The ability of the clarinet section to play together with proper intonation can make or break an ensemble. Teaching the clarinet section to play together as a team is a concept that all band and orchestra director strive toward but few can claim success with. We spoke to Dr. Raphael Sanders, Professor of Clarinet at the Crane School of Music SUNY at Potsdam to get his ideas and insight on how to build a solid clarinet section.
Fundamentals and Techniques For Beginning Clarinet Students
"I always tell my kids that you can't jump to the sixth rung on the ladder," says Sanders. "There is no quick fix. To get a good section you have to start with proper fundamentals and technique." While many things go into helping a student learn proper intonation for Sanders it all begins with listening. "For me the number one thing is that the students need to know what a clarinet is supposed to sound like. They have to have a mental idea of what a good clarinet tone is and how to get it."
To reach this ideal tone Sanders says to make a point of playing the clarinet for your students to let them hear the way the instrument is supposed to sound. If you are not comfortable with your own tone on the instrument then play good quality recordings of professional clarinetists on a regular basis and have them try to match it. "They may not be able to reach it right away, but over time if they master the fundamentals and techniques of good playing their tone will improve."
Use Listening To Improve Clarinet Tone and Technique
Sanders also recommends having students work together in clarinet choirs to help them hear their section as a whole. He believes that this helps the students to understand the role of each member of the group. "They need to know who to listen to. The seconds need to listen up the section to the principal first clarinet. The thirds listen up to the seconds and so on. Expose them to the idea of the Mighty Pyramid of Sound and how in a properly balanced ensemble the lower parts of the section need to play out more than the higher parts of the section."
On a more individual level Sanders has some suggestions for solving common intonation and tone problems. "Remember that things like squeaks are an indication of a problem somewhere," says Sanders. "Sometimes the problem is with the student but sometimes it is with the clarinet." Make sure that the reed is not too hard and not too soft for the player. In some cases switching to a different mouthpiece can help as well, especially with off-brand instruments.
Tounging The Clarinet The Correct Way
Sanders also suggests teaching that on the clarinet the position of the tongue needs to be high and forward so as to funnel air into the mouthpiece. Other important fundamental concepts such as teaching resonance fingerings to help bring the throat tones into proper tune and simply making the lower lip firm can do wonders for individual intonation problems. He also suggests placing a small mirror on each music stand in the room so that a student can refer to it on a regular basis during practice and rehearsal.
Improving the collective sound of a clarinet section is a long term process, but if you take the time to instill in your students the proper sound and fundamental playing techniques many of these problems can be solved.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Teaching Music magazine in the Brass and Woodwinds Workshop section. A copy for personal or research use may be downloaded but no further use of this article is permitted without written permission from the National Association for Music Education.