Clarinet Angle is Critical

[This post includes a wonderful personal story below, worth reading, even if you are not interested in clarinet mouthpiece angles]

Each person's mouth, teeth, jaw and lips are different. Each musician must find the optimum placement of vibrating part in their mouth to obtain the best sound and flexibility. Position of the instrument in relation to the mouth is critical.

Oboe and bassoon players play double reeds double lip. The reed vibrates on top and bottom (two reeds tied together), and the angle they play the reed tends to be more or less straight out from their mouth, allowing the reed to vibrate equally top and bottom without having to adjust their jaw un-naturally. Flutists can and must adjust their jaw according to pitch requirements, and their lips have critical role in optimizing sound.

But the clarinet mouthpiece is a hybrid between a solid apparatus, such as a flute or trumpet mouthpiece, and a completely vibrating one, such as oboe and bassoon. The clarinet mouthpiece is a set parameter, but the reed must be controlled carefully by the embouchure to create optimum sound and flexibility.

So what angle is best for the clarinet mouthpiece in the player's mouth? It depends....

The mouthpiece "facing" is one factor. The facing is the extremely subtle opening of the mouthpiece which allows the reed to "flap" against it, creating the sound. The shape of that opening is variable from mouthpiece to mouthpiece. Some are very open, some are close, some are long (open far down the mouthpiece) and some are short. And all combinations between. So the player's interaction with this opening via their embouchure, is critical. (I don't use the word "critical" lightly!)

Now we address the player's mouth. Several very famous and extremely influential American clarinetists, namely Daniel Bonade and Robert Marcellus, had severe over-bites, meaning their front teeth stuck way out over their bottom teeth. In the day before orthodontic braces could correct these issues, the player had to find a way around the limitations or peculiarities of their mouth. Those two famous players found that holding the clarinet at and angle very close to their chest allowed them to accommodate the reed's optimum needs.

Other players with different mouths need a different angle, and should not imitate how another player looks. Yet their influence was so great that a young player would naturally try to "look" like that great player in order to sound like him.

The bottom line is the reed's vibration. You can feel it and hear it if you pay attention. I tell my students, "feel the reed vibrating all the way down the reed, beyond your mouth" to encourage freedom of air and sound. In short, open your mouth slightly, and naturally, form an embouchure (without tightening or moving your jaw), stick the clarinet mouthpiece in, and play. Now, without changing your jaw, move the clarinet angle up and down, and listen/feel. Find the "sweet spot" where the reed is free, but you have control.

Since I began to experiment with double tonguing and circular breathing, I have had to seek a more "optimum" angle to allow maximum reed flexibility. This ended up being somewhat more "out" from my body than before. After you read the story below, you'll see how important the angle can be.

I recently had a fascinating discussion with Arne Running, a freelance clarinetist and composer living in Philadelphia, about these issues. (You can read about him at his website http://www.arnerunning.com/) I would like to quote his story below to elucidate the importance of finding the best "functional" angle between your mouth and the mouthpiece you are playing.

First a bit of introduction. About a year ago, Arne wrote me an email after hearing a broadcast of the Columbus Symphony playing live from Carnegie Hall in New York. He was generous in his comments, and we have stayed somewhat in touch. He reads my blog, and heard some of the recordings I posted recently. He wrote again to me asking, "When I hear this, and also your Debussy Rhapsody which I listened to last week, I wonder why you are doing so much experimenting with mouthpieces and reeds these days; whatever you were using then sounds pretty ideal to my ears."

I answered "You help me to re-ask that question. Why do I fiddle with equipment? Changing my setup can undermine my stability when I don't stick with one long enough to get used to it. I went back to my Lelandais yesterday and it feels pretty darn nice. Thanks for reminding me to get my act together and settle down."

He answered, "Actually I have been a serial equipment switcher all my life, too. As I may have mentioned the first time I wrote to you, I have always struggled with sound production issues... I think I finally found the key for me. (And equipment was not part of the solution.) Lots of things came together. And I credit a year's worth of Alexander lessons for being a part of it."

I asked him to continue and fill in the details of his story. You'll also see how teachers, even famous ones, often do not solve critical problems of use. I attempt to address such issues with each student, adjusting my recommendations to balance the strengths of different players.

