Playing Technique

In the music school class, even children who put a clarinet in their mouth for the first time, and after a few hours they might be able to play a scale and a simple song. But it's still a long way from there until you can do it that well, that strangers will voluntarily listen. You might manage that in two years with a lot of practice, but that would be pretty quick! And even after many years you are still learning - there are whole books on playing technique (still a good personal teacher beats any book or learning video so far).

Correct Embouchure

Embouchure (from French bouche meaning "mouth" - so: holding in the mouth) is how you hold the clarinet in your mouth between your lips and how you blow into the instrument. The embouchure is the single most important technique you have to master in the beginning in order to develop your sound and to play as effortlessly as possible. I will discuss the embouchure as precise as possible here since it is very important, but it is difficult to describe in text, because many parts in your inner mouth - mostly muscles - and for many of the movements, there may be correct medical terms but no precise commonly used words. The best - and fastest - way to learn it is to find a good teacher.

So this is how you do it:

  1. Stand easy and upright. If you can't, you can of course sit, but in the beginning correct breathing and holding the clarinet is much easier when standing. If you sit, for the start you should sit on the edge of the chair which must not be too low; the thighs should go a little downwards towards the knees, because otherwise your belly will be bent inside (your diaphragm can't move easily) and free breathing becomes more difficult.
  2. You hold the clarinet in an angle of about 45 degrees to the body.
  3. You pull the lower lip over the teeth of the lower jaw, if one bites now, the lower lip lies between the teeth of your upper and lower jaw) and you pull the lower lip tightly (similar as when you smile) while your upper lip remains relaxed. To see whether you do it correctly lay thumb and forefinger on the lower lip outside about there where your canine teeth are and push a little towards the corner of your mouth. Then let your fingers go and try to keep the lips stretched like that. You should try to keep the lower lip tight like this while playing. Don't overdo this in the beginning because it will cause sour muscles in your cheeks - like any sort or overstressing of other muscles would.
  4. You take the clarinet into your mouth with the reed on lower lips, the mouthpiece touching the upper teeth. Few clarinettists will bend their upper lip over the teeth as well - this will not change much for the listener's, only for the player's subjective sound impression (the sound waves don't get into the inner ear so directly via the scull as without). How far you put the instrument into your mouth depends on the size of your mouth and the position of your teeth. If you hold it too deep into your mouth, you can not fully close your lips around to stop air breaking out at the mouth corners. But you should hold it at least that far in that you can touch the reed with your tongue for staccato tones - like "ta ta ta" without touching the very tip of the reed - you touch it further down (otherwise it will quickly wear down). The less you hold the instrument in your mouth, the easier it seems to control hard reeds (this is of course due to the long lever you have) - but the deeper you hold it in the more of the reed will swing and in general that will give a fuller sound. With some experience you will find a good compromise - but then again discuss your sound as often as possible with people who have a similar taste.
  5. When playing you should not press the instrument onto your lower lips and teeth, just hold it that tight that air can not break out. The reed must be able to swing as freely as possible. If you find pressing the reed on your lower lips makes the sound better, you should experiment with different reeds (softer ones) and other mouthpiece lays. You will probably find the right pressure by pressing the mouthpiece firmly against the upper teeth (later your lip and cheek muscles will be trained enough to pull the lower lip tight and close the upper around the mouthpiece easily).
  6. There is a lot to think about, especially for the beginner, but it helps a lot to imagine the tone that you will play. Training that will help you start a tone in ppp (pianississimo - very nearly inaudible).
  7. Then you blow (you find some details on how to blow below).

Breathing and blowing properly

First it must be said that the breathing/blowing that you need for wind instruments is quite unnatural. Naturally breathing means breathing through the nose, which humidifies and warms the air and filters all kind of dust, so it protects your lungs. Playing the clarinet you will breath through your mouth. Natural breathing means slowly filling the lungs - but not absolutely full, rather a third or so - and then slowly releasing. When playing a wind instrument like a clarinet - and much more a bass clarinet - you will often have no time for breathing in - but still must fill your lungs to the extreme. Then you have to blow - not just let go, but blow in certain strengths, controlled, under pressure, for a looooong time. If this doesn't seem healthy - well, it's because it isn't. Fortunately clarinettists don't turn crazy over time due to the overpressure in their heads (like oboists do ... ;-) [sorry, you oboists, I know, the joke is neither new nor funny...]

