Clarinet: Common Problems and Solutions
Our first major problem when addressing the clarinet’s sound production is the embouchure. Since the clarinet is a woodwind instrument, with an emphasis on wind, anything that manipulates the air as it moves through the body and through the equipment can most certainly affect the sound.
- The chin is not pointed. In order to create the best embouchure needed for clarinet sound production musicians need a pointed chin. Note, it is often difficult for novice players to identify if they a playing with a pointed chin. Help students receive sensory feedback by having them look in a mirror when they play. In addition, clarinetists should feel their chin and contrast the difference between a pointed and relaxed chin.
- Puffing the cheeks. Often new players will insert the instrument into their mouth and blow. This instantly provides immediate feedback to the musician that there is a stark contrast between their sound and their teachers. Help improve this scenario by guiding your student to not puff their cheeks. One possible solution is to have them make the “shhhh” sound. This is helpful because it creates the kinesthetic feeling of how the cheeks should be against the teeth.
- Biting and Pinching in the upper register of the clarinet. When developing clarinetists who learn to play in the upper register they will often start to develop the bad habit of biting and pinching as they play. This is not ideal for a proper clarinet embouchure and demonstrating quality upper register sound production. Rather than have the jaw go upward for higher notes, it needs to go forward.
- Corners of the mouth are not adequately firm. By keeping the mouth adequately firm the embouchure maintains a level of proper functionality that creates a characteristic sound while maintaining appropriate flexibility that can be sustained.
- The student is taking in too little mouthpiece into the mouth. Sometimes when young clarinetists who are trying to extend the range of the notes they play – they tend to use too little mouthpiece in the middle and upper ranges of the instrument. When too little mouthpiece is used in the middle and upper registers the sound becomes muffled or even impossible to play.
- The student is taking in too much mouthpiece into the mouth. In contrast, when the student tries to use too much mouthpiece the sound becomes open and bright. This tone is not ideal for the clarinet. In addition, this often creates squeaking and the tone is unstable.
Additional Problems and Solutions
There are a variety of other problems that can occur and inhibit quality sound production that go beyond the embouchure. These can include the following:
Another common problem for young clarinetists is not understanding “principal” vs. alternate” fingerings. Like many other instruments there are multiple fingerings for an instrument in most cases. The one thing that separates principle fingerings from alternate fingerings is that principal fingerings fall “under the hand.” Often principal fingerings are logical in succession and play the majority of the notes. Alternate fingerings get utilized when there is some sort of issue that needs to be resolved and the principal fingering does not fill this space. Reasons for using alternate fingerings include speed, intonation, unwanted cross-over sounds and more.
Having a bridge key bent makes it entirely impossible to play below low C4. My recommendation is to not try to make this repair yourself. Rather, have a trained instrumental technician take on this task of repairing the bent bridge key. Those that try to repair their equipment without adequate training may find a broken bridge key that is unrepairable and must have it replaced and have additional adjustments made to the instrument.
Having a bad mouthpiece. Having a poor mouthpiece is often the result of the injection of plastic that is used to create the beginner mouthpiece. These mouthpieces are rarely sufficient and should be replaced with a higher quality mouthpiece when the student is doing well and is ready to upgrade.
Inappropriate or bad reeds. Having a number of quality fresh reeds will help a beginning clarinetist achieve greater success early off. Students also need to understand that higher strength reeds are not going to make every player sound better. Consider having your students start with a 2 or 2.5 reed and graduate to higher strengths of reed with demonstrated success or musical need.
One misconception of young clarinetists is that they can tongue with some parts of the tongue other than the tip. Humans must adjust how they accomplish some tasks based upon their kinesthetic make-up. To meet their objectives and create an ideal articulation sound they must practice, experiment and practice some more.
One problem that arises for some players is moving the jaw while tonguing. Consider maintaining a position for the jaw, keeping the air stream moving and anchor the tongue. Most musicians do not have this issue in lyrical playing. However, this issue may surface with some accented passages. When in doubt consult your private lessons instructor.
In contrast, an other issue for clarinetists involves dropping the back of the tongue in the “ahhh” position. Clarinet players need to arch the back of the tongue in an “eee” position. Unlike their brass and flute counterparts who use the “ahhh” tongue position that supports an open throat, the clarinet or any other reed instrument “eee” position does not.
Adding the E-flat key with the right 4th finger to high C# makes a note extremely sharp and bright in tone. Consult with your private lessons instructor on how to resolve and minimize this natural instrument tendency.
Our final sound production problem on clarinet is tonguing against the roof of the mouth. When this occurs you will hear a small explosion inside the mouth before the note speaks. Solve this by placing the tongue directly on the reed and blow, and then release the tongue after the air stream has begun. This should help with the tongue shape and airflow consistency.