In my opinion, the most important aspect of musical artistry is sound. Sound quality is what people initially evaluate when they hear someone play. If a musical sound is unpleasant to the ear, it doesn’t matter if a beautiful phrase is crafted or blazing technique is demonstrated — few will listen for long.
The final arbiter in all musical matters is the ear. Through the exercises outlined below, we’ll focus on three fundamental concepts essential in creating a beautiful sound: inhalation (full lung capacity), exhalation (with support), configuration of the oral cavity, and embouchure. It’s assumed that you have a high-quality reed, mouthpiece, and instrument. If you don’t, please correct these issues, otherwise you’ll be tilting at windmills.
What Is Support?
For years I could not find a definition that makes this technique understandable in the context of clarinet pedagogy or in a way that can be effectively relayed to students. I ask my students if a former teacher has told them at some point in a lesson, “You need to support that phrase.” If so, I ask them what this request means to them. In thirty-five years of teaching, I’ve had only two or three students who were able to define breath support in a way that makes sense to me. Someone may have a better definition than mine and if so, my hat’s off to them and please let me know so that I can share with my students!
Here’s my definition: Support is the dynamic, not static, relationship of the velocity of the airstream and the density of the airstream, with velocity the variable and density the constant.
Dynamics such as forte and piano are controlled simply by the velocity of airflow. We can of course apply varied levels of lower-lip pressure to the reed to influence the speed of airflow and response of the reed but, in my opinion, this can have a deleterious effect on sound quality. Perhaps this effect has a place in some musical settings, but for the purpose of this article we’ll assume static lower lip pressure. Also, I reside in the land of Goldilocks regarding lower-lip pressure — not too much, not too little, but just right.
It’s essential to develop intellectual curiosity. Intellectual curiosity creates the willingness to experiment that helps guide us to our aural North Star — the sound standard we choose to guide us in our pursuit of creating a beautiful tone. Of course, each of us must determine our own aural North Star. We accomplish this by the guidance of an excellent instructor, extensively listening to recordings and attending concerts. Remember, we learn to talk by listening and then imitating.
Experiment with a good mouthpiece/reed, different lip pressures, and different amounts of mouthpiece in your mouth. Determine the parameters of too much and too little, then find your Goldilocks mouthpiece placement and lip pressure. My experience has led me to finding the mouthpiece facing/reed strength/lip pressure that allows me to produce my optimum sound with the greatest degree of efficiency.
Inhalation and Exhalation
Proper inhalation requires knowing how to fill your entire lung capacity efficiently. As you inhale, strive for full expansion in your lower abdomen, lower back, and upper chest.
Exhaling is essentially the reverse of inhaling, with one important difference.
A helpful visualization compares “hot” air to “cold” air. “Hot” air is produced when you exhale condensation on a pair of glasses to clean them. That “hah” sound produces an upper chest sensation and is an unsupported way to exhale. Supported exhalation involves “cold air,” which is generated in the lower abdomen. Imagine trying to blow out a candle that’s four feet away, maintaining a steady, high-velocity airstream. Imagine a laser beam–like airstream directed at the imaginary candle flame.
Tip: Practice the “cold air” exercise with hands placed as previously mentioned. Don’t let your lower abdomen collapse until the very end of your lung capacity.
What part of the human body is most closely analogous to the reed? The vocal chords, of course! Great singers understand air support; they have to.
To sum up, learning to use your entire lung capacity while inhaling and then pushing “down and out” as you exhale creates a denser, supported airstream: the foundation of a beautiful sound.
It’s like patting your head while rubbing your tummy, but it’s important to develop the independence of an open oral cavity with the tongue in a relatively high, athletic position. Forming this physical relationship accomplishes two things. First, an athletic and relatively arched tongue position speeds up the velocity of the airstream efficiently, much the way the Venturi effect works with fluid dynamics. Secondly, it places the tongue in the optimum position for efficient articulation (again, athletic position).
It’s very important to know that the tongue can be too high in the oral cavity. I hear a lot of students say that their tongue position is in the “E” position without the consideration of an open oral cavity. This configuration restricts the efficient flow of your exhalation. Imagine a river that has one movable bank. This is a metaphor for your airstream and tongue. As the movable bank moves towards the opposite bank, the water of course speeds up (this is what we are trying to achieve with a relatively high tongue position — Venturi). But there is a point at which the increased water flow is at its fastest; beyond that ideal point, the flow of water, as a result of surface tension, starts to become restricted. And, as the movable bank gets even closer to the opposite bank, this constriction actually acts like a dam. This is why only pronouncing “E” without the open oral cavity is not efficient, and is, in fact, counterproductive.
Here is how to form an efficient embouchure in a couple of steps:
First you’ll need to set the lower lip/jaw combination. The lower lip/jaw combination is the foundation of the embouchure. The upper lip plays an important role but it’s not part of the foundation. Important: stand in front of a mirror as you practice these steps. I’ve yet to be able to see my face without the aid of a mirror!
It’s important to understand that an efficient embouchure incorporates a “controlled” bite. Teachers often tell their students, “don’t bite.” What teachers really mean is “don’t bite excessively.” As a result, students sometimes don’t apply enough jaw pressure. It takes some pressure on the reed to focus reed vibration optimally. We use the corners of the mouth and the upper lip to maintain optimal and consistent jaw pressure on the reed. Remember, the function of the embouchure is to provide the optimum environment for the vibration of the reed.
In closing, I refer back to the final arbiter in all matters musical—our ears. All of the suggestions above, if done correctly, will get you in the neighbourhood of a good sound, provided you have a good reed, mouthpiece, and instrument. Our ability to listen with “one” ear and at the same time evaluate our real-time sound production with the “other ear” is an essential skill to get you fully home. Strive for efficiency in all aspects of sound production. To improve and ultimately maintain our ideal sound we must consistently navigate towards our aural North Star — our ideal sound. Intellectual curiosity — a willingness to patiently experiment with mouthpiece/reed configurations — coupled with mindful and dedicated practice are essential to producing outstanding results. It is essential that you remember what works and what does not. Experiment with only one change at a time so that when an experimental change does not work, you have a trail of breadcrumbs to follow back home. Best of luck finding your aural North Star!
Bil Jackson enjoys a varied musical career that includes solo, orchestral, and chamber music appearances. He is on the Artist Faculty at the Blair School at Vanderbilt University. Mr. Jackson has performed as Principal Clarinet with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and Honolulu Symphony, and as Guest Principal Clarinet with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s, St. Louis and Cincinnati Symphony orchestras. Jackson is currently on the summer Artist-Faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and Colorado College Music Festival. He is the only person to win the International Clarinet Competition twice and was a finalist in the Prague International Clarinet Competition. Bil Jackson is a Backun Artist and performs on MoBa clarinets and mouthpieces.