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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000433.txt from 2004/10

From: Adam Michlin <>
Subj: [kl] Air flow
Date: Fri, 15 Oct 2004 16:02:10 -0400

I'm going to have to reply to Tony's reply to my reply to.. er.. separately.

>The fundamental thing is, it's the reed's vibrations that create the sound,
>and we stop the sound when we stop the reed vibrating.

A couple things to say.

It is a mistake to think that the vibration of the reed is the only thing
required to create a clarinet sound. One can blow into a clarinet quite
easily and achieve only an "air" sound. The reed is, in fact, vibrating,
yet there is no clarinet sound?

The answer, of course, is the reed must "strike" something, the mouthpiece.
To have a reed vibrating without a surface to strike is roughly equivalent
to the sound of one hand clapping. How to make the reed strike the
mouthpiece is a topic for another day. With that said, the pertinent
question is how to start and stop the sound.

Crudely put, playing the clarinet is merely about starting sound and
stopping sound (the devil, of course, is in the details). It is easily
proven fact that we don't need the tongue to start the sound. The question
becomes why *do* we use the tongue to start the sound?

The simplest answer is: control. By using the tongue as a valve, we
(hopefully!) have absolute control over when the note starts. The tongue
releases, the sound immediately starts but *only if the air is already
there*. The other obvious reason is to articulate with speed.

If you release the tongue and there is no air behind it, there simply will
be no sound (gosh darn laws of physics). Now most players recognize this
problem (how many times have we heard students make a "thunk" kind of sound
to start their note only to have the sound to come out late?) and gradually
develop a balance of blowing while they simultaneously articulate, in order
to start the note. With enough practice, this works.

As an aside, I will be the first person to admit that anyone who locks
themselves in a practice room for 8 hours a day will be a fine clarinet
player, quite independently of how they do pretty much anything. If they
understand music they will find a way to make the music happen. Me? I'm lazy.

Now, returning back to us mere mortals (or just people with day jobs) who
can't practice 8 hours a day, the problem with this approach is there is
always the possibility that the air will start late. We often compensate by
tonguing harder which only serves to mask the late air with a quite
unmusical percussive attack. I always like to tell my students "If you want
to play a percussion instrument, take up the drums." With enough musical
sensitivity and practice this method can be very successful. It is just

Let us instead consider what would happen if the air flow starts before the
tongue is released. The air will be immediately released and (assuming the
reed is put into contact with the mouthpiece) the sound will immediately
sound. This is called "you controlling the clarinet" instead of "the
clarinet controlling you". The air, by definition, cannot be late therefore
the sound, always by definition, cannot be late.

The question becomes why do so many people disagree with this technique?
Well, there is one catch. As I believe Tony himself has pointed out, the
tongue must be thought of as releasing the air, it cannot be thought of as
"attacking" the reed. To attack the reed is to get the percussive effect I
was referring to earlier. The quickest way to eliminate this percussive
effect is to no longer "stop" the air with the tongue. Late air will make
the percussive effect all but inaudible (since the air isn't really flowing
well at the starting point of the note). Unfortunately, the articulation
starts to sound wish-wishy (and yes, that is a technical term! Ahem.). With
time, a studious student (is that redundant?) will become better and better
at timing the air with the tongue, but this, as I think I've already
pointed out, is just really hard.

At this point, I must digress for a bit on articulation syllables. If you
look at the 19th century French (admittedly Flute) methods, you'll often
seen the syllable "tu" as the indicated articulation syllables. But, and
please forgive me for shouting, NO FRENCH PERSON WOULD EVER PRONOUNCE "TU"
AS THE ENGLISH "TUH" OR "TWO". The closest English approximation would be
"teu". Joe Allard (forgive my name dropping) used the French pronunciation
throughout his entire career, but Joe was also a francophile. My teacher
changed it to "teh" because he felt it was a better English approximation
to the French "tu" and easier to understand for his American students.
"Teh" (or the French pronunciation of "tu") is favored because it tends to
keep the tongue in the middle of the mouth (at this point Joe would have
probably gotten out his Gray's anatomy book and explained why this was
better, but I will admit that I do not understand physiology well enough to
elaborate further - I'll be more than happy to refund your ticket price if
this is a problem).

To correctly start a note is as simple as putting the tongue on reed,
applying pressure on the reed to insure it will strike the mouthpiece,
increasing the air pressure on the mouthpiece opening and then, ever so
naturally, saying "Teh" (or your preferred articulation syllable). Not
"TTTTTTeh" (this works so much better when I'm speaking instead of typing).
Just the tongue leaving the reed as if you were saying "Teh".

This still takes practice, but is infinitely easier to learn to control
because the you no longer have to synchronize the air with the tongue.
Engineers on the list may recognize this principle as being similar to the
problems of race conditions in digital circuits. The principle is simple,
you only want to have one variable changing at a time, otherwise life gets
really complicated.

This principle also relates to why it makes sense to prepare the fingers in
the space of the staccato. You can:

1. move the fingers early.
2. move the fingers at the same time.
3. move the fingers late.

3 simply doesn't work by definition. 2 takes an extraordinary amount of
practice to synchronize, but will work. 1 works just as well and is easier
to master (in my not so humble opinion), you just have to make sure the
reed is properly stopped to prevent the new note from sounding prematurely.
I know, me and my laziness.

Now we must address how to stop the note. I will leave the Miles Davis
approach of "take the bleeping horn out of your mouth" (his response to
Coltrane's comment that he (Coltrane) didn't know how to stop playing his
long solos) aside and submit there are only two viable options.

1. Stop blowing.

2. Put your tongue on the reed.

In case 1, the air is gradually stopped, achieving a potentially long
tapered effect (a quite useful effect, I might add). Case 1 is horribly
ineffective for playing staccato, particularly at high speeds. Good luck
stopping and starting your air at a quarter note = 200 staccato eighth
notes with this method!

Case 2 is also effective, particularly in the case of staccato passages
where the intent is specifically not to get a large tapered effect.

Now, case 2 often fails because of an incorrect understanding of how the
tongue works. The harder you try to place the tongue on the reed, the more
abrupt that taper is going to be. To get a true bell like "separated"
staccato, one only needs to barely return the tongue to the reed, allowing
for separation yet preserving the bell like quality one is after in a
proper staccato (separated, NOT short) technique. How much bell and how
separated? Entirely dependant on the style of music and personal choice
(hopefully, more of the former and less of the latter)

You may think of "Tet" as a good way of achieving this, but you must not
articulate the final T sound. It should sound like "Te<tongue returns to
the it's original position at the roof of the mouth>". This is another
source of problems, articulating that final T sound makes staccato tonguing
sound almost like a drunken double tongue, or an echoed tongue.

See? Playing the clarinet is easy. Just learn how to stop and start your
notes. Consistently.


PS: If you like what I've written I give all the credit to my teacher and
Joe Allard. If you don't like it, I take full credit for everything.

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