How I Teach Clarinet Embouchure

Students MUST have a mirror to watch so they can see what I’m talking about on their own face.

I teach clarinet embouchure with a story. This is what I say to the kids:

“Ok, so how many of you have ever had a milkshake in your life? Raise your hand. So almost everyone – if you haven’t you can use your imagination. Imagine you are at a restaurant that has really great milkshakes. And you’re dying for a milkshake and you order one and their machine is a little out of whack so it makes it extra thick. So imagine this yummy milkshake. It’s really thick and you’re so thirsty. But here’s the catch. They’re out of spoons and regular straws and the only thing they have there for you to drink it is a coffee straw. So imagine you have this really thick, yummy milkshake and you’re drinking it through a coffee straw. Show me what that would look like.”

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Teaching Clarinets to “Roll to A” Isn’t Enough

If you’re teaching clarinets to “Roll to A” that’s good – but it’s not enough.  The left index finger is usually considered to be THE most important finger to affect clarinet technique, especially in advanced music.  

Here are some other words and phrases to use as well as a great trick that lets kids visualize exactly where and how to place their finger.  At the end I have a simple exercise to use when teaching clarinet, but the magic is not in the exercise.  It’s in the words you use and the insistence on doing it right from day one.

Here’s what it looks like if they are rolling, but not correctly:



Notice how you can completely see the 1st hole.

Now here’s how it will look right:



Notice you can’t see the open 1st hole at all.  The two correct pictures look almost identical because there is so little motion between E and A.

Here’s some of the things you can say (many times) when teaching clarinets to roll to A…
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The Clarinet “Law of Minimal Motion”

With so many options for clarinet fingerings, there are certain rules we follow when determining which one to use depending on the passage. You can read the 4 Rules to Choosing the Best Clarinet Fingering here.

The 4th rule however – The Law of Minimal Motion – is more of a philosophy and appears over and over in different ways. Students will get better at determining how to use this philosophy to improve their technique the more you explain it and insist that they consider it.

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There are times when the Law of Minimal Motion is black and white. For example, if you have a C below the staff next to a  B natural and then to an A you would obviously use the middle B. So you would move a total of 2 fingers. You would add finger 5 and then add finger 4. If you chose to use the chromatic fingering – (some call it the sliver key or forked fingering – I call it the banana key) – you would be moving 4 fingers. You would add finger 4 plus banana and then add finger 5 and lift banana. So it is obvious that you use the most efficient fingering (2 fingers instead of 4). Most kids see this easily.

RPinkies (Click on picture to expand)

Let’s take a more subjective example. Let’s look at the right hand Low E/Middle B key.  The standard way to finger 3rd line B is the two home pinky keys. I call this regular B.  The alternate fingering for B is the key I call “BottomBottom” because it’s the bottom key on the bottom layer. When you play standard B you use 2 pinkies and 2 hands.  (You can play it with just left, but when using the standard fingering, you should put down both.)  When you use right hand B BottomBottom it is just the right finger. So one finger, one hand. 

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4 Rules to Choosing the Best Clarinet Fingering

Clarinet is an instrument with many alternate fingerings and adjusted fingering options which can be overwhelming to students.  It can also be overwhelming to band directors that do not have advanced experience playing the instrument. (After you read this article, print the free PDF hand out to give your students with the basic 4 rules.)

During times when you are helping a student choose the best clarinet fingering to use, you can arrive at the correct answer by following this process. As with anything, there are exceptions to these rules – especially when you get into high school level music and extreme key signatures. However if you use and teach this system as a basis, you can adjust as needed for tuning, tone and exceptions in special circumstances.

Rule #1  – Don’t slide

“Don’t Slide” example: If you have an Eb on the 4th space next to a C on the third space you would not slide from the Eb with the right pinky (I call this the TopTop key – top layer, top key) to the C with the right pinky (I call this the home key).  Since there is no alternate for Eb, you would finger the Eb Right TopTop and the C on the Left Golf Club key. (I call this the ‘golf club’ key because it looks like a golf club.)

