What a Difference a Vowel Makes: Focus and Tuning for Clarinetists

by Paula Corley




In wind instrument playing the embouchure and air-stream work together with mouthpieces and reeds to produce sound. Each instrument requires a unique tongue height and embouchure configuration for producing good tone. Clarinetists use the vowel sound “E” to lift the tongue high inside the mouth. Using vowel sounds to shape the oral cavity (mouth interior) is sometimes referred to as voicing; therefore, a player’s voicing governs the tongue height and resulting air flow to the reed and mouthpiece. It’s important to recognize how different voicings affects focus and tuning for clarinetists.

I was recently reminded of how voicing affects clarinet sound while working with two percussion majors learning clarinet for the first time. Playing on the barrel and mouthpiece, I asked them to change the vowel sounds as they played – A, E, I, Oh, Ooo. The difference in pitch and focus was remarkable between the vowel sounds.


Focus

Voicing can negatively impact focus for clarinetists, particularly in the lower register. Young students often voice with “O”: instead of “E”, especially when playing lower register notes from A below the staff to lowest E. The long “O” voicing produces a lower tongue position, dropped jaw, and looser grip which can produce an unfocused tone. “Ah” which is sometimes recommended for other instruments, is not a good choice for developing a focused clarinet sound.


Clarinet voicing is the same for the full range of the instrument – “E”. There is no difference in voicing, air, or embouchure between the lower register (chalumeau) and clarion (notes with the register key). The tongue does not relax into an “Ah” or “O” position in the upper register. Students should practice register shifts (slurred) from chalumeau to clarion with the same “E” tongue position for seamless connections. 

Try the exercise described in paragraph two on the barrel and mouthpiece. Add “Ah” to the mix just for fun! You may discover that some of these voicings will cause the sound to break completely, because they do not focus the air toward the mouthpiece efficiently enough for successful playing. 

For advanced players, a slight shift in vowel sound may positively affect tuning. The tongue may be lowered ever so slightly for extremely sharp notes, but it must remain high enough to keep the tone focused.


Tuning

The one exception to “E” voicing on clarinet is for tuning. A sharp (in pitch) note can be altered slightly by changing the voicing from “E to “oo” (as in you). The vowel sound “oo” makes very slight changes

1) pulls embouchure corners in toward the mouthpiece

2) alters the tongue height

3) reduces lip pressure. 

This technique may be risky for developing players who have not yet mastered a focused sound throughout the full range of the instrument.

Flat pitch will not be corrected with a voicing change, unless the player is voicing incorrectly to begin with (see paragraph one under Focus). Make adjustments for flat pitch at the barrel (push in) and take in a little more mouthpiece. Careful! Too much mouthpiece may cause squeaking and harsh tone in developing players.

There are many variables for tuning that must be considered before changing the voicing. A focused sound is non-negotiable followed by mouthpiece, reed, and instrument quality. Consistent practice with a reference pitch tuner will also help identify pitch tendencies.

Recently a young teacher said to me “I don’t like the _____ clarinet mouthpiece. I heard that it contributes to low tongue position.” If this statement were true, wouldn’t it stand to reason that all mouthpieces contribute to low tongue position? All mouthpieces share the same basic exterior design. A mouthpiece may color the sound, but it does not change a player’s embouchure or voicing.Beware of misinformation!

If students continue struggling with sound and intonation after voicing has been addressed, then it may be time for a mouthpiece and reed evaluation. Here are some basic ideas to consider:


  • A good mouthpiece with a well-matched reed may make a bigger difference than the instrument.
  • Too-hard reeds may create very sharp pitch
  • Too-soft reeds may create an unfocused sound and flat pitch. Soft reeds respond with less air and can allow tone production without sufficient air support and back pressure. 
  • Ignoring the recommended reed strength for a mouthpiece will almost always create problems. 
  • Not all instruments are created equal. Always check for a good 'scale' when purchasing a clarinet. 
  • Put aside personal biases. What works for one may not work for all. Do not expect equipment to solve fundamental playing problems. 


Please see "Are your students reed ready?" video.

Questions welcome: paula@clarinetcity.com 

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