Band Directors: Quick Fixes to Help Improve Your Clarinet Section
Hats off to all the band directors out there! I truly respect what you do for music and music education.
I think one instrument is challenging enough, and it’s amazing that you make all of them sound great together!
Throughout the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several band programs at the middle school, high school, and university levels. During these clinics, I’ve created the following list of quick fixes to help your clarinet section sound even more awesome than they do now:
- Ligature before reed. (This one is especially important for beginning band) From day one, train your clarinetists to always put on the ligature before placing the reed on the mouthpiece. This will save countless reeds from being chipped by the ligature, and it will also save your students money on replacing said chipped reeds.
- Check chin position. One of the quickest ways to improve a clarinetist’s sound is to make sure they are playing with a good chin position. If their chin is dipped towards their chest, it can constrict the air. When working with students, I find a focal point on the wall to have them look which encourages good chin position (it can be a clock, poster, or you could even create a “clarinetists look here” sign if you feel so inclined).
- Check the right hand ring finger placement. If any of your clarinet students is squeaking, particularly as they cross the break or reach the lowest notes (low G, F, and E), the right hand ring finger is a likely culprit. This is the largest tone hole on the clarinet, and if there are any air leaks caused by not completely covering the tone hole, it will most likely result in a squeak. (This is especially true for younger players or those with smaller fingers who might need to practice this more.)
- Make sure they are using enough mouthpiece. Generally, clarinetists will want to play with 1/4 to 1/3 of the mouthpiece (teeth
- at 10mm). The way I describe this to beginning clarinetists is by having them turn their clarinet to the side so they can see where the reed and mouthpiece meet, then having them use this much mouthpiece. Too little mouthpiece creates a thin, brittle sound, and too much mouthpiece creates a wild, unfocused sound (often with horrendous squeaks).
- Check the left hand thumb position. If a student is struggling to hit the high notes, it might be related to their left hand thumb position. I instruct students to angle their thumb towards two o’clock, which allows them to hit the register key while still covering the left hand thumb hole. If their thumb is sliding off the tone hole to hit the register key, this will make it difficult for them to cross the break or hit the high notes, so it’s important to work with them to find their ideal thumb position to prevent this from happening.
- Save money on instrument repairs. In my experience, two of the most common instrument malfunctions are easily fixed. If a student complains that their clarinet isn’t working, you should first check that the bridge key (the key connecting the upper and lower joints) is in complete alignment. This can be adjusted by simply shifting the position of either the upper or lower joint so the bridge key lines up. If this isn’t the issue, check the spring towards the bottom of the lower joint (found under the long rod directly over the bell’s logo). Sometimes this can pop out if a swab snags it (or if students get too curious and start experiment with clarinet mechanics).
What quick fixes have you found to help your clarinetists?