When it comes to the question of whether or not the clarinet is hard to play, the answer is yes.
All musical instruments are difficult to play in their own way.
Each requires exacting attention to detail, innate musical sense, and a thorough understanding of the accompanying physical demands.
Is the Clarinet Hard to Play? Consistently practicing a proper embouchure, breathing, airflow, rhythm, articulation, and intonation, makes playing the clarinet easier over time.
Playing the clarinet is like playing the old game of patting your head while rotating your hand on your belly. The only real difference is that you have six heads, and you have to pat each head in a different way while still rubbing your gut.
The six chief principles of clarinet playing, irrespective of interpretation, are like a carefully constructed tower that has five floors on top of a foundation.
Without a solid foundation or well-constructed lower floors, the top floors of the tower would collapse. The same is true of playing. If you don’t master the concepts at the bottom of the metaphorical tower, then the playing will collapse.
Let us look at each of these concepts from bottom to top:
The embouchure is the foundation of everything the clarinet player does. The reed must be properly cushioned, and the air must have a correctly shaped channel inside the mouth through which it will pass to the reed aperture.
First, the lower lip must be made into the cushion. Curl the lower lip over the bottom teeth all the way from left to right. The lip must not be curled too much so that the skin of the chin touches the reed. Only the fleshy part of the lip should touch the reed. You should take care not to curl the lip in front of the teeth. This will cause the chin to bunch, which is not good.
Once the lip is over the teeth, compress the cheeks firmly so that the flesh of the inner cheek fills all the spaces between the upper and lower cheeks. This will not only keep the airflow channel correct but also prevent the puffing of cheeks, which robs part of the airflow into the instrument. The corners of the lip should be pressed firmly into the center.
When inserting the mouthpiece, rest the reed against the bottom lip and place the top teeth about 1/4-inch from the tip on the top of the mouthpiece. The inner pressing of the corners of the lips should be into the sides of the mouthpiece while pointing the chin and keeping the skin in front of the bottom teeth taut, flat, and not bunched. The seal should be airtight.
Lastly, the rear of the tongue should be placed in an elevated arch while the tip of the tongue should rest close to the tip of the reed. This will ensure the tones produced will have characteristic clarinet tone and proper intonation.
2. Air and Breathing
The clarinet is a wind instrument, so you need “wind” to play it! The first step is learning how to breathe correctly.
When someone says, “Take a deep breath,” the first thing we all do is try to expand our chests and hunch our shoulders way up.
This is backwards.
There is no lung tissue in the shoulders, so hunching them does nothing. Breathing in the chest tries to force the lungs to expand through the ribcage, which is ineffectual.
It’s far better to leave the shoulders down and to extend the diaphragm downward.
The lungs are attached to the diaphragm, so the downward expansion creates extra space in the lungs as they stretch. If the throat is relaxed and open, air pressure will do the breathing for you.
Once you breathe in deeply and form the embouchure around the mouthpiece, you can direct the air into the clarinet. You put the tip of your tongue against the tip of the reed, closing off the clarinet.
You then begin to blow the air against the closed tip. Blow the air by pushing the diaphragm upward.
Do not clench the chest or the throat to push the air. Doing so simply constricts the flow. When you’re ready to make the sound, you draw the tip of the tongue quickly away from the tip of the reed while thinking “DAH.” The tongue moves in the exact way it would if you said “DAH.”
With an open throat, lots of air speed from diaphragmatic pushing, and the right embouchure, you will produce an “open G” with no fingers place on any keys.
The rhythm of music is represented by music notation. Each note symbol has its own meaning. These symbols show the relationship between different notes. The duration of each note depends on the tempo and time signature. Tempo is how fast the music should be played. The time signature is like a key to a secret code.
The time signature consists of two numbers, one on top of the other. The bottom of the two numbers shows the type of note that counts for one beat. If, for example, it is a four, then the quarter note counts for one beat. Four quarters would equal a whole, just as in math, so you would count four beats per whole note. When making the first sounds, play the first note as a whole note.
To practice rhythm, it is a good idea to count beats and clap notes at the same time. For a whole note, you would clap once while counting to four. For half notes, each of which lasts half as long as a whole note, you would clap once per half note while counting to two for each half note.
When counting one note per clap, those would be quarter notes. Clapping two evenly spaced notes per counted beat would be eighth notes, and clapping four notes per counted beat would be 16th notes.
Combinations of all of these notes form the rhythm of the piece in question. When playing instead of counting and clapping, you separate notes from each other by a combination of striking the tongue against the reed and moving the fingers to cover holes and press keys, which creates different notes.
The practice of separating notes from each other is called articulation. The touching the tongue to the reed in different patterns is also called tonguing. Articulation consists of different patterns of tonguing.
For example, you can tongue every note. If you play successions of notes without moving the tongue at all, that’s called slurring. You can combine tonguing and slurring for “slur two, tongue two,” “slur three, tongue one,” or any other pattern of tonguing and slurring together.
Articulation can be ultra crisp and separate, and this method of articulation is called staccato. It can also be smooth and connected but not quite slurring. This method of articulation is called legato.
5. The Notes
In the same way as rhythmic symbols are a secret code, the notes are too. Each space or line represents a note of the scale. You have to learn the note names and then correlate them to the different finger positions that close and open holes or close and open keys in different patterns.
There are additional symbols that you must learn regarding the notes. Sharps, flats, double sharps, double flats, and various “note-bending” symbols that indicate smaller pitch changes are all part of the complex code that is music notation.
Intonation is playing in tune. Musical notes are formed when something vibrates against something else. In the case of the clarinet, the tip of the reed vibrates very quickly against the tip of the mouthpiece, and the vibrations cause the air inside the clarinet to vibrate too. These vibrations then travel from the clarinet through the air to the ears of the listener.
Each note vibrates at a certain number of cycles per second. Middle C’s vibrations number 512 per second. When the clarinet player plays the concert pitch of middle C, if the note is in tune, there will be no discrepancy.
Out-of-tune notes will vibrate either slightly slower or faster than 512 cycles per second. If the person plays together with another person who is playing the absolute correct pitch, then there will be beats of sound because the soundwaves won’t be in synch. Players must develop their “ear” so that they can hear the beats and then change their pitch to match the other people with whom they are playing.
Putting it All Together
The trick to successful playing is to be able to concentrate on all of these things at once. Practice one of them at a time to build mastery of each. Then, put them all together from forming the embouchure up until the most complicated rhythms and patterns of notes.
Of course, this is but a basic outline of the techniques of playing the clarinet. There are rhythmic concepts beyond 16th notes and concepts of interpretation to learn. The player’s “ear” must be developed. The clarinet also has the largest range of any woodwind instrument, which comprises nearly four octaves, and the player must eventually master every note over that massive range.
To learn most effectively, players should hire a private teacher who can guide them and offer constructive feedback to help with learning and mastery.
Other Clarinet Articles You’ll Enjoy:
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How to clean a clarinet
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How often should a clarinet be serviced?
Charles Dalmas is a professional Clarinetist with over 20 years of experience and holds a Master's degree in Music Performance and Music Education from Crane School of Music. He also has a Bachelor's of Science in Music from SUNY New Paltz. He is the Music Director of Sarnia Sea Cadets and also the former Principal Clarinetist in the International Symphony Orchestra.