The First Clarinet Lesson

In the space of 30 minutes the pressure is on to teach your new student as much as you can. That way they have enough knowledge to play some fun pieces before the next lesson.

Whether the student is 7 years old and their parent is sitting in, or the student is a 45 year old builder by trade, the drill is essentially the same (although wrapped in appropriate language for the student). Hopefully by the end of it all, they’re all least busting out the telephone version of Mary Had a Little Lamb (the three-note version, as opposed to the four note version).

The drill

Here’s a summary of what to cram into 30 minutes.

Setting up the instrument

Pictures would make this a lot easier, but here are the basic steps.

  • Open the case. On the ground, and make sure it’s not upside down! It’s a face-palm moment when those two aren’t done.
  • Grab the bell of the clarinet (the bottom bit)
  • Grab the lower joint and hold it about the keywork rods that extend to the low note pads. This ensure that no keys are pressed down when we Twist and push
  • this lower joint into the bell

  • Grab the upper joint and hold it across the keys so that the it raises the lever that links the two joints together. When twist-pushing the upper joint into the lower joint, we need that lever raised, or the student might bend something. That wouldn’t be a good start.
  • Barrel next
  • Mouthpiece. Make sure it’s up the right way
  • Reed (fun times here)

Positioning the Reed

Here are few things of note when placing the reed.

  • Some ligatures have a flatter side. Make sure that flatter side is against the reed. Generally the ligature is round so the way around is personal preference (unless you’ve got a leather one like me).
  • Make sure the ligature isn’t too high. A shiny part of the reed should always show above the ligature. Some mouthpieces even have lines to guide the ligature placement
  • Personally, I prefer to put the ligature on first, then slide the reed in. I don’t like the idea of dropping the ligature on the reed by mistake, but hey, if the clarinet students during my time at the University of Auckland Music School do it, it can’t be that bad. (Although, I’ve seen students break reeds this way).
  • In regards to the height of the reed, you juuuust want to see a little bit of black of the tip of the mouth piece behind it. If you lift the reed and can still see black, you had it too low still.

Sometimes the student forgets their ligature (I’m not sure where they place it at home, but it happens), so what to do? Well, I used to use rubber bands but those things are a flaming nuisance to put on, so I’ve opted for Sellotape. It works really well, the reception always has some and it looks super-ninja because the clear Sellotape can’t be seen against the mouthpiece.

On a side note, the old-school way of attaching the reed was to use string, which is why very old clarinets have grooves in the mouthpiece.


The First Note

I like the first note to be a one finger, one thumb E. By making sure that the right thumb is under the thumb rest, the clarinet will be in a balanced playing position with the hands in their fundamental position.

Here’s how I describe the blowing part.

  • Stick the mouthpiece in your mouth (simple, eh)
  • Teeth are about 1cm down the mouthpiece. They should always be used to hold on for grip, but don’t bite. The mouthpiece ought to have a teeth guard (sticker) or else there will be crazy vibrations.
  • The embouchure is shaped as if saying tooooo (not taaaaah)
  • Cheeks never puff out


Really, really long Es until they run out of breath.


For wind players, tonguing is of the utmost importance and can’t be left till next lesson. Slurs are easy, tonguing is not and it’s tonguing that is 90% of all articulation (and I’m making up 100% of these stats).

Sometime a student gets tonguing right away. “It’s just like whacking the reed with your tongue,” I say, and demonstrate with the nail of my straightened index finger hitting the mid part of the reed.

Tonguing is difficult to describe because you can’t see it. One doesn’t actually tongue the tip of the reed, it’s actually as far down as the reed as possible. It’s not like it can go further than your bottom lip.

I have a great little tonguing drill that I like to use to get the student used to using their tongue.

  • Stick it in your mouth like before
  • Make sure the tongue is pressing against the reed. (The tongue is actually always touching the reed believe it or not)
  • Try and blow an E out the instrument, but you can’t, because the tongue is in the way.
  • Now, while still trying to push the air out, quickly release the pressure of the tongue against the reed. Boom, sound!
  • Do the same thing again, but this time stop the sound but slapping the tongue back down on the reed.
  • Repeat again and again, reducing the amount of time the tongue is pressed against the reed. Soon, voila, perfect tonguing.

Soft reeds

Soft 1 1/2 reeds are good for getting a sound out, but blow too hard and they kind of seize up (soft reeds are impossible to play loud). They’re also very flexible/bendy, so a student that has an embouchure the squeezes the reed against the mouthpiece too much is going to strangle the sound into nothing.

For a young student, this generally isn’t an issue, but for older students and especially adults, there’s a good chance that if they’re not getting a sound out, the reed is too soft. Short of getting a harder reed, the only practical temporary measure is to lift the reed higher so that it exposes the thicker part of the reed. Now they just have to be careful they don’t bang it against their teeth!

Self Learning for a Week

Hopefully this 30 minutes is enough to give the student enough knowledge to put the instrument together and start exploring not just their homework (Mary Had a Little Lamb) but other material in their book. After all, the teacher’s job is really to teach the student how to figure the music out themselves. Strangely, the goal is teach our way out of a job.

The images are sourced from and


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