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Clarinet FAQs About Clarinet Performance

by Bradley Wong
Professor of Clarinet
Western Michigan University

1) Why is it that my beginning clarinet students make good progress, but my high school clarinet section is not as strong as some of the other sections?

The acoustical properties of the clarinet are unique in the woodwind family. Its sound contains a large number of overtones, which gives it a rich, full quality (compared, for instance, to the flute tone, which has fewer overtones and a “purer” tone). But because the clarinet overblows 12th rather than octaves, there are inherent tonal and intonation problems in the instrument. Therefore, while it is relatively easy to show someone how to get a basic tone out of the clarinet, learning to control that tone requires significant study. And while it is also easy to set up basic hand position, playing a three-octave scale on the clarinet requires a different set of fingerings for each octave. This creates challenges in developing technical fluency. These are not excuses, but I do tell my students that have to work harder to keep up with some of the other instruments!

2) How do I improve the tone of my clarinet section?

Tone starts in the head – the students must have a concept of tone in place in order to start improving the tone. There are many fine clarinet recordings available, by such artists as Robert Marcellus, David Shifrin, Sabine Meyer, Eddie Daniels, Richard Stoltzman, etc. They all have diverse sounds – select an artist that you would like to use as a model and have them listen to that sound. Once they have this tonal model in their ear, it gives them an idea of the direction they want to go. To get there, they should have the aid of a clarinet specialist to assist them with equipment and tonal exercises. Even if weekly lessons are not an option, regular sectionals with a skilled clarinetist can be useful. The mechanics of producing a clarinet tone involve equipment, embouchure, voicing, and breathing.

There is a limit to how much of this can be improved by self-study, but here is an overview:

Equipment: The instrument, of course is important, but the right reed/mouthpiece combination is also essential. I find may young students take the path of least resistance, and use a reed/mouthpiece set-up that plays with little effort. This will not allow them to develop proper breath support.

Embouchure: This must allow the reed to vibrate, but with control. The concept of a flat chin is important, but the cushion formed by the lower lip is also crucial (too much cushion dampens the reed, too little affects control and flexibility). The top lip also must be firm – it should be curled against, but not under, the top teeth. The corners of the mouth are important for preventing air leakage. The old school of embouchure was to pull the corners back as if smiling, but I usually find it more effective to pull them down, or in towards the mouthpiece. Never use jaw pressure – let the lips and the muscles of the facial mask do the work.

Voicing: This refers to the shape of the oral cavity and how we shape the air. While there should be no tension in the throat, the tongue should be fairly high in the back of the mouth, as if saying the syllable “hee”. This produces a very concentrated stream of air, as opposed to the more diffused airflow produced by saying “hah”. The more focused air stream will be much more efficient in getting the reed to vibrate.

Breathing: Breathing needs to be natural and relaxed – when the body needs oxygen, we yawn. Simulate that open sensation. Use all of the lungs, filling from bottom to top. Feel as if you are breathing into your stomach, and then filling up the upper torso. Stay relaxed! The shoulders may move as you fill up the top of the lungs, but don’t consciously raise them.

3) What recommendations can you make about reeds?

The proper reed strength is based on the proper match to the mouthpiece, and not the age of the player – don’t think that the higher the reed strength, the more advanced the clarinetist. Generally speaking, the closer the tip opening of the mouthpiece, (the distance between the tip of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed) the heavier the reed should be. For instance, Vandoren recommends using #2 to #3 1/2 reeds for their medium open B45 mouthpiece, and #2 1/2 to #4 reeds with the closer tip opening of the 5RV Lyre.

While many professionals prefer a thick blank reed such as the Vandoren V-12, these reeds tend to be inconsistent and require quite a bit of balancing work, so for younger students a reed like the standard Mitchell Lurie is usually sufficient. They are more consistent, require less break-in time, and respond a little easier. This comes at a cost of longevity and tone, especially in the upper register, which can sound thin. I will have a student consider switching to a premium reed when he or she notices that the upper register is thin and bright.

