Friday, April 19, 2013

The Clarinetist's Guide to Conquering First Chair

Playing in a band (or orchestra) is just like being on any other team. Every team has a leader. In band, it is the person sitting in first chair. If you're sitting "second string" there's a good chance you've got your eyes on that top spot. Here's what an aspiring clarinetist need to do to conquer first chair:

Recognize It Takes Time
 photo Clarinet_zps28375d27.jpgMost importantly, the player needs to realize it will take quality time to earn first chair. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle relates the story of Clarissa, an ordinary young clarinetist, as she is developing the neural pathways involved in playing a piece well. Clarissa has a blueprint in her mind as to how the piece should go. She breaks up the whole piece into smaller pieces and works out the tough passages. Once she gets the notes into her fingers, she can play the whole piece with real feeling and musicality.

When we repeat an action, the neural pathways become coated with a sheath of substance called myelin. The more often we use that action, the easier it becomes. It takes time to build up the myelin on the neural pathways. Each time you play through it, you’ll strengthen the mechanism involved to make the desired sound.

Learn Your Scales and Arpeggios
Practicing patterns are great for learning a piece quickly. There is no substitute for learning your scales and arpeggios. When the difficult music gets passed out, you’ll be able to breeze through it. That’s the payoff! 

 While scales will improve technique, don’t overlook the importance of a big, gorgeous tone. Practice long tones every day, while using your ears to adjust pitch and color. Once your ears are trained to hear a proper tone, it will be easier to produce when you’re busy working on other aspects of a piece.

Achieve Good Tone
Clarinetists hate being compared to Squidward on SpongeBob SquarePants. What can we do to avoid that kind of squeaky tone? In The Educator’s Guide to the Clarinet, Tom Ridenour says “Put simply, students need the experience of hearing good clarinet tone and then being taught why it is good”. Clarinetists Larry Combs, David Shifrin and Ricardo Morales all have great recordings available and each offer examples of excellent tone. 

Learning how to achieve great tone requires lungs filled with air from the bottom up. Focus that air in a strong stream to the tip of the reed. That will deliver pressure to the correct spot to keep the reed stable while going over the break (Bb to the middle line B) or playing in the altissimo register (above high C).

A Good Mouthpiece is a Good Thing
The ingredient that is the most difficult to control is equipment. If you’re using an old or cheap instrument, you’re more likely to sound like Squidward. The best thing you can do is get a decent mouthpiece. The mouthpiece will also dictate the kind of reed to use. Work with your clarinet teacher to help you find the best fit. 

Keep in mind that a close, long facing on the mouthpiece and a hard reed will bring the dark tone found in orchestral music. An open, shorter facing with a soft reed will bring the bright tone found in jazz. Here's a great mouthpiece guide from Woodwind & Brasswind.

Embouchure is Key
Last, but definitely not least, is embouchure. The lip touching that reed must be properly supported since this is where the sound starts. If it’s too loose, the reed won’t vibrate enough. If it’s too tight, the reed will become unstable and squeak. 

The mouthpiece should fit snugly into a fixed jaw. The chin should be flat, and the corners of the mouth pulled back. The lips need to be just firm enough to control the reed. Use just enough lower lip to cushion the teeth and not stop the reed from vibrating. The pressure from the top lip should be directed toward the corners of the mouth, not toward the center where the tendency is to bite. The whole mechanism should be firm but relaxed.

Use these steps to achieve that coveted first chair. There’s no easy shortcut and hard work is really key. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks. Set obtainable goals. Seek out a qualified instructor or coach. Before long, you will find yourself rising in the section and becoming a confident leader!

Fran Beaudry has over 30 years of experience as a clarinet player and music educator. Follow Fran on Twitter or book an online clarinet lesson with her on The ZOEN

1 comment:

  1. Great information. Especially for those of us "returning" to playing our clarinets. I had forgotten those basic facts over the years. But distinctly remember striving for 1st chair when I was in high school band.


Add your comments