecture in embouchure "formation" does not necessarily play with a good (mature or otherwise) tone quality. The word "mature" is a somewhat elusive term to me, although it is not unusual to have a four-week beginner producing chalumeau sounds as good as many seasoned pros! I prefer to think of the tone as being characteristic, consistent, and in tune before moving to the clarion. A consistent tone is one that does not waver, one that usually sounds the same each time the student plays, and one that does not let much embouchure or jaw move around. Lots of students can form the embouchure, but it takes time - more than a few weeks - to maintain and make sure the embouchure isn't going to change. The altissimo leap has a high risk factor with regard to movement of embouchure - and with very few positive results if successful. I would prefer to err on the side of caution and be sure that all the hard work the student has made towards the next level will not deteriorate in an effort to demonstrate an awareness of how tongue position and voicing can allow them to play in a register they won't be using for awhile.
Use the time in the Chalumeau to teach the five step process for starting a tone with the tongue:
1. Air in
2. Set the embouchure
3. Tip of tongue at the top of the reed
4. Blow air
5. Release the tongue
With normal, everyday playing, numbers 2-4 occur only nanoseconds apart. In practice, it is often a good idea to have the beginning clarinetist practice by the numbers a couple of times. The teacher can best help by monitoring and listening to the responses. This is a time when that pesky overblown harmonic (squeak) can come back. Make sure students know that excessive movement of the entire tongue can cause this instability. Have them move just the front of the tongue. In this way, the Chalumeau register has quite an advantage over learning articulation in both the clarion and altissimo registers. It is much easier to diagnose articulation issues when the student is playing in the Chalumeau. While learning articulation skill in the lowest register, if the back of the tongue or the soft palate is too active, it can often result in an overblown harmonic or "squeak.." In the altissimo, the tongue can be very active in all ways and often no squeak will occur; this is the same for the clarion register. For those students who move too quickly to the clarion and altissimo, there will be articulation problems in the chalumeau - bank on it!
You might be amazed at how students will move their entire jaw or allow the embouchure to "slip" when approaching tonguing. This is the best time to watch for these kinds of things - when you are teaching articulation in the low register.
Hand Position is a Major Concern
There is no better time to focus on hand position than during the first two or three months of playing. Stress the importance of straight third fingers, monitor the right hand forefinger and do not allow it to become hooked under the trill keys (holding the instrument up). Be sure that the right hand thumb is not extended too far beneath the thumb rest. If the fingers/hands are large enough, the pinky fingers should lightly touch pinky keys. If not, at least make sure that they are up and ready to move to the pinky keys rather than curled below the keys. Double check the left hand to make sure that the thumb is at about a 45 degree angle and is lightly touching the register key. This is critical for later use of the register key. Be sure to check the left forefinger to see it is over the Ab key - ready to rock onto it when necessary.
Rate of finger motion and Moving from the Proper Knuckle
I can't begin to tell you how many technical issues can be solved simply by having students move from the major knuckle rather than the first or second digit knuckle. Without playing, have students "pop" sounds on each tone hole - this will be especially difficult for third fingers. Make sure their fingers remain ever so slightly curved rather than buckled at the first digit knuckle. This approach will lead to faster, clearer finger articulation down the road.
Know When to Teach by Rote and When Not To
Teach by rote, but don't ignore students' need to learn to read notation. Have students say the note names as they finger the note. Have them read and play as much as they imitate and play. Design rhythm games on the board, and expect all students to achieve a rhythmic reading proficiency. Rhythmic reading skill is a much more difficult task than knowing note names, and it requires a teacher's attention for every class taught.
After the student has been playing long enough to get to the low E without major squeaks due to pulling fingers off of the holes, it is time to give them their first major technical challenge. One of the great rote patterns is the first five notes of the chromatic scale starting on low E. Unlike asking students to memorize what seem like unorganized fingerings in the altissimo, the chromatic scale is immediately useful in daily applications. Stress a pick-up-put-down approach whereby the left hand pinky will finger the low E and the right hand pinky is simultaneously on the F key. Simply pick up the left pinky, resulting in a sounding F, (Eb Concert Pitch) and put it down on the F# key - never moving the right pinky. This gives the first three notes of the chromatic scale. Proceed by having students go back and forth between these three notes - only moving the the left pinky. When it is smooth, the next step is, from the F# fingering of both pinkies down, to pick up both pinkies from the F#/F keys leaving a sounding G (F Concert Pitch). Put the right pinky down on G# and then pick it up again to sound G. Both pinkies go back down on their respective keys for F# (as on the way up), and pick up the left pinky for sounding F. Put the left pinky down on E without lifting the right hand pinky from the F key, and you have the first five note pattern of the low octave. Once students have this pattern learned with a good tone and good finger movement, start with G# and work up the next five notes to C natural. Don't forget to use the fork B natural for B. The final five note pattern is from C to E. Do not use side Eb; rather - have the students use the fork Eb fingering on the way up and down. Once these three, five-note groupings are learned, have students connect them for one full octave of chromatic beginning on low E. Don't forget, when the register key is added later, they will be able to play a long B to high B chromatic scale with the same fingerings. The idea that they have two octaves of chromatic ability (more than any other section except flutes and saxophones) is enough motivation to get even more focused practice from them in the ensuing weeks!
