The clarinet is an instrument that is solely based on breathing and air blowing and from your first day in clarinet playing you will working be on airflow, tongue position and articulation. This is something that students of all levels and professional musicians alike practice every day because it is one of the fundamental elements of clarinet playing. Moreover, we need to understand how the clarinet sound is being produced and what are the best practices to do so.
To begin with, the most important aspect of sound production is airflow, and this is strongly linked to our tongue. On one hand, airflow needs to be constant and without any obstacles but on the other hand it needs to be focused and directional. Our tongue position is the first step to achieve this and learning how to use it properly will be crucial in our future development. The tongue should be arched upwards and parallel with the top of the mouth (palate). We also try to keep it high, but we always need to be careful not to touch our palate. This will help the air travel without any blockage and with direction. Although this is the general rule, the exact position varies from player to player depending on our tongue size and mouth structure. From my personal experience I find that people with bigger tongues find it a bit more difficult to achieve this, but by keeping the general rule and with minor adjustments they can get a great tongue position.
Moving on, after establishing a proper and helpful tongue position, we need to learn how to articulate. Throughout my years, I spoke with many great players and with some great teachers and although everybody had their own unique ways to articulate, they all agree that articulation is a temporary ‘block’ of airflow to separate two notes. The reason I use the word block and not stop is because we should always remember that our airflow needs to be continual, and the tongue only closes the exit point of our air for a very short moment. Now to articulate, we move our tongue from the previously discussed position to the tip of the mouthpiece and back. Try to keep this movement as short as possible. You can use the syllables ‘Ta – Ta – Ta – Ta’ or ‘Da – Da – Da – Da’ or ‘Ti – Ti – Ti – Ti’ (for shorter notes try ‘Tat’ or ‘Dad’) Experiment with all these different syllables, bearing in mind that you need to find that one that works for you. Different dialects and languages always have a different preference, but always remember that you should never force your tongue but keep it relaxed and in position.
Now that you understand your tongue position and the basics of articulation, you need to find ways to practice them. There are a huge amount of printed articulation exercises out there you could use but here are some basic exercises for you to improve your articulation. Let’s pick up a scale you are familiar and comfortable with, let’s play the scale 1 or 2 or 3 octaves (according to what you are comfortable with) firstly all slurred together. Then try the following 7 variations:
- 2-note slurs
- two articulations and one 2-note slur
- one 2-note slur and two articulations
- one articulation, one 2-note slur and one articulation
- one articulation and one 3-note slur
- one 3-note slur and one articulation
- all notes articulated
Always remember while you practice that the tongue is a muscle and you should practice with caution or you will end up injuring it. Developing a correct and fast articulation takes time and patience.
Airflow and articulation are linked together and are fundamental in clarinet playing. The more you master these elements the more you will be enjoying your clarinet playing but always bear in mind that like everything in music, it takes time and systematic practice to achieve it. You will have a lot of disappointments in the beginning but at the end, the result will be worth all efforts.