Playing Technique

Correct Embouchure

Embouchure (from French: holding in the mouth - bouche means mouth) is how you hold the clarinet in your mouth between your lips and how you blow into the instrument. The embouchure is the single most important technique you have to master in order to develop your sound and to play as effortlessly as possible. I will discuss the embouchure as precise as possible here since it is very important, but it is difficult to describe in text. The best - and fastest - way to learn it is to find a good teacher.

So this is how you do it:

  1. Stand easy and upright. If you can't, you can of course sit, but in the beginning correct breathing and holding the clarinet is much easier when standing. If you sit, for the start you should sit on the edge of the chair which must not be too low; the thighs should go a little downwards towards the knees, because otherwise your belly will be bent inside (your diaphragm can't move easily) and free breething becomes more difficult.
  2. You hold the clarinet in an angle of about 45 degrees to the body.
  3. You pull the lower lip over the teeth of the lower jaw, if one bites now, the lower lip lies between the teeth of your upper and lower jaw) and you pull the lower lip tightly (similar as when you smile) while your upper lip remains relaxed. To see whether you do it correctly lay thumb and forefinger on the lower lip outside about there where your canine teeth are and push a little towards the corner of your mouth. Then let your fingers go and try to keep the lips stretched like that. You should try to keep the lower lip tight like this while playing. Don't overdo this in the beginning because it will cause sour muscles in your cheeks - much like any sort or overstressing of muscles would.
  4. You take the clarinet into your mouth with the reed on lower lips, the mouthpiece touching the upper teeth. Few clarinetists will bend their upper lip over the teeth as well - this will not change much for the listener's, only for the player's subjective sound impression (the sound waves don't get into the inner ear so directly via the scull as without). How far you put the instrument into your mouth depends on the size of your mouth and the position of your teeth. If you hold it too deep into your mouth, you can not fully close your lips around to stop air breaking out at the mouth corners. But you should hold it at least that far in that you can touch the reed with your tongue for staccato tones - like "ta ta ta" without touching the very tip of the reed - you touch it further down (otherwise it will quickly wear down). The less you hold the instrument in your mouth, the easier it seems to control hard reeds (this is of course due to the long lever you have) - but the deeper you hold it in the more of the reed will swing and in general that will give a fuller sound. With some experience you will find a good compromise - but then again discuss your sound as often as possible with people who have a similar taste.
  5. When playing you should not press the instrument onto your lower lips and teeth, just hold it that tight that air can not break out. The reed must be able to swing as freely as possible. If you find pressing the reed on your lower lips makes the sound better, you should experiment with different reeds (softer ones) and other mouthpiece lays. You will probably find the right pressure by pressing the mouthpiece firmly against the upper teeth (later your lip and cheek muscles will be trained enough to pull the lower lip tight and close the upper around the mouthpiece easily).
  6. There is a lot to think about, especially for the beginner, but it helps a lot to imagine the tone that you will play. Training that will help you start a tone in ppp (pianissimo - very nearly unhearable).
  7. Then you blow (you find some details on how to blow below).

Breathing and blowing properly

First it must be said that the breathing/blowing that you need for wind instruments is quite unnatural. Naturally breathing means breathing through the nose, which humidifys and warms the air and filters all kind of dust, so it protects your lungs. Playing the clarinet you will breath through your mouth. Natural breathing means slowly filling the lungs - but not absolutely full, rather a third or so - and then slowly releasing. When playing a wind instrument like a clarinet - and much more a bass clarinet - you will often have no time for breathing in - but still must fill your lungs to the extreme. Then you have to blow - not just let go, but blow in certain strengths, controlled, under pressure, for a looooong time. If this doesn't seem healthy - well, it's because it isn't. Fortunately clarinetists don't turn crazy over time due to the overpressure in their heads (like oboists do ... ;-) [sorry, you oboists, I know, the joke is neither new nor funny...]

You will be training that kind of breathing, and after some time you can do things that would make untrained people faint and kids on birthday parties stare full of awe - like filling air balloons with just two or three blows (and it will surprise your doctor next time you have to blow into his lung tester :-)

Besides the correct embouchure, proper breathing is crucial. There are different basic techniques to breath for humans: Diaphragm-breathing (stomach breathing) and shoulder- or breast-breathing. Your natural breathing is a combination of both. It is all about widening the chest. The lungs sit or rather hang in the chest like two balloons. There is a vacuum in the chest, so the lungs try to fill the existing room. When you widen that room air flows in (it feels like you suck it in but actually you don't, nevertheless the effect is the same). Widening the chest can be done by lifting the shoulders, by pressing the chest muscles outwards - and/or by pulling the diaphragm downwards. Since the muscles that pull the diaphragm down are attached down in the pelvis, saying "you must breathe very deep down" is somewhat correct. Diaphragm breathing is usually less developed with most urban lifestyle persons because we sit too much. Diaphragm breathing has some advantages over shoulder breathing in that it does not affect your arms and shoulders with which you hold the instrument. With diaphragm breathing you can produce and hold a very strong air pressure, good for fff. Anyway a combination of the breathing techniques seems to be the best compromise for most players.

