Beginning Steps to Learn to Play the Clarinet
Perhaps the most formidable obstacle for the beginning clarinet student is learning to properly assemble and disassemble the instrument. This instrument has more pieces than any other band instrument and care must be taken to assemble it correctly.
The parts of the clarinet are: mouthpiece (plus ligature and reed), barrel, upper joint, lower joint, bell. The ligature is the metal or plastic piece with small screws, which slips over the mouthpiece. The purpose of the ligature is to hold the reed in place.
I recommend the beginning band student have three #1 ½ reeds. The least expensive reeds would be best for beginners. For beginners, use only one of these three reeds until it breaks. Beginners will break reeds, it’s just a fact of life until they get used to handling them. It will not take long for them to get used to handling the reeds and caring for them.
Before assembling the clarinet, use a bit of cork grease, supplied with the instrument, on each of the tenon joints: mouthpiece, upper joint (top & bottom), and lower joint. Don’t use a lot of cork grease, it will only be messy and cause the instrument to be slippery.
After applying cork grease on the mouthpiece cork, put the barrel and mouthpiece together by gently twisting the two pieces together,. Then slip the ligature over the mouthpiece. The screws should be toward the back of the mouthpiece. Holding the barrel in the left hand, use the left thumb to raise the ligature up slightly and then slide the reed against the mouthpiece (shaved side up), pressing the reed with the right thumb and let the ligature slide down on to the mouthpiece. NEVER touch the tip of the reed with a finger because it will bend very easily and crack. It is then useless for playing. Instead, adjust the placement of the reed from the sides, making sure the tip of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed are even and the reed is straight up and down. Now hold the reed in place with the left thumb and tighten the ligature screws gently with the right hand, not too tight, just enough to hold the reed in place without slipping around. Put the barrel and mouthpiece aside while assembling the rest of the clarinet.
Connect the lower joint (the piece with the thumbrest on the back) with the bell by holding the lower joint in the right hand and gently twisting the bell onto the lower joint. Then, still holding the lower joint gently with the right hand, pick up the upper joint with the left hand. As you move the two joints together, be sure to raise the key which will connect the two joints (the bridge key) by pressing the fingers of the left hand over the ring holes on the upper joint. Do not press on the ring holes of the lower joint. Gently push the two sections together with a slight twisting motion; there should be no need for force at all. When these two sections are lined up, pick up the barrel and mouthpiece and attach it to the upper joint by gently twisting from the barrel section onto the upper joint.
Your child’s band director may choose to have the students use only the barrel, mouthpiece, and reed for the first few lessons. This is highly recommended because it is easier to get the correct lip and teeth formation this way. The child will be asked to produce a sound, which is done by rolling the lower lip lightly over the lower teeth and pressing that against the reed. The top teeth are then placed on top of the mouthpiece, and the lips close around like a rubber band around the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece should be at about a 45° angle to the floor. The child then just blows into the mouthpiece, without puffing out the cheeks. If there’s no sound, the lips are too tight around the mouthpiece so let up slightly.
If there’s still no sound, the child may not have their top teeth placed firmly on the mouthpiece. Some children dislike the little feeling of their teeth on the mouthpiece at first and will try to skip doing that. It won’t work that way; a good sound cannot be produced that way. Once they have it set right, there’s no rattling or buzzing and they become comfortable with playing the instrument.
If there’s a loud screech, the lower lip is not covering the lower teeth enough. Correct that and try again. No great force is needed to produce the sound. The child should seek to produce a medium volume long steady tone.
When the child is ready to play the completely assembled clarinet, it should be held with no neck strap. However, sometimes a few children have trouble with this until they grow a little and become more confident with the instrument. Neck straps are made for the clarinet if it proves absolutely necessary for the first few months. If a neck strap is used, never allow the instrument to just dangle from the neck strap; keep hands on it at all times.
Now your child is ready to start reading notes and counting rhythms – ready to start the new adventure!