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20 Years Ago in Bandworld
Clarinet Embou-Sure (continued)

by M. Max McKee

It is important to mention that the fingers remain in their natural position...not flattened, not arched. The hand should remain completely relaxed as the fingers of the left hand are placed in position. A visual demonstration with your own clarinet or assistance to ensure that the correct finger is placed over the correct hole is often helpful. Be sure to indicate that the thumb covers the hole in the back and that it does not at this point open the register key. Check this visually as it is a primary cause of problems. Also observe the angle of the fingers relative to the clarinet. If the student attempts to place them at a 90 degree angle to the clarinet, mention that the fingers and hand should angle comfortably upward (so that the index finger lays close to the A and G# throat keys). Demonstrate with your clarinet.

Now demonstrate the tone and the pitch which you wish the student to produce: the clarinet "low C" and instruct him to produce sound exactly as before. If the correct result is not obtained, it is that one of the original five problems has cropped up. But, by now you should have those sounds well engrained and you should know the remedies. It is, however, unlikely that these problems will repeat if you have carefully instructed tone production with mouthpiece/barrel and then with the complete clarinet. While the correct result sounds like this:


There are three basic new sounds which might occur:

Either of these pitches (clarinet first space F or open G) is a dead give away...the thumb is not covering the hole in the back (produces F) and is opening the register key (produces G).

EXAMPLE #14a (Muffled F)
EXAMPLE #14b Muffled G)


One or more of the left hand fingers is not covering properly: pitch resembles C#, D, or D#. Partial thumb cover can also produce this sound. If, on the other hand problem and, the non-descript pitch resembles one of the notes between first space clarinet F and G#, then the index finger is opening either the G# or the A throat register keys.

EXAMPLE #15a (Lower pitches)
EXAMPLE #15b (Higher pitches)


If the student produces an actual pitch in one of the higher registers (probably clarinet G above the staff or possibly three ledger line high E), it means that the thumb or the index finger is partially opening one of the keys at the upper end of the clarinet (register key, A key, or G# key). Of these keys, it is the register key which most often produces the upper partials; the clarinet G is the most likely overtone in the beginning stages.


When any of these problems occur, ask to see the pads of the student's fingers; if properly placed on the instrument, you should see complete ring imprints on the center of each pad. Many times that imprint will be partially centered over the first joint of the finger, thereby creating a leak. When the student makes another attempt to play low C, observe the position of thumb and fingers, watching carefully for one which appears to be out of position. If, after three tries you are still unsuccessful, I recommend that you return to the open G and check to be sure that the air flow, tone, and embouchure are still functioning properly. This will reinforce for the student that all is OK except fingers. It is less likely that he will then make serious alterations in an attempt to overcome finger-cover problems.
If on return to low C the finger problem still persists, have the student play first line E followed;by by D, then C. As each finger is placed in position, observe carefully and listen for the exact moment a finger-placement error occurs. Most often too much arch in the fingers and/or position of the finger pads will be totally at fault.


From this point on, you can progress as you wish with the knowledge that the embouchure has been properly formed. At that, don't fail to give each budding clarinetist a visual "checkup" periodically. Also be sure that the mouthpiece is kept clean and that the reed is never left on the mouthpiece. The reed will warp far less and your chances of the student cleaning the mouthpiece regularly are far greater. Also be sure to instruct the student to keep the reed on a flat surface and never to enclose it in a plastic container where it will not dry out. Reed life will be greatly extended by placing it on top of the plastic container (or piece of glass) secured by a rubber band.


Every student can and must play in tune from the very beginning! "Theories" which expound that "learning to blow" is the only important aspect in the beginning stages are ridiculous. As soon as a note is introduced, there must be instruction which produces correct tone quality. Since out of tune notes seldom contain proper tone quality, it follows that attention to one cures the other. Note in the following examples that natural tendency of the clarinet to play sharp and with tone quality which is inconsistent with surrounding notes:

LOW A: natural sharpness & tightness; then corrected.


Also true of low C and low D.
THROAT Bb: natural sharpness and shrillness; then corrected.


Also true of throat G, G#, and A.
HIGH B: natural sharpness and shrillness; then corrected.


Also true of high A, Bb, and C.
In all of the above cases the remedy is the same: Let more reed vibrate. Tangible example: Form the embouchure with the index finger placed on your lower lip as though it were the reed. Pushing first inward, then outward, notice that there is "play" or flexibility in the flesh as it rests on the teeth. When you push inward, more of your finger will naturally be inside your mouth. On the clarinet, when you flex the lip inward, more of the surface of the reed will be inside the mouth. Thus, more surface can vibrate. Result: fuller tone, lower pitch. (Note, for example, the cause of #6 and #12 above.) Making students aware of this simple fact will immediately improve intonation and tone with the youngest of clarinetists.

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