“How can I get my clarinets to play with better tone?” is the question I am most frequently asked by band directors. While equipment is an important factor, the solution to poor clarinet tone can best be solved by teaching students to prioritize tone quality from their very first notes. It is much more beneficial to insist on proper habits from the very beginning rather than agonizing over bad habits later. Pedagogy can be a scary word for those of us who teach beginners. With the limited face time we have with students, it can be tempting to brush aside “advanced” pedagogical concepts just to keep up with the rest of the band. It is exhausting to get students to play something – anything – without squeaking or dropping the instrument. Below is an example of how to introduce the basics of producing a good tone from a beginners’ very first lesson (this can be applied to small groups or private lessons). This sets a foundation which will continually be refined and reviewed for the rest of their clarinet playing career.
1. Assemble only the barrel and mouthpiece.
This is the only thing students should practice on for the first week.
2. Articulation Basics:
a. Have students repeat the word “Dee.” This syllable is the basic syllable for articulation on clarinet. It is essential to achieving a soft attack, and encourages high tongue position, which causes faster air and more focused tone.
b. With the barrel and mouthpiece: Tip of the tongue to tip of the reed. Many students find this difficult to do and will want to breath start everything. If students complain that the reed “tickles” the tongue, this is a good thing; let them know they are doing it right!
3. Embouchure Basics:
Puffing cheeks out while playing causes poor tone and intonation in addition to feeling very uncomfortable.
a. Stretch the chin over the jawbone so it is flat
b. Use “oooo” muscles to bring the corners in and seal around the mouthpiece c. Make sure top teeth are on the top of the mouthpiece
4. Air & embouchure building game:
How long can you play the note for?
a. Set metronome to 60 (and make sure they can see it).
b. Cue student in and count aloud with the metronome the number of beats before the student runs out of air.
c. Repeat as often as necessary, with the goal of beating the number from the time before.
d. A fun variation on this that students enjoy is counting how long the teacher can hold the note for
5. Home practice after first lesson:
Use a metronome (or have mom and dad count number of seconds), and give students a goal to reach by the next lesson.
Be sure to review embouchure and articulation basics at the start of every lesson or rehearsal before playing warm ups. Persistence in basic fundamentals will not only improve the quality of tone in a clarinet section, but will increase student confidence. A student who likes the way they sound is much more likely to practice!