Clarinet Tips on 4 Important Topics

This article covers the topics of hand position, crossing the break, venting and voicing.

Clarinet Tips on Hand Position

Bad habits with hand position are completely, 100% eliminated if you are proactive and don’t let them happen in the first place. Remember, they know nothing, and will only do what you allow them to do.

  • Thumb and forefinger of both hands should basically form a letter “C” shape. 
  • Holding the mouthpiece, barrel, and first joint with the right hand, place the left pinkie on the wood below the cork of the first joint to anchor and initially stabilize hand. Place the thumb pointing around two o’clock with the pad covering the hole and left corner tip able to press down on the register key if needed. One at a time, add each finger with the fleshy pad of the finger over the hole. Fingers should have a slight, downward slant. Slurring everything, start with open G, adding one finger at a time matching the quality of open G until all holes are covered (this will produce C#). When they can slur down and up, add the second joint. 
  • This is a great time to remind them to use a bit more air, because they are filling up a longer tube. Home base for left little finger is to lightly touch the Low E (or B) key. Home base for the right little finger is the low F (or C) key. 
  • The right thumb should have nail about halfway from straight up and should not be pointing straight up toward the thumb rest or straight toward the body. It should be about 45 degrees (halfway between those two positions). Thumb rest should be in the vicinity of the first thumb knuckle. This has some variation due to the significant differences in hand sizes with beginners. The right hand fingers should approach the holes at a 90-degree angle to the horn, and the right little finger should not be stretched/locked to touch the home key. There should be a slight, gentle curve to the fingers of this hand. To achieve, pull right palm down and closer to the clarinet. Avoid allowing the right index finger to rest on the post or touch the side trill keys! 
  • As they learn to use all the fingers, constantly remind them that clarinet is played by balancing it between the top teeth and the thumb rest. You do not grip and hold the clarinet between the thumbs and index fingers of both hands. If students do this, it will create tension, so don’t let it happen. They will never know what they have missed. 
  • When they play low E and F, they should feel significant vibrations in the pads of ALL their fingertips. As they squeeze more, the vibrations disappear, indicating too much tension.

Clarinet Tips on Crossing The Break

Before learning to cross the break, make sure:

  • The left thumb is pointing to one to two o’clock and that it is rocking onto the register key. 
  • The left index finger is rolling up onto the very bottom of the A key. It does not lift and then place down on the A key. They should be able to slur back and forth between F# and A with no break in the sound. 
  • Students need to be able to do register studies, where only the left thumb is moving to create the new note. 
  • Students need to learn to play throat tone A with right hand down and 2-3 down on the left hand (make sure left index finger is playing the A key at the very bottom of the key. 
  • From this covered A, move only the left index finger and thumb to slur to C, and back. You can slur down to B  from C whenever, but the fingers down on A is something they need to learn. 
  • How players use the air does not change. There should be no change in tension.     

Clarinet Tips on Venting

Just like the left index finger must roll up on to the A key, that finger needs to be able to roll down to vent the tone hole below it. This process of “venting” or half-hole technique is frequently used in specific instances for woodwind instruments.

Slurring from top line F up to D will often produce a “bump” to the sound when finger is raised unless the student has exceptional control of their air flow. Venting that tone hole will produce a very smooth slur to the D. The slightest opening in the tone hole will cause the higher note to speak. Minimal motion, minimal effort creates the best, smoothest slur into the highest register when the index finger in involved with the slur.

Clarinet Tips on Voicing

Clarinet is the only instrument in the band where the tongue/throat is in an “eee” position. Directors will always talk to the band about relaxed throat with an “ah” position or tonguing as da-da-da or ta-ta-ta. (By the way, I prefer the less percussive “da” syllable). Clarinet players must become translators, so when the director says “da-da-da” the clarinetist translates to their language, “de-de-de”.

The tongue arches (voicing) more the higher one goes. It becomes a nasal “eee” in the highest register. I call it the Steve Urkle “eee”. Many players do not voice (arch) the tongue enough in the highest register, so the pitch center is on the low side.

The best way to validate if the tongue is placed correctly is to have them play alternate Ab (thumb, register, 1-2, 1-2). It is a stuffy, out of tune note, so is never used in regular playing. To quickly articulate that note requires that the tongue be in the exact, correct position. If the tongue is too flat, one will produce the next higher overtone, what the lay public calls a squeak. This is also a good evaluator to verify that the embouchure “grip” and teeth placement are correct, producing an undertone if not in the correct spot.

High G begins the highest register (high F and F# are slightly flat, high G is sharp). It is starting at high G that the tongue flattens to an “ah” to play these highest notes. High E and high A are both fingered exactly the same way. The high A will pop out when the tongue flattens and the air comes more up toward the reed. Many squeaks when students playing in the high register are a result of the tongue being too flat, so the note wants to pop up into that highest register. (I would not give this information to a beginner or even a second year player, only the most exceptional. Creating the consistency and stability of the “eee” voicing is of greatest importance.)

Paul Worosello recently retired after 37 years in education. His most recent position was Fine Arts Department Chair and Director of Bands at Klein Forest High School, Houston, Texas, a position he has held since 1980.  For the past nineteen years, he was also actively involved with the Klein Forest Symphony Orchestra as associate conductor of that group.  Mr. Worosello received Bachelor of Music Education and Master in Clarinet Performance degrees from West Texas State University, where he was a student of Dr. Gary Garner.

Under his baton, the Klein Forest Symphonic Band has been featured at the Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago.  The band received the Sudler Flag of Honor in 1997.  Twice selected to the Bands of America Concert Festival in Chicago and Indianapolis in 1993 and 1997, the Symphonic Band has also performed in Carnegie Hall in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2013.  The band and orchestra have been recipients of numerous “Best in Class” awards, and the orchestra has twice been selected as the Texas Honor Orchestra.  In 1999, the music department was one of sixteen schools in the nation recognized by the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences as a GRAMMY “Gold” Signature School.  Awarded Signature School status six more times, in 2003 they were selected as the National Signature School for the #1 music program in the country.

Paul Worosello has been a director and mentor at the West Texas A&M University Band Camp and Band Director Workshop in Canyon, Texas for the past 41 years. Read more about Band Director Workshop here.

Related Reading:
Blowing Between the Notes: The Fine Art of Flute Legato
4 Rules to Choosing the Best Clarinet Fingerings
Selecting Band Music for Contest (General Guidelines)
Why Are My Clarinets Playing Flat

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