You will be training that kind of breathing, and after some time you can do things that would make untrained people faint and kids on birthday parties stare full of awe - like filling air balloons with just two or three blows (and it will surprise your doctor next time you have to blow into his lung tester :-)

Besides the correct embouchure, proper breathing is crucial. There are different basic techniques to breath for humans: Diaphragm-breathing (stomach breathing) and shoulder- or breast-breathing. Your natural breathing is a combination of both. It is all about widening the chest. The lungs sit or rather hang in the chest like two balloons. There is a vacuum in the chest, so the lungs try to fill the existing room. When you widen that room air flows in (it feels like you suck it in but actually you don't, nevertheless the effect is the same). Widening the chest can be done by lifting the shoulders, by pressing the chest muscles outwards - and/or by pulling the diaphragm downwards. Since the muscles that pull the diaphragm down are attached down in the pelvis, saying "you must breathe very deep down" is somewhat correct. Diaphragm breathing is usually less developed with most urban lifestyle persons because we sit too much. Diaphragm breathing has some advantages over shoulder breathing in that it does not affect your arms and shoulders with which you hold the instrument. With diaphragm breathing you can produce and hold a very strong air pressure, good for fff. Anyway a combination of the breathing techniques seems to be the best compromise for most players.

Breathing properly is the easiest when standing, because your muscles are relaxed and your stomach is free. When sitting you must make sure the thighs don't go upwards, rather downwards (the steeper, the better), so the stomach isn't bent in and the diaphragm can be moved down easily. This means you should sit on the edge of the chair, no leaning back, and the chair must not be too low. Some professionals bring their own chair. But that is true for all wind instruments. Better concert halls usually offer you chairs of different heights. I have bought myself an orthopaedic foam support that you can place on your chair which makes sitting more relaxed. If you do, too, then make sure it is of a dark color so it does not look irritating to audiences.


Fingering is mostly identical for both, the chalumeau- and the clarinet-register, and almost identical, too, for all different sizes of clarinets, from the smallest Eb to the contra bass clarinet. The fingering tables are usually applicable for all sizes. That means that you can in principle play on every clarinet you like (that is if you stay with your system - there are differences between Boehm and German Oehler, off course).

Some instruments have got special trill-keys, bass and alto clarinets have got special low keys (under the E) that do not exist for normal soprano clarinets. These keys are different from one clarinet maker to another. There is, however, some individual fingering in the "third register" up very high, when you overblow twice - but this is individual to instruments and sometimes even to players. Especially when you find certain fingering difficult you should consult a fingering table like this one - or discuss the subject with other clarinettists. You will often find unexpected, but satisfying solutions.

By the way - fingering is something that is hard to change. Even if some clearly superior systems evolve the players were trained to overcome the problems with the existing system, and the will not just by a new instrument. Therefore the fingering is still very similar to that of a recorder with its "forks" - as the chalumeau looked very much like a recorder.

Over time you will develop for your clarinet(s) a personal fingering, sometimes covering (or half covering) lower tone holes, when the tone must be clear and will sound long. This can be omitted in extremely fast runs, off course, but it becomes important the moment you have to start a tone in ppp or have to play it solo.

Attack or articulation

Articulation or attack is what clarinettists do when they make the reed swing. The word is misleading: Actually it is more a release than an attack. The tongue, which hinders the reed from swinging freely, is pulled away from the reed and air is blown through the mouthpiece. The tip of the reed starts to swing and produce a tone. These combined movements are happening quite fast, much faster than you could think about it.

Instead of trying to pull back your tongue it is much easier to say - or better, sing - "TAAA" or "DAAA". This appears quite natural and you have done it a million times. The movement of the tongue and the flow of air will be just right then.

