Why Are My Clarinets Playing Flat?

If you have clarinets playing flat, it needs to be addressed immediately as it is often a symptom of a much more significant problem. The good news is that by fixing the things mentioned below, it should not only improve their intonation, it should drastically improve their tone as well.

Mouthpiece & Barrel:
Have the students play for you individually on mouthpiece/barrel. The pitch should be an F# (concert pitch). If they are sharp, that’s ok (for now). They should not be flat. Let the child watch a tuner. (If they are up to pitch on mouthpiece/barrel but not on the instrument, skip down to the part about “adding the instrument.”) Have a mirror available so they can see what you are looking for.

If they are flat, address these things:

Voicing – They should be thinking/voicing “EEE” in their mouth. The tongue should be as high as possible. You can also say “high and forward.” Have them say “aaah” then “eee” to show them how much the tongue can move in their mouth. Then have them play and think “eee.” It’s possible they can pull the pitch up enough to hear it, kind of like a “siren.” Have them try to hold the pitch as high as possible and then keep thinking “eee” more.  You can also try having them say “hee.”

Anchor – The top of the mouthpiece should be firmly on the upper teeth. I highly recommend thick mouthpiece patches (See the article explaining why here.) If there is any way your band program can just pay to get them for all your clarinetists it is well worth the investment. If not, send out an email to parents asking them to get them as soon as possible. They should be securing the mouthpiece to the top teeth by pressing up at the angle of the instrument. (Not directly up to the ceiling, but more up into the teeth, mouth)

  • Check this by gently “wiggling” the mouthpiece as they play. It should not move at all.

Corners/chin – Have the students look in a mirror as you cover this area. Corners of the mouth should be “gripping” the mouthpiece. Have the student smile and pull the corners back. Then have them move the corners as far forward as they can. Tell them that the forward feeling is what they should feel when playing – never smiling. It should resemble at drawstring purse. The chin should be flat. I look for “muscles” pulling the chin down flat. (See how I teach clarinet embouchure here.)

Air Stream – Fast, cold air across the reed. Have them hold their hand out in front of them about 2 feet in front of their face. Have them try to blow air on their hand in a fast, focused air stream. Tell them when they blow they are not blowing down the instrument, they are blowing across the reed to make the reed vibrate. Have them try playing again, and as they are playing put your hand 2  feet in front of their face. Tell them to visualize sending a laser of air at your palm as they blow through the mouthpiece.

Angle of the instrument – The angle of the instrument to the body should be 25-40 degrees depending on the student’s lips and teeth. It should be basically in line with the knees. I often prefer it a little inside the knees and have put a piece of tape from knee to knee and asked kids to keep it inside the knee. This varies depending on the child, but it’s a good visualization when the instrument is added.

  • But here’s the kicker – if the child is dipping their head when they play it will look like they have the correct angle, but they don’t. They need to hold their head level (you can place a book on top to give them the right feeling) and lift the instrument to the face, not dip their head to the instrument. Tell them to feel like their is an imaginary string from the ceiling to their forehead holding it up. One way to help students remember this is to raise their stands considerably higher than the average stand position.
  • Since they will be on mouthpiece and barrel for this stage of diagnosing, have them adjust the angle of the mouthpiece/barrel and then when they add the instrument you will have them hold the same angle.

Amount of mouthpiece – This is not a common reason for being flat, but while you’re checking all of this, be sure they have the correct amount of mouthpiece. Probably about 1/4 of an inch, but lip size an teeth structure can affect this as well.

(You can listen to a podcast about getting up to pitch on mouthpiece/barrel here.)

Add the Instrument:
Instead of having them play an open G, have them play G right on top of the staff. Thumb/Register/1/2/3  It will give you more information than an open G. 

Have them check all six things again. Specifically check the angle of the instrument and the anchoring because the right thumb now has to do the work of pushing up.

Once they get the G above the staff in tune, have them start on that note and play down – GFEDC in half notes watching a tuner.  Then have them start on the G above the staff and go up – GABC to C on the 2nd ledger line. You’ll find that when they fix the above 6 things, not only will the pitch improve, but the response and tone of these higher notes as well.

Breaking a Habit:
Depending on how long the student has played, they have developed bad habits over months or years. You will have to constantly, vigilantly remind them of these 6 things. Many times a day. You can download a stand sign with reminders for the items above. Have them hang it on their stands every day. Click here to download.  Embouchure_Reminder_Stand_Sign (Hang it where they see the reminders as they are playing.)

Often kids are sound good and play in tune until they start tonguing. That’s a whole different issue based on tonguing and will have to be a separate article. This post is more for getting them up to pitch on sustained notes. (For a podcast about tonguing for intermediate clarinet players, click here.)

Consider the Reed:
The reason I put this last is because handing them a harder reed will not fix tuning/tone if the things listed above are not corrected. However, the reed is definitely something you want to address and it can improve things greatly depending on the situation.

** Reeds can vary greatly depending on reed manufacturer, student age, length/frequency of band classes and climate. Please take that into account. However, students are often on too soft of reeds for too long, so this at least gives you an idea.

  • By the middle/end of beginning band, clarinetists should be on a strength 3 reed. Many people start beginners on a 3 and that is fine as well. Depending on the climate of where you live and the individual student, there may be some times that a student should move to a 3 1/2 by the end of the first year. However, 3 is a good general rule. Many students move to a 3 1/2 by the 2nd-3rd year, but you really need to decide that on a student by student basis. Private lesson teachers can help with this as well.
  • Be sure that they are not playing on an old reed that still looks good but has been played on for so long that it is playing like a softer reed – for example a 3 playing more like a 2 1/2.
  • They should be rotating 4 reeds daily. (I say 6 for more advanced players.) So day 1 – play on reed 1, day 2 – reed 2, etc. As one reed wears out, they just replace it and keep the rotation going. You should do reed checks at least every 2 weeks. Have them show you the tip of the reeds.
  • I’m not going to get into a specific brand, but obviously, the better quality reed, the better tone and consistency students will have as they develop. Also, a strength 3 for Brand A is not the same as a strength 3 for Brand B, so you may need to experiment.

For a podcast about improving tone/tuning with intermediate clarinet players, click here.

A 1999 music education graduate of WTAMU, Tamarie Sayger held band director positions in Plano and Odessa, TX for 5 years. As a private clarinet instructor in Texas for 16 years, she has taught hundreds of students from grade 6-12 in classes, sectionals, and individual lessons. She has presented at district in-services and co-presented at the Texas Bandmasters Association convention. Her website, CrossingTheBreak.com, provides resources for clarinet teachers around the country. Mrs. Sayger is also a core contributor for BandDirectorsTalkShop.com, primarily on the subjects of clarinet and private lessons. Her podcast, Crossing The Break, can be found on iTunes.

Related Reading:
Teaching Clarinets to Roll to A Isn’t Enough
4 Rules to Choosing the Best Clarinet Fingering
How Using Lanyards Can Help You Listen to Every Student in Beginning Band
Simple Steps to Teaching Flute Vibrato

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