Clarinet Role Change: From Section Player to Soloist

by Paula Corley

Date Posted: February 19, 2024

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*Presented at Texas Music Educators Association 2024

The clarinet section of the wind band is generally the largest section in the ensemble and is sometimes referred to as the "violin section of the wind band." In an orchestral setting, clarinetists take a different role - as soloists - which requires an amplified skill set. Here are four suggestions for making that happen.

1. Expand Dynamic Range

  • Clarinetists will need to develop confidence and control throughout a wide dynamic range.
  • Practicing a 'clarinet-specific' exercise addresses the unique acoustical characteristics of the instrument and provides a way to develop this skill.
  • Slurred register shifts, as in the exercise shown below, allows players to practice a wide dynamic range (pp to ff) throughout the full range of the instrument and focus on tone quality, pitch, and seamless interval connections.
  • Determine your volume 'limits' to prevent the tone quality and pitch from deteriorating.

(Larry Combs) from Daily Workouts -

2. Develop Technical Fluidity and Control in All Key Signatures

In order to perform more difficult music, students must have excellent technical skill and control throughout the full range of the instrument in all key signatures. These skills are of particular concern where students are being asked to play more "soloistically".

Practicing scales in a non tonic-to-tonic pattern (shown below) increases key signature awareness by sound and by sight.

From Daily Workouts -

  • The skill set for the A Clarinet and Bb clarinet are the same.
  • If the original part is for A, play it on A clarinet. Transposing an A clarinet part on Bb clarinet can complicate the key signature and tuning.

  • Articulation is critically important in the orchestra, particularly 'note starts' in exposed entrances.
  • A focused sound is essential before articulation can be addressed.
  • Many problems stem from lack of air support .
  • Try playing on the barrel and mouthpiece (F#) when diagnosing articulation problems. Errors are more apparent when variables are reduced.
  • Use the tip of the tongue near the top of the reed.
  • Speed is directly related to the distance of the tongue from the reed. Keep the tongue as close to the reed as possible to minimize motion and produce the best sound.

Option 1

Option 2

Articulating 32nd notes necessitates that the tongue stay close to the reed naturally because of the note speed. Follow the link below for a complete explanation on how to incorporate 32nd notes into your daily practice.

Next, apply this basic rhythm to scales that you already know. Here is an example:

4. Intonation

Clarinet has less flexibility in tuning than the other woodwinds.

  • Clarinetists cannot raise the pitch with embouchure adjustments.
  • Dropping the jaw and/or tongue to lower the pitch (ah) will create an unfocused sound.
  • The choice may become 1) a focused sound or 2) in-tune.

Instrument quality 1 mouthpiece 1 and reed choice matters.

  • A440 & A442 mouthpieces are available.
  • Barrels are available in many different designs and lengths and can dramatically change the timbre and intonation of the instrument.
  • Have more than one reed that responds!
  • Too-hard reeds usually raise the pitch. Too-soft reeds can eliminate focus.
  • A mouthpiece cap will help keep the reed protected and moist during long periods of rest.

Use a drone pitch for tuning development.

Adjustments should be made at the barrel primarily, but may also be made at the bell or middle joint if absolutely necessary.

In the below exercise:

  • Set drone pitch to starting pitch.
  • Slur everything.
  • Breathe only at fermatas.
  • Hold each fermata and listen for 'beats.'
  • Learn to determine flat/sharp pitch by ear, not just by sight.

Free Resources

Download the PDF to this article here.

12 articles about playing and teaching about clarinet below:

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Book a free, virtual masterclass for any wind instrument section in your orchestra here.

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About Paula Corley

Paula Corley is the Education Advisor for Buffet Crampon North America. She has 33+ years of teaching experience from middle school to university level. Most recently Paula served as the clarinet instructor at Texas Lutheran University where she hosted ‘clariNETWORKS’ – a very popular annual event for clarinetists of all ages and band directors. She is also a chamber music judge for Music for All's National Chamber Music Festival and served as the Pedagogy Chair for the International Clarinet Association from 2018-2020. Most know her as the ‘mayor’ of Clarinet City, a teaching website for all ages and stages of clarinet playing.

Originally from Mississippi, Paula grew up without access to clarinet lessons which sparked a lifelong interest in research for developing players. She is a graduate of Mississippi State University (BME) where she was named Alumnus of the Year in 2012-13 and Southern Methodist University (MM) where she worked with the legendary Howard Dunn. Paula taught in Plano, Texas ISD for many years before moving to Asheville, NC where she served as principal clarinet in the Asheville Lyric Opera and on the faculty at Mars Hill University (NC). Author of So You Want to Play the Clarinet and The Break (Southern/Hal Leonard), Paula has performed and presented at music conferences throughout the US since 1998. She is a performing artist and clinician for Vandoren and for Buffet Crampon and her articles have appeared in THE CLARINET, Vandoren WAVE, The Texas Bandmasters Review, and The Instrumentalist. A new series of her arrangements for clarinet can be found at Hal Leonard. (See the Homepage for links.). She also has two recorded works for clarinet: Unfamiliar Territory by Michael Markowski and Road Trip for clarinet quintet by Clifton Jones.

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