Teaching Your Clarinetist: 3 Core Topics Every Clarinetist Must Master

by Stacey McColley

When I was a young girl we had a recording of Peter and the Wolf that I listened to from the time I was a toddler.  After I was working as a professional musician and had a clarinet studio of my own, I stumbled across this same recording.  The name of the individual players were not listed on the record, and the jacket was long gone.  I have no idea who the clarinetist was, but as soon as I listened to it, I had an “aha” moment.  This had been the foundation of my concept of a beautiful clarinet sound.

As educators, we are constantly trying to fine tune our explanations and break down the technical aspects of our art to the smallest detail in order to clarify and present these concepts to our students in a succinct and logical way.   I am forever grateful to all of my teachers who did this for me.  I hope I can pass this approach on to the young players I teach.

 I believe one of my main responsibilities is to play with and for my students.  Not because I want them to sound just like me, or do things exactly as I do, but because as musicians, our most valuable learning tools are our ears.  So much of our growth is achieved by hearing someone do what we want to do, and then figuring out on an instinctive level how to recreate it.  That sound in our head is what is inevitably produced, and as teachers, we want to help to ensure that there are characteristic and beautiful models for our students to hear. I can think of countless times when I have played something for a student without saying a word, and when he or she played it the next time, it improved, usually with a more mature sound. In fact, until that sound kernel is firmly planted, a rich and soaring sound will not be possible. The concept and the creation are intimately entwined. Developing the skill of conscious listening triggers that swirl of spontaneous inspiration and growth that happens inside a musician’s head.  This occurs with students of all levels, whether or not they can verbalize the mechanics of their musical efforts.

Constant and thoughtful exposure to those who have achieved a professional level on one’s chosen instrument is an enormously important part of a young player’s training. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through private lessons.   There are, however, multiple ways of exposing students to the highest levels of their art. These can include having professional, working artists coach young players in sectionals, and of course, having those young players listening to performances. The energy and excitement of a live concert results in the most memorable experience, but quality recordings and videos are also invaluable resources.   

This concept of sound quality can be brought to life by an understanding of the foundations of clarinet playing.  This article will touch on some of the techniques and concepts that I use to help students create a beautiful and characteristic clarinet sound.

 

The main topics of this brief article are:

1)         Air and Articulation

2)         Embouchure

3)         Equipment


AIR AND ARTICULATION

An area of playing that many students struggle with is the art of articulation.  Having the skills to produce the articulation required by the music is an important component of a great clarinet sound.

Students who have minimal guidance in this often come up with some very interesting ways to simulate correct articulation.  These techniques work up to a point, creating something that sounds good to the student. By the time they seek more advanced study it has usually become an area of frustration.  There are two variations commonly seen.  Some students stop the air with their throat rather than articulate with the tongue.  Others use their tongue to articulate, but are still stopping the air in their throats. These can be most readily diagnosed by watching for movement in the throat while a student is articulating.

The other most common articulation issue is an unstable embouchure.  The student’s jaw can be seen moving up and down when they use their tongue. This creates real issues. Any instability in the embouchure changes the tone quality and can also increase the frequency of squeaks.  A strong embouchure (as described above) goes a long way towards establishing a stable platform for articulation.

Guiding students to correct methods of articulation can be a very challenging process.  Any new technique initially sounds worse than what they are already doing.  It is usually through demonstrating the differences and allowing the student to hear what it will ultimately sound like that one gains enough trust to be able to convince them to persevere in their efforts.

A helpful concept concerning articulation occurred to me after I sat in on a Master Class given by the great violin virtuoso, Joseph Silverstein.  He was discussing the role of the left hand of the violinist.  He talked about shifting the focus from pushing down on the string to that of pulling  the finger up from the string. After hearing this I began to re-think the emphasis of my articulation.  Rather than focusing on the attack, I became more aware of the release.  This lightened the attack and gave a cleaner and faster articulation.  This, coupled with the concept of keeping one’s air pressure constant and supported, even while articulating, and not using one’s throat to stop and control the air, forms the basis of articulation studies.  Refinements, such as working on staccato and “stopped” tonguing and placing one’s tongue closer to the tip of the reed and mouthpiece, should then follow.  This work on constant air and correct tongue placement also serves to improve a clarinet sound. 