Breathing properly is the easiest when standing, because your muscles are relaxed and your stomach is free. When sitting you must make sure the thighs don't go upwards, rather downwards (the steeper, the better), so the stomach isn't bent in and the diaphragm can be moved down easily. This means you should sit on the edge of the chair, no leaning back, and the chair must not be too low. Some professionals bring their own chair. But that is true for all wind instruments. Better concert halls usually offer you chairs of different heights. I have bought myself an orthopedic foam support that you can place on your chair which makes sitting more relaxed. If you do, too, then make sure it is of a dark color so it does not look irritating to audiences.

Fingering

Fingering is mostly identical for both, the chalumeau- and the clarinet-register, and almost identical, too, for all different sizes of clarinets, from the smallest Eb to the counterbase clarinet. The fingering tables are usually applicable for all sizes. That means that you can in principle play on every clarinet you like (that is if you stay with your system - there are differences between Boehm and German Oehler, off course).

Some instruments have got special trill-keys, bass and alto clarinets have got special low keys (under the E) that do not exist for normal soprano clarinets. These keys are different from one clarinet maker to another. There is, however, some individual fingering in the "third register" up very high, when you overblow twice - but this is individual to instruments and sometimes even to players. Especially when you find certain fingering difficult you should consult a fingering table like this one - or discuss the subject with other clarinetists. You will often find unexpected, but satisfying solutions.

By the way - fingering is something that is hard to change. Even if some clearly superior systems evolve the players were trained to overcome the problems with the existing system, and the will not just by a new instrument. Therefore the fingering is still very similar to that of a recorder with its "forks" - as the chalumeau looked very much like a recorder.

Over time you will develop for your clarinet(s) a personal fingering, sometimes covering (or half covering) lower tone holes, when the tone must be clear and will sound long. This can be omitted in extremely fast runs, off course, but it becomes important the moment you have to start a tone in ppp or have to play it solo.

Attack or articulation

Articulation or attack is what clarinettists do when they make the reed swing. The word is misleading: Actually it is more a release than an attack. The tongue, which hinders the reed from swinging freely, is pulled away from the reed and air is blown through the mouthpiece. The tip of the reed starts to swing and produce a tone. These combined movements are happening quite fast, much faster than you could think about it.

Instead of trying to pull back your tongue it is much easier to say - or better, sing - "TAAA" or "DAAA". This appears quite natural and you have done it a million times. The movement of the tongue and the flow of air will be just right then.

Hard attack, soft attack and legato

Quite different from what you can do with a piano - where you have only one dimension in creating a tone, and that is the speed with which you press down the key, which translates directly into volume (despite what your piano teacher might have told you) the clarinettist has far more options to create a tone. One very important is the the attack. We have already heard of it in the paragraph above: "TAAA", "DAAA" and, off course, "HAAA". The latter would be a tone without real attack. And then there is legato, which means there is no break in between two tones at all, that is, the vibrating air column vibrates on theoretically. (It is theoretically only because the vibration is in fact interrupted for a short moment; although you may not notice that so obviously.

Staccato - sounding and secco - what is this?

The type of attack (hard, soft or legato) hasn't anything to do with the length of the tone - there can be both hard (staccato) and soft tones, they can be either long or short: "TAAA TAAA TATATATATA" or "DAAA DAAA DADADADADA" or "HAAA HAAA HAHAHAHAHA" - all three phrases could have the exact same length (at least noted, in fact the last "HA" is longer than the , since the "HA" will still be swinging in the air while the "TAT" will not. But these differences are marginal and not heard consciously).

Where the composer requires a sounding staccato, the clarinettist plays "TA TA TA". Where the music requires secco (Italian for dry) the player plays "TAT TAT TAT". With the first the reed and the air column reed have a chance to swing on a little, with the latter the tone is muted instantly. If you are quick with your tongue, this may not sound pretty (and that may be what the composer has intended when asking for "secco". It is important to understand that most other instruments can not produce such a short and sharp staccato, so when playing together with eg. strings, you must adapt to what they do play. Maybe you don't take too literally what the notes say.

Doubletongue - what is it and how do you do it on the clarinet?

Often the musician must play a fast staccato, which can be very tiring. Brass players then apply a technique they call double-tongueing. The term is somewhat misleading, in fact one should better call it halt-tongueing: What you do is that dont't play "TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT" but rather "TAKATAKATAKATAKA". This means instead of hitting the reed with your tongue for every staccato tone, in order to interrupt the air swinging, you do it with the back of your tongue against your palate. Playing brass instruments hardly anybody could tell the difference, with wood wind instruments you are safe to use this at high speed staccato (which usually doesn't sound to good anyway - but is a good way to brake speed records playing Julius Fucik's Florence March). It depends on the type of music you play - in classical music, if you can manage traditional staccato, most professionals will avoid the double tongue.

Accent (>) - are they just louder?

Playing the piano (see above) the answer would be: yes! Since the pianist can't do much changing the tone once he has played it; he only can stop it. The tone will become quieter and quieter in the very same speed all the time. That is not true for a clarinet: You can play an accent the way it is meant: At first you will give some (or significantly) more air pressure, but then sharply reduce it, reaching again the dynamic that the composer has noted. And again you should consider whom or what you play together with: If you play with strings, this effect should be less than what you can do playing in a wind band. The opposite action is needed with this sign: < After playing in normal volume you do a short and sharp crescendo and quickly go back.




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