The most important thing about clarinet playing is how it sounds. It has been a quest for 25 years to achieve a sound that an audience would want to listen to. I learned the hard lesson that it doesn't matter how fast you can play Flight of the Bumblebee if your clarinet sounds like nails on a blackboard. How to achieve a nice clarinet sound is an ongoing challenge.
So you just picked up a clarinet for the first time. You may notice that it comes in bits. Starting from the top, the bits are the mouthpiece, the barrel, the left hand or top joint (yes I know it is not up the top, the name is relative), the lower or right hand joint, and the bell. There are manuals that help you put the bits together. What I want to concentrate on now is the mouthpiece. There are several components to the clarinet mouthpiece that make starting the clarinet just a little more challenging than that say of the flute. First of all, you can't make a noise on a mouthpiece without a reed. And you need something to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece. It's called a ligature. Again, there are manuals that tell you which bit goes where.
The point I wish to stress is that your mouthpiece is the most important part of the clarinet in terms of how the whole instrument sounds. A professional player with their tailored mouthpiece will sound like a professional whether he plays on a Vito student model or a $10 000 instrument. He's got a set-up that suits him. He's also got what I call a conception of what sound he wants his clarinet to sound like, and I will address this question a little later.
Now, given that as a beginner you have no knowledge of mouthpieces, you generally will go with the one that came with the clarinet. That will do just nicely. Ditto with the ligature. However, you do have the last say on what sort of reed you want to use. Whilst the cost of Vandorens are far too high for the beginner, try something that costs a little less like Reeds Australia. Yes, for the first few weeks maybe, go the Rico 1 1/2, but ideally you should be playing on a strength 2 after the first month. Mind you, you don't want a reed so hard you can't make a sound at all, but I want to emphasise, and this goes for higher school level to college players, that it doesn't matter how expensive the mouthpiece or instrument, if you've got a garbage reed on, then you are going to get a garbage sound. Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) principle. It is also important to have a stock of reeds, preferable more than one, as reeds have a tendency to break just before a performance, or maybe your family dog got a bit hungry.
Just recently I have tried the Legere Signature Series synthetic reed and to be honest I am very impressed by the quality. They play immediately out of the box, are very easy blowing and have a comparable sound to regular cane reeds. They are expensive, I paid nearly $40 but they last for ages and you don't have to adjust them at all. They make excellent practice reeds, though I would probably still use a cane reed for public performances.
OK, we have a mouthpiece, reed and ligature. We are good to go. Don't worry about the rest of the clarinet for the moment, we'll just concentrate on the mouthpiece. Now, the side with the reed is the one that faces the lower lip. The basic clarinet embouchure is to curl the lower lip over the lower teeth so your teeth don't bite on the reed, and the top teeth rest on the top of the mouthpiece. Now, don't bite too hard on the mouthpiece, you won't get a sound at all. A rule of thumb, literally, is to form the clarinet embouchure and stick your thumb in your mouth as if it was a mouthpiece. Bite down on the thumb. Drawing blood, maybe you are biting just a little bit too hard. Right, so replace the thumb with the mouthpiece now, take a nice big breath and blow. Hopefully, woohoo, you get your very first clarinet sound!!!
Now, without the rest of the clarinet, it's going to sound a little weird, but once you have the basic building blocks of the embouchure, you can add the rest of the clarinet to it. Start with the barrel at first, then away you go.
Please join me for the next chapter on tone and breathing.
And, so not to break a promise, here is a link to my YouTube page on setting up the embouchure.
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