Teaching Clarinet: The Third Lesson
By NAfME Member Wendy Higdon
It’s an exciting day! Today is the day that my students will take home their clarinets for the very first time. Read more about how I structure the third lesson for my clarinet class so that students are set-up for success!
As the students arrive for class, I ask them to do the following:
- Retrieve their instrument case.
- Sit on the floor and open their case carefully, making sure that the top of the case is up.
- Put cork grease on all of the tenon corks.
- Wait patiently for further instructions.
Refining the Body Position
Once everyone has completed those steps, I ask the students to close their cases for now and set them to the right side of their chairs. We stand and review proper body position. (See my blog post, “Teaching Clarinet: The Very First Lesson” for more details. As this is the third day, I will begin to add a little more information as we address this skill. Points that I emphasize:
- Weight should be evenly distributed on both feet, which should be flat on the floor.
- Shoulders should be down and tension free.
- Students should gently push their spine toward their belly button.
- The body should feel physically soft and natural.
- The head should float like a helium balloon right in the middle of the shoulders.
- Arms should be hanging down at our sides naturally.
Once we can create good body positions while standing, we lower to our chairs and try to recreate the same feeling. I will have the students go back and forth between a standing and seated position several times to solidify the idea that nothing changes from the waist up in our posture as we change from standing to sitting.
I will also spend a little time with breathing at this point. The teaching approach to breathing could be an entire article on its own, so I am not going to delve deeply into that here. I will just share a few things I try to keep in mind as I instruct students.
- Breathing is a natural process and I do not want to overwhelm students with information. I subscribe to a “less is more” philosophy when it comes to our first lessons on breathing.
- Nothing in our breathing approach should create tension in the body.
- Air is always moving in or out. We do not hold the breath.
- When we breathe out, air should have focus and direction.
- I always teach breathing first from a standing position, as it is easier than when sitting.
Assembly of the Upper and Lower Joints
Yesterday, I assembled these two parts of the clarinet for the students. Today, they will do it on their own. First, I want to have the students carefully examine the bridge key mechanism. We pick up the upper section of the clarinet and I have the students look at the keys. I comment that there are two keys that look like doughnuts (they have holes in them) and one key that looks like a pancake (no hole). I ask the students to press the “pancake” key and see if they can figure out what is happening. Before long, someone will notice that the bridge key is moving up and down as we press and release the pancake key.
I then show the students the other side of the bridge key on the lower section of the clarinet and we talk about how the two parts of the bridge need to meet up exactly when the clarinet is assembled. It is crucial that the students depress the pancake key when assembling these two parts so that the “drawbridge” is raised and we don’t have an accident. Students also need to use a “mini twist” as they push and turn these two pieces together so that the side keys on the upper section don’t crash into the pinky keys of the lower section.
With the upper and lower sections assembled, take a few minutes to continue working on proper instrument to body balance as discussed in my post Teaching Clarinet: Day Two. This is also a good time to review finger numbers.
Before moving on, go through the disassembly process for the upper and lower joints, making sure that the students again raise the bridge key to avoid damaging the instrument.
Making Our First Sounds
I ask the students to come back to the floor and we go over the process of assembling the mouthpiece and barrel set-up. (See Teaching Clarinet: Day Two for details.) Don’t forget to individually check each student’s set-up before proceeding.
When teaching embouchure, it is helpful to use analogies that are relatable for the students. Having mirrors handy can also help students as they learn to use the muscles in their faces in a new way.
I begin by asking students to pretend they are putting Chapstick on their bottom lip. In order to do this, students have to push their jaw toward their bottom lip. Most of the time, this will put the lower lip in just the right position. I then ask students to notice and feel the “valley” in their chin. With both a “chapstick lip” and a “valley in the chin” the students are well on their way to forming the most challenging part of the clarinet embouchure. Notice that I do not ask the students to place the lower lip over the teeth. While this language is seen in many method books, I find that students take this direction very literally and end up with far too much lip in their mouth and a rounded chin– not at all what we want.
The next step is “finding the spot” where the mouthpiece and reed meet so that we know how far in the mouth to place the mouthpiece. To do this, have the students hold their mouthpiece up toward the light and turn it sideways. They should notice that at the top there is a a gap between the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. The distance between the two get smaller and smaller until they finally touch about halfway between the tip and the ligature. Have the students place their thumb right on that spot as a guide for how far in the mouth they will place the mouthpiece. This will eliminate the common problem of students not placing enough mouthpiece in the mouth. Have the students once again form the “chapstick lip” and “valley in the chin” and place the reed on the lower lip up to the point marked by thei r thumb. Once everything is in place, they can take their thumb away.
Then, have the students place their top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece. Using a mouthpiece cushion can make this more comfortable for the student, as well as helping to keep the teeth from slipping. It is absolutely crucial that the student firmly plants the top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece.
Finally, ask the students to close their lips around the mouthpiece as if they were closing a drawstring bag (or a hood on a sweatshirt if that visual works better).
And then we blow, using an airstream that has focus and direction.
We will spend a few minutes practicing our mouthpiece and barrel sounds as a group, giving everyone a chance to get comfortable. It is important, however, that you take time to have each student play for you individually so that you can make adjustments to their embouchure, air or anything else that might be off. The last thing you want is for a student to leave the class feeling like they were the only one who couldn’t get a sound.
Homework and Final Thoughts
Before sending the instruments home for the first time, I give a cautionary speech about not letting anyone else play or handle the clarinet. We discuss care of the reed and I also let students know that they should try to play their instrument for about 5-10 minutes before tomorrow’s class. (I like to keep practice times very short at the beginning. Fatigued muscles lead to development of bad habits.)
Homework for the evening consists of:
- Practice putting upper and lower joints together
- Practice putting the mouthpiece and barrel set-up together
- Play in front of a mirror for at least five minutes- does everything look natural?
Before leaving I talk the students through disassembly of the mouthpiece and barrel set-up once again and tell them to have fun playing their clarinet tonight!
In my next post, we will discuss the fourth lesson and playing on our full instrument for the first time!
About the author:
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 performing 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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