The Relationship Between Breathing and Tuning: How to Use Breathing to Improve Clarinet Tuning

Let’s face it – the clarinet can be a bit…pitchy.

If you’ve read my Complete Guide to Clarinet Tuning, you know that there are several factors which can affect clarinet tuning. I wanted to take a closer look at one of these which you can use to your advantage to help improve your clarinet tuning:


Any time you take a breath, the next note you play will be slightly sharper (compared to its pitch had you not taken the breath).

Here’s how you can use this information to improve your clarinet tuning:

  • Avoid breathing before notoriously sharp notes. Once you’re familiar with general clarinet tuning tendencies (as well as your own instrument’s tendencies), try to avoid breathing before sharp notes. A few examples are altissimo C# and low A.
  • Take additional breath(s) before loud passages. The louder you play, the lower the pitch is on clarinet. If you have a loud passage coming up, consider taking a breath before to help equalize the pitch.
  • Plan your breaths carefully in quiet passages. Softer = sharper, so be sure to keep this in mind as you plot your breathing spots in soft passages.
  • Plan your breathing to breathe before flat notes. Just like you should avoid breathing before sharp notes, you can do the opposite by breathing before flat notes to help raise the pitch.

And finally, here’s a bonus breathing tip: If there’s a delicate attack (especially at softer dynamics or in extreme registers), reconsider taking a breath before the attack. In addition to affecting the tuning, taking a breath also resets the embouchure, which can be a recipe for popped attacks – never ideal, but especially not on these delicate entrances.

Here is a musical example to demonstrate how I use these breathing tips to help improve clarinet tuning:

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E♭ Major, Op. 120, No. 2 – end of movement I “Allegro amabile”

Most clarinetists take a breath in the penultimate measure before the A. This presents a few challenges:

  1. The A generally runs sharp on most clarinets.
  2. The A is the 3rd of the F Major chord (the key signature of this movement), and the 3rd of a chord should be slightly flat. (Read more about tuning and chords here.)
  3. Since this is the end of a movement, you will be slightly sharper than when you began playing, as clarinet tuning runs sharper as the instrument warms up.

Due to this triple whammy, taking a breath will only exacerbate these issues. The simple solution is to breathe before the low F, which will also help improve its tuning, as low F typically runs flat on clarinet.

A few final notes:

While planning your breathing to improve your clarinet tuning can prove effective, be sure that the breathing spots you choose allow you enough air to complete the phrases. Air is the foundation for everything on the clarinet (after all, it is a wind instrument), so make sure you still have enough air to create compelling phrases with a beautiful sound.

Happy practicing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.