Advice about clarinet embouchure in the clarinet pedagogy literature is fairly consistent no matter where one looks. Keep the chin flat and pointed, corners of the mouth to the center, touch the reed with the tip of the tongue, angle of the instrument between 30 and 45 degrees. If everyone does this, why are there so many ugly, unfocused clarinet sounds? Here is a checklist that will help your clarinetists to produce the beautiful, focused, dark, but colorful sound that you desire.
One has to blow a well-formed sound into an instrument in order to get a lovely sound out of it. So the first step in building a clarinet tone is: SET BEFORE YOU ATTACK! A student will never be able to adjust to correct an embouchure after he/she has begun to play. Have the tongue, lips and chin in the proper position to produce a characteristic sound BEFORE putting air into the instrument. Like the pilot before takeoff, go quickly through a check-list to be sure every item is in place.
Focusing the sound
- Tongue position—the tip must be close to the face of the reed, the back is up in an “ee” or “eh” position. (NOT “ah” as is often confused with “open throat”)* and there is a “swail” or small depression just behind the tip of the tongue. The farther the tongue is from the reed, the more spread the tone becomes. The tongue is the primary muscle that focuses the tone. Practice tonguing a series of concert F#’s on the mouthpiece and barrel alone with no waver in the pitch at all.
- Jaw is slightly forward. A position too far back will cause notes immediately above the staff to “grunt.”
- Upper joint of the instrument does not leak. Even small leaks in the highest pads cause the sound to “spread.”
- Ligature is firm and secure. Often a metal ligature will focus better than one made of a softer material. And often a ligature with the weight of the screws over the reed will focus better than one where the screws are above the mouthpiece. (Remember: All ligatures are right-handed.)
- If the reed is too wide, narrowing it slightly with sandpaper, keeping the sides straight, will focus the sound more easily.
Color of sound (darker vs. brighter)
- There are “brighter” and “darker” mouthpieces. For example, a Vandoren B45 might be perceived as “brighter” than a Vandoren Black Diamond 5 or B40 Lyre.
- Thinning tip (final 5 mm) of the reed between the center and sides will darken the sound.
- Thinning the heart (about 5-15 mm back from the tip) will brighten the sound.
- Thinning the corners of the tip will make the tone dull.
- Narrowing the reed will brighten it somewhat.
- Applying pressure on the mouthpiece with the upper lip will darken the sound.
- “Smiling” will brighten the sound. (Please do not do this intentionally.)
- Remember: A sound that sounds very clean up close will be bright at a distance.
- A sound that has just a little “furr” in it will be darker or warmer at a distance.
Cleanness of sound
- The sound will be fuzzy if the reed is too hard for the mouthpiece and the student.
- The sound will have extraneous “dirt” in it if the reed is warped or the tip is damaged. The flat side of the reed needs to adhere to a piece of glass.
- Individual notes will buzz if the pad is too close to the tone hole or if the skin on the pad has a tear in it. If the pad is too close, the note will also be flat.
Depth of sound—(mostly about breath support)
- Understand that “breath support” and “blowing hard” are not the same thing! Support implies one force pushing against another. Push downward from the diaphragm while pushing upward from the abdomen. (See West: Woodwind Methods: an Essential Resource for Educators, Conductors, and Students, page 145 for a more complete explanation.)
- Keep the teeth from biting into the lower lip. Sometimes a little “double lip” embouchure playing is helpful, though painful, as a corrective strategy.
Putting the sound into the instrument
- Teach the tongue and embouchure to “voice” the lower and upper register by alternately playing “open g” and the squeak almost a twelfth above it—g-d-g-d-g-d etc. Work your way down a chromatic scale—f#-c#, f-c etc. Don’t be bothered that the upper note is flat without the register key.
- The upper (clarion up to c above the staff) will play without the register key, but only if the mouth and breathing apparatus are “voicing” those notes. Practice playing a downward scale from high c without the register key. You probably will need to start with the register key open and then close it while holding the note. With proper embouchure and breath support, one can play all the way to b-natural 3rd line.
- Remember—Set Before you Attack! A golfer doesn’t fix his swing after he has drawn the clubhead away from the ball. A diver does not decide which dive to perform after leaving the diving board, and an airline pilot does not decide she needs fuel after leaving the runway. Go through your checklist, get everything correct, and then produce a sound.
*–“Keep an ‘Open Throat’” is good-intentioned but incredibly misleading advice to give a clarinetist. Students imagine that “ah” is an open-throated syllable, whereas “ee” or “eh” with the back of the tongue arched produces the desired focus. My suggestion about this “road to hell paved with good intentions” is not to even mention the throat. Talk about placing the tone high and forward in the mouth by arching the tongue. Far less confusing that way.
Recipient of Virginia Commonwealth University VCUArts highest faculty honor, Charles West has taught all five woodwinds on the university level and has performed professionally on four of five woodwinds for four decades. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, President of the International Clarinet Association, and Principal or Bass Clarinetist in six professional orchestras on two continents. Among his teachers are Himie Voxman, Robert Marcellus, and Leon Russianoff. West has held professorships in three North American universities, and guest professorships or residencies in South America, Taiwan, Europe, Hong Kong, Australia, and China. He has recorded repertoire on the Klavier, Wilson Audiophile, Centaur, CRI and Crystal labels, and on a Grammy Award-winning Telarc CD. He is an artist-clinician for Buffet Crampon and holds the title of Professor Emeritus from Virginia Commonwealth University. His publications include The Woodwind Player’s Cookbook: Creative Recipes for a Successful Performance, Woodwind Methods: an Essential Resource for Educators, Conductors and Students, and Woodwind Instruments: Purchasing, Maintenance, Troubleshooting and More, all with Meredith Music Publications.
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