Monday, January 28, 2013

Clarinet Embouchure from a Bassoonist’s Perspective

I almost exclusively teach bassoon, but have taught the occasional clarinet lesson and woodwinds methods course. Many of my private double reed students over the years have, in fact, been primary clarinet students taking bassoon as a secondary instrument. It isn’t an unusual doubling. Many professionals double on bassoon and clarinet, or specialize in the auxiliary instruments from both the single and double reed families. Many bassoon students played clarinet before making the switch, and many of my bassoon students play clarinet during marching band season. Embouchure differs quite a bit between bassoon and clarinet; understanding and articulating these differences can shed light on issues that arise in embouchure formation of both of these instruments. Here, I am focusing on a basic understanding of clarinet embouchure and tongue position, with explanations of how it contrasts with related bassoon technique.

The orientation of the tongue within the mouth has a huge impact on tone, intonation and articulation.  While we can easily see the mouth and facial muscles of a clarinet student, it is not so easy to determine the placement of the tongue by the same person.  Even though the exterior embouchure may appear solid and consistent, the clarinetist may continue to encounter difficulties due to poor tongue position.

Double-lip is the embouchure of choice for a few clarinetists. While the exterior formation of this embouchure is more similar to approaches to the bassoon, I do not teach this clarinet embouchure and will not be addressing it here. Because there are historically two opposing types of single-lip clarinet embouchure, both requiring different tongue positions for optimal results, we must first establish what type of embouchure is the basis for the desired tongue position.  The “smiling embouchure” taught more frequently in the past requires a low tongue position to counteract the tight stretch of the lips.  This is not the recommended approach.  I advocate a rounded clarinet embouchure, which requires a high tongue position. 

To form the embouchure, think of the shape your mouth takes on when you slowly say the letter “Q”, this rounded approach to lip shape being the same for basic bassoon embouchure.  The lower lip should slightly cover the lower teeth.  Some red of the lower lip should continue to be visible for most players.  Chin muscles should point down and be flat.  Flaring the nostrils and visualizing the tip of the nose pointing up will help to maintain the flat chin and proper mouth shape.  The upper teeth rest on the mouthpiece approximately one quarter of an inch from the tip.  The upper lip should be flush against the upper teeth, to prevent air pockets from collecting, and should seal firmly on the mouthpiece, itself.   The clarinet should be held at approximately a forty-degree angle, with some upward pressure so that the weight of the clarinet does not rest on the lower half of the embouchure.

When aiming for a warm, round, characteristic tone quality on bassoon, the throat and oral cavity should be opened and expanded while playing in every range of the instrument. The tongue position is low, to the point of being forced down, thus expanding the size of the oral cavity to its maximum capacity. To find a good tongue position, draw out the word “hoe” in the lowest range of your vocal range. This consciously open position is counter to good embouchure position on clarinet.

When playing clarinet, the tongue must be in a high, relaxed position to create a well-focused air stream.  This, in turn, allows for a focused, resonant tone, even intonation and clean articulation.  To find a good tongue position, whisper the word “he”.  Note that the back and middle of the tongue are very close to the roof of the mouth.  Whisper “heeeeeeee…” again, holding out the “eeeee”.  Do this with fast air and notice that you can feel the pressure of the air on both the tongue and roof of the mouth.  Notice that the sides of the tongue are touching the molars of your top teeth.  Put your hand very close to your mouth, almost touching it, and do the exercise again.  You should be able to feel a focused air stream against your hand.  It should be exiting your mouth with the same angle at which the clarinet will be held.  Now repeat the exercise while bringing the embouchure into place (think of the letter “Q”).   In this position, you would speak the words “who” or “coo” if you used less focused air and allowed the vocal chords to sound.  However, with the more focused air you should be able to whistle with this tongue and mouth position.  Correct tongue position for clarinet is completely counter to good tongue position for bassoon. To play with a warm, round, in-tune bassoon tone, the tongue position is deliberately dropped and the oral cavity is as open and as expanded as is possible.  When students first switch back and forth between clarinet and bassoon they need to be reminded to be conscious of their tongue position for each respective instrument.