I graduated high school as a player who played music with almost no awareness that there was an instrument in my hands—it was 90% ecstatic immersion in the music, in the feelings expressed by the music. I headed off to the New England Conservatory to study with Rosario Mazzeo, who at my very first lesson proclaimed that he would make me into "one of the top 4 or 5 players in the world" (italics mine). So I felt confidence in his confidence. What caused him to feel that way was my technical and musical fluency. It was only gradually that various sound production faults began to be clear to him, and especially to me.

By the end of my junior year at the Conservatory, I was really unhappy with tonal impediments and went to Philadelphia to study with Anthony Gigliotti for the summer. At last I had found what I was looking for: he spent little time on musical issues, but instead focused on anatomical issues (medical diagrams of the diaphragm and lungs, etc.) and on equipment issues (scraping mouthpiece baffles, etc.). I was sure this approach would get to the root of my sound production problems.

I returned to Boston to finish my senior year, but hurt Mazzeo's feelings by finishing the year with another teacher. Upon graduation, I eagerly headed to Temple University to get a master's degree with Mr. Gigliotti. I loved him and thought for sure I was in the proper hands. But again, my technical and musical fluency must have masked my sound production problems, because they didn't seem to be a matter of concern to Gigliotti.

At the conclusion of my Master's recital, Gigliotti confides that of all the Curtis recitals he had heard over the years, mine was "second to none." (You do not forget words like those....)

So then it was audition-taking time. Off I went to Montreal, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore, etc. Some successes in early rounds, but no job. And my shortcomings were becoming clearer and clearer. But I did have a job playing principal in the Pennsylvania Ballet orchestra, so I had a modest career.

Then came the "nervous breakdown" at age 30—a "classic" age area for persons to have crises (as I have learned from reading many biographies). I thought I was the worst failure ever. I quit the Ballet after a run of exhausting Nutcrackers, put my clarinets under my bed, and breathed a sigh of relief that that part of my life was over.

Three months later, my career ruined (what can demonstrate mental instability more than quitting a job mid-season?—I guess Sarah Palin knows a thing or two about that!), I dragged my clarinets out from under the bed and started playing purely for my own personal pleasure—and not to please a teacher or a conductor or a critic or an audition committee. Gradually word got out that I was playing again, and soon I was back in the freelance scene, but with an entirely different attitude. It was at this time, though, that I fell under the spell of all the great "vibrating" clarinetists in England in those years (1970s).They played with so much more flexibility and freedom than here in the U.S. But my intuitions about sound production were still very distorted and immature, and I totally misperceived how the British players were achieving their tonal freedom. My attempts to replicate it were very misguided and only resulted in further tonal deterioration.

This mode continued until perhaps the mid 80s. At this point I finally found a "teacher" who could be at my side at nearly every rehearsal and every concert, to give me honest, objective feedback about sound and tuning and response. This teacher gradually, over these many years, has helped to nourish more accurate intuitions about sound. The teacher's name? SONY!

Yes, taking a portable recording device with me to rehearsals and performances has enabled me to put two and two together in the way that normally gifted sound-producers do intuitively at a young age.

Along the way, the path was littered with many dozens of different mouthpieces, ligatures, embouchures, reed fixing experiments, etc., etc.

So, what did I discover this summer that seems to be the big new key? Sorry to disappoint you, but it is simply this: clarinet angle. Not having had good intuitions, I have always held the clarinet as I saw demonstrated by most of the great American players. Daniel Bonade, who had an extreme overbite and thus held the clarinet very close to his body, set a precedent which would influence successive generations of American players. (Whenever I saw a fine German or English player holding his instrument out almost like an oboist, I always used to think, "how can they play like that?" And by the way, why DO oboists in general hold their instruments at a higher angle than we clarinetists? Do they instinctively know something we could learn from?)

One thing I should say here: For the past 15 or so years I have gotten into all sorts of weird siting positions, including holding the bell with my knees, convincing myself that I didn't have normal mouth muscle strength and that was why I couldn't achieve the embouchure functioning I was looking for. Even after becoming hyper aware of Alexander Technique principles beginning a year ago, I still felt I couldn't play standing or sitting "straight" with no support for the instrument other than embouchure and thumb.

This summer, I went for it! I sat in my chair in a balanced, poised Alexander mode, I brought the clarinet to the embouchure (not the head to the clarinet), with my arms moving unimpeded and naturally, and lo and behold, the clarinet came in at a decidedly higher angle than before.

