Clarinet warm-ups are essential exercises a clarinetist must do to prepare the mind and body for extensive playing. If you watch an athlete before a big game or race, you'll see them passing the football to their teammates, running a few laps around the track, practicing their free throws, or stretching their arms and legs. They are warming up their muscles to prevent injuries. They are also getting into the right headspace so they can perform at their best.
Warm-ups for clarinetists prepare a variety of different muscles: the clarinet embouchure, the oral cavity, the tongue, the diaphragm, and the fingers. If these muscles aren't warmed up properly, injuries are more likely to happen and the musician won't be able to perform at their best.
Below are the components I find most important to include in your daily warm-up routine. I listed the exercises in this specific order to show how to gradually ease the body into playing condition.
One thing I have learned throughout college is that if I am not in the right mindset to play, I will not perform or practice to my best potential. During my freshman year of college, I didn't manage my time well and only had time to practice at night time. I was very tired, but I still made myself practice for hours. However, my practice sessions weren't as beneficial as they could've been if I was in the right mindset. Make sure you schedule a time to practice when you're most alert and awake.
Before you start your warm-up routine, take time to clear your mind and breathe. Trying to practice when you're stressed, under pressure, or distracted will decrease how beneficial your practice session or rehearsal will be. Before the Concordia Band rehearses, we take a moment of silence. During this time, we do what we need to do to clear our minds, whether that be praying, meditating, or deep breathing. This moment of silence prepares our minds for rehearsing. Before you practice, do what you need to do to release any distractions and stress from your mind.
Before grabbing your instrument, remember to stretch out your body. Stretching the body daily, even if you aren't about to play your instrument, will keep your muscles long, lean, and flexible. Stretching also keeps the muscles strong and healthy. If you don't stretch your muscles daily, your muscles will shorten and become tight. Flexibility in the muscles is important because it maintains the range of motion in the joints.
While stretches are very important for the body, never push your body too far to where it hurts. If a specific stretch starts to hurt, stop. The stretches listed below may not work for everybody.
The Door Frame
Poor posture is a very common habit, but it is detrimental for musicians. Poor posture affects our diaphragm, air support, intonation, and projection. The door frame stretch helps open up the chest while simultaneously prompting you to stand taller. This stretch also stretches the front and back of your neck, releasing any tension build-up.
To do this stretch, first, stand facing a door frame. Next, place your elbows along each side of the frame. If you have smaller arms, a more narrow door frame will work best. Lastly, gently lean forward until you feel a gentle stretch in the chest, shoulder blades, neck, and back. I usually hold this position for ten seconds. Depending on how stiff I am, I'll repeat this stretch two to three more times.
The Desk Press
The desk press stretches the forearms and the wrists. To do this stretch, sit or stand near a desk and place your arms in front of you with your forearms up. Place your palms under the desk and gently push up.
The clarinetist's forearms and wrists are easily strained, especially in young clarinetists. This is because our clarinet is held up solely by our right thumb. These muscles can also be strained if the clarinetist isn't holding the clarinet in the best position, either too far or too close to the body. Many young clarinetists will try to hold the clarinet up with their knees, but that is also a poor clarinet posture. A clarinet neck strap can help with releasing weight and tension in the wrists, forearms, and fingers. I have used a clarinet neck strap throughout college. It has helped relieve tension from my fingers and my wrists.
Forwards and Backwards
This stretch also stretches the wrists and forearms. This stretch doesn't require any equipment, so it is a handy stretch to do in a band room before playing.
To do this stretch, hold out one arm in front of you. First, have your palm facing down. With the other hand, slowly bend your hand back until you feel the bottom of your wrist and forearm stretch. Hold this position for however long you want. Next, gradually bend your hand down to stretch the top of your wrist. Do this same exercise with your other hand.
Shoulder Circles and Open Arm Stretch
This stretch, as stated in the title, stretches the shoulders. Stretching the shoulders will help relieve tension and improve your posture while sitting and standing.
To do this stretch, first stand so your feet are shoulder-width apart. Next, make slow arm circles with your arms, both forwards and backward. Once you've done this exercise a few times, bring your arms in front of you with your palms facing up. You will feel your shoulder blades being stretched out. If you cannot feel it, try crossing your arms over each other. Hold this position for however long you feel comfortable.
Our breathing is often overlooked because breathing is an automatic movement. As a musician, it's important to develop a strong air support system so we can produce our best sound and our best projection. For all of these exercises, make sure you have good posture. Good posture will help support your diaphragm.
In and Out
The in and out exercise is an easy exercise to do on your own or before band rehearsal. This exercise doesn't require your instrument. To do this exercise, first set the metronome at a moderate tempo. You'll breathe in for X amount of beats and then hold for five seconds. Then you'll breathe out for X amount of beats. You should be completely out of breath in the end. For example, breathe in for four counts, hold for five counts, and then breathe out for six counts. While you breathe in and out, keep the airstream strong and steady.
