Clarinet long tones are a very important part of a clarinetist's practice routine. I used to think long tones were very boring and pointless. However, after learning about the importance of long tones and then incorporating it into my daily practice routine, I could hear immense progress in my clarinet playing.
What are long tones?
Long tones are exactly what they sound like. They are long, sustained notes. Long tones can be played on any note and at any dynamic level.
Why are long tones important?
Long tone exercises target air support, breathing, embouchure, oral cavity, intonation, and color of sound. When practicing repertoire, it's easy to shift our focus away from those target areas. Instead, we're focusing on our technique and playing correct notes and rhythms. However, by practicing long tones daily and constantly improving those target areas, producing a quality sound on the clarinet will become second nature.
The clarinetist is able to focus on the color of their sound during long tone exercises. My clarinet professor in college had me hold long tones when trying to achieve a certain color within my sound. While doing so, he would change the mood of each long tone: angry, scared, happy, joyful. This was a great exercise because when I came across changes of mood in my lesson and ensemble music, I was able to hear the sound I wanted to achieve and quickly execute it.
The clarinetist is also able to focus on intonation. When focusing on intonation during long tones, it is important to have a tuner on the stand. Long tones will show the clarinetist each tendency on their clarinet. For example, throat tone A tends to be flat and thumb high C tends to be sharp. When practicing long tones, the clarinetist should watch their tendency with each note and then proceed to adjust their breath support, embouchure or oral cavity until the pitch is in tune. Practicing long tones and fixing intonation will help the clarinetist hear whether or not they are in tune.
Lastly, long tones allow the mind, body and muscles to warm up. It is similar to going to the gym or sports practice. Just like running a few laps or doing a quick HIIT workout to warm up the body and prepare the mind for the physical demands of the workout, long tones prepare the mind and body for rehearsal/practice. Long tones warm up the diaphragm, lungs, oral cavity muscles, and the embouchure muscles. Warming up these muscles will help prevent future injuries and muscle strain.
My long tone story
I didn't incorporate long tone exercises into my daily practice routine until my freshman year of college. Yikes! I knew long tones were important, but I always found them boring and "useless". I began incorporating long tone exercises into my practice routine because I realized that my sound had a lot of improvement and potential. By listening to other clarinetists play during studio and listening to the clarinetists in the top ensemble, I began to strive for the sound they were producing. Their sound was very centered, controlled, and pure. As I advanced into the top ensemble, I learned the importance of blending my sound into the sound of the ensemble. Long tones helped me blend my sound better. The listening skills used in my long tone exercises were also used in rehearsal. As I was playing, I would not be listening to myself, but rather the clarinetists next to me or the ensemble as a whole. Practicing long tones aso helped me in ensemble playing because I was able to adjust the intonation and color of my sound immediately. I did so by adjusting my embouchure and oral cavity. Long tone exercises strengthen the oral cavity and embouchure muscles. These muscles are very important when it comes to producing a good quality sound.
How do I practice long tones?
There are many fun and unique ways to practice long tones. Below are different ways I have practiced long tones that have been beneficial to my clarinet playing.
- One note: First, I pick a random note on the clarinet. Next, I pick a slow tempo. I usually begin with quarter note equals 60. Once I have chosen a tempo, I play the note for ten beats. Once I have done those ten beats, I increase the amount of beats by five. This exercise allows me to focus on my breath control and air support.
- Scales: First, I pick about two to three scales, both major and minor. Next, I pick a slow tempo. I start at quarter note equals 60. Then, I play each note of the scale as whole notes, so four beats per note. This exercise helps me with smooth transitions between notes, especially over the break and in the altissimo register. It also helps me hear each note's function within the scale. Each note of the scale either pushes or pulls, so practicing the scale at a slow tempo will help the clarinetist hear the function of each note.
- Drones: I love using drones for practicing long tones! There are many ways to use a drone when practicing long tones. First, the clarinetist can set the drone at a certain pitch, let's say a C. Then, the clarinetist will also play a C. While doing so, the clarinetist should listen for intonation. Are you in tune with the drone? Do you hear waves that indicate that you're either too sharp or too flat? Second, the clarinetist can play the third or the fifth of the drone tone to create intervals. This exercise helps the clarinetist hear intonation between intervals.
Resources for long tone exercises
This video by David Griffiths provides a great example of a long tone exercise. First, he chooses a key. In this exercise he chose the key of C major. Next, he sets his metronome at quarter-note equals 60. Then, he sustains the C for 20 beats. He starts at a pianissimo volume and then gradually crescendos for 10 seconds. At this point he is playing at a fortissimo volume. Then he gradually decrescendos for the next 10 seconds, reaching a pianissimo volume. The goal of this exercise is to maintain a steady pitch and tone. He also advises the clarinetist to focus on their diaphragm muscles. The diaphragm muscles aid in keeping the pitch and tone very steady.
The Klose clarinet methods book and the Carl Fischer 24 Varied Scales and Exercises are great books for warmups and exercises. All of the exercises in these two can be practiced as long tone exercises.
The Klose methods book has a variety of exercises that are very important in a clarinetist's practice routine. These exercises target finger coordination, articulation, scale and arpeggio exercises, and Rose Etude excerpts.
How long should I practice long tones?
For beginning clarinetists, I recommend practicing long tones for five to ten minutes daily. Young clarinetists are still developing their embouchure muscles, so practicing long tones for too long will make their embouchure tired quickly. As the clarinetist's embouchure muscles strengthen, the time spent on long tones can increase.
How do I stay focused during long tones?
Being actively engaged while practicing your long tones is the only way to make sure they are benefiting you and your sound. Always be listening for things you can improve, whether that be your posture, air support, breathing, embouchure, color of sound or intonation.
Set challenging, yet goals.
- How many beats can you sustain a long tone while maintaining good air support, tone, and intonation?
- How loud or soft can you play a long tone?
- Can you play a certain exercise/passage without taking a breath?
Setting goals will help you stay focused and motivated. It also feels amazing being able to put a check mark next to a goal!
Common long tone mistakes
Having the same long tone routine Practicing the same long tone routine every day will make you extremely bored and it is not beneficial for improving your skills. If you find that you aren't motivated or challenged by your long tone exercises, then use your creativity to make the exercises more fun.
Not listening Long tone exercises will not be beneficial unless you are constantly and actively listening. You should always be listening to your intonation, tone, and color of the sound.
One dynamic Music isn't all one dynamic, so why should long tones only be one dynamic? Practicing long tones at various dynamics will not only improve the quality of sound at each dynamic level, but it will also make long tones more fun.
Progress won't happen overnight, so don't get discouraged when you don't hear improvement in your sound. Practice them every day, actively listen, challenge yourself and keep persevering!