  1. Hard attack, soft attack and legato

    Quite different from what you can do with a piano - where you have only one dimension in creating a tone, and that is the speed with which you press down the key, which translates directly into volume (despite what your piano teacher might have told you) the clarinettist has far more options to create a tone. One very important is the the attack. We have already heard of it in the paragraph above: "TAAA", "DAAA" and, off course, "HAAA". The latter would be a tone without real attack. And then there is legato, which means there is no break in between two tones at all, that is, the vibrating air column continues to vibrate while changing the frequency.

  2. Staccato - with sound and without (secco = dry) - what is this?

    The type of attack (hard, soft or legato = italian for bound) hasn't got anything to do with the length of the tone - there can be both hard (staccato = italian for chopped) and soft tones, they can be either long or short: "TAAA TAAA TATATATATA" or "DAAA DAAA DADADADADA" or "HAAA HAAA HAHAHAHAHA" - all three phrases could have the exact same length (at least noted, in fact the last "HA" is longer than the , since the "HA" will still be swinging in the air while the "TAT" will not. But these differences are marginal and not heard consciously).

    Where the composer requires a sounding staccato, the clarinettist plays "TA TA TA". Where the music requires secco (Italian for dry) the player plays "TAT TAT TAT". With the first the reed and the air column reed have a chance to swing on a little, with the latter the tone is muted instantly. If you are quick with your tongue, this may not sound pretty (and that may be what the composer has intended when asking for "secco". It is important to understand that most other instruments can not produce such a short and sharp staccato, so when playing together with eg. strings, you must adapt to what they do play. Maybe you don't take too literally what the notes say.

  3. Double-tongue - what is it and how do you do it on the clarinet?

    Often the musician must play a fast staccato, which can be very tiring. Brass players and double reed players then apply a technique they call double-tonguing. The term is somewhat misleading, in fact one should better call it half-tonguing: What you do is that you to not play "TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT" but rather "TAKATAKATAKATAKA". This means instead of hitting the reed with your tongue for every staccato tone, in order to interrupt the air swinging, you do it with the back of your tongue against your palate, killing the air flow, too. Playing brass instruments hardly anybody could tell the difference, with wood wind instruments you are safe to use this at high speed staccato (which usually doesn't sound to good anyway - but is a good way to brake speed records playing Julius Fucik's Florence March). It depends on the type of music you play - in classical music, if you can manage traditional staccato, most professionals will avoid the double tongue.

  4. Accents (>) - are they just louder?

    Playing the piano (see above) the answer would be: yes! Since the pianist can't do much about changing the tone once he has played it (that is: pressed down the key); he only can stop it. The tone will become quieter and quieter in the very same speed all the time. That is not true for a clarinet: You can play an accent the way it is meant: At first you will give some (or significantly) more air pressure, but then sharply reduce it, reaching again the dynamic that the composer has noted. And again you should consider whom or what you play together with: If you play with strings, this effect should be less than what you can do playing in a wind band. The opposite action is needed with this sign: < After playing in normal volume you do a short and sharp crescendo and quickly go back.

Tuning - adjusting the pitch

As soon as several instruments play together, you have to agree on a common pitch - otherwise it sounds horrible. Especially small differences in tuning are considered rough, scratchy or even slanted, sometimes even painful. Standardised is actually a "concert pitch" A with 440 hertz. This applies to all instruments in our cultural sphere, i.e. everything found in the orchestra, with the exception of certain percussion instruments. This could already have solved most the problems, if everybody complied with it.

Unfortunately, however, today one does not usually tune at 440, but rather at 442 hertz to 444 hertz - and there is a trend towards even higher tuning. For the clarinet, a Bb instrument that transposes, our fingered B should sound as an A at 440 hertz, or 442 or 444 hertz, depending on the orchestra's tuning or pitch.