The product below, a breath builder isometric exerciser, strengthened my air support immensely. This product is a good alternative for students who are allergic to latex and cannot participate in the balloon exercise. You can also do the "In and Out" exercise with the breath builder. How it works is you'll breathe in and out through the straw with a constant and strong airstream. You want to keep the ball that is inside in the air. The smaller straw will give more resistance. I used this product throughout middle school because I had poor air support as a beginner clarinetist. I highly recommend this product to beginner clarinetists who need to strengthen their air support.
The balloon trick is really helpful for clarinetists. However, if you have a latex allergy this exercise won't work. To do this trick take the barrel and mouthpiece off of the rest of the clarinet. Attach the balloon to the end of the barrel. For bass clarinetists, attach the balloon to the end of the mouthpiece. Next, form your embouchure onto the mouthpiece and blow a steady airstream.
It will be difficult at first because the balloon adds a lot of resistance. Because there is a lot of resistance, you will want to puff your cheeks as if you're blowing up a balloon. However, you'll want to keep your clarinet embouchure in place. You may also squeak which means the embouchure is loose or there is too much mouthpiece in the mouth. This exercise will be successful if the balloon expands while maintaining a firm embouchure.
Long Tone Exercises
Clarinet long tones are incredibly important to the warm-up routine. Clarinet long tones target every aspect that a warm-up exercise should target: air support, breathing, embouchure, oral cavity, intonation, and color of sound. Long tone exercises also warm up the embouchure and diaphragm muscles. Long tones help us focus on the fundamentals. It's difficult to check in with the fundamentals while playing repertoire, especially if it's harder repertoire. Below, I will list long tone exercises that have helped me improve my fundamentals and, in the long run, improved my playing.
First, I pick a random note on the clarinet. I will usually pick two notes in each register when I practice this exercise. 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. The sound should be consistent, full, and projects well. 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.
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.
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.
Practicing clarinet scales improves and enriches important aspects of our playing. Scales improve our timing and tempo, intonation, finger coordination and dexterity, sight-reading, improvisation, articulation, and clarinet embouchure.
As a beginning clarinetist, I would practice my scales daily because my private lesson teacher assigned them. At the time, I didn't understand the importance of practicing scales so they felt more like a chore rather than an exercise that would make me a better clarinetist.
Once my private lessons ended, I slowly drifted away from practicing my scales. I thought practicing scales were boring and useless. At the time, it felt nice to not practice my scales but it hurt me in the long run. As a senior music education major in college, I have to work harder to perfect my scales because I had not practiced them daily as I should have.
It's easy to become bored with practicing scales every day. Throughout my college career, I have learned different strategies for practicing my scales so I don't become burnt out.
The first strategy that I learned from my clarinet professor is scale flashcards. You can make flashcards with index cards or on Quizlet. First, put every major and minor scale on a flashcard. I like to make each scale a different color. As an example, my major scales would be orange, harmonic minor scales would be green, melodic minor scales would be red, and so on. Every day, I would go through as many flashcards as I could. Another option is to pick a scale from each category and only focus on practicing those scales.
Practice with Friends
Practicing scales with friends is a great way to keep each other accountable. My friends and I would take turns choosing a scale and playing the scale for each other. After we played the scale, we would give each other feedback on how we can play the scale better.
Recording yourself while playing is a great strategy. Listening back to recordings allows us to hear things that we may not have heard while we were playing. Record yourself playing each scale. When you listen to the recording, listen for things that went well and things that can be improved.
Articulation and Dynamic combinations
Practice each scale with a variety of different articulations and dynamic combinations. One strategy that I learned from a saxophonist who was a senior music education major at the time is to write down at least three different articulation combinations. For example, slur-two-tongue-two, slur-three-tongue-three, and all slurred. Then, practice the scales with all three of those articulation combinations.
Technical exercises focus on the more technical aspects of music. Technical exercises may include pinky-key exercises, articulation exercises, register exercises, chromatic exercises, and chord exercises. Incorporating technical exercises into your daily warm-up routine will improve your technical playing, making it easier to break down technical repertoire.
The ability to sightread well is one of the most important skills to have as a musician. For almost any audition that you encounter, there will be a sightreading portion. Sightreading tests our understanding of the fundamentals: scales, key signatures, time signatures, accidentals, rhythm, maintaining a steady pulse, articulation, dynamics, and musicality. Sightreading may seem like it's an innate skill that only certain musicians have, but that is not true. Anyone can sightread well if they practice sightreading every day.
Sightreading has many other benefits other than preparing you for music auditions. Having the skill to sightread well opens up more opportunities for you to explore and play any kind of music.
To practice sightreading, simply choose a random excerpt that you have not played before. Set a timer for one minute and during that one minute, look over the music. Look for the time signature, key signature, tempo (if there is one marked), accidentals, dynamics, tricky rhythm patterns, and scale patterns. Once the one minute is up, play the excerpt as best as you can while maintaining a steady pulse and playing it musically. The more you practice sightreading, the less difficult it will become.
Establishing a warm-up routine and incorporating all of these components into the routine will greatly improve the fundamentals of your clarinet playing. Clarinet warm-ups will also prepare the body for extensive playing, as well as help prevents your body from injuries and muscle strain.