The chalumeau chromatic is always my first major technical goal for the beginning clarinetist - often best to teach right after students have demonstrated the ability to slur from Open G to Low E and back without problems. It's a great combination of blowing, forming embouchure, getting a good sound, demonstrating good hand position, and developing technical skills They should be able to start a note on the Low E before attempting the chromatic patterns. This worthy goal of chromaticizing allows the student to play with security in a register that most band music will require of them for the next four years, and it encourages them to blow through then entire length of the horn. By virtue of the necessity to use many different keys beyond the tone holes themselves, it can reinforce good teaching of hand position, and the embouchure is not tempted to move around much in this register. Beyond that, it pre-teaches notes/fingerings that a student will encounter within the next year. I use it as the "mid-term" (fourth month) grade I used to give my public school clarinet students, and it is the primary reason that the junior high and senior high clarinet sections played with advanced technique and good, fundamental tones. Regarding private students - they often reach this point within the first 2 months of studying (8 lessons) if all is going extremely well. By the way - you don't ever have to have them see the chromatic in order for them to develop it. But it never hurts to give them a copy of the patterns.
Once students have learned the chromatic scale down low (by rote) and are progressing with articulation in the chalumeau, it is time to move them up to the clarion. However, I have some additional thoughts regarding the idea that the clarion should be skipped over in favor of the altissimo. I have heard of at least one approach that stresses this timetable.
Some additional thoughts about
skipping from the Clarion and moving to the Altissimo
The philosophy that suggests moving to the altissimo (as high as a G) immediately following the learning of a low E on the clarinet also stresses the process of getting students to "visualize"concepts that include but are not limited to teaching students about breath support via control of what the philosophy labels "the propulsion and delivery systems." This labeling method is coupled with the idea that students will be less successful if teaching is centered in the chalumeau (eg. fixing things dealing with tone production in the lowest register) than if they play in the altissimo within the first several weeks. This approach then uses the altissimo register as a point of departure to work back down to the clarion. The idea that playing in the altissimo register is more about voicing physically in the mind (through visualization) and then proceeding to apply concepts of good tone after the fact is definitely one I have never seen applied successfully in any school district - for good reason. While there are merits to the idea that students can visualize well and that they can work in the upper registers more easily (we've all had them "squeak" constantly), the physical act of playing and listening to a characteristic clarinet sound during these beginning stages is much more important. Foreseeable problems with moving students up too soon might include but not be limited to poor sound production in the chalumeau, poor articulation skills, relatively weak control of pitch, and a tendency to overblow (volume) the clarion and altissimo registers. Of course, with the right teacher, any method at the private instruction level can work (see my disclaimer at the beginning of the article). But in terms of class or mixed band instruction, I believe this approach risks too much in the way of muscle development of the embouchure required for endurance and depth of sound that comes from learning to play in the chalumeau. Beyond that, the move to the clarion from the chalumeau is very easy if done in a way that allows students not to move their embouchures, change their air stream, or adjust their aural cavity.
I don't buy into the notion that asking a student to remain in the chalumeau as a platform for helping them to create "fast air, flatten the chin," and to "make the lower lip firm," creates a natural restricted palate to playing in the altissimo later on. I haven't experienced that problem myself, have not observed that problem with the hundreds of beginning clarinetists I have taught, and I have had to fix enough embouchures and articulation issues at the secondary and university level to know that students need to remain in the lowest register longer.
Students develop "subtones" in the altissimo and/or clarion because of poor embouchure development and a lack of awareness of how the tongue and aural cavity can positively affect register changes. Keep in mind that subtones, the small "thuddy" sound heard when trying to play in the clarion or altissimo - usually when articulating, can occur for reasons other than voicing issues. Two prominent reasons for subtones occurring frequently are not enough mouthpiece, or the embouchure squeezing the reed. The latter is often from a bunched chin or strange embouchure - not simply from biting or squeezing too hard.
