Clarinet/Clarinet Basics/Tone/Airflow

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Basics to Airflow[edit]

A good airflow through the clarinet is the most important thing that a clarinetist can do to achieve a good tone. The airflow, or airstream, is the most important aspect of playing a clarinet. If you think it is the embouchure, think again. The embouchure can't be the most important thing because no matter how good of an embouchure you have, if there isn't an airstream then there won't be any sound. The articulations that you use can't be the most important thing either, because again, there would be no sound or at least not a very good one. It doesn't matter how many rhythms you can count or how fast you can play, for if there isn't a good solid airstream going through the clarinet, then all of it is all for naught because it won't sound good.

To back up the methods that were just introduced in the last paragraph, David Pino writes in his book The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing, "Some players make the mistake of thinking that the embouchure is even more important than what the air is doing; this is a mistake because no embouchure, no matter how good it is, will have any effect if an unimpeded airflow is not traveling through it... all other aspects of playing should be considered less important than airflow because they actually "depend upon" it... some players may think that technique, for example, is just as important or even more important than airflow. To them I point out that technique is just reduced to much finger-wiggling, unless airflow has been established first... What are clarinetists going to articulate if they do not have a good airflow?" Pino clearly shows that all other aspects to clarinet are secondary to the importance of airflow.

Leon Russianoff writes in his book Clarinet Method that the clarinetist must create an art to handle and improve every aspect of performance, which includes the ability to:

  • take in sufficient air at the right moment to sustain long passages
  • use air to play easily at any volume, and to increase or decrease that volume at will
  • intensify sound
  • produce a vast rage of tone colors

To maintain a good airflow through the clarinet, the clarinetist must fill up the lungs with air by filling the bottom of the lungs first. Fill up with air from bottom to top, the shoulders should, for the most part, remain stationary; do not arch back as you breathe in or crouch over, or slouch for that matter.

"The airflow or the player's use of air generally, can be thought of as having two qualities: (1) pressure, which is a 'constant' and (2) speed, which is a 'variable'," writes Pino. The pressurized aspect of the airflow, that is caused by muscular action of the player in the area of his or her waistline is constant, and should remain the same throughout the entire practice time. This pressure aspect of the airstream is what many people call breath support. The speed of the airstream should change variably, depending on the music, whether the dynamic is forte or piano. In both of these cases it's not so much as to what the muscles of the stomach or diaphragm are doing, but it's more of what it "feels" like. David Pino continues to write "There are always some exceptions clouding the issue, of course," by this he means that there are certain instances that when played on the clarinet go against that general rule. For example, if the player wishes to go down through the "register break" the player may be required to push more air.

As with all wind instruments, you are never really blowing or forcing the air down the shaft, but rather "letting go." As a final note to airflow and some what of a "summary," the airflow should be consistent all the time. Once the clarinetist has discovered how to maintain a good airstream what he or she might have thought at first were finger and technical issues will disappear because the only thing that needed help was not the fingers, but a good strong tone and airstream to flow through the clarinet.

Breathing exercises[edit]

There are many different breathing exercises to help teach good constant air flow, and here are just a few examples:

1) Lie on the floor and just take in deep breaths, as deep as you can make them, then make your mouth into the clarinet embouchure and breath out slowly until all of the air is gone. Now take a few seconds and breath normally, and then do it again, each time you do it try to take in a little bit more air, expand your lungs, and your rib cage.

2) Set a metronome to 80 beats/min, and fill up as much air as you can in one count, hold for two counts, then take two quick breaths (one on each beat), and exhale for a designated amount of time (i.e. four beats, six beats, eight beats, eleven beats, etc... it doesn't matter). You can do this exercise laying down, sitting up, or standing.

3) Set a metronome to 80 beats/min, and fill up as much as you can in four counts, then hold for two counts, then take two quick breaths on the next two beats (one on each beat), and exhale for a designated amount of time (i.e. four beats, six beats, eight beats, eleven beats, etc... it doesn't matter). You can do this exercise laying down, sitting up, or standing.

4) Do exercise 1), 2), or 3) but in a chair, and exhale through your clarinet.

Circular Breathing[edit]

Circular breathing, if done properly, enables a good constant airflow to be maintained for any desired period of time. Here is how:

  1. Learn to hold air in your cheeks while breathing in through your nose.
  1. Close your mouth and puff your cheeks out.
  2. Attempt to breathe in through your nose while holding the air in your cheeks.
i) If you suck the air in your cheeks back into your lungs when you try to breathe in through your nose, you need to think about the position of your tongue.
ii) Try taking a sip of water (small) and holding it in the back of your throat without letting it travel down your throat. Think about the position of your tongue while preventing the water from traveling down your throat. This is the same position as when beginning to say the letter "K".
iii) Swallow the water and then try to hold air in your cheeks again. (Think about the position of your tongue to close off the back of your throat as before.)
  1. Practice slowly squeezing the air in your cheeks out through closed lips to create a buzzing sound.
i) It is important to remember to keep your throat closed while buzzing in this fashion.
ii) You should eventually be able to relax and buzz your lips while breathing in a relaxed manner through your nose.
iii) As a secondary thought, you should be able to also hold your mouth open and breath in through your nose without breathing in through your mouth at the same time.
  1. Practice blowing out your mouth by squeezing the air as above with the mouthpiece and reed in your embouchure.
  1. Do not worry about breathing in through your nose yet while squeezing the air out. Just get used to squeezing the air from your cheeks quickly and controlled enough to get a smooth sound.
  1. After learning to squeeze the air from your cheeks to get a smooth, controlled sound a for a second or two, attempt to quickly breathe in through your nose at the same time.
  1. Repeat this routine over and over until you alleviate any breaks in the sound.