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  • Writer's pictureWendy Higdon

Teaching Clarinet: Day Two

After spending the first lesson getting acquainted with our new instruments and learning a little about body awareness, it's time to delve a little more deeply into our interactions with our clarinets.

As we move forward with instruction, it is important to remember to review concepts and skills that were practiced in lesson one. On my list of items to review include:

1. Names of each part of the instrument

2. Reciting the musical alphabet forward and backward. Today we will add a twist! We won't always start on the same letter.

3. Posture and body position

If we have time, we will also learn our finger numbers at some point during the lesson when I feel the students need a break in the activity. I use 1-2-3 for the fingers of the left hand and 4-5-6 for the fingers of the right hand. Place this little exercise, as well as the review of concepts listed above, wherever they fit best for your students.

Let's Begin with a Little Instrument Prep:

As the students arrive for class, I ask them to find their instrument cases and bring them to their seats, leaving them unopened. Once everyone has done so, and we've taken care of attendance and hellos, I ask the students to sit on the floor with their cases in front of them. We quickly review how to determine which side of the case is "up," and I ask the students to open their cases.

After reviewing the parts of the instrument, I show students where to find the tenon corks on their instrument- there are four if we include the cork on the mouthpiece. I show a tube of cork grease, and ask them to find their own from the compartment in their case. I demonstrate how to twist the bottom of the tube and raise the cork grease. I show students how to push a sliver of the grease on the tenon cork and rub it in with their fingers. Now the students apply cork grease to each of the corks on their instrument while my helpers and I monitor. I let the students know that if they have new instruments or an instrument with new corks, they will need to repeat this process every day for a while.

Once this task is completed, I will take time to review posture and body position with the students, reinforcing the key ideas of "natural," "tension-free" and "sitting as you stand." While the students are occupied with the review, my helpers (and I) will assemble the upper and lower joints of each student's clarinet and place the two pieces carefully across the case.

Figuring Out Instrument to Body Balance

With students seated in correct body position and posture, I show students how to pick up the assembled pieces of their clarinet, keeping their hands away from the key mechanism. With the left hand holding on to the top of the upper joint and the right hand holding on the bottom of the lower joint, I have the students hold the clarinet in front of them, adjusting their bodies until they find a position that is balanced. We are not worried about hand position at this point, only in finding a balanced relationship between our bodies and our clarinet. After a moment, I will ask the students to rest the clarinet across their laps and then we will go right back to playing position. I repeat this process several times, making minor adjustments as we go and always insuring that the students are not creating tension in their bodies.

Mouthpiece and Barrel Assembly

After a few minutes working with the upper and lower sections of the clarinet, I ask the students to carefully place those parts across their case and my helpers and I disassemble them for the students. We are now ready to move to the mouthpiece and barrel.

I ask the students to pick up their mouthpiece and to slip off the mouthpiece cap and ligature and place those items carefully in their cases. With their other hand, I ask the students to pick up the barrel and examine it. There is a smaller end and a larger end. The mouthpiece will go into the smaller end of the barrel. I demonstrate the process of assembling these two pieces as I say, "turn and push, turn and push," so that the students understand the motion they will have to use.

I am fortunate to have a document camera in my classroom and have found this to be a great way to project a close-up image of the assembly process on the screen so that the students can see everything in detail.

I ask students to pick up their ligature and slide it over the top of the mouthpiece. Be prepared to spend some time on this step as there are a variety of ligatures that your students may have. On all ligatures, however, the screw(s) will point to the right as you look at the mouthpiece opening (window). Many of my students have a Rovner type ligature, and with these you have to be careful that the ligature has not been placed on the mouthpiece upside down, as it can be difficult to tell. Once the ligature is on the mouthpiece, we have a quick lesson on how to tighten and loosen the screw(s). Turning the screw toward you will loosen the ligature, and turning the screw away from you will tighten it. It is important to mention to students that they will generally only need to loosen or tighten the screw a few turns.

While I have students moisten their reeds for the first time, there are a couple of things I like to discuss. We talk about the funny taste of the reed because this will come as a surprise to many students. I also instruct students to moisten the reed without sucking on it since this will change the shape of the reed. While reeds are soaking, I will also demonstrate how to place the reed on the mouthpiece. I want the students to watch the entire process before attempting it on their own.

Some of the key ideas I stress include:

1. We always place the ligature on the mouthpiece first, then tilt or slide it up toward the top of the mouthpiece before sliding the reed underneath.

2. The flat side of the reed goes against the flat part of the mouthpiece. The reed does not go in the mouthpiece hole (window). The fat part of the reed goes down by the fat part of the mouthpiece.

3. Always handle the reed by the fat part, never the tip, and use the thumbs to adjust the reed on the mouthpiece.

4. A sliver of mouthpiece (about the width of a hair) should be visible above the reed.

5. Tighten the ligature only to the point where the reed will not wiggle around on the mouthpiece. Do not over-tighten.

6. It's important to make sure the reed is straight and the ligature is centered and sitting below the shaved part of the reed (vamp).

Once I have demonstrated the process, the students get their turn. Be prepared to provide lots of hands on assistance the first few times! It will take a while for the students to get the dexterity needed to put the reed on quickly and correctly. And do check each student's set-up every time for the first several days to make sure that they have the correct reed placement. Even the slightest misalignment of the reed will cause problems with sound production.

Disassembly of the Mouthpiece Set-up

No sooner than we get the mouthpiece set-up assembled, it is time to take it all apart again. We go in reverse order for disassembly.

1. Loosen the ligature screw(s) two or three turns.

2. Slide the ligature up and remove the reed from the top. Use the thumbs to push the reed up and off the mouthpiece.

3. Place the reed in a reed guard, never back in the plastic sleeves that come in the package.

4. Take off the ligature and set it aside.

5. Twist and pull the mouthpiece and barrel apart.

6. Place the barrel in the case.

7. Put the ligature and cap back on the mouthpiece and place it in the case.

As with Day One, I choose to keep the instruments at school after this lesson as well. But, I tell the students how proud I am of their patience and that tomorrow will be the day we take our clarinets home!

Final Thoughts Lesson Two is probably the most tedious day with the least amount of "reward." This process works for me because I see my students daily and I can build up the excitement and anticipation since I will see them again tomorrow. If you are in a situation where you see students only once or twice a week, you may want to modify the order of the steps and teach mouthpiece/ reed assembly and embouchure (to be discussed in my next post) on Day 2, saving the instrument to body balance until Day 3. Remember, this is only one process of teaching the introductory clarinet lessons. Make it your own so that it works for your students!

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