Overcoming the Clarinet Break

2011Symposium_1_2The clarinet break is one of the most overrated obstacles in all of instrumental music education. Much has been made of this difficulty, so much so that students often are taught they are about to have a problem before they have even tried to overcome it. The clarinet break encountered when the player has difficulty evenly playing from B-flat with the A-key and register key to B-natural, a half step higher. Most method books first have students play twelfths, adding the register key to an otherwise unchanged fingering, in order to become accustomed to producing the higher note. Playing adjacent notes in the higher register is also worthwhile preparation; it familiarizes the student with the feel of the clarinet keys, and helps the student place the fingers on the open key rings precisely and delicately. Ramming the fingers onto the clarinet in the hopes that this will help cover the tone holes is ill advised and leads to faulty technique that is detrimental go good clarinet playing. It is at this point that many teachers, even clarinetists, fail to recognize common mistakes.

Kalmen Opperman

Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman

The first of these is the placement of the left hand in general, and the index finger in particular. The fingers of the left hand should not be parallel to the floor. The fingers should be curved, the index finger should curl around the G-sharp and A keys, with the G-sharp key under the knuckle, and the A-key under the first joint. Both the G-sharp key and the A key must be engaged without lifting the index finger off of either key. The index finger roles into the A-key, moves forward from the knuckle, and straightens slightly to depress the G-sharp key. This left index finger placement is critical to eliminating the “break” between B-flat and B-natural.

The right hand fingers should be parallel to the floor, and the right thumb must support the instrument on the thumb rest on side of the thumb beside the nail. Many students struggle with their right hand technique because the thumb contacts the thumb rest beyond the knuckle, with the thumb pushed down. The thumb should remain in its natural position while supporting the clarinet, and should never be awkwardly pushed down by the weight of the clarinet.

The angle of the clarinet and the amount of mouthpiece in the mouth is also important. There should be enough mouthpiece in the mouth, and the angle should be such that the tip of the mouthpiece is just slightly below the roof of the mouth. This assures that the reed can freely vibrate and will not be choked of by an appropriately firm embouchure. The right thumb must constantly be pushing up, and the arms must be off the lap. With these three points in place—firm embouchure, pushing up with the right thumb, and plenty of air, a full, characteristic tone will be produced. I use the French embouchure (also known as “double-lip”). Many of the problems encountered in clarinet playing are solved with the use of this embouchure. Unless the student must play while marching, I recommend the French embouchure for all playing, and not just for remedial purposes.

With all of this in place, the student is fully equipped to traverse the interval from B-flat to B-natural without a break in sound. The left hand first finger rolls the short distance off the A-key and comfortably settles onto the first finger key ring as the other fingers close on the other rings and tone holes. At the same time, the right hand fingers close on the right hand key rings. All of this takes place with a gentle and coordinated motion. It is helpful to never allow unencumbered fingers to stray more than three-quarters of an inch from the key ring, tone hole or key they will depress. This helps the needed finger motions stay predictable and consistent, which is needed for even and reliable technique. When the clarinet is taught with these points in mind, the so-called “break” will not be an issue.


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