Eight tips to play high notes on the clarinet more easily!
A large number of my clarinet students are trying to access the register notes for the first time so this blog post is designed to help you. It is around the transition from ABRSM Grade 1-2 where you start playing notes over the break. Moving from the first register (chalumeau register) and the second register (the clarion register) can be frustrating at first – for both the player and anybody listening too! Sometimes the notes don’t sound at all and at other times they squeak. This is a point in a clarinetist’s journey which can undermine your confidence and you may even consider giving up. But don’t fear! Here are some tips designed to help you…
1. Check your embouchure (mouth position). A quick review of the basics can reveal why you are struggling to achieve notes in the second register. You need your bottom lip slightly tucked over your bottom set of teeth. Turn sideways and ask a friend or parent to check that you are doing this.
2. How much of the mouthpiece should be in your mouth? The answer is to have as much of the mouthpiece of your clarinet in your mouth as you can until the sound starts to change and it feels uncomfortable and you may start to squeak – experiment and find what feels right for you! Then the corners of your mouth draw in around the mouthpiece but being careful not to bite.
3. What should you do with your tongue? It might seem like a strange thing to think about but the tongue should be high up in the mouth when you blow a high note (as if you are saying ‘heee’). This will allow the high note to really sing. Remember to give the note enough air support or it won’t sound (see tip 5!).
4. The strength and brand of reed you use can make a huge difference. If you are playing a reed that is too soft you will struggle to achieve the higher notes. I recommend beginners start on Vandoren strength 1.5 reeds because it is easier to achieve a good sound without feeling like you have to blow really hard. However, high notes require more air support and resistance and therefore you will find you need to move up to a Vandoren 2 or even a 2.5. The best reed to use varies between individuals. It’s your first time learning, but I’ve seen lots of people go through this – ask my advice before making a change. If you’re reading this and you’re not my student, then have a talk with your teacher. And if you don’t have a teacher, get in touch !
5. Air support for high notes is very important. You need great air speed to produce notes in the upper register. Imagine you had a hose pipe; turning the tap on stronger would make more water come out. That’s like blowing harder – it makes a louder note. But here you want better notes no matter the volume... so instead of turning the tap on, imagine squeezing the hosepipe at the end so you get a small, fast jet. It’s weird but if you picture this in your head you often get the result. Fast air is not just blowing harder but directing the air with control and at speed.
6. Don’t tighten up. Lack of confidence in your own ability to produce the higher notes can cause jaw tightening. This tightening can prevent you from achieving your high notes. When you get nervous as you play (knowing that the high notes are coming up shortly) we tend to tense. This tension is felt throughout our bodies. Our shoulders rise up and our chest, jaw and throat all tighten. This can also lead to a firmer mouth position and even biting of the reed. Biting the reed reduces the vibrations and makes it more difficult for the notes to sound and you will squeak. Try dropping your shoulders, relax and then your throat and jaw are more likely to relax.
7. Check your finger positioning on the key: especially youngsters who have smaller hands can struggle here. There are two things to watch out for here. Firstly, covering the holes fully. Have you noticed that the holes on the right hand are bigger than those on the left? If you are not precise the notes will not sound properly, and the note might feel resistant. Try standing in front of a mirror and look at your fingers when you are playing. Are they any holes leaking air? Keep your fingers round and arched and you will get a feel for where your fingers need to be.
8. Watch out for your left thumb positioning! You should be rolling your thumb to hit the register key not removing it and placing it down. Also, check that when you roll your thumb to the register key that you are not moving your whole hand, as you will bump other keys.
If you go through these tips and use it as a checklist then there will definitely be some things to work on. I would be really amazed if your troubles didn’t stem from one or more of these points.
Finally, a note for people reading this who aren’t my own students. Beware that if you have already practised far enough with bad habits, making a change can seem like a step backwards and you might start to struggle or squeak morefor a little bit. But if you follow these guidelines, you will soon start to sound the notes more easily and with a sweeter tone.
Good luck, and happy practising!