Meri’s Musical Musings

Air is the root of most of your playing problems…and the solution

Posted on: May 27, 2009

*To my first clarinet teacher, who completely convinced me that this is true*

    Clarinetists can have several kinds of playing problems: they can have poor tone quality, getting the notes in the clarion or altissmo register, connecting the chalumeau and clarion registers, tone quality of the throat tones, tonguing, wide intervals, and tuning. In most cases, the solution is not what the student thinks it is: the problem, and the solution, is connected to how they are using air speed and air support.

            One common problem is poor tone quality. Many clarinetists use too little air, too little air speed and no air support. This manifests itself as an overall poor tone quality and frequent squeaking. If clarinetists increase the amount of air they use, increase the speed of the air, and use sufficient air support, overall tone quality will be improved and there will be fewer squeaks.

            A second playing problem is one that many clarinetists have: getting the notes in the clarion or altissimo register. Most clarinetists attempt to get the higher notes by tightening their embouchure, letting the air support collapse, and reducing the air speed when they need to do the opposite. If there is a sound, it is usually quite flat in pitch and has poor tone quality. If clarinetists maintain or possibly very slightly relax the embouchure from that used in the lower notes, and increase the air support and air speed, there will be a greater eveness in tone quality across registers.

            A third common problem is connecting the chalumeau and clarion registers. Many clarinetists let the air support and air speed collapse when changing registers, particularly when going upward, when they need to provide the same amount of air support and more air speed in order to sound good.

            A fourth problem is the tone quality of the throat tones. Some clarinetists forget about air support or air speed in this part of the clarinet’s range, leading to a poorer tone quality than these notes should have. Sufficient air speed and air support will help make this part of the clarinet’s range sound better.

            A fifth common problem is sustaining dynamic levels, particularly at soft dynamics. Many clarinetists forget about maintaining the air support at soft dynamic levels, and so have difficulty in sustaining long notes softly.

            A sixth problem is when students go across intervals wider than a third or fourth upwards. Some students reduce the air speed and let go of the air pressure when they go to a note that is not close to the note that they are currently playing, often leading to a poor tone quality in the upper notes.

            A seventh common problem is tonguing. Many clarinetists, particularly when playing staccato, forget about continuing to blow air while tonguing, supporting the air and maintaining air speed, leading to poor tonguing.

            An eighth problem, one that often occurs with intermediate and some advanced clarinetists, is going across very wide jumps of 2-3 octaves. Some clarinetists unconsciously let the air support or the air speed collapse when going across large intervals, which means they sometimes have problems with the wide jump in terms of the sound quality or getting the note they are jumping to.

            A final common problem are tuning problems. When clarinetists are flat, it usually means they are using insufficient air speed and using little or no air support. When they are sharp, they may be using sufficient air, but are unconsciously choking off the air through a pinching embouchure.

            If clarinetists would learn to think about whether a problem they are having with their playing has to do with what they are doing with the air support and air flow, and change so that they are using enough air speed and enough support to get a good sound, at least 90% of playing problems would be eliminated.


1 Response to "Air is the root of most of your playing problems…and the solution"

Extremely well written. I’m contemplating the instrument. Thank you for this primer.

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  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea
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