The clarinet tongue position should feel natural and relaxed.  The tongue is a very large muscle and when we articulate only the smallest percentage of the tip is actually moving.   The very tip of the tongue should not be “anchored” to the lower teeth, but free to move.  When the clarinet is placed in the mouth, the area of the reed just below the tip should make contact with the tongue just behind the tip (about 1/4 inch back form the tip of the muscle).  Touching the very tip of the reed with the very tip of the tongue is incorrect.  Both reed and tongue should contact just behind their tips. This contact point is universal for playing all reeded instruments. Do not tongue into the opening of any mouthpiece or reed, but always approach tonguing from the bottom. .  The tongue comes in contact with the bottom blade of the double or single reed behind the tip.

When playing, allow the tongue to remain in this high position and do not push the back of the tongue down in order to open the throat, as you do in certain other wind instruments such as the bassoon.  Dynamics, timbre and phrasing should be accomplished through changes in airspeed rather than tongue position.  Pitch and tone color will be more consistent throughout the registers and dynamics if this proper oral cavity is maintained.

If a student is playing with puffed cheeks, they are playing with a low tongue position, which is allowing air to be directed sideways rather than forward and strait into the bore of the instrument.  If articulation is brittle, the student may be placing the very tip of the tongue on the very tip of the reed, which then forces the tongue back in the mouth and creates tension.  Heavy attacks and slower tongue speed may evidence “anchor tonguing”.  If, when articulating, there is the presence of a thud accompanied by a slight hesitation, the student may be tonguing on the roof of the mouth rather than articulating on the reed.  This symptom of poor tongue placement is even more evident in the high register.  To maintain good tongue position, the student should think of the syllables “tee-tee-tee” or “thee-thee-thee” rather than “tah-tah-tah” or “du-du-du” as many method books recommend. The tip of the tongue acts similarly using all of these syllables, but there is a pronounced difference in the placement of the tongue in the back of the oral cavity between the correct and incorrect syllable models.

The concept of tongue position is sometimes difficult for students to grasp and maintain when they first become aware of it, but is an important component of the embouchure. Though tongue orientation made more difficult because we cannot see into our student’s mouths while they are playing, there are audible and physical cues to guide us.  Listen for these cues in your students’ playing that may indicate incorrect tongue placement.  Be sure that students understand what the inside of their mouth should feel like.   Correct embouchure and oral cavity should feel natural and serve allow the clarinetist the tone and flexibility they need to achieve their musical goals.  It is an issue worth re-examining with all of our clarinet students.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Emergency Coat Hanger Surgery

While my newer Fox Model II has plastic push rods, many older Fox bassoons have wooden ones. On two different occasions I've had a student, and later a colleague, a pinch, about to perform, but finding their instrument nonfunctional. In both cases it was a broken, wooden push rod. Needing something the right diameter, sturdy, and cuttable, we turned to a standard wire coat hanger in both instances.

The story, as chronicled by our symphony tubist:

"Just prior to the downbeat of this afternoon's concert by the Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, Sally's bassoon developed a problem. Elaine sort of diagnosed the issue and they tried to fiddle with it enough to free up the stuck push rod, but to no avail. Elaine and Sally had some basic tools in their cars, so exploratory surgery was performed by the Doctor upon the alter in the small chapel at Saint Andrew's Cathedral during intermission."

"It was determined that a push rod that travels through the body had been bent. It is made of plastic, so bending it back was not really an option. What to do, what to do...?"

"Elaine, Dave, Sally and I all discussed options and it was decided that a coat hanger could save the bassoon, this decision coming minutes from the beginning of the second half of our concert. Sally managed to locate a hanger, but it was not just some *random* coat hanger, but the personal properly of Starkey Morgan, Cellist Extrodinaire. So it was stolen and sacrificed to the cause. (Sorry, Starkey... ) (And yes, that IS a battered copy of Grout on the Holy Bassoon Alter. Eww, Grout! I hate that book... )"

"Elaine clipped the wire to the correct length and Dave filed the ends. Elaine installed the new push rod made from Starkey's erstwhile coat hanger. Sally tested it and IT WORKED PERFECTLY! HA!"

