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Teaching Clarinet Students To Bust Through The Break!

In the eyes of many beginning musicians clarinetists often seem to have the easiest time learning to play their instrument during the first few weeks or months of lessons.  Then, when all seems well with the world, they finally reach the very bottom range of their instrument, using all ten fingers at the same time.  At this point their teacher decides to take them to the next level and suddenly asks them to "Cross The Break!" Depending on many factors this may be the beginning of a long, happy musical adventure or the beginning of the end for the student as a clarinetist.

In clarinet terms, crossing the break refers to the act of going from having very few fingers down (to play open G or first finger A for example) and then going up one more note to the B, C, or D above.  This requires a clarinetist to go from having one finger down to having all of their fingers down.  While many beginning clarinetists will try to avoid these notes at first, it is not something that can be avoided as moving from A to B is one of the most common sequences that any clarinetist will encounter due to its place in the B-Flat Concert Scale.

Common High Range Problems and Pitfalls:

For those that have been properly prepared and have paid very close attention to details such as embouchure and finger position crossing the break can be quite easy.  For others, crossing the break may signal the beginning of many months of frustration and perhaps even lead to considering giving up on the instrument entirely.  For teachers, especially those that are not native clarinetists, teaching a student to cross the break can be just as frustrating to them as it is to the student.  The vast majority of collegiate music education programs focus on clarinet for a few short months at most and then the teacher is thrown out in the cold to care for his or her young wards without truly being comfortable with the best methods and tricks to use when teaching beginning clarinet students.

Learning to play the clarinet, including the high notes is no more or less difficult than learning to play any of the other musical instruments in the school band or orchestra.  In fact, learning to play any instrument can be quite easy if the basic fundamentals and techniques are followed as closely as possible during the early weeks of learning the instrument.  The good (or bad) habits that a student learns and instills in their mind and muscles will have more to do with how easily they progress than will any other variable.  One student can practice for hours each week and not seem to get any better while another student can get by on an hour of practice each week and finish their first lesson book in five months or less.

To play the clarinet well and to cross the break easily all begins with learning and focusing on the basics of finger position, embouchure, and properly maintained and assembled equipment.

Learning Proper Clarinet Finger Position

Most clarinetists begin by learning open G and moving downward to middle C.  From there they continue down the instrument to low F and E, and once those notes have been learned the lesson book often takes them to the next step of adding the register key to get the second octave of notes from B natural and up.  The primary problem for the majority of young clarinetists is that many focus so hard on fingerings that they forget about the incredible importance of finger position on the keys.  While a slight leak from a partially covered tone hole may still play in the low octave, when the register key is added that leak may prevent the note from playing at all.

Tricks To Fix Clarinet Finger Position Problems

One of the easiest ways to quickly determine if a register problem is caused by bad finger position is to press the fingers down hard into the tone holes while playing a low E.  Hold the fingers firmly in place for about ten seconds then quickly pull one hand away and look at where the holes have left imprints on the finger tips.  If you see incomplete circles then chances are quite good that those are the fingers that may be causing the leak and preventing you from crossing the break. 

Fixing bad finger position in the right hand is often as simple as adjusting the thumb rest or the thumb's position.  Many modern beginner clarinet models have adjustable thumb rests that can be moved higher or lower by adjusting a screw.  The proper position for this thumb rest is determined largely by the hand's resting position.  Allow the hand to dangle at your side and allow the fingers to relax into a normal, comfortable position.  Without moving the fingers bring the hand up and place the fingers on the keys.  Adjust the thumb rest so that it comes down to meet the thumb while it remains in this relaxed position.  The fingers should comfortably come in contact with the tone holes and cover them completely without being cramped at an angle.  Having the thumb rest in the wrong position can force the player to cramp their hands and slant their fingers into the tone holes at an angle causing leaks and long term discomfort.

Clarinet Embouchure

Clarinet embouchure (the formation and placement of the jaw and facial muscles as you play) is another key part of getting a good tone on the clarinet.  Try looking at some photographs of good and bad clarinet embouchures to see images of common problems that many beginners face.  Then, practice or demonstrate proper clarinet embouchure in front of a mirror and take a significant amount of time during lessons or practice sessions to make sure that the embouchure is formed correctly from the start. 

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