Crossing The Clarinet Break
The clarinet break is a major step in a clarinetist’s journey. The clarinet break starts at the end of the chalumeau register and goes to the beginning of the clarion register. The clarinet break is a difficult skill to master, especially for young players. This article will discuss important topics that will be important for learning how to cross the clarinet break.
To prepare for playing over the break, the students must have the following concepts well-developed: excellent hand position and finger position, firm embouchure, and good control of their voicing.
Clarinet hand position should be mastered before attempting to play over the break. If a clarinetist has a poor hand position while attempting to play over the break, the clarinetist can develop muscle strain or injuries. Poor hand position can also lead to poor tone and sound quality.
The entire weight of the clarinet is supported by the right thumb. For clarinetists with smaller hands, it can be difficult to support the clarinet this way. As a clarinetist with small hands, I would have trouble supporting the clarinet with my thumb. I would place the clarinet on my knees or I would sneak my pinky fingers behind the pinky keys to better support the clarinet.
The problem with resting the clarinet on your knees is that it disrupts the embouchure. It places the clarinet higher up into the mouth and at an angle that’s farther away from the body. This position causes the embouchure to work even harder to produce a good sound. The problem with using other fingers to support the clarinet is now those fingers are being used to support the clarinet when they should be playing notes.
Beginner clarinetists may have their arms and elbows in too close to the side of their bodies. This causes muscle strain on the wrists because the wrists are being pronated in a way that is uncomfortable and unnatural.
It is normal for the thumb to get tired after holding up the clarinet for a long time. It is okay to take a short break from playing to stretch out your fingers. Two items that have helped me with relieving stress off of my right thumb are a thumb rest pad and a neck strap.
The thumb rest pad is very easy to make. All you need to do is cut a pencil gripper in half and then slide it onto the thumb rest. I find that the gel pencil grippers work the best.
A neck strap will relieve a lot of the weight and tension off of the right thumb. The neck strap will also relieve stress off of the wrists. Although a neck strap is an easy and quick solution for a poor hand position, I would not provide a neck strap before exhausting all other options to help fix the hand position. Clarinetists mustn’t become dependent on the neck strap. The clarinetist should still develop a good hand position and then add in the neck strap as extra support.
Young clarinetists with smaller fingers may have trouble covering all of the tone holes with their fingers. For playing across the break, the clarinetist goes from having hardly any fingers on the tone holes to covering all of the tone holes and depressing two pinky keys and the register key. If any tone holes aren’t covered all the way, the B above the break will not sound or it will squeak.
There are three strategies I like to use to fix problems with covering the tone holes. The first strategy is to video record your fingers while you play. As clarinetists, we cannot see our fingers while we play so we have no idea if our fingers are covering the tone holes all the way.
The second strategy is to play a passage and then look at your fingers. If your fingers were covering the tone holes completely, there should be circle indents on your finger pads. I call this the “donut check”.
The third strategy is to place the right hand down on all of the keys while playing tone-hole notes. Placing the right hand down while playing the tone-hole notes won’t affect the sound or the intonation. This strategy makes it easier for younger students to focus on covering the tone holes in the left hand.
Crossing the clarinet break requires a firm clarinet embouchure. When playing an A right before the break, the air doesn’t have to travel so far down the instrument. However, when crossing the break to play a B the air has to travel down the instrument and out of the bell. This causes a lot more resistance. When there is more resistance, it is natural for clarinetists to adjust their embouchure to make it easier to blow. However, adjusting the embouchure too much will sacrifice intonation, tone quality, and sound quality.
The clarinetists must have a good, firm embouchure in their chalumeau register before moving on to playing over the break. Developing a daily warm-up routine is the first step towards strengthening the clarinet embouchure. Having a warm-up routine will ease your embouchure into playing and will help prevent injuries and muscle strain. Clarinet long tones and clarinet scales should be included in the warm-up routine. These two exercises will allow you to focus on the fundamentals, including clarinet embouchure.
Learning how to change your voicing/oral cavity will help make crossing the break a lot easier. One exercise that will help you hear how the oral cavity affects the sound is to play and sustain a low E with an “Ah” throat shape. This will open up the throat and help the low E sound more full and project well. Once you have the low E focused and centered, add the register key but don’t change your throat shape. You will hear that the B sounds flat and unstable.
The B should sound sweet and round. To accomplish this sound, the clarinetist must adjust their oral cavity. To feel how the oral cavity changes, say “he” and “ah”. Can you feel how the back of your tongue rises when you say “he” and then lowers when you say “ah”?
The chalumeau register, not counting the throat tone register, will usually require the “ah” throat shape because it allows the low notes to project and sound round and full.
The clarion register, starting at the B across the break, requires the “he” throat shape. This throat shape allows this register to sound sweet, focused, and warm.
Learning the difference between these two throat shapes and changing between the two is a hard concept for clarinetists. I am a senior in college and I still am working on voicing because it is not perfect. However, learning how to voice the sound and change the oral cavity will not only make crossing the break easier, but it will also help make the B sound sweet and warm.
First Notes Over the Break
Now that we have discussed how to prepare for playing over the break, let’s talk about exercises to incorporate into the practice routine that will ease you into playing over the break!
Clarinet long tones are essential and versatile exercises. Clarinet long tones are a great exercise to practice playing over the break.
First, I would begin by playing a long tone B. By playing the B as a long tone, you can feel how much more resistant it is compared to the notes in the chalumeau register. You can also feel how different the voicing is compared to the notes in the chalumeau register.
In my clarinet sectionals, we do an exercise called “Bend the Note”. We sustain a B and then raise and lower our oral cavity. First, sustain a B and get the B in tune. Once the B is in tune, raise your oral cavity to see how sharp you can make the B. Once you’ve made the B sharp, bring the B back down to in-tune by lowering your oral cavity. Next, lower your oral cavity to see how flat you can make the B. Once you’ve made the B flat, bring the B back up to in-tune by raising your oral cavity. This exercise allows us to develop and strengthen our control over our oral cavity. While doing this exercise, remember to keep your embouchure firm. You can also take breaths whenever you need to. If you do take a breath, start with the B in tune and then go in the direction you left off at.
Once you’ve become familiar with the different feels of the B, you can experiment with the oral cavity and air support to make the sound of the B more warm and sweet.
Once you’re able to play the B with a warm and stable sound, you can start playing long tones going to the B from different notes. This exercise will help you get used to the changes in air support, fingerings, and oral cavity when going from chalumeau to the B.
Clarinet scales will help you get used to going from a variety of different notes to notes above the break. Clarinet scales will also improve your finger coordination and dexterity which is very important for playing across the break.
For beginners who are new to crossing the break, I recommend not starting at the beginning of the scale. Instead, start a few notes before the break and end a few notes after the break. Once you’ve accomplished crossing the break within that small chunk of the scale, you can start playing more notes before and after the break until you start and end the scale on tonic.
Technical exercises will improve finger coordination and dexterity. Playing the notes that cross the break and the notes in the clarion register require a lot of hand and finger strength. Technical exercises are like HIIT workouts for the fingers and the hands. They strengthen the muscles and improve muscle memory.
Crossing the clarinet break is an exciting, yet challenging milestone in a clarinetist’s journey. Learning the notes across and above the break will take a lot of practice and patience. Practice the exercises listed above every day, take breaks, and stretch your hands. It’s a long process, but stay positive and motivated!