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Overhaul Your Clarinet Section

I hear a lot of bands with good clarinet sections. I have a few bands with bad clarinet sections. I hear a few bands with great clarinet sections.

What I will tell you in these next few paragraphs will definitely transform any bad clarinet section into a good one. They could even make a good section a great one.

It’s all about tone
I have recently become convinced that one of the best indicators in the quality of a band is the overall band sound. By that, I mean the way that the band balances between sections, the way that the instrumentalists blend into their section sound, and the way that each person sounds individually.

Technique is the easy part. To develop technique, keep your fingers closer to the keys and minimize movement. Then practice slowly, and gradually increase tempo. Problem solved.

Tone is the bigger challenge. Fortunately, tone is not nearly so difficult on clarinet.

Solving the tone issue in 5 simple steps

  1. Push up
    The right thumb needs to push up on the thumb rest hard. Lots of clarinet players get away with not doing this; as a result, they have weak tone.
  2. Push down
    To compensate for the thumb rest, you need to keep your head straight. To do this, push down with the teeth. The first two steps are the primary reason that most squeaks happen (except for the obvious right hand tone hole issues).
  3. Pull back
    The corners of the lips go back. This helps to keep the mouthpiece from moving around any more. It also keeps the bottom lip firm on the reed.
  4. Blow out
    A lot of clarinet players thing they are supposed to blow their air down. I did when I played for two semesters in college. Some teachers even teach to blow down. That’s fine. I have experimented with both ways and my simple little brass player brain has found that blowing forward (and therefore making the reed vibrate more) produces better tone.
  5. Make the string wiggle
    What string? The imaginary string that you tape to the bell of the clarinet with your imaginary tape.

Try it out
Try these simple steps on Monday and tell me if your clarinet section comes alive! What if the clarinet section is too loud? My contention is that the clarinet section has a very difficult time being too loud. Especially in the lower register. Upper register notes scream and should use less air (but still make the string wiggle).

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Of course, my personal idea of a great band sound is very clarinet heavy. I want clarinets louder than anybody but low brass and horns.

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

11 thoughts on “Overhaul Your Clarinet Section

  1. I love this! As a clarinet player, I am always trying these ideas with my students. This is a great concise blog on everything we need to focus on!

  2. Well, fortunately, as a clarinetist myself, my clarinet section is one of the easiest to teach and thus they learned quicker than the other sections.

    I never really thought about air position, most of them tend to start our “blowing down” and end up “blowing across” I think it’s a natural progression. right now I’m working with my high school clarinets to make the string wiggle. since I’m lacking in trumpets, they have officially taken over the trumpet parts in many of the songs. thanks goodness, I have more than one! They usually sound pretty good and I don’t have to work with them too much but every once in a while the younger of the two gets this kind of “hissing” sound before playing high notes. We discovered it was coming as a result of a bad reed. Instrumental teachers who aren’t clarinetists first, always have you students check their reeds, you can tell one is getting worn out when it starts making squawky and irritating hissing noises before high notes (above “g”). Also, if the reed is dirty, throw it out and get another. I recommend using Rico Reserve size 3-3 1/2 for high school age group. It just has a more refined sound than some of the other brands out there. Vandorin is second on that list.

  3. @Emily – I like Vandoren, personally. I use Rico (orange box) with my beginners. I do go from time to time and check out the states of the reeds. Good pointers!

  4. I’ve been intentionally doing something some might consider incorrect with my clarinets. I’ve replaced the term “thumb rest” with “thumb hook.” To me, the term thumb rest suggest that the clarinet is resting on the thumb (which maybe it is). But thumb hook suggests to me that it’s purpose is to allow the player to hold up the instrument as you described.

    The concept is similar with saxophone; the thumb pushes out/forward. Unlike clarinet, the thumb should not bear much of the weight of the instrument.

    Good info, as always, Joel. I’m gonna use your “blow out” concept this week.

  5. @Joel – I never recommend using the orange box. Those are like the bottom of the pile as far as reeds are concerned. I start my beginners on Vandorin. The Rico Reserve come in a silver/maroon box and only five at a time. The cut on the heart of the reed is filed so that notes are produced with a richer quality you can’t get from Vandorin or the other Ricos or La Voz.

    for those who like La Voz, use the med Soft for younger students and med. Hard for older students. They don’t really have a number system for sizes so you kinda have to guess.

  6. @Stengel99 – There’s nothing wrong with telling them that. Actually, it’s a good idea since my students would prefer not to call it a “thumb rest” anyway. they call it a “thumb holder” because you thumb “holds” in the instrument while you play.

  7. I have a student in my clarinet section with a terrible hiss when she plays. We’ve tried new reeds, we’ve tried checking the placement of the reed. It’sn only a 3 strength so that shouldn’t be the problem. It drives me crazy during rehearsal and we cannot get to the bottom of it. It’s an airy hiss like a bad reed, but I can’t find it.

    Any suggestions????


  8. YES!!!!

    It may be the mouthpiece. about a year ago, one of my clarinets had the same issue with a constant hissing sound when she played. We checked off everything on the list EXCEPT the mouthpiece itself. turns out, there was a hairline crack through the top part causing excess air to leak out. She may need to get a new one. That should solve the problem. If it doesn’t, the only other thing I could tell you is take it to a music store and have their fix it guy check it out.

  9. Interesting. I hadn’t thought about a hairline crack in the mouthpiece. I’ll have to keep that one in mind. Great stuff!

  10. Just an update on my beginner clarinets. Last week, they discovered the joy of playing high notes. the excitement as I told them, “it’s all downhill from here! They asked me what I meant and I told them now that they have reached a milestone in playing, I’m going to expect greater things from them: some of it easy, some of of it not so easy. I am using Standard of Excellence Book 1 as a guide, not necessarily as a textbook. After they “get the hang of it” in the first 4-6 weeks, we skip around and learn rhythms and notes in the first half of the book up until Christmas. I tend to find concert music that will help present the knowledge in a useful way rather than with boring exercises. It makes playing real to them. After Christmas, their embouchures are strong enough to play some high notes (D-A) and we look through the second half of the book, play a few of the more interesting exercises until I’m confident they’re comfortable with what they’re doing. I find more concert music that will enable quicker learning and they will be working toward mastering their instrument beyond the basics.

    By going through all of this, they should be able to pick up their book and play just about anything without too much practice. I use the book more for sight reading than anything since we work primarily on concert music through the year. If I feel we need to work through some more difficult rhythm, we do use the book get through it and I will assign specific exercises that will help.

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