What’s In Your Case?

As we head back to school in Michigan, I find myself doing the yearly updating of my teaching syllabi to reflect any changes to curricula or student requirements.  As I am doing this, I am struck by the fact that although the literature, methods and scales are different, the basic clarinet accoutrements that I require of my students remain identical whether they are beginners, high school or graduate students.  Below is a listing of these items including the rationale behind their requirement.

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Swab: We all know that playing the clarinet leaves a lot of moisture in the bore and tone holes of the instrument and it is important to not let that moisture pool as it can be detrimental to the bores of wood instruments and the pads on all.  With students playing plastic clarinets, I recommend cotton “hanky” style swabs.  They are affordable and do the job well.  For students with wood clarinets, I recommend micro-fiber.  This fabric is softer and less abrasive to the wood bore.

Cork GrImageease: Not only used to facilitate tenon and socket connections, cork grease can help protect the cork from drying and unnecessary wear (both of which will cause leaks and reduce the clarinet’s performance).  As all synthetic cork greases are made by the same company and labeled for individual brands, I don’t get too worried about what to recommend.  I do believe that organics are better but don’t require “designer” grease of my students.

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Reed Holder / Case:  Each student is required to have at least 4 reeds in his case at a time.  To help protect them, a reed guard or case is required.  For advanced students, I recommend the “Selmer” style case with the glass plate as I have found that reeds store better and last longer with this type of set-up.  For younger players, I recommend a standard La Voz or Rico reed guard.  I prefer these to the Vito versions because they offer a flat reed surface.

Pencil: Always needed for marking music for practice or performance notes.

Manuscript Paper: Granted . . . this likely won’t fit in most single cases but my students do need to have it at every lesson.  We use it not only for keeping track of weekly assignments but I tend to write out a lot of specific warm-ups, fingerings and technical drills that the student needs to practice.

(Not) Teaching Embouchure at the First Lesson

There are thousands of opinions and much has been written regarding the best way to teach the clarinet embouchure in the first lesson.  Since this is the one topic of which I am questioned the most by my band director colleagues, I figured I would throw my opinion into the mix.  In a word . . . DON’T!

OK, before you delete this article from your inbox and lobby the clarinet world to declare me a heretic, hear me out.  There is usually a lot going on in that first lesson and I believe that if we as clarinet teachers get too wrapped up in trying to teach the perfect embouchure, it can more closely resemble a golf lesson (flat lip, chin down, corners in, not too tight, not too loose) than that of a musical instrument.

After many years of slow results and incredibly frustrated students, I developed the below approach.  I don’t think there is anything about this technique that is a revelation. It is simply designed to give the student one thing on which to concentrate instead of the 50 items of the “golf” approach.

  1. Remember that the clarinet is a WIND instrument (not to be confused with a lower lip instrument).  Start your lesson by having your students focus their air by blowing at a specific target. Be creative.  I like to use a small toy pinwheel with my beginners.  It gives them immediate and easy to understand feedback on what their air is doing.  We move the pinwheels away from the faces and challenge them to keep them rotating with the same velocity.  This gets them to focus and project their airstreams.
  2. Next, using the mouthpiece and barrel (yes . . . we already learned how to put them together and apply the reed and lig), I have the students comfortably close their lips around the mouthpieces and blow as if they are still trying to turn their pinwheels.  This creates a terrible noise in most cases but get the kids focusing on air right away.
  3. Once the kids can comfortably get the reeds vibrating, we begin to “focus” the sound.  We start by introducing the idea of blowing a long “HEEE” sound. This lifts the tongue and creates increased air speed.  Even with the “HEEE”, we still imagine turning the pinwheel.
  4. Finally, once the students can handle keeping the air steady with the “HEEE” tongue placement, I introduce the TOP lip.  I instruct my students to grab the top of the mouthpiece with the top lip and hold it firmly while blowing.  From here you will begin to see the chins come down and more closely resemble those photo perfect embouchures we see in the method books.  This is also the point at which I will begin making adjustments in the angle and placement of the lips on mouthpiece (i.e. bottom lip to the bottom of the curve).

Why teach top lip over bottom lip?  My answer is two-fold.

  • Concentrating on an active top lip keeps the focus of the sound in the top, forward part of the mouth making for better air speed and tonal control.
  • Because of the way in which the lip muscles are designed, grabbing with the top lip activates the lower lip as well.  In most case, when grabbing a mouthpiece (or even your won thumb), the corners will come in.  If you drop your chin ,will drop the bottom lip stretches across the teethe.