Don't we clarinetists all feel that the center of the lower lip should have the sensation of forward "movement" down the reed as we play—thus enabling the reed to be "spring-loaded" on the facing, rather than pinched? Because of my particular bite, if I hold the clarinet closer as before, the forward momentum of the lower lip causes the reed to be pressed UP against the facing of the mouthpiece, thereby restricting (pinching) the reed's vibration. When I use the new slightly higher angle, the forward momentum of the lip is able to travel DOWN the facing, creating a situation where the reed is "spring-loaded" and eager to spring away from the facing. Finally! After so many years of "faking" decent sound, response and pitch, at last I am beginning to experience what normally-gifted sound producers discover in their teens or twenties.

Here is a wonderfully coincidental postscript to all this: Just last week I ran into Ronald Reuben, the great former bass clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was eager to tell me his latest discovery about playing the clarinet. "Artie Shaw!" he exclaimed. "I finally figured out how Artie played like he did!" And then he proceeded to mime moving his imaginary clarinet to a higher playing angle. I, of course, excitedly confided that I had recently discovered the same thing. I asked Ron if he literally had begun holding the instrument STRAIGHT out, as Shaw did, and he said no, just higher than before. I asked if he was utilizing the higher angle only for jazz playing, and he said no, it was for everything.

Well David, this is all much more than you asked for. Sorry. I just felt like writing it out as a cathartic exercise.

But truthfully, and I think I told you this when I first discovered your blog, your honest revelations about your own journey have been inspiring for me. Thanks.

I think it's a wonderful story, and it illustrates the life changing importance of finding the right clarinet angle for YOU. Play around with it. Don't imitate the way someone looks. Listen, listen, feel, think! And trust.

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14 comments for “Clarinet Angle is Critical

  1. Przemek
    November 25, 2011 at

    Hi,
    Does holding the instrument further away from the body raise the pitch for you?

  2. frenchy64
    October 11, 2010 at

    This article got me experimenting with clarinet angle, with enlightening results!

    I've suffered from a horrible biting embouchure that was so bad that I decided to switch to double lip to give myself any chance of getting rid of it. Gradually over the past year I've been isolating and fixing problems, and my sound is much fuller, but I've still been struggling to find the "right" spot to play.

    As an exercise I tried to move my jaw in and out as I varied the clarinet angle, to a point that I get a controlled sound at any angle from almost straight to Artie Shaw.

    Priceless exercise, never really have given much attention to the angle of the clarinet relative to the embouchure formation. Has an amazing influence on the sound.

    For me, after a bit of experimentation (using my natural jaw formation as you suggested) I found I was holding my clarinet about 10 degrees further out that my natural jaw formation accommodated.

    My older setup resulted in pushing my jaw out to compensate, which quickly turned back into a semi biting embouchure. This never felt like a "solid" setup, having a very floaty feel (that I misdiagnosed as a double lip problem), and holes in the upper lip are never fun.

    With the clarinet angle lower, my jaw doesn't have the tendency to move, and the whole setup fells more secure.

    I did note the angle that felt the most secure had me moving my jaw back slightly from the natural jaw drop*. I can feel my jaw poking out towards my ear lobes. Maybe it felt more secure because I could concentrate on keeping my jaw slightly back, and resisting any temptation to move my jaw forward, which always snowballs into disaster.

    *Then again, it is very close to a natural jaw drop if I thought of the jaw opening as if on hinges, instead of literally dropping it towards the ground, which is something I've never considered funnily enough. What are you thoughts on this?

    I'll be doing a lot more experimentation with this. Thanks David 🙂

    Ambrose

    • October 11, 2010 at

      Hello Ambrose- Good thinking about the jaw moving like a hinge rather than simply straight down. It naturally moves in an "arc", curving a bit toward the neck as it opens.

      To help w biting, practice air attacks as a warm up. Do a C scale, gently hissing until you get a sound for each note, then going back to hiss. If you go up two octaves, you'll find it hard to resist biting as you go higher, but don't bite. Instead, feel the note being "formed" in your air as you blow. Also, push your top lip on the mouthpiece, as if pushing into double lip.

      Let me know how these ideas work for you. I would be happy to give you a free Skype lesson if you have a video on your computer.

