Risking it all for a good tone

The Ministry of Health must cringe at what I sometimes do in lessons. In fact, one could argue that I am recklessly endangering my health to assist my students in achieving the elusive perfect clarinet tone.

Meningococcal is no joke. It can spread by nose and throat secretions (i.e. snot and saliva) and is sometimes associated with the sharing of drink bottles between young people. Symptoms go from flu-like to rashes that take over your body. Amputation of limbs might be required as the bacterial infection spreads, unless it kills you first.

…And that is why a cringe every time I feel compelled to play my student’s clarinet; something I have to in order to narrow down what prevents a student from realising that dark, mellow clarinet tone. After demonstrating all sorts of embouchure and airflow techniques, playing their clarinet is sometimes the only way to figure out what is really happening.

I had to do this again today. My teenage student is very close to pulling off a good sound but the tone it often thin and weak. Is the reed too soft? Is his embouchure not strong enough? Is he using the wrong muscles?

In the end I played his clarinet and lucky for me, he hadn’t slobbered all over the mouthpiece. Phew. It’s pretty gross to see a student not able to control their saliva to the point that it dribbles outside the mouthpiece. Even just a soggy reed means something wrong is happening.

Then there are the students that don’t pull their clarinet or sax fully apart after use, resulting in mountains of mould under the reed in all sorts of colours. Mmmm, tasty.

So a quick wipe and play revealed that the reed that was too soft. Just to prove that observation I used his clarinet and my reed and it was sounding pretty good. Sometimes swapping out the mouthpiece but keeping the clarinet and reed the same is required to ascertain if its actually the mouthpiece that is useless and gosh, have I heard and played some horrific student mouthpieces. One was from a purple coloured clarinet where the rails of the mouthpiece were so long that air escaped between reed and mouthpiece right where the ligature was! It was incredible; you basically had to swallow the mouthpiece to prevent air leaking in order to get a sound out.

Back to today’s lesson; at that point I got my student to play with his clarinet and my reed so that he could get the feel of what exactly it is that he should be aiming for in regards to the resistance of a reed. It was promising as his tone sounded denser. Sure, he’ll probably get tired quicker but the slightly stronger reed will encourage the correct mouth muscles to do the work.

Problem solved, now it’s just up to the student to buy some harder reeds (probably some Vandoren 3 1/2), or at least go through the rest of his opened box to find the hardest ones there.

A tip: if the reed is a little soft, lifting it higher in the mouthpiece exposes the thicker part of the reed to vibration, somewhat simulating a harder reed. Just don’t go knocking it on your teeth.

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