Further, there are many ways of teaching correct embouchure and air speed at this early level without requiring students to move to the altissimo register before the clarion. The lack of awareness of how the tongue and aural cavity affects register changes does not come from staying in the chalumeau too long; frankly, it happens because teachers do not often teach the concept of overblowing a fundamental pitch to achieve a clarion or altissimo note - at any time! These are more advanced concepts that students can begin to explore after they have developed a good awareness of playing in the lowest register. The time period for learning these techniques that typically provide the best reward for the student is the second or third year of study. However, exploration and experimentation of the altissimo can occur within the first year if done properly. As soon as the requirement is made to memorize fingerings in the altissimo (during the first year), the teacher has moved out of what may be the most beneficial timetable for teaching beginning clarinet and into an ego-bursting area that has little or no value to the student. To recap then, without the fast and slow air concepts, a good embouchure that includes strength in the upper lip (which is what allows the chin to be flat and muscularly flexed), and without a firm lower lip that is slightly rolled over the lower teeth, work in the altissimo may damage a beginning students' demonstrated understanding of how to play in tune and form an embouchure well. Again, there are always exceptions, and those exceptions should study privately or spend time after school individually with the teacher.
Move to the Clarion
Patience is a virtue! There will be plenty of time to learn control - both with the air, the tongue placement, and the embouchure as required by the altissimo, when the time comes. At this point in a youngster's development, the less movement in the tongue, throat, mouth, embouchure, air stream, the better. This is best developed in the chalumeau with a direct link to the clarion when the student demonstrates readiness.
An activity that has always worked for me:
Have students count off by twos. Have the "ones" play a low A in the chalumea with their eyes closed while the two's wait for your cue. On your cue, the "twos" should lightly press and hold the register key of the "ones'" instrument. If all is well and you have done your job with the low register, the fourth space E in the clarion will pop out - perfectly clear and right in tune. Reverse the activity for the "ones," and then have students practice the rock of the thumb onto the register key without actually playing. This is a good time to review hand position. Once they have it right, have them add the register key themselves while they play the low A. It is extremely important that you monitor their embouchures, jaw movement (there should be none), and the way they blow air or bite down. Watch for any excessive head movement - dipping of the head or raising the head up. Be sure the angle of the clarinet is closer in than farther out. Finally - review pressure of the mouthpiece against the upper teeth for support. If all is well and the sounds are reasonably clear, it is time to review starting notes with the tongue from a point of departure in the clarion. I recommend fourth line D. Review the five step process on that note. Once successful, have them slur up and down the clarion to explore what notes speak well with a minimum of movement in the embouchure and back/middle tongue position.
Keep in mind, there are several philosophies of "how to" in clarinet pedagogy. I have observed beginning band teachers who focus on the idea that young clarinetists must be able to produce a particular note on the mouthpiece and, subsequently the mouthpiece and barrel combination before moving to the entire clarinet. While there are very practical reasons to start out this way, remember that it is simply a single tool or activity of many tools and activities for helping students successfully realize what it feels and sounds like when they correctly play in a particular register with a particular embouchure. Use it if you feel comfortable using it - do so. But don't use it if you have trouble with it. It isn't required in order to produce a great sound. Also, there is a possible negative outcome from this approach - playing with the mouthpiece and barrel, or just the mouthpiece, can create a problem of perception for which register the student should begin in. This happened with me when I first started. I was asked to play on the mouthpiece only as a means for teaching embouchure and grip of the embouchure. When I was able to play the correct pitch on the mouthpiece (high C), I was moved to the clarinet. The first half hour was spent trying to find an Open G in the chalumeau register. When the open G finally sounded, I was surprised at how "low" the pitch sounded and felt in the resonating chamber of my mouth and throat compared to what I had been playing with just the mouthpiece. What a change from the sounding high C on the piano! As a result of that experience, I never used the technique of mouthpiece and/or mouthpiece/barrel combination for starting my beginners. I do use the technique as a test for embouchure formation and the amount of pressure used around the mouthpiece and against the upper teeth after the student has successfully sounded the first notes.
