The Clarinet Setup: Truths and Myths

by Paula Corley

Date Posted: March 18, 2022

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If you have your students play on “this” mouthpiece and reed, they will all sound like [insert famous clarinetist name here.]

Not all mouths are the same size and shape. One mouthpiece design does not fit all. While the mouthpiece plays a critical role, there are many other variables that contribute to tone quality. The reed, airspeed, embouchure, tongue position, and instrument angle combine to create the sound.

A student’s concept of sound is shaped by listening. What sound models were the students exposed to as beginners? Did they have access to frequent sound modeling, either live or recorded? The sounds modeled for students in the early stages will be reflected in their tonal concepts.

If you have your entire section play on the same mouthpiece and reed, they will all sound the same and play in tune together.

Not necessarily. As described above, many factors contribute to an individual’s sound. An excellent mouthpiece can facilitate good focus and tuning. However, the quality of the instrument – it’s bore design and tone hole placements for example, also play a key role in tuning.

The Clarinet is the least flexible instrument for tuning in the woodwind section.

While some would disagree, this statement is true, especially for developing players in an ensemble setting.

When making decisions about mouthpieces, always consider the uniqueness of the clarinet section. Flutes, double reeds, and saxophones all have more embouchure flexibility than clarinet. A low tongue position, loosened embouchure, and dropped jaw on clarinet will lower the pitch but eliminate focus. Consider buying both the A=440 and A=442 of your preferred mouthpiece (if available) to match pitch without sacrificing good tone quality. Rotate mouthpieces just as you do with reeds.

Changing a clarinet barrel often makes a drastic difference in sound and tuning of the clarinet. This can be good or bad (and expensive). Exhaust the possibilities with mouthpieces and reeds before making changes in the barrel.

"When making decisions about mouthpieces, always consider the uniqueness of the clarinet section." - Paula Corley

Reeds never wear out if taken care of properly.

Maybe. I once heard the great Karl Leister say he played the same 2 or 3 reeds for an entire year because the war in his country eliminated his access to buying replacements. Some players play and rotate reeds for months and even years.

The key here is “if taken care of properly.” As a natural element, reed cane will weaken over time with prolonged use. Saliva contains enzymes that break down food so it’s reasonable to assume these same enzymes will break down the reed over time. Use clean water to moisten and store reeds in a good reed case to increase longevity. Rotation is important.

Mouthpieces never wear out.

It’s possible to use a mouthpiece for many years.

However, if you are experiencing squeaks and have eliminated all the other variables with your instrument and reed, look at your mouthpiece with a magnifier.

The reed vibrates intensely for long periods of time against the mouthpiece rails. Mouthpiece rails may become uneven or develop minute abrasions that can cause response problems. Some issues can be corrected by an expert mouthpiece repair person. Rotating between primary and back-up mouthpieces will increase longevity.

Ligatures aren’t that important.

Yes, they are. Metals have slightly different weights. Weight affects how the reed responds. The M|O ligatures in four different metals are excellent examples of how sound can be changed with the same mouthpiece and reed. Ligatures come in many different designs and materials and are a matter of personal preference. The ligature is an important part of the “set-up”. Don’t discount its’ importance.

More on Paula Corley at

Paula Circle

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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