To maintain a lovely sound while articulating, the keys are a strong and stable embouchure and a constant and supported air stream.  Enough warm and “supported” air going through the instrument at a fast speed is the basis of a warm and beautiful sound. Having your tongue ride on this airstream is the basis of developing a complete toolbox of articulations.

 To master the production and control of a beautiful sound with a full dynamic range, the practice of long tones is mandatory.  They must be long tones with a purpose.  You can use your long tone practice to work on tuning your twelfths, Octaves and other intervals.  Also, to practice the control of your pitch and sound as you crescendo and decrescendo evenly.  Again, use the long tones to practice with a double lip embouchure to increase awareness and usage of all the muscles of one’s embouchure.  Always practice with purpose, and always with your most beautiful sound.  The majority of the time do this work is with a tuner.

What this brief article demonstrates is the interplay of all facets of playing into creating the most vital part of our artistry: a warm and beautiful sound.  One’s equipment, embouchure, use of air and articulation all affect the voice of our clarinet.  As most of my students say at some time during their studies, “There is so much to think about, all at the same time!”

Yes, there certainly is.


EMBOUCHURE

A good embouchure is central to the creation of a beautiful sound. The traditional single lip embouchure stresses the importance of a flat chin and tight corners. Using the upper lip to apply a downward pressure helps to engage all of the muscles of the embouchure, creating a stable and consistent foundation.  This is the embouchure that a young student needs to be encouraged to form and perfect.

In orchestra and chamber music settings I most often use a double lip embouchure.  I find that my legatos are smoother, my pitch is better, and that I have more flexibility.  I feel I am more in touch with the sound and vibrations of my instrument.  I compare it to driving stick shift as opposed to automatic transmission.

 A student should consider double lip only after they have achieved a certain level of playing and they have more of an idea of what they are working towards. In my studio, I introduce the concept of double lip embouchure to advanced High School and College students as a pedagogical tool, as this requires a  more conscious utilization of all of the facial muscles used in forming an embouchure.  It also works to strengthen all of these muscles.  In this embouchure the upper lip is curled over the upper teeth, and exerts a downward pressure onto the mouthpiece. At the same time the student needs to continue to concentrate on flattening the chin.  All of these actions contribute to the tightening of the corners of the mouth. By having my students experiment with using a double lip embouchure they grow in their ability to concentrate on working and using all of the muscles that contribute to a good embouchure.


EQUIPMENT

Having students play on the very best equipment possible is a vital component of producing a beautiful sound. In most clinics that I give there are students who are frustrated almost to the point of quitting because they cannot get a sound they (or anyone else) is happy with.  They end up creating all sorts of ingenious ways to compensate for clarinets in bad repair, inferior or even damaged mouthpieces, reeds that are too soft, or too hard, or even chipped or worn out.  The sad thing is, most of these students don’t know why they are having such a hard time. It is amazing that they have the fortitude to keep playing when it is such a frustrating experience.

Students deserve to be given a chance to succeed.  Ideally, a student’s instrument should be maintained by a professional technician annually, with access to repairs when problems arise. Also, the most fundamental parts of sound production, the mouthpiece and reed, need to be of appropriate quality and strength.  I most often recommend the Vandoren M13 Lyre as a student’s first professional quality mouthpiece as it is a good fit for most.  The M15 can also be a great choice.  Vandoren reeds are my reed of choice, and I recommend them to my students of all levels.

Raising awareness about the huge difference that instruments in good repair, and the use of quality mouthpieces, ligatures, and reeds can make, is vitally important. Establishing relationships with local band directors allows you the opportunity to give input in these areas. I find that as a Vandoren Regional Artist as well as a Buffet Artist, that when I bring samples of reeds, mouthpieces, ligatures and clarinets for students to try, it is a revelation to many what a difference it all makes.

Once a student begins private study, the studio teacher has tremendous influence in guiding students toward good equipment.  This is when the instruments themselves often get upgraded.  At this point, when all of these equipment needs fall into place, a truly beautiful sound becomes possible.


Stacey McColley is a Vandoren Regional Artist. The goal for the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience through education and the assistance of Vandoren.  For more information on the Regional Artist program, please visit here

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