      David

      • frenchy64
        October 11, 2010 at

        Great reason to buy a webcam 🙂

        You talked about the top lip, do you mean form my usual double lip embouchure? I've grown quite attached to it, and I struggle to find a single lip setup that doesn't get me into old habits of biting. Do you recommend I work on both?

        As I understand it theoretically the two should be identical except for the top lip, but when I try and form a single lip embouchure that feels like a double lip, my top lip gets pinched between my top teeth and the mouthpiece when I snug the clarinet up.

        To be honest, I haven't worked on single lip for a long time so my memory might be hazy 🙂 I'll try your suggestions tomorrow and report back.

        Ambrose

      • October 11, 2010 at

        Double lip is great if you have enough stamina and can articulate that way. I played double for a year, then switched back.

        With single lip, if you think top lip tall, pushing mp down, it accomplishes what double does; it helps raise the soft palette. (Another way to do that is to think of smelling something really yummy, like pancakes w butter and maple syrup, which opens up your soft palette nicely! :D)

      • frenchy64
        October 11, 2010 at

        Haha wow, that's a much better way of opening the soft palette than working out how to half yawn. I've been struggling to find a method that doesn't encourage tension around the throat. Thanks 🙂

        Do you ever use double lip for practicing any more? I find it's a great tool for identifying heavy fingers and gives me smoother lines in legato passages, but the latter is probably because of my poor single lip.

      • October 11, 2010 at

        Glad my advice helped!

        Once you figure out the soft palette issue, you no longer need double lip. Your quality of air and support will better outline issues like "heavy fingers and smoother lines in legato". Try practicing some Flow Breathing for a few days, then approach Suspended Support. Both articles are available by search on this site.

        Best,
        David

  3. Raymon T
    March 12, 2010 at

    A very interesting and, in my case, satisfying story. I found this blog entry by searching 'clarinet mouthpiece angle' – I play saxophone and bass clarinet and have recently taken up the soprano clarinet. I have been dissatisfied with my tone and intonation, and have been experimenting with different angles (as well as everything else!). I also found that a higher angle provided great improvement (and some unfamiliar muscle aches), but I thought that maybe there was some 'proper' position that I just wasn't aware of. I was brought up to believe (from my dad) that no-one ever played as well as Artie Shaw, and now I know why! Thanks again for the story. By the way, I recently attended a concert by Sabine Meyer (who, wearing a long black dress, looks exactly like a clarinet herself), and noted that she adjusted her angle as she played – I have been thinking about it since.

    • March 13, 2010 at

      Thanks for your comment, Raymon. You have obviously thought a lot about it, and I’m glad my article on it confirmed your thinking. There is not a set or “normal” angle for the clarinet in your mouth.

      As you noted, some clarinetists, including Sabina, move it up and down according to need. Though I wouldn’t recommend doing that unless you are very, very comfortable with your current angle, embouchure and air support.

      Even different mouthpieces can affect the angle required to sound best in relation to your embouchure.

      The keys to remember and test at each angle variation are 1- tone 2- control at all dynamics 3- response and articulation.

      Best Regards,
      David

  4. January 19, 2010 at

    "Listen, listen, feel, think! And trust." I think this can be held true for many instruments. I've never played the clarinet at all, but I've played many other instruments (trombone, saxaphone, piano, etc…) and you've always got to find what works for you.

  5. November 16, 2009 at

    Wow, you've got a very interesting site here, my friend. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on teaching our students how to learn, understand, love and enjoy music as well as playing the clarinet and other musical instruments. I admire your passion for music and your motivation to teach at your best. Music teachers like us need to find more and more creative and innovative music teaching resources to elevate the levels of interest and motivation of our dear students. Your drive and love for music teaching can be your effective tools to achieve professional growth and excellence. Keep up the good work and continue to pass the good news unto our fellow music teachers out there. Til your next posts! See you around.

  6. November 13, 2009 at

    David Blumburg suggested the following simple guidelines for clarinet angle: "Depending on the type of dental occlusion makes the angle change. Overbite, underbite, or normal – overbite more inward, underbite more outward, and next to the knee for normal bite."

  7. November 11, 2009 at

    Interesting story. Will try out several angles tomorrow – perhaps I will be surprised!

    • November 11, 2009 at

      Hi Joar- Yes, you are young, and you need to find what works best now so you can progress as quickly as possible.

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