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Why Are My Clarinets Playing Flat?

If you have clarinets playing flat, it needs to be addressed immediately as it is often a symptom of a much more significant problem. The good news is that by fixing the things mentioned below, it should not only improve their intonation, it should drastically improve their tone as well.

Mouthpiece & Barrel:
Have the students play for you individually on mouthpiece/barrel. The pitch should be an F# (concert pitch). If they are sharp, that’s ok (for now). They should not be flat. Let the child watch a tuner. (If they are up to pitch on mouthpiece/barrel but not on the instrument, skip down to the part about “adding the instrument.”) Have a mirror available so they can see what you are looking for.

If they are flat, address these things:

Voicing – They should be thinking/voicing “EEE” in their mouth. The tongue should be as high as possible. You can also say “high and forward.” Have them say “aaah” then “eee” to show them how much the tongue can move in their mouth. Then have them play and think “eee.” It’s possible they can pull the pitch up enough to hear it, kind of like a “siren.” Have them try to hold the pitch as high as possible and then keep thinking “eee” more.  You can also try having them say “hee.”

Anchor – The top of the mouthpiece should be firmly on the upper teeth. I highly recommend thick mouthpiece patches (See the article explaining why here.) If there is any way your band program can just pay to get them for all your clarinetists it is well worth the investment. If not, send out an email to parents asking them to get them as soon as possible. They should be securing the mouthpiece to the top teeth by pressing up at the angle of the instrument. (Not directly up to the ceiling, but more up into the teeth, mouth)

  • Check this by gently “wiggling” the mouthpiece as they play. It should not move at all.

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Crossing the Break on Clarinet – Smoothly!

There are many factors that contribute to clarinet players going smoothly from A to B in the staff. Many people call this “crossing the break” when really, the goal is to have NO break. I use the term “crossing the break” when talking to other teachers, but never when talking to students because I don’t want them to get in their mind that there is a “break” there. I say “going from no fingers to all fingers” or “moving from A to B” or something like that.

Obviously, the first step to crossing the break is to cover all the holes quickly and securely. When it seems like their fingers are doing the right thing and it’s still not smooth, air is probably the contributing factor. Here’s a visualization that may help.

I say this to the student:

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My Favorite Song for My Clarinets in May

This version of “Let’s Go Band” for clarinet is my favorite thing to do with my clarinets at the end of the year!

Now, I know what you’re thinking.
Let’s Go Band?
Come on.

But I promise this version is a great TEACHING version! I made it a couple years ago in May – I loved it and the kids really loved it!

“Let’s Go Band” for clarinet

Here’s what it teaches/reviews:

  • Chromatic Fingerings – Woohoo! After drilling these chromatic fingerings all year, the kids get to use them in a super fun song. Here’s what it covers:
    • sk F#
    • outside left C#
    • Banana F#
    • Banana B natural
  • Range – The last line takes the kids up to a high C# & D above the staff. Most years I get to that on the chromatic, but if you haven’t yet, this is a way to introduce it. If only a couple of your kids are ready for it, you can have most of the kids play line #2 again while the ones that are ready can go for #5.

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4 Clarinet Hacks – Better Clarinets in 30 Seconds

Here are 4 clarinet hacks that can greatly increase your student’s comfort and chance of success.

#1 Mouthpiece Patches
I LOVE mouthpiece patches!  I don’t really care that they protect the mouthpiece (though this can be a nice bonus).  I love them because it dulls the sense of vibration on the upper teeth.  Many students do not anchor to their top teeth because they don’t want to feel the vibration.  Adding a mouthpiece patch can fix that problem, and in turn improve their tone significantly in a short time.

There is a specific kind I like – not a brand necessarily, but there are 2 options and I definitely have a favorite. You’ll see a very thin, hard one that is often clear and a thicker, softer one that is usually black.  Get the black ones!  I’ve played on the clear and don’t feel like they help with vibration much at all. This is all about the comfort of the student so they are willing to play with a correct embouchure and black provides more of a cushion.

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