So in practice, you almost always have to adjust our instrument to a slightly higher or lower tuning of the ensemble. Basically, this is easy at first: To get the instrument lower, you must get the swinging air column longer, that is you pull the barrel out a little from the upper body part. There are no tone holes above. You take the barrel, not the mouth piece, because the barrel sits tighter even when pulled out, while pulling out the mouthpiece it will not sit snugly in the barrel and what you pulled out might be pushed back while playing. If the bore gets longer, the vibration wave gets longer, the tone gets lower. To get the instrument higher, we push the bulb back in a little. If you need to tune a clarinet higher you take a shorter barrel. Often instruments - especially the better ones - have a second, shorter barrel for this purpose. Because clarinets are largely standardised, shorter barrels usually fit without much work by the instrument maker, so it doesn't necessarily have to be one from the same manufacturer or a custom-made one.

Now you have "tuned" your instrument by aligning it with the one reference tone, using an electronic tuner, or having heard to the Oboe. Then you check all the other notes. The electronic instrument could indicate for each note whether you are too high or too low. In the orchestra, a reference instrument sets a tone, usually the oboe. The tone is usually the a (at about 443 Hz), in wind orchestras sometimes also a B flat. All the other instruments take up this tone briefly, one after the other, hear if and how they differ and then lengthen or shorten their strings, tuning slides, barrels or the S-bow (in the case of lower clarinets) until their pitch corresponds to that of the oboe. This rarely takes more than a minute for professionals on stage for more than 100 musicians. Of course, they know the pitch and have already tuned their instruments precisely beforehand. For amateurs, hearing the exact differences in tone is one of the challenges. As with everything else, there are people who can do it better and others who find it more difficult. Surprisingly, however, there are only very few (less than 2 in a hundred) who cannot do it at all.

Now, if the A or B flat is the same for everyone, this tone is right. Then the instrument should be tuned right, the orchestra is right and everything is fine. Or isn't it?

Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple, especially not for clarinet players.

The key issue is this: While you have made the upper part of the instrument let's say 2.5 mm longer (roughly 1/10 inch), this is a significant change for the high A, the "shortest" of all notes, with a swinging air column of a little less than 10cm. It will go up something like 2%. The same is not true for the "longest" note on your clarinet, the low E: there the change is less than 0.5%.

So while you have corrected the pitch of the high A, you have also moved the low E into the right direction, but much less - depending mainly on the distance between the mouthpiece's tip and the position of the tone hole. The overall pitch / tuning of the instrument is now no longer perfect.

Generally speaking, every clarinet (and every wood wind instrument) is built and tuned for one certain pitch, and it can't really be tuned to another, at least not well and only for slight adjustments. Because orchestras today tune higher than 440 Hz, usually around 443 Hz, manufacturers build their instruments accordingly, and they say that in the details of the instrument. This means that the instrument should be completely in tune at exactly this pitch: All notes should be exactly the right distance apart in frequency, and every tone hole is in the right place. This works rather well for flutes and oboes, and for them pulling out a bit doesn't have such a negative effect as for the clarinet. But as clarinet players we have a challenge here. All you can do is go for a compromise, find out how far you pull out your barrel and then adjust the differences to perfect pitch of each tone with your embouchure. How is this done?

The player's mouth hole and form act as a piece of the vibrating air column. The length of the mouth hole changes - by forming these vowels (you can hear that going deeper clearly, even when singing): EEE AAA OOO UUU. Depending on the distance between mouthpiece tip and tone hole the mouth's influence is stronger or lesser.

You don't have to do much while playing with other clarinets in a tutti part or in fast scales, where nobody will notice anyway, except if you are completely out of tune. But when you play rather alone in a solo part together with something like a flute, you will have to make sure for longer notes that you really know whether they should be lower or higher. Pros write that into their note sheets.