All reeds do require some break-in time – brand new reeds will be unstable and perhaps a little fuzzy sounding. Have the student play on a new reed for 5-10 minutes each day for several days for optimum performance. This process should be started before a new reed is needed (and before the concert!), and by rotating 2 or 3 reeds, the student will get greater playing life from them. Be sure they are soaked thoroughly (I prefer soaking them for a few minutes in water, as opposed to in the mouth), especially in the dry winter months. And not all reeds will work, so a “new” reed is not guaranteed to be a good (or even functioning) reed.

Reed placement on the mouthpiece is very important, and will affect the way the reed responds. Start with the reed lined up at the tip and the sides (all the way down below the ligature). If the reed is stuffy, move it lower; if it is too soft, move it higher. If it feels like it is generally not vibrating freely, try moving it slightly left or right on the mouthpiece.

4) Why don’t more clarinetists use vibrato?

Some people feel that the clarinet sound is so rich, and contains so many overtones, that it does not need vibrato. I don’t necessarily agree with this, although I don’t personally use vibrato, except in a piece such as Rhapsody in Blue. There are many solo clarinetists that use vibrato effectively, such as Richard Stoltzman. There are several different ways to produce vibrato on clarinet – using the jaw, or using the diaphragm. It is important to be sure the basic tone is fundamentally correct – vibrato cannot mask an inferior tone quality. The speed of the vibrato should never be constant, and should be appropriate to the music.

5) My clarinet students have a very heavy articulation. What can I do to improve this?

Good staccato is based on good legato. The fundamentals of good tone production must be in place before articulation can be successful. If a student cannot successfully play a passage all slurred, they will not be able to play it tongued. In fact, it is useful to have the student practice staccato passages all slurred first, in order to establish the proper sound.

The basic fundamentals of articulation:

  • the tongue should be in a relaxed position, and kept forward in the mouth, close to the reed
  • move as little of the tongue as possible, preferably only the tip
  • make minimal contact between tongue and reed – use a small portion of the tongue (think of using only a few taste buds) against a small portion of the reed – this should ideally be the tip of the tongue against the portion just under the tip of the reed (some teachers insist that only the tip of the tongue be used, but not everyone is physically able to do this)
  • keep sufficient airflow going
  • do not let the embouchure or chin move while tonguing, and be careful to not allow the embouchure to tighten sympathetically

Have your students practice scales, repeating each note in various articulation patterns (short patterns for fast burst tonguing, longer patterns for endurance). If they do this on a regular basis with a metronome, they can keep track of the progress they make with their tongue speed.

Although many advanced clarinetists can double tongue, this should not be considered a standard technique.

6) How can I improve the intonation in my clarinet section?

Developing their ears is important. Rather than relying on a tuner to show them via a needle gauge that they are out of tune, have them use a tuner that sounds the pitch. If they hear beats, they should try to determine if they are flat or sharp. If they cannot do this initially, they can switch on the meter to see where they are visually, but they should then relate this to what they are hearing

The basic elements of clarinet intonation:

  • the clarinet goes sharper when playing softer, flatter when playing louder
  • the throat tones tend to be sharp – when sustaining these notes softly, it is useful to keep right hand fingers down
  • the lowest notes will tend to be flat; the high B and C above the staff tend sharp
  • it is possible for the mouthpiece or the barrel to cause intonation problems if it is not an appropriate match for the instrument
  • if the throat tones are sharp, pull out at the barrel; if the clarion notes (C on the staff and up) are sharp, pull out at the middle
7) I would like my students to learn technical passages more quickly. Is there anything I can do?
8) Is there any way to smooth out register breaks?
9) When should I switch a student to one of the utility clarinets?
10) What is a good sequence of etude books and solos?
11) Do you have specific recommendations for equipment?
12) Can you suggest some good reference material I should own?

There are severa>l excellent books that would be useful additions to your library. Howard Klug ( teaches at Indiana University, and has written pedagogy articles for The Clarinet. He has an excellent book called The Clarinet Doctor that is a great pedagogical resource. Tom Ridenour ( is a clarinetist, teacher, and instrument designer. He has written two very valuable books, The Educator’s Guide to The Clarinet, and Clarinet Fingerings: A Comprehensive Guide for the Performer and Educator.

13) Do you have any specific advice for students who would like to going into music as a career?

If you have additional questions, please contact me and I will be happy to respond. If you have a student whose questions could best be answered by a lesson, I would be happy to meet with them.