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How to achieve delicate attacks on clarinet

At first glance, the words “delicate attacks” might seem like an oxymoron (who decided to call them attacks in the first place?!).

Despite the seeming contradiction, it is possible to play beautiful, delicate attacks on the clarinet across all registers.

First things first – what is an attack?

Simply put, attacks are the beginning of each note you play. Depending on the articulation you are using and the style of music you are playing, some attacks will be more emphatic (such as accented or marcato notes), while others should be more subtle (legato notes and lyrical passages). It’s important to develop a wide variety of styles for your attacks so you can adequately capture more musical styles.

One of the main obstacles to achieving delicate attacks on clarinet is the reed. Now look – I’m not blaming the reed entirely, but it’s important to know its role in creating delicate entrances. Although the reed is our key component to creating sound, it is also a barrier between the air and resulting sound. Oftentimes, popped attacks are a result of hitting the reed too harshly with the tongue, an imbalance in the reed itself, or using a sudden influx of air.

Here are some tips to help you achieve delicate attacks on clarinet:

  • Hear the note in your head before you play it. The first step to a beautiful attack is to hear the note in your head. This will not only mentally prepare you for the correct pitch, but also help you establish proper voicing and breath support.
  • Set your embouchure. One of the most common issues preventing you from achieving delicate attacks is simply not having your embouchure ready right as you play. If you try to set your embouchure at the same time as you create the note, chances are that it will be popped or less than ideal. For more delicate attacks, inhale, set your embouchure early, then play. You will be amazed at the difference this tiny tweak can make!
  • Avoid breathing before risky entrances. You know those notes that should sound like they magically emerged from the ether? Avoid breathing right before them at all costs! Each breath you take resets the embouchure and air flow, so there will be a higher risk of popped attacks. Plan your breathing to find an alternative spot which will still allow you to have enough air for this delicate entrances. What if the risky entrance is the beginning of the piece or excerpt? (I’m looking at you, Pines of Rome!) If you have to breathe before the risky entrance, make sure your embouchure is set, and practice your breath and attack to create a beautiful entrance.
  • Keep your embouchure steady. Another common cause of popped attacks is an unstable embouchure. Watch yourself in a mirror as you practice to make sure your embouchure isn’t moving – firm corners, flexed lips, and no movement in the chin or jaw area.
  • Incorporate breath attacks. One of my favorite tricks to achieving a beautiful attack is using a breath attack, where you start the note with the air (instead of the tongue). This gives me more control to create a smoother transition from air to sound. While this is certainly possible using a tongued attack, I find that it is much easier to create delicate entrances with the air, instead of trying to muffle the sound of the tongue against the reed. Be careful that your breath attacks aren’t delayed – this is a common issue with breath attacks, so make sure your attacks aren’t beautiful but delayed. (Note: It’s important to develop and utilize both tongued and breath attacks in your playing to achieve a more flexible range of sounds and attacks.)
  • Experiment with different consonants. In addition to breath attacks, you can also experiment with using different consonants such as “D” or “T” on tongued attacks. T will produce a more pointed attack, whereas D allows for a more subtle start.
  • Don’t neglect your long tones! Long tones are one of the most important things to practice, and if practiced effectively, they can do wonders for your sound. Practice your long tones by starting each set at niente or piano (very soft sound) to become accustomed to the air, embouchure, and breath support necessary to produce a clear yet delicate attack across all registers.

I hope these tips help! Happy practicing!