How to Play Clarinet

Like any musical instrument, the clarinet is difficult.

The operant saying is, “There is no easy way into the band room.” The saying applies equally to the orchestra rehearsal hall.

There’s an old children’s game of patting one’s head while trying to trace a circle with the opposite hand on one’s midsection.

Playing clarinet is a lot like trying to do that with four arms and six hands.

The Foundation: Embouchure

The pedagogy of playing the clarinet is a lot like a tower. Without a foundation, a tower would collapse. Without a proper embouchure, nothing else that’s any good will happen. The most common mistake is to bunch the lower lip and wind up biting the mouthpiece. Biting the mouthpiece will cause the reed to be constricted and only to make disagreeable sounds. It will also cause pain in the player’s lips.

Instead, the lower lip should be placed on top of the teeth. It should not be stretched into a smile nor should it be too far “over-the-top” so that the skin of the chin is on the teeth. It should also not be in front of the bottom teeth. The cheeks should be pressed tightly against the molars so that no air leaks through the teeth to create pockets inside the mouth. Then, the chin should be flattened and pointed.

The player forms this embouchure around the mouthpiece with the teeth touching the top of the mouthpiece about 1/4-inch from the tip. The reed should rest upon the lower lip on top of the teeth. The lip forms a cushion for the reed, which supports the instrument and keeps air from escaping. There should be no jaw pressure upward at all. All the pressure should come horizontally on the sides of the mouthpiece, exerted by the cheek muscles.

The Importance of Breathing and Airflow

If you tell someone to take a deep breath, the chances are that the person will shrug the shoulders and struggle to expand the ribcage to breathe. This does not provide a truly deep breath for two reasons:

  1. There is no lung tissue in the shoulders.
  2. The lungs cannot expand comfortably by trying to press themselves through the ribcage.

Instead, the person should contract the diaphragm, which will then create extra space downward inside the chest cavity. Creating this extra space allows air pressure to force air into the lungs and expand them downward. No shoulder movement is necessary nor even desirable. The pressure of 14.7 pounds per square inch is more than enough to force the air into the lungs simply by creating that extra space.

To get used to diaphragmatic breathing, the player should sit with feet shoulder width apart and then bend over at the waist with the head dangling below the knees. Then, the person should breathe deeply. In that position, it is impossible for the chest to expand. Therefore, the abdomen will expand easily. To sense this expansion, the person should grasp the side of the abdomen as if pinching it and feel the fingers expand during the intake of breath.

To make sound on the clarinet, the player must exhale air through the mouthpiece and reed. The air should always move at great speed. The player should not try to force the air out by constricting the neck muscles or pursing the lips as if blowing out birthday candles. The constriction of the neck muscles will restrict the airflow, and the pursed lips will destroy the proper embouchure. Instead, the person should keep the throat open as if yawning while maintaining the proper embouchure. To create the airflow, the person should pull in the diaphragm, forcing the air out of the lungs at a high rate of speed.

Neither slow air nor air that has been diffused by an improper embouchure into static pockets in the cheeks will produce a good, characteristic clarinet tone.

Counting Rhythms

It is crucial to be able to count both beats and rhythms so that the player knows when the notes are supposed to happen. Before playing more than simple long tones on the clarinet, the player should work with a rhythm primer to practice clapping rhythms correctly.

The beat is also known as the pulse. How quickly the beats progress is called the tempo. The slowest tempos are about 30 beats per minute while the quickest are more than 200 beats per minute. The rhythm is the collection of notes that surround the beat. Some notes last longer than one beat, and some notes last half of a beat, a quarter of a beat, or even less. The general practice is to count beats while saying the rhythms and clapping them simultaneously. The scope of this article is too small to go into a full examination of rhythms. That’s why the player needs a rhythm primer.

Practicing the Notes

Once the player understands where the notes fall, the next step, or “floor of the tower,” is to begin to practice different notes. On the clarinet, there are 17 keys and six rings. The hole under the third finger of the left hand has no ring. To produce the different notes, the player depresses or releases keys in certain patterns. The player must learn which collections of depressed and released keys produce which notes and practice them to commit them to muscle memory.

It is important to note the concept of voicing. The tongue must be placed in the correct position inside the mouth. If the tongue is wrongly placed, then the notes produced will be disagreeable in tone, out of tune, or both. The correct position of the tongue is for the tip to hover near the reed at the tip of the mouthpiece and for the back of the tongue to arch toward the roof of the mouth without touching it.

The higher the notes to be played are, the higher the back of the tongue must arch. Notes that are produced by opening the register key are overtones, so a tongue position that is too low in the mouth will yield a “vuh vuh vuh” or “vvvvvvvvv” sound. Only when the tongue is correctly placed will they sound true.

Here’s a great video showing how to play your first three notes:


Articulation is the separation of notes from one another. Many times, the player connects all the notes without moving the tip of the tongue. This is called slurring. Sometimes, the player will separate all of the notes from one another. Other times, the player will produce patterns of slurred and separated notes. The proper method of articulation is to touch the right half of the tongue to the left half of the reed, which will stop the reed from vibrating, creating a break in the tone.

It is essential not to stop the airflow when applying the tongue to the reed. Think of it as a turned-on faucet. If you slice your finger through the flowing water, there is a slight break, but the water keeps flowing. The airstream produced should emulate that flowing water, and the tongue striking the reed takes the place of the slicing finger.

The most complicated passages in music combine all of these techniques at the same time. This is why there is no easy way into the rehearsal hall or band room.