Why My Beginning Clarinets Only Need 1/2 their Instruments for the First Weeks of School

For more in-depth explanations on many of the points in this article, subscribe to the free clarinet podcast “Crossing the Break” on iTunes. The first 20 episodes are a detailed look at the first 2 months of beginning clarinet class. Episode 11 relates most directly to this article.

Many of us would agree that when teaching new concepts, it can often be helpful to isolate the idea we want the students to think about the most. The “new” part. Teaching a beginning clarinet player the first few weeks includes a TON of new things. Posture, air, embouchure, hand position, rhythm, foot tap, reading music, etc. (Notice I don’t mention tonguing. I hold off on teaching tonguing as long as possible.)

Again, I feel many of us would agree that tone is the most important concept – not just in the first 6 weeks, but the entire first year. Tone. Tone. Tone. Everything else is secondary.

It is common to start beginning clarinetists on mouthpiece and barrel. I do this as well. I strongly, strongly encourage you to continue to have students play on mouthpiece and barrel (to check pitch) at the beginning of class for many weeks.

Then most directors go from the mouthpiece and barrel to the entire instrument. This requires that – all at the same time – students must try to master both left and right-hand position, finger motion and, fairly quickly, note reading/music reading. They must also deal with a whole new level of resistance when blowing through the instrument and a strong support from the right thumb at the same time. That’s asking kids who are still developing the muscle memory for embouchure to add many different things all at once.

So, about 15 years ago, I started wondering why we have clarinet players add the entire instrument so ‘early’. Students only use the top joint for their first 5 notes. (I don’t have my students add right hand down as standard fingerings on open G. Post explaining why is here.) They can often play many pages in the beginning band book with just upper joint.

Clarinet has a perfect, built-in way to simplify the process of moving from mouthpiece/barrel to the full instrument in a much more gradual, natural way. It can avoid all kinds of bad habits. As you know if you listen to the CrossingTheBreak podcast, one of my big beginner band mantras is “No bad habits!”

1/2 instrument
Only have your students only add the upper joint. For quite a while.
Here are some reasons why:

    1. It is much less awkward. Most beginners, especially small ones, find holding the entire instrument very awkward and uncomfortable.
    1. There is less resistance when blowing through upper joint only. It is still considerably more than mouthpiece/barrel, but less than the entire instrument. So their embouchure muscles are gradually strengthened by adding small amounts of resistance.
    1. This allows them to use their left hand to hold a mirror and look at their embouchure as they play open G.
    1. When they add the left-hand position, they can concentrate much more on keeping their fingers perfect. Here’s what I tell them with regards to finger position:
      – Thumb barely touching the register key and very close to the thumb hole.
      – Fingers 1,2,3 are hovering as close as possible – PAD of the finger over the hole (not tip.)
      – Left Pinky key is touching the ‘upper joint pinky.’ (some directors call it the C# key)
    1. Their right hand is on the barrel and can help them to anchor on their top teeth firmly. When they move to the right thumb pushing up from the thumb rest they will have a better concept of what it should feel like if they have experienced it for a long time on upper joint.
    1. They will have less squeaks and greater success on the first songs they play. For all the reasons listed above, everything will feel less frustrating.
  1. You are eliminating the option for untold bad right-hand positions. By the time they add the bottom joint, the left hand and embouchure should feel so natural, that they can then focus much more attention on the right hand. Plus they will be actually using the right hand to play Bb, A etc. so it will have to be in the right place.

Here are a few more additional benefits that aren’t a big deal, but are a nice bonus. The first 6 weeks of school are chaotic in any beginning class, but especially in clarinet class. Anything you can do to limit chaos is a plus.

    • It doesn’t take students as long to get their instruments out and ready
    • Easier to monitor assembly as a group
    • Less corks to grease daily
    • Less chance of students breaking something due to assembly or awkwardness
  • Less time taking instruments apart

All of this translates to more order and more teaching time.

For heterogeneous classes – the open G should be ok with just upper joint and the F as well. As you get to E, somewhat D and absolutely C, you will have to either add the bottom joint or have the clarinets play alone. The C is basically a C# and the D is very sharp. See what you can come up with, (and let me know if you have a great solution!) but even if it’s just one week that they can play on upper joint, that’s certainly better than nothing.

***Also for heterogeneous classes, the students can put the bottom joint on but still hold the barrel with their right hand. That takes care of the D & C but still allows them to not have to add right-hand position and helps them continue to anchor correctly.

Remember the saying, “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘we’ve never done it that way before’.” Maybe this is one new idea you can try out this year.

A 1999 music education graduate of WTAMU, Tamarie Sayger held band director positions in Plano and Odessa, TX for 5 years. As a private clarinet instructor in Texas for 16 years, she has taught hundreds of students from grade 6-12 in classes, sectionals, and individual lessons. Mrs. Sayger has presented at district in-services and co-presented at the Texas Bandmasters Association convention. Her website, CrossingTheBreak.com, provides resources for clarinet teachers around the country.  Her podcast, Crossing The Break, can be found on iTunes.

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Clarinet Upper Joint