Basic Concepts for Improving Clarinet Tone
There are a few highly important, fundamental aspects of playing the clarinet that affect your sound quality. The sooner focused practice time is spent on these concepts the better, as this will encourage students to think critically about their sound and build a strong foundation, rather than learning bad habits that will later need to be broken. This article will summarize the basics behind clarinet air support and embouchure to help you begin to improve your sound on the instrument no matter your age or current playing level.
The first step in producing a beautiful sound on the clarinet, or any wind instrument, is to always make sure the sound is well supported by the air. When we inhale before blowing into the clarinet, our shoulders should remain still and relaxed. If your shoulders are rising noticeably, you are likely creating unwanted tension. The air should be sent down into the abdomen to make sure the diaphragm is being used to fill the lungs. Filling only the chest will create a shallow breath, preventing you from properly supporting your sound. Try to imagine taking a double breath: inhale slowly, first imagining you are sending the air into your abdomen, then into your chest second, while not lifting your shoulders. Really fill your lungs! The breathing exercises taught by Arnold Jacobs, tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, can also be helpful for any wind player.
The next step is to practice exhaling correctly, using a compressed stream of air like that of an aerosol can. Here’s another exercise to try: take a full double breath and imagine sending the air down into the seat of your chair. This should cause you to feel pressure in your lower back and abdomen. Now, place your index fingers over your lips to hold them closed, and try to blow the air out. Even let your cheeks puff up! Release your fingers quickly and let the air burst out. This is one example of the air speed you need for successful clarinet playing. When playing, the tip of your tongue on the reed takes the place of your fingers on your mouth: the air pressure is always there, you just briefly interrupt it to articulate. You can also imagine that the back of your tongue is attempting to block the air from exiting through your throat. This will help you lift your soft palate and the back of your tongue, creating a more condensed air stream.
Now that we’ve briefly talked about air, we’ll look at the basics of forming a clarinet embouchure. It’s very important to avoid clamping the jaw on, or biting, the reed. First, imagine you are forming your lips around a straw. Your mouth should remain in this “O” position and the mouthpiece should move into position, rather than your jaw moving to bite the mouthpiece. The lower lip should tuck slightly over the bottom teeth while the muscles of the chin pull down. The upper lip should also serve as a cushion for the mouthpiece, applying some pressure by bringing the outer corners of the mouth in. The mouthpiece should rest in this cushion provided by the lips. Your right thumb is responsible for supporting the clarinet, pushing it up to tuck into your mouth. You should never bite with your jaw or squeeze with your fingers to hold up the instrument- these are other sources of unnecessary tension. All the while, your tongue should stay high and back! Try saying the word “kick” and freezing on the second ‘K’- this will get you to feel where your tongue should be. All of these elements together will help you to create a rich, full, and focused sound.
To implement all of these things, try to incorporate breathing exercises and long tones into the beginning of each practice session. Long tones allow you to focus on your sound production without worrying about any fast, complicated motion in the fingers. Most importantly, listen to recordings of great clarinetists to develop a concept of your desired sound, so you know what to work towards.
Check out the video below for an example of me talking through and teaching some of these concepts to a group via zoom webinar. If you’re interested in more individual help with these concepts, head over to the lessons page and book a lesson with me. Have fun and happy practicing!