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  • Writer's pictureWendy Higdon

Teaching Clarinet: The Fourth Lesson

It's Day Four of Beginning Clarinet Class! Today, the students will be doing lots of review and continued development of skills learned in the previous three days as well as adding in a few new things.

The students took their instruments home for the first time yesterday, so I am anxious to hear how things went. I always start this particular lesson by asking a few questions.

1. How many of you played your clarinet at home yesterday?

2. How many of you got better?

3. Did anybody have anything happen in their practice time that they want to discuss?

This last question is the most important of the three. I want my students to know that it is always OK to talk about their successes and their challenges. There will be students who will tell the class something cool about their practice session, but it won't take long before someone will bring up a challenge or problem they encountered. This is a great opportunity to show students that band class is a safe place, that there are always solutions to problems and we are there to help one another. I always tell students who volunteer to discuss problems that "I am so glad you asked about that!" And then I will either supply some solutions or, once the kids have a little more knowledge, I will ask them to help brainstorm ideas.

Major Items I want to review today include:

1. Natural, balanced body position (both standing and seated).

2. Breathing in and out without tension while making sure that the air we exhale has focus and direction.

3. Assembly of the mouthpiece and barrel set-up.

4. Embouchure and creating sounds on the mouthpiece and barrel (play for four beats, rest for four beats).

5. The musical staff and the names of the lines and spaces.

6. Finger numbers (and practice wiggling each finger as the number is called).

I will probably intersperse some new material with the review, just to keep kids more actively engaged and interested. It's about knowing your kids and reading their body language so that instruction is tailored to best address their needs. The review today will include lots of opportunities for the students to talk, explain, demonstrate and answer questions, again to increase engagement and so that I can monitor their understanding. I will also individually check each student's mouthpiece set-up and reed placement, as well as having them play tones on the mouthpiece and barrel (their "mini clarinet") by themselves.

One big new idea today is the assembly of the entire clarinet, starting with the bell and working our way up. As with the previous lessons, be very procedural when teaching this process for the first time, making sure you explain each step, including where students should place their hands during assembly to reduce the possibility of bent keys.

Barrel-Bell Exercise

Once we have the entire instrument assembled, I ask students to take their left hand and firmly, but without tension, hold on to the barrel. The right hand will hold on to the bell. We will then bring the mouthpiece to our mouth. Make sure you watch this process carefully. Some students will lean forward or drop their head to reach the mouthpiece. I tell the students, "The clarinet always comes to you. Not the other way around." Above, you can see a picture of the barrel-bell exercise. This is a great way to introduce playing on the entire instrument without having to worry about hand position or fingerings. Just as with the mini clarinet, practice playing long tones of four beats, followed by four beats of rest. Don't forget to check each student individually on this step. You will have students who get a lot of squeaks at this point, and it can be frustrating. So we want to eliminate the cause.

I tell my students that squeaks are your clarinet's way of screaming at you to let you know that something isn't quite right. Squeaks are generally caused by:

1. Too much mouthpiece in the mouth

2. Incorrect position of the embouchure (usually lower lip is too loose)

3. Puffed cheeks

4. Teeth touching the reed. (This is a very different sound than squeaks caused by other factors.)

Squeaks can also be caused by incorrect reed placement.

Hand Position on the Instrument

As you begin to teach hand placement, keep in mind that correct position of the thumbs is the key! Here are the steps I go through with my students:

1. Holding on to the clarinet with your left hand, drop your right hand down to your side and gently shake it out. Bring your hand up and notice that in its natural, relaxed position it looks like a flat C. This is the shape of your hand when you play clarinet.

2. Bring your right hand up to the clarinet and place your right thumb underneath the thumb rest on the back of the lower joint. The thumb rest should be right at the base of your nail and it should be almost like you are pressing a thumbprint into the clarinet. (see photo)

3. Place fingers 4, 5 and 6 on each of the three "doughnut keys" (rings) on the front of the clarinet. With the correct thumb placement, these three fingers will go straight across the clarinet. The pinky should float above the four keys at the bottom in its most comfortable location. Make sure not to tuck the pinky under the clarinet.

4. Then, holding on to the clarinet with your right hand in place, drop your left hand down to your side and gently shake it out. Notice the flat C shape.

5. Now, give me a thumbs up. Give me a thumbs to the side. Now, give me halfway in between. This is the position of your left thumb.

6. Place the left thumb on the doughnut key on the back of the upper joint. Notice that it should be in that "halfway in between" position. (see photo)

7. Finger 1 goes on a doughnut key. Skip the pancake key. Finger 2 goes on a doughnut key. Finger 3 goes on the hole. With the thumb in the correct position, the fingers of the left hand will point slightly downward. The pinky should just float above the keys at the bottom in its most comfortable location. Make sure not to tuck the pinky under the clarinet.

8. The fingerprint part of your fingers (pads) should fill up the holes in the keys completely. We wil check this by having the students squeeze their fingers and then look at them. If they cannot see complete circles on the padds of their fingers, then they have not covered the entire key.

Make sure that you visually check hand position for all your students at this time. You will also want to have them relax several times and then see if they can get fingers back into place correctly on their own.

At this point, we are ready to play some notes! I will teach students the fingering for the first note in our method book and we will practice it several times together utilizing the whole note, whole rest pattern that we established earlier. Depending on their progress, we might learn one, two or three notes in this manner today. My preference for the first three notes are first line E, first space F and open G.

Cleaning Out the Instrument

Today is a good day to introduce the clarinet swab and begin establishing the habit of swabbing out the clarinet at the end of each playing session. I prefer the handkerchief swabs for beginners. If the swab is long enough, the students can turn the clarinet upside-down, drop the weight in the bell and pull the swab all the way through the entire instrument. (Take the reed and ligature off first, of course!)

Caution your students to make sure that the swab is complely unfolded before pulling it through the instrument, otherwise it could get stuck.

After swabbing, I will go through disassembly of the instrument, starting with the mouthpiece and working our way down.


Before leaving class, I give the students their assignment for the evening. I recommend only about 10 minutes of practice time at this stage.

*Practice putting your instrument together

*Play on your mini clarinet for 5 minutes- in front of the mirror

*Practice barrel/bell and the note(s) we learned in front of a mirror

*Show off what you have learned for someone in your family.

In the final post of the series, I will discuss the introduction of tonguing! See you soon!

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