Horn Hospital, L.L.C.


Playing Tips

Playing and Performance Tips for the Clarinetist

1) Embouchure
The most common problem I see is that the lower lip is rolled too far over the bottom teeth. The reed should rest on the pink part of the lower lip with just enough lip rolled over the teeth to make it comfortable. when I make this adjustment the sound becomes richer, more focused and intonation is improved.

The mouth should not be drawn back into a smile, but the lips, rather, surround the mouthpiece. Thus pressure comes from all sides instead of from the top and bottom only.

The top teeth should rest lightly on the top of the mouthpiece.

The upper lip should be rolled under against the upper teeth but drawn down to the top of the mouthpiece. The upper lip should not go under the upper teeth. The upper embouchure is important for control and further refinement of sound.

2) Sound
Sound in my mind is second only in importance to rhythm. Sound should be dark, rich, centered and full. Diaphragmatic support is essential. Start with demanding a good sound on scales, They should be done slowly and listened to carefully for sound and pitch. Mostly sound is taught by demonstration. I try to play duets with all my students. It is amazing to me that even a fourth grader can begin to grasp what a decent sound is after a couple of weeks.

3) Hand position
The thumbs have it! Incorrect thumb position throws off the whole hand. The left thumb should never be straight up and down, but at a 45 degree angle to the clarinet. The thumb rest should be between the nail and the knuckle of the right thumb. This may not be possible with beginners. Make sure that the left index finger rolls from first space F sharp to third space A. Hands should be relaxed and fingers curved. Knuckles should not be bent back. Fingertips should not point into the tone-holes, or be placed flat across them, but gently curved.

4) Technique
Good technique is essential. Many students try to play too fast too soon. I stress slowing a passage down and keeping it there until it is even and under control. This helps the muscle memory in the fingers, and also helps the ears to have a chance to hear. This helps with scales, too. Also, instead of correcting a wrong note by immediately playing the correct one, go back a few notes and then play beyond the mistake. That way the fingers will learn the correct pattern.

Some students want to play everything safely slow. I have to challenge them to play faster by example. Use of a metronome is a great way to even out technique. I recommend it for all students.

5) Ear Training
It is never too early to help students become aware of pitch. The altissimo register is often high on student model clarinets. Throat tones can be flat or sharp. If throat tones are flat because the barrel has been pulled out, push that in and pull out at the bell, If throat tones are sharp, keep the right hand down. A reed that is too soft may result in flat playing and high notes not speaking.

6) Sight Reading
Sight reading is important and must be practiced. I play duets with my students often, or have them read new material alone.

7) Rhythm
l teach rhythm with a combination of tapping the foot and counting the numbers for the notes. I have them count it for me, and I rarely play a rhythm for them. Rote teaching of rhythm does not work well.

8) Performance
To perform successfully, a clarinetist must be well prepared and comfortable with the music. Much of it is mental. A positive attitude can help. Go for it! Such mind sets as "I can do this." or "It isn't the end of the world if I miss one note." can help. Prepare thoroughly, put it in perspective, and talk to yourself (tell yourself how good you are). Keep the reed wet! That is why it is sometimes hard to play in church.

Linda Farrell
Copyright © 1998

The Basics of Saxophone

Regardless of the type of saxophone playing you want to do -- classical, jazz or rock 'n' roll -- the fundamentals of good tone and technique are the same.

Tone and Embouchure:
A good tone is established when there is a balance between the embouchure and air pressure. The steps for forming the saxophone embouchure are as follows: top teeth rest on the mouthpiece, approximately a half-inch from the tip. (If the vibrations are bothersome, place a mouthpiece patch on top of the mouthpiece.) The lower teeth are covered by the red portion only of the lower lip, in order to provide a cushion for the reed. The lower lip should meet the reed approximately where the reed first meets the facing of the mouthpiece. (Look at your mouthpiece from the side to find this point, which varies depending on your reed strength and mouthpiece combination.) The corners of the mouth are brought forward to create a rounded feeling. (Pronounce the syllable "Vu" to feel this.) While playing, the lower lip supports against the reed, while the bottom teeth are held slightly lower. The mouthpiece enters the mouth at a slight upward angle. If you are a woodwind doubler, be advised that the saxophone embouchure and air is different from that of the clarinet. Remember also, to adjust the neck-strap, bocal and mouthpiece accordingly, so that the instrument comes to you. For more detailed information, consult The Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal.

Air Pressure:
The smaller the saxophone, use higher air pressure (faster air) and less air volume. The larger the saxophone, use less air pressure (slower air) and a larger volume of air. The type of air used is one of the prime differences from clarinet playing. The saxophone uses warm air. To test if your embouchure firmness and air pressure are in balance, blow on your mouthpiece alone using a tuner or keyboard to check your pitch. The alto saxophone mouthpiece should blow at a concert "A" directly above the treble staff. Working to be consistent at this mouthpiece pitch will improve your overall intonation and tone quality. Also, it will contribute to your ability to listen and play in tune. I suggest taking the mouthpiece off several times in the course of a practice session and check the mouthpiece pitch. Also, hold the mouthpiece pitch out for as long as you can, maintaining a steady sound while keeping the dial on the tuner from moving. The mouthpiece pitches for the other saxophones are as follows:

  • soprano saxophone blows a concert "C" directly above the treble staff
  • tenor saxophone blows a concert "G" directly above the treble staff
  • baritone saxophone blows a concert "D" fourth line on the treble staff

Note: if you are playing with a "jazz sound" then your mouthpiece pitch should be at least a half step lower or maybe more, depending on your embouchure. However, the mouthpiece pitch should still be consistent.

