Small Hands, Big Stretch

How young is too young to learn clarinet or saxophone? I’ve taught clarinet students as young as 7 and personally, I also started learning clarinet as a 7 year old. Despite the physical challenges a youngster faces with less strength and smaller hands, success generally comes down to maturity and enthusiasm for music. That and perhaps how much their parents enforce practise.

But how big of a hurdle is it for these kids to reach all the keys?

Air escape

One of the hardest things about playing clarinet is covering the holes properly. Unlike the flute or saxophone, all the basic notes are open holes that require the fingers to create the seal; there are no pad-like keys to perfectly seal the hole off. If the fingers aren’t properly sealing the tone holes then air escapes and when that happens, get ready for some nasty sounds or no sound at all.

I like to demonstrate the air-escape-squeak to my students just to show how unforgiving it is to let any air escape. Leave the first finger hole open just a smidgen and nothing happens; no sound. Over blow that nothingness and there’s a good chance it’s going to squeak.

I’m careful not to give the impression that the clarinet is some super difficult instrument to play but it’s useful to unravel the mystery for them as to why some of the squeaks occur.

Sealing the gaps

Just to emphasise to my students the challenge they face, I put the palm of my hand against theirs.

“Wow!” they say.

Yes, there is a big different in hand size.

Strategies to help

Even though a student’s ability to reach all the keys tends to require patience and perseverance on their part as they gradually get used to the feel of where their fingers go (and as their tendons nimble up so that they can stretch more), there are a few things that can help.

Rest the clarinet bell on something.
A heavy clarinet will start to tire the fingers and wrists. I remember as a youngster practising at home cross legged on the floor with the bell of the clarinet resting on the carpet. In classes I suggest the student rest the bell on my upturned clarinet case so as to take the weight, this way their hands can get better aligned. It’s possible to by neck straps but these tend to be a little unwieldy for them.

Don’t play for too long
After a while, fatigue sets in and it’s all down hill from there. With youngsters, they start to struggle at about the 20 minute mark so I make sure we (as teacher and student) take turns at playing something. For example, I get the student to play (or sightread) the material first. We stop and I explain a few things before they have a second attempt. After that attempt I then explain a few more things but this time I do the playing. Normally this is enough to give their hands and wrists a rest.

Alternately there’s the clarinet case to rest the bell on or just playing different tunes that are less taxing. I remind my students that practise becomes a bit counter productive if fatigued hands are struggling to hold up the clarinet. Gradually getting worse as time goes on is a self esteem killer.

As a teacher there is sometimes merit in making a student struggle to the end in order to see how they deal with the situation but when it comes to youngsters and a heavy clarinet, you don’t want to put the enjoyment at risk.

Promote good hand posture
There’s a particular technique to holding the clarinet. The fingers have to be perpendicular to the clarinet and quite straight (not bent and digging into the holes of the clarinet). The result is a hand shape that looks a little like what you’d do when making a basic shadow puppet.

Unfortunately this is a very difficult shape for small hands that eventually tire. The result is that the wrists give up, the clarinet droops and the fingers are now at a 45 degree angle to the clarinet. This isn’t all bad news, it’s just important to realise that it’s not ideal. As a kid I remember using the Eb side key as an extra finger rest for my right forefinger; you could tell from the big mark left in my finger.

That being said, there are certain notes that are impossible with the ‘ideal’ finger posture. The thumb hole and register key is ideally played with the thumb straight and perpendicularly out from the clarinet; a rolling action should be able to cover the hold and hit the register key but this is next to impossible to achieve with a small thumb. The only solution is to have the thumb diagonal (or almost parallel) to the the clarinet. This isn’t ideal because it pulls the left wrist and palm closer to the clarinet which in turn forces the fingers to bend more. Bent fingers aren’t very agile.

Try playing scales
Once the student has managed to honk out some low G, F and Es it’s a good idea to try some scales such as a G major of F major. It’s not only a good opportunity to learn some scales and a means for the student to get used to the fingers moving about the clarinet, but also a way of exposing exactly which note starts leaking air. It’s important to point this out to the student who is sometimes in so much of a rush to get to the bottom that they don’t realise exactly where it all starts to go wrong. Usually as they get lower the hand starts to stretch off the tone holes. The low G finger hole tends to be the first to go wrong but the reality is no particular hole is immune.

Sometime a student will insist on massaging their fingers about the non-playing-note until it works but I find this is counter productive. Some students will even try and look at their fingers, which puts their positioning out of whack even further. Sure, knowing what’s down there is useful but beyond that, it’s not helpful at all. In trying to investigate which of their fingers have come off by taking a look, all their other fingers have slid off.

Answer? Play a descending scale into those notes again. Alternatively, get them to totally reset themselves by taking all the fingers off then putting them all down again. Usually this is enough to break the tension that has built up.

Mighty saxophones

“[insert child’s name here] would really like to play the saxophone. Do you think this is a good idea?”

This is a question often asked by a youngster’s parent(s). Sometimes a youngster really wants to play that really big shiny instrument they saw in the music store; the saxophone. Unfortunately their hands are just too small so the music store assistant (wisely) suggests that they try the clarinet first.

The poor ol’ African Blackwood clarinet just doesn’t look as awesome as the shiny brass saxophone.

Take a tenor saxophone for example. Kids can’t even get their hand around the instrument, let alone reach the side keys.

The Clarinéo

The Lyons C clarinet and the more modern Clarinéo by Nuvo are a fantastic non-recorder way for youngsters to take their first steps into the world of woodwind playing. They’re surprisingly good. Sure, they sound like a cheap plastic clarinet with a plastic reed (which they are) but the key work is essentially true to woodwind playing and the skills learnt are transferable.

I’ve never taught a student using a Clarinéo but one student did have a C clarinet. With a slightly shorter length it offered a little advantage for reaching keys but ultimately when they bought their own clarinet, Bb was the way to go.

They get it in the end

Ultimately the students succeed. When the low E and F notes are first introduced to the student it’s an absolute mission for them to play, yet by the following week’s lesson, they’ve made huge strides. Generally what gets them in the end is fatigue; holding the clarinet up is like a gym session for the thumb and wrists.

I can offer the above guidance but ultimately it’s just a matter of perseverance and reminding them that yes, their hands will get tired and yes, they have to stretch heaps.

Big hands, poor stretch

Event though I have big hands that can navigate around the clarinet and sax quite well, I actually have appalling finger span. I can’t do the Captain Spock “live long and prosper” gesture and once when I was holding a friend’s bassoon during orchestra rehearsal, I noticed that my left hand third finger couldn’t stretch/span enough to cover the third open hole. It seems my hands have optimised themselves to playing clarinet and sax.

I guess I won’t be a concert pianist any time soon.

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