Teaching Clarinet: Introducing Articulation

Teaching Clarinet: Introducing Articulation

By NAfME Member Wendy Higdon

Article originally posted on On and Off the Podium

For the fifth and final post in this series, I will be focusing on my method for introducing articulation to beginning clarinetists. (The process for saxophone is similar.) While the previous posts discussed the first four lessons in chronological order, it is worth noting that I typically do not introduce articulation on day five. In a typical year, introduction of articulation for my clarinet students would happen around the eighth or ninth lesson. 

Here’s why. . . 

Image courtesy Wendy Higdon

How many of us have started our young single reed students out in the tonguing process to find that as soon as we do, everything else we have taught regarding embouchure and breathing flies out the window? Our flute and brass players seem to be able to figure out how to articulate without too many “casualties,” why can’t our reed players? Well, let’s think about the physical process of playing a reed instrument as compared to playing flute or brass. The big difference here – and this is huge – is that on flute and brass the mouthpiece does not go inside the mouth. As such, the tongue placement when articulating on these instruments is pretty similar to our tongue placement when we speak. Not so with reed instruments. The mouthpiece takes up a lot of space inside the mouth which requires an adjusted tongue placement (translation: It’s awkward). 

Articulation on single reed instruments is, in my opinion, significantly more challenging than on other wind instruments.

As a result, articulation on single reed instruments is, in my opinion, significantly more challenging than on other wind instruments.

Other reasons that I delay teaching articulation on single reeds by a few lessons:

  • Maintaining a proper embouchure during articulation is essential to student success, and I want my young musicians to have as much time as I can give them to develop this skill.
  • Correct tongue placement (“ee” vowel shape) is crucial, and the first days of learning the clarinet do not give us ample time to work on, monitor and develop this skill. 
  • Students need to be able to have a consistent airstream that has focus and direction in order to articulate successfully, and they need to have time to develop consistency before we add in articulation. 

The Process

  1. Start by having the students touch the end of their tongue with their index finger. This is so students will be able to feel the spot on the tongue that will be making contact with the reed. 
  2. Then show students the exact location on the reed where the tongue will touch. (See photo above). Many method books and pedagogical resources talk about “tip to tip” articulation on the clarinet. However, as you can see in the photo, the tongue does not touch the true tip of the reed. Make sure that your students understand the exact location of contact.
  3. The next step is to have the students stick their tongues out of their mouths and touch the location on the reed identified in step two with the part of the tongue that was identified in step one. (This is done outside of the mouth so that it is easier for the teacher to monitor and so that students do not have to think about forming the embouchure.) 

The next four steps must be done in extreme slow motion in order to be effective. I explain these steps first, write them on the board and then demonstrate them before the students attempt them. Always teach articulation on the mouthpiece/barrel set-up (“mini clarinet”)

  1. Set the embouchure.
  2. Place the tip of the tongue on the reed in the location identified above and keep it there
  3. Blow. Now, with the tongue in place on the reed, there will be no sound. In fact, the air will not be able to move past the reed at all, and students should feel some back pressure. (Monitor this step carefully as this is where you will really be able to tell whether the tongue is on the reed.) 
  4. Bring the tongue down off the reed, resulting in the clarinet sounding. Note that the tongue should move up and down, never back and forth.
teaching clarinet
Image courtesy Wendy Higdon

I love this four-step process because it is simple enough for kids to remember, yet it breaks the process down into its most basic components. Once you get this going, it is essential that you hear every student individually and in slow motion so that you can eliminate incorrect technique before it becomes habit. I also have the students spend time practicing tonguing with a soft air stream that will not produce a clarinet tone. This allows the careful listener to actually hear what the tongue is doing without any masking by the clarinet sound. It also keeps the classroom from sounding like an angry herd of geese! 

Now repeat this process again and again while gradually decreasing the amount of time between each step. Once you get the kids tonguing at a normal speed, make sure that their air stream remains constant, steady, smooth and does not stop at all between notes.

With proper attention to detail and lots of individual monitoring in the early stages of development, your young clarinetists will be articulating with great technique in no time! 


I sincerely hope you have found these posts helpful and I wish you the best for a great start to your school year. If you haven’t already, check out my previous posts in the Teaching Clarinet series! 

Until next time!

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About the author:

band director

NAfME Member Wendy Higdon is the Director of Bands and Unified Arts Department Chair at Creekside Middle School in Carmel, IN. She began her career as Director of Bands at Lebanon Middle School (IN) in 1991 and came to Carmel Clay Schools in 1999 where she taught band at Carmel Middle School until the opening of Creekside in 2004. Under her leadership, the per forming arts programs at Creekside have grown from 400 students in 2004 to nearly 900 students this year. 

To read more about Wendy, visit the About Me section on On and Off the Podium.

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Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, September 26, 2016. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)