Jazz Tone Concepts:
If you are playing on a jazz mouthpiece and are desiring a brighter, more cutting tone quality, there will be alterations to the basic embouchure. These might be more mouthpiece in the mouth or less lip covering the reed. The air pressure will more likely be less and the volume of air more. These changes will bring your pitch down, so you will push in the mouthpiece further on the bocal to compensate. While every player has their own sound, classical or concert saxophonists have a fairly standard concept of tone quality. Jazz and rock `n' roll saxophonists have a wider range of tone qualities that would be acceptable. Listening to players you admire, experimenting, recording yourself, and years of experience will lead you to establish your desired tone quality.


Technique or How to Practice:
Developing technique is really about how to correctly practice. Often musicians are very busy and have a limited time to practice each day. Making efficient use of the time and your energy is most important. However, there are no "shortcuts." Musical ability is developed to an artistic level only through many, many years of practice and hard work. Here are some pointers that may help you along the way.

  1. When approaching a new piece of music for the very first time, do your utmost to "program it into your brain" correctly. Having to unlearn mistakes is costly. Put yourself in the right frame of mind. Visually examine the music, noting key signature, time signature, accidentals, special fingerings, difficult rhythms, articulations, musical instructions as to form and dynamics, etc. If you are a less experienced player (and everyone is at some time!) break the learning process down: notes and rhythms first, articulations next, dynamics next, and so forth. It may be advisable to start with very small chunks of the music. Learning a musical work is much like building a house -- you first need a foundation, then you build upwards. Whatever your ability level, I advise that the first playing of a piece be at a slow tempo, with a steady beat.
  2. Don't practice too fast too soon! Learn the music first. You have truly learned the notes, etc. when you can play the entire piece at a slow tempo, with no mistakes and no disruptions in the beat. Since we're only human, this is harder than you realize and requires deep concentration -- a necessary part of musical performance. After the notes and rhythms are learned, you begin practicing to make music. Work with a metronome to become aware of tempos, and improve your speed. Strive for musical expression and dynamics. Whatever you play, make it musical!
  3. Have a balanced practice "diet." Practice regularly, make it a part of your routine.

Always include a warm-up period -- do long tones to improve tone quality, do breathing exercises if you're working on diaphragmatic breathing If you're advanced enough, work on vibrato apart from the music -- with a tuner, if possible.

Always include a tonguing exercise: this can be incorporated with your scales. The tongue is a muscle and must be exercised. Become friendly with your metronome and track your progress.

Regardless of what you play, work some music theory into your practice periods. If a piece is in a certain key, play the scales, arpeggios and thirds in that key. I suggest learning all the major scales and the chromatic scale extremely well. Be able to play them full range. Practice them in various rhythms, both tongued and slurred and with articulation patterns. Here's a good place to begin being creative if you're interested in improvisation or composition. Almost all other scales can be easily understood if you know the major keys well. Learn all three forms of the minor scales, and then the modes of the major scale. Saxophone players in particular should learn the two whole tone scales and the three diminished scales because they are in much of our 20th Century literature.

In your practice session, include a technical study and literature. Literature may include your band music, chamber music or solos. Keep track of the solos that you learn and have performed, especially if you're preparing for college.

After you have learned your music; get past the stopping and starting syndrome. Practice performing. Imagine that someone is listening. If you're preparing for an audition or a recital, it's likely that you may feel nervous. Stage fright can inhibit a performer's true abilities. The more experience you get performing in front of others, the easier this becomes. However, you can battle this by a simple meditative type exercise; Sit in a relaxing, quiet place. Imagine yourself at the performance; let yourself feel what it's like to be nervous (stomach butterflies, sweaty palms, cottonmouth, etc.) But also imagine yourself not being rattled. Imagine yourself not becoming unraveled by any errors. Imagine a positive performance experience. This technique is very effective because the subconscious brain does not know the difference between a true experience and a highly imagined one. For an excellent source book on how to practice see The Art of Musicianship by Philip Farkas.

Susan A. Loy
Copyright © 1998

Regarding Tuba Performance

Two musicians who have made quotations which are brief and yet speak volumes: Arnold Jacobs defines music as, "The Art of sound," and Julius Hemphill says, "An artist's first responsibility is to communicate with their own imagination."

Art is what happens when we communicate our imaginations with one another. Poets use words, sculptors use marble, dancers use the body, and musicians use sound. We must first have in our mind the sound we wish to make before we can share what is in our imagination.

To play the tuba requires having a great sound in your imagination, then learning to sing by using a free flowing wind vibrating our lips, instead of our vocal chords, thus resonating the big metal thing we call a tuba.

Tips for developing a big full sound, while being relaxed in the playing:

  • Inhalation - Always breath to fill up, as full as possible.
  • Exhalation - Relax to let the air flow out. No pushing, just light, full air.
  • Buzz familiar songs on the mouthpiece - Use the back of the hand to feel the cloud of air produced from full relaxed lungs.
  • Long tones - These are an opportunity to establish great big and relaxed breaths, as well as to listen to the sound for an open, singing, full quality.
  • Scales - Practice all majors, minors, whole tones, and diminished scales to a metronome. Slur first then tongue. Keep the breath of the slur moving even when articulating. Practicing with the metronome helps develop an accurate sense of time, which any tuba player worth his weight in any band must have.
  • Practice great music - When playing great music play your best. Make every effort to make it sound like the best in the world. Imagine what it would sound like if performed by one of the greatest musicians ever.

Another great quote by Arnold Jacobs is: "Get the horn in the head going before the horn in the hands."

The bass voice in any ensemble is capable of creating great motion, drive or swing, helping to anchor and move harmony, keep pulse, and create variety in color and shading just by changing the balance. The better we sound on the bottom in terms of resonance, rhythm, clarity, and buoyance the better the rest of the ensemble will sound.

Eric Henry -- Hot House®, Carlisle, PA
Copyright © 1/12/98

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