"I suggested that Sally put Starkey's now-ruined coat hanger back where she found it so we could see his reaction. Here he is, nonplussed, as he should be, since his coat hanger was stolen, mutilated, and now a working part in a bassoon key system. Thanks, Starkey! I'll buy you a brew to replace the hanger, man..."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Practice Guide: from Practicing for Peak Performance, by Debra Richtmeyer

A Practice Guide

(adapted from Practicing for Peak Performance, by Debra Richtmeyer)


Practicing is a matter of Quality, not Quantity.
Always practice with a purpose. Never just “play through” your music.
You can accomplish a lot in a short amount of focused, well-used time.



·  FIND THE OUTLINE OF THE PHRASE SHAPE. Play notes slowly and hold on every  eighth or downbeat in phrase until you can hear melodic/harmonic structure.  Play with and without filler notes.

·  PRACTICE SLOWLY IN SHORT SEGMENTS. Gradually increase tempo until you  have phrase or passage as close to tempo as possible in that session. Then  move  on to next phrase and repeat. Whatever you practice becomes habit – try  to incorporate all elements of music in every repetition.

·  VARY RHYTHMS IN DIFFICULT PASSAGES to improve evenness of technique.

·  USE A TUNER – practice frequently with tuner sounding key pitches  in phrases.

·  PRACTICE CRESCENDOS AND DECRESCENDOS WITH VIBRATO AT VARIOUS SPEEDS  AND DEPTHS – WITH  A TUNER. Sit on key notes in musical passages until you find the vibrato  speed and depth that give right character for that moment. Support with  a round embouchure.


·  USE A TAPE RECORDER. When you think you like how you played a phrase,  listen to it and keep playing and listening until you are happy with what  you hear  on tape. Be your own teacher as much as possible.

·  PRACTICE A VARIETY OF THINGS EVERY DAY – tone-building exercises,  scales, etudes and melodies. The more the variety, the more interest and  longer you will  want to practice. It will also keep you from focusing too long on a problem  that cannot be solved overnight.

2. STUDY THE SCORE: Do not underestimate how much time you need to spend  studying scores.

·  HEAR THE BIG PICTURE – from phrase to phrase and movement to movement.  What is the style, the pacing, and the emotional road map?

·  BE ABLE TO SING THE COMPOSITE RHYTHMS OF ALL PARTS. If you cannot, the  accompaniment will confuse you and you will not be able to play effectively  as a duo (or  ensemble).

·  WRITE IN CUES as much as possible before the first rehearsal. This will  save you much time and money.

·  LISTEN TO RECORDINGS of the music you are playing after you have practiced  it enough to form some of your own opinions. Practice making your own musical  decisions – don’t just copy other performances.


·  PRACTICE GOOD POSTURE AND STRETCH FREQUENTLY. Properly stretched muscles  will have more strength and endurance and will be less prone to injury.

·  TAKE BREAKS - every 30-50 minutes to increase endurance and avoid injury.  Muscles need periods of rest to regain strength. Insufficient rest periods  can result in decreased endurance and increased risk of injury.

·  DON’T ALLOW SMALL INJURIES TO BECOME BIG ONES. Use ice during the first  twenty-four hours whenever you experience lasting pain, and decrease or eliminate  technical practice until the problem is gone. Use arnica gel or sports crème  to speed up the healing process. See a qualified muscle therapist for problems  that last longer than a few days. The longer you ignore a problem, the  more difficult it will be to completely heal. You can always play long  tones,  vibrato and articulation  exercises, and study scores while recovering.

·  PRACTICE REGULARLY. It is much better to practice an hour every day  than four hours twice a week. It is also better to practice 2-3 times  per day  rather than  in one long session.

·  TAKE A DAY OFF WHEN NEEDED. You will come back stronger and fresher  for having had the rest.