It is always preferable to have defined student learning objectives (SLOs) for everything you teach. Beginning Band/Beginning Clarinet is no exception. This is a good General Timetable in a Nutshell (based on two to three class meetings a week for 50 minute classes - mixed instruments):
Week 1: Instrument assembly and
Form Embouchure - with/without instrument
Warm Air/Cold Air Concept
How to breath in
Open G - Low C and Back
Week 2: Review Week 1
Extend range down to low F
Teach the concept of increasing air as the tube is lengthened (descending scales)
Introduce starting the note with the tongue (5-step process)
Week 3: Review Weeks 1 and 2
Reinforce teaching with notes and rhythms
Introduce Warm Up Approach
Discuss and demonstrate how to tune the instrument
Introduce a counting method
Week 4: Review Weeks 1-3
Teach Articulation - legato approach
Begin introducing low pinky keys (little finger exercises)
Begin speed studies on notes learned - scale pattern as well as skips and jumps
Test each student individually on what they have been taught so far
Week 5-6: Review Weeks 1-4x and
include a Possible Playing Test and Multiple Answer Quiz
Introduce sharps and flats and fingerings to go with them
Introduce two and three part harmony
Begin the five note chromatic scale pattern on Low E
Week 7-8: Add the second five note
chromatic scale pattern on Low G#
Test the little finger pattern - be sure it is pickup/putdown - for grade
Discuss moving from a Rico Royal size 2 to a size 2 « or 3
Week 9-10: Add the third five note chromatic scale pattern on Low Fork B Natural
Connect the first and second chromatic scale patterns
Chromatic speed contest on first two connected patterns
Test for grade on fingering accuracy
Week 11-12: Thirds, arpeggios and unusual
sequences introduced that test finger ability and
reading ability - all in chalumeau
Begin working on interrupted staccato - tip to tip tonguing
Connect first and second chromatic patterns with the third pattern
Have the students play the chromatic with their eyes closed - once on their own
and once with you holding the register key down to pre-teach the move to clarion.
There is usually a Holiday break near this time. I always liked to use the time prior to break to reinforce all fundamental skills - embouchure, air, articulation, hand position, and practice habits. Some schools may also have a Holiday Concert, which may postpone some of the skills learned in Weeks 6-12. Therefore, the timetable is somewhat dependent upon each school district and the learning objectives that have been developed for each level.
After the return from Holiday Break:
Week 13: Review all work and spend
the week getting chops back from a long rest off.
Lots of continuous playing and reinforcement of Fundamental Skills
Week 14-15: Begin Clarion Register
Learn five note chromatic pattern from E to throat G# - using side F# fingering.
Week 16-17: Review Embouchure and
Air issues with the mouthpiece barrel combination
Apply above to what it feels like to play in the clarion
Monitor excessive movement of embouchure and or jaw and correct
Ask students to increase or sustain air to the high C
Ask students to increase air as they descend from high C to Long B
Monitor pitch - adjust in embouchure and pressure against top teeth.
Return to mouthpiece/barrel combination if pitch is excessively low - check reed
Teach over the break playing with simple scale - G, A, B, C
Teach concept of right hand down on G and B
Connect all chromatic patterns learned thus far - one breath at Forte up and down!
Week 18-19: If over the break
playing is good, teach five note chromatic pattern beginning on Throat G# and
ascending to Long B in the clarion. This is the link between the two learned
Extend scale, third, and arpeggio studies
The rest of the timetable is determined by the level that the students have achieved thus far. Generally, a few ensemble concerts may have interrupted this "ideal" schedule, and students will be at the 18-19 week point near the end of their first year. They should have a solid, clear, resonant tone from Low E to High C, good over-the-break skills, good tonguing skills - especially in the low register, rock solid embouchures, demonstrated good air support skills, good hand position, and a fluent chromatic skills to high C. Their reading/rhythm skills should be at the whole note, half note, dotted half note, quarter, eighth, dotted quarter, off-beat entrance, and triplet level by the end of the fifth grade year. Introduction of Cut Time and 6/8 at the end of the first year can be fun.
To review - some approaches for teaching clarinet at the beginning level follow along the lines of a band method. A band method is a system designed for an entire beginning band. Most of these methods move clarinet students up into the clarion too soon. Resist the temptation. My advice for the use of band methods is to edit the notes, slurs, articulations, and registers frequently. Do not play everything in the book - rather, pick and choose what best suits your students for the timetable you have selected. Always know where they are headed and where they actually are in relationship to the SLOs (goals) you have set for them. And above all else, enjoy the beginning students - for no other students are as readily moldable as a beginner!
Finally, while my thoughts and musings reflect what I feel works best for beginning clarinetists, always do what is best for your students. Don't be afraid to try ideas. I'm still learning - as are most of my colleagues. I never fail to be surprised when a student comes up with an idea or approach to teaching that I hadn't thought of before - or at least a new variation of an old, worn out trick I've been using. I don't know why I'm ever surprised though - students are clever, bright, intuitive, and fresh! If nurtured correctly, they will outplay us all! And isn't that our goal?