To make sure you know about the tuning issues of your clarinet, do the following:

  1. Normally the instrument should be alright with the barrel fully pushed in and when having been played for about a quarter of an hour, so it is warm.
  2. .
  3. Now you can play a chromatic scale with a good electronic chromatic tuner on, and you note down the deviations for each note
  4. .
  5. We repeat this a few days later and a few times in total. There should be a definite pattern of deviations.
  6. Then we determine the standard tuning of our ensemble(s), and do the measurement again as described above, but now with an instrument tuned to A (or B) in the fundamental tuning of the ensemble. If the basic tuning of the ensemble differs considerably from the standard tuning of our instrument, completely different patterns may emerge.
  7. Repeat until the pattern is stable in each case.

Now we know the "quirks" of our instrument at different basic tunings. And we should know in which ensemble we have to compensate for the faults of our instrument and how to do it. We now need to practise this; see below for how to do it.

In addition, we should know about two more challenges:

  1. The clarinet has the disadvantage that, when it is "blown over" to the higher register, the notes do not go up an octave, but an octave and a half. The tone hole that creates a C in the lower register creates a G in the upper one. You know this and every beginner has to learn it, for us it is only not very practical. But this fact makes corrections for instrument builders extremely difficult, which means that even with the best clarinets, the pitch is always a compromise.
  2. In addition (and this now applies to all woodwind instruments) there is the effect of the acoustic resistance of the open tone holes: the pressure wave emerges from the highest open tone hole, as if the instrument had been sawn off here - no matter what is underneath. At higher frequencies, the resistance of the tone holes becomes greater and the waves no longer emerge completely here, but continue partially through the hole. The smaller the tone holes, the greater the effect. This means on the one hand that the covering of deeper tone holes has a stronger effect. On the other hand, this - albeit small - extension of the vibrating air column means that the tones become lower. But you cannot simply move the tone holes because they are correct for the low register. We simply have to counteract the effect with embouchure.

To change the pitch of a single note by "embouchure" (changing the tuning "in itself".

What does one need to do to change a tone by "embouchure" and masking techniques?

For one thing, we can cover the tone hole that is actually responsible for the pitch a little, by placing the finger close to it or half covering it. This only works in the middle clarinet register and not in the low chalumeau register. The result is usually not perfect in sound either, and above all, it can't be done quickly and precisely at the same time, but if the direction is right, it's often better than nothing. In fast runs, most people don't hear small deviations very clearly - unlike in a long sustained tone, and then we have time to correct it.

How to play a glissando

Glissando (Italian for "glide") means gliding pitch change - that is: no steps. It is simple for string instruments and trombones. Because the effect is spectacular, but on the clarinet it only works on high notes, or, more precise, on "short" notes, that is: the clarinets body part to create the resonance must be short. If you cover half of the tone holes of the clarinet in the upper half of the clarinet register, the acoustic resistance of the tone holes becomes stronger, so that the vibrating column of air does not fully leave the instrument through the first open tone hole, but also partly rund down further through the bore. That allows different pitches to resonate stably, depending on what the player is doing with his lips: he can now damp the reed accordingly, which suddenly has a considerable influence on the tone. With a little practice, you can even make the tone column not to end at the tip of the mouthpiece, but in the mouth itself. Then you can modify the form of your mouth hole by voicing AAA-EEE-III-OOO-UUU - each time making it a bit longer. If the mouth hole plays a prominent part in the vibrating air column, the frequency becomes dependent not only on the instrument's body but the combination of bore and mouth, wich you can modify at will. It sounds more complicated than it is; try the vowel shaping as described above!

Further down the scale, however, this is not possible, certainly not in the chalumeau register, because at lower frequencies, the acoustic resistance is less effective.

A detailed explanation of this can be found in the (English-language) document how to play the first bar of Rhapsody in Blue".

That is why the first part of the first bar of "Rhapsody in Blue" is also played more or less clean using keys, and then more and more smeared. At the same time you half-cover the tone holes to prevent a clear change in the frequency of the oscillation from one note from one tone to the next, so that the transition is as smooth as possible. However, this only works perfectly in the upper half of the clarinet's body.

How to play vibrato

There are several ways to vibrato on a woodwind instrument such as the clarinet:

You can find easy-to-understand video instructions on this on YouTube.