How to make your clarinet articulation lighter

Kell 17 Staccato Studies (one of my favorite books to improve clarinet articulation!)

In my opinion, one of the most difficult clarinet techniques to do with polish and pizzazz (and eventually speed) is articulation.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of the basics (click here for my complete guide to clarinet articulation), a common complaint I hear is that the articulation is too heavy.

Playing with heavy articulation presents a few problems:

  1. It lessens the musical effect of playing well in all styles of music (such as lyrical and expressive works).
  2. It seriously limits your maximum articulation speed.

If you’ve already read my articulation troubleshooting guide and think your articulation is still too heavy, here are a few common causes and solutions:

  • You aren’t using enough air. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – oftentimes, your articulation problems have nothing to do with your tongue, but rather your air. To see if this is the case, try slurring a passage. Listen carefully to the sound you create. Now, try articulating the same passage, focusing on using the same air quantity and velocity. Sound better? If so, your air was most likely the culprit.
  • You’re hitting the reed too harshly with your tongue. Once you’ve checked to make sure the air isn’t the culprit, make sure your tongue is gently hitting the reed. You should use minimal tongue pressure to touch the reed. If your tongue is hitting the reed too aggressively, this will create a percussive, heavy articulation. Hear it yourself – play an open G and articulate, using different tongue pressure to touch the reed. Hear the difference it makes when you gently touch the reed versus when you use more force? (Note: It’s good to be aware of how tongue pressure against the reed creates different styles of attacks, as different musical styles call for different attacks. Be sure to look at the musical context to help you decide which articulation is most appropriate.)
  • Your tongue is moving too far back in your mouth. The further back you move your tongue between attacks, the more pressure it will have when it makes contact with the reed. You should always maintain a minimal distance between the tongue and reed. Not only will this improve the quality of your articulation, but it will also allow you to articulate at greater speeds.
  • There is too much surface area of the tongue touching the reed. The more surface area of your tongue that touches the reed, the duller and “thuddier” the response will be. You should try to touch the very tip of your tongue to the reed to create a crisp, clear attack.

Other words of wisdom:

Experiment with syllables. Different syllables cause your tongue to make contact with the reed in different ways, creating different types of attacks. Some pieces of music will call for different syllables, so don’t get locked into one syllable. Start with (in no particular order) tee, too, tah, dee, doo, dah, thee, thoo, and any other syllables that work for you.

Allot dedicated articulation practice time. Spend a few minutes every day examining the quality of your articulation. Don’t get caught up in speed or bumping up the metronome, but instead focus on playing articulation notes that are symmetrical, even, clear, consistent, and high quality. Building better articulation is a constant commitment, so strive for progress instead of perfection.

Happy practicing!

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