November 18, 2020

How to Keep My Clarinets from Playing Flat

 


It seems that every so often you come in contact with a student clarinetist that is flat and you don't know how to help them. How do you keep your clarinet players from playing flat, you ask. This is a question that should be answered sooner rather than later. That is if you want to avoid other major issues in the future. With the answers only minutes away from your reading eyes, it is beneficial to know that fixing this problem will also improve your clarinets overall sound.

Clarinet Set-Up

The assembled clarinet mouthpiece, ligature, reed, and barrel are called the set-up. We first need to establish that the embouchure and equipment are in proper working order. Students should hold the "set-up" at the same angle they would play the clarinet. When students play with the correct embouchure, a pitch of "F#" should be registered on the tuner. It is okay if the pitch is not exact. Often a sharp "F#" will sound, however, if the pitch is flat, then steps should be issued to resolve the issue.

If still flat, Review These Steps

Tongue Shape

The tongue greatly influences intonation on all brass and woodwind instruments. As you play the clarinet the tongue should be high and forward within the mouth. Students should think they are creating an "EEE" sound. Creating this "EEE" position may be easier done by playing a "siren" going from "OOO" to "AAH" to "EEE. Students should internalize how this feels and if possible look at their embouchure in a mirror. 

Anchor Mouthpiece

Clarinet students that play flat have a "spongy" embouchure. The embouchure is loose and not anchored. To anchor the embouchure have clarinetists put their top teeth firm on the top of the mouthpiece. Sometimes young clarinetists have trouble getting use to this sensation and are highly encouraged to get thick mouthpiece patches. These mouthpiece patches can dull the sense of vibration and can help improve their tone rather quickly.

How to Keep My Clarinets from Playing Flat

Once the mouthpiece patch is applied to the mouthpiece have the student firmly anchor the teeth.  You, as the teacher, should test this by wiggling the mouthpiece while students play. If the mouthpiece is secure then it will not wiggle.

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Corners of Mouth/ Flat Chin

There two specific areas to the facial, mouth region that need to be addressed if a clarinet is playing flat. First are the corners of the mouth. To complete the embouchure formation we need to make sure there is a solid seal to the lips. Start by putting the mouthpiece in the mouth. Now create a smile BUT now lower the corners of the lips. One analogy, taken from www.banddirectorstalksoup.com, refers to the shape of the mouth feeling like you are drinking through a large straw with a very thick milkshake in it. Imagine as you suck in through the straw. Freeze this muscular shape of your mouth.

Mouth is now in the shape needed and acts as a drawstring for our embouchure. This, combined with creating a flat chin, should provide the appropriate clarinet embouchure shape for the mouth.

Air Speed

Often young clarinetists do not use their air in a manner that keeps their pitch up. As a result, slow air can make students play flat. Have the student envision blowing with cold and fast air. Blow this air in front of them, with their hand at arm's length.  Does the air stream reach the hand? Is there any quantity of air being blown or is it unfocused? Now have the student blow the air as if it were a small, powerfully focused air stream with the intent to only touch the middle of their hand. Have the students envision playing across their reed and through their instrument. This should get the air-speed fast enough to raise the pitch.

Instrument Angle

When playing the clarinet the angle of the instrument can affect a student's intonation. Be sure that the students head is level and that the clarinet is between 25-45 degrees. Often young clarinetists will dip their head and skew the angle of how the air flows through the instrument. If needed help young clarinetists with this angle so that they will be able to achieve a free flowing sense of  sound production.

Amount of Mouthpiece

The amount of mouthpiece that a Bb Soprano Clarinet should use is approximately 1/4 inch. If a restrictive and weak sound is being produced try adding just add a little more mouthpiece into the mouth. Notably, if a clarinetist is transferring to a bass clarinet from a Bb Soprano Clarinet then more mouthpiece is required to be placed in the mouth.

Conclusion

Helping students overcome obstacles in their music education experiences is but a small aspect of our jobs as teachers. We are expected to be their mentors that guide them through performance problem-solving and like any real-world problems, sometimes we have to think outside the box. Take a moment and see if these steps work for you and can be added to your "teaching toolbox.".

References

Pimentel, B. (2014, January 17). Playing flat on the clarinet [Web log post]. Retrieved October 28, 2018, from https://bretpimentel.com/playing-flat-on-the-clarinet/

WHY ARE MY CLARINETS PLAYING FLAT? [Web log post]. (2016, April 29). Retrieved October 27, 2018, from http://banddirectorstalkshop.com/2016/04/29/clarinets-playing-flat/



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