How do you tune a clarinet?
No, this isn’t the start of a band joke (although I’d love to hear your punchlines if it were).
Learning how to properly tune any instrument takes time – time to train your ears, time to learn how equipment responds to adjustments, time to listen and adjust to others, and many other variables.
If you’re new to clarinet tuning, you should start by reading my complete guide on clarinet tuning to learn more about how the instrument works and factors which can affect tuning.
Once you’ve got the basics, make sure you aren’t making any of these common clarinet tuning mistakes:
Tuning before you warm up.
Tuning before your long tones or warm-up routine is a lot like starting the day without coffee (or maybe that’s just me). Tuning before you warm up will not give you an accurate representation of your pitch, as the instrument and reed haven’t had time to warm up either. This is quite literal – the colder the clarinet is, the lower the pitch will be. The longer you play, the higher the pitch. (Side note: you should never play your clarinet if it’s cold to the touch, as this can cause cracking in wood clarinets.)
Always making the exact same adjustments.
The most important thing to remember about tuning is that it’s fleeting – even if you’re perfectly in tune now, that does not guarantee that you’ll be in tune 5 seconds from now. Tuning can change depending on the clarinet’s tuning tendencies for different notes, temperature, dynamics, and even chord structure (more on that soon). I vividly remember one honor band rehearsal in high school when the director spent at least an hour going around the entire ensemble and helping each musician find the “perfect” adjustment so they would be in tune. They then instructed each of us to always play with the instrument set to this adjustment (pushed out or pulled in). Not only did this use quite a bit of valuable rehearsal time, but it also neglected to teach students that tuning is constantly changing and that the adjustments they made one day will not be the same as they make the next.
Not listening and relying only on the tuner.
The best thing you can do to improve your tuning is train your ears to constantly listen and adjust. Tuners are a wonderful invention, but too many musicians become reliant upon them to listen for them. Here’s an easy exercise to train your ears: The next time you are tuning, close your eyes and play a note. Play and sustain the note until you think it’s in tune, then open your eyes to see how close you are on the tuner. Continue doing this every time you tune until your ears become as reliable as the tuner.
Assuming green is good.
Another common issue is assuming that you are “right” if the tuner says you are in tune. (Most tuners use green lights to indicate being in tune, whereas red usually means you are flat or sharp.) Tuning depends on so many other factors than how many cents flat or sharp you are, such as the chord structure, scale degrees, and ensemble balance.
Only tuning when you play with other musicians.
Believe it or not, you can be out of tune with yourself. This is especially common on the clarinet, where octaves have varying tuning tendencies. Even if you are practicing an unaccompanied piece, listen to the tuning of each note and interval to make sure you match yourself throughout the entire range of the instrument.
Adjusting your instrument every time you are out of tune.
When you tune, you should tune to reliable “good” notes on the instrument. Spoiler alert: the clarinet isn’t perfect, and its imperfect design means that many notes have natural tendencies to be flat or sharp. If you push in or pull out based on these “bad” notes, you might fix one note but upset the tuning of many more. To find your good notes, keep a tuning log for a few weeks to see which notes are reliably and consistently in tune, then play these to see how you should adjust. (My go-to tuning notes are low C, open G, middle C, and top-line F.) To fix other notes, you can manipulate finger height, dynamics, tongue position, embouchure, and a variety of other factors to get in tune without having to push in or pull out. (My complete guide to clarinet tuning has several different suggestions to make these tuning improvements without adjusting the length of the instrument.)
I hope these tuning tips help you along your musical journey!