Clarinet Fundamentals

Shortest List of the Most Basic Clarinet Fundamentals

  • Some musical skills take weeks or years to bring to a high level.
  • Hold your clarinet correctly. Place the thumb rest in the crook of the first joint at the base of your nail. Curve your fingers gently as if you are picking up a bread crumb. The left thumb should be at a 45 degree angle to the length of the clarinet.
  • Make sure that none of your fingers rest against a key or part of the clarinet when they should not.
  • Place your bottom lip on the front of your bottom teeth and your bottom gum. Place most of the soft part of your bottom lip over your bottom teeth. Experiment for the best sound and feel. Place top teeth on mouthpiece. Experiment to see how much mouthpiece and reed should go in your mouth for the best sound and control. Too little mouthpiece in your mouth will close the reed and produce a small pinched sound. Too much mouthpiece will produce a squawking sound.
  • Is your chin flat with its muscles set as if pointing down to your left thumb? Are your cheeks not puffed? Are you not leaking any air from the corners of your mouth?
  • Experiment to find the best angle for the clarinet in relation to your chest. At what position is the sound and the feel best?
  • Check your posture. Sit or stand as if there is a string rising out of the middle of your head that is holding you up. Is there a little bit of space under your arms? Round your palms as if you are holding a tennis ball.
  • When you breathe, fill your lungs from the bottom up. Do your lower abdomen, back and sides expand when you breathe?
  • When you blow into the clarinet push your stomach muscles against your waist. This results in air support. Blow fast "cold" air. Make the air passage in your throat and mouth small by raising the back of your tongue and saying "eeeeeeeeeee" in your throat.
  • In general, do you move your fingers both up and down with a relaxed yet precise snap? In very slow legato playing think of squeezing the clarinet.
  • Hear the music in your head before you play.
  • Always listen very carefully to the music that comes out of your clarinet.
  • Do your musical sentences rise and fall in an expressive manner? Are specific notes given more "weight" or stress than others?

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How You Know You Are Done Warming Up

  • Your fingers feel like they know exactly where all the keys and holes are on the clarinet.
  • Your fingers move in perfectly even rhythm in scales, arpeggios and other technical passages.
  • You feel comfortable with the reed and know how it will sound and respond in all registers of the clarinet and in tonguing at different speeds.
  • Your tongue knows exactly where the reed is and how it has to move to start notes both gently and firmly.
  • You have quieted your mind and are ready to focus on your practicing.
  • You have a clear concept of what you want to accomplish.

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Preparation for Performances

  • You will feel less nervous if you are well prepared and have practiced in a consistent and productive manner.
  • The more times you play your audition or concert music for teachers, friends and family members the better prepared you will be. It is always easier to play an audition or recital the second time rather than the first.
  • In the days and weeks before an audition or important performance, imagine all of the events on that day. As you go to sleep each night paint a mental story of your morning routine, your warm-up, going to the audition or recital hall, waiting for your performance time, walking into the performance room and your performance itself. Imagine playing very well.
  • Practice simple relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. Give yourself plenty of time to warm up and get to your performance without rushing.
  • Think positively; relive in your mind past inspiring performances by yourself or others.
  • Remember that no one is perfect and that there will always be room for improvement in your playing.
  • Read books such as A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad, The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and Peak Performance by Charles A. Garfield, Ph.D.
  • Before and while you are playing, keep your mind focused on the present (thinking about the past or what might happen distracts your mind from the task at hand) by concentrating on something such as your breathing, your musical expression, or the way the notes look on the printed page.  Be aware, not self-critical.
  • Don't worry if you feel nervous - just about everybody does. Think of the energy from your adrenaline as a potentially positive ally to help bring greater awareness to your playing.
  • Every performance or audition is a learning opportunity. You will always have another opportunity.

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(from Ed Yadzinski's Germaniums for the Clarinet and Saxophone)

  • Sight-reading is easy.
  • Sight-read every day.
  • Quickly scan the music for unusual difficulties before you play it.
  • Clearly understand the musical meter and key signature before you begin.
  • Know where you are in each measure (on which beat) as you are playing.
  • Mentally group notes into patterns such as scales, arpeggios and recurring motives.
  • Chose a tempo that is slow enough that you can play the fastest notes accurately.
  • Start tapping your foot in a steady manner before you begin to play and follow your foot while you are playing.
  • Think ahead. Don't think about what you already played.
  • Because you are looking ahead, hear the music before you play it.

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Greg Barrett


Gregory Barrett
NIU School of Music
1425 W. Lincoln Highway
DeKalb, IL 60115