Letter from Hong Kong (May 1998)

Published in Clarinetwise: May 1st, 1998

Dear Clarinetwise,

Recently a clarinettist who will study with me in the fall wrote me, asking about fixing some problems. It is not so easy to explain in writing and some of the methods are a bit unorthodox, but I thought I’d share some of my philosophies on clarinet technique.

Problem #1 – How can I improve my sound during loud playing?

Remember, when playing loud, keep your corners of your mouth as firm as possible-you must think about bringing them together. If you do only this, you cannot “bite”. Very important-keep your vowel sound like eeee, or YYYYellow, as though you were blowing out a candle a few feet away-focused air stream. Of course you need a reed that can support fortissimo playing. When playing from the throat tones to bell “b”, observe your oral cavity change. It will automatically adjust for “b”. This is the position we should aim for throughout the range of the clarinet.

Problem #2 – How can I improve my soft playing?

When playing soft – push your mouthpiece like mad against your top teeth and into your mouth (if playing the long dim. on a high f-sharp in the Copland concerto, I find this a quick cure to the wrong overtone sneaking in that is quite common). Blow as though you are pushing more air through the clarinet instead of less (even though it is less-how’s that for confusing?). A faster air stream is sought after and will produce cold air rather than warm air. Whatever you do, don’t bite when getting softer (or ever for that matter)! If making soft intervals, reach for them with your oral cavity by producing the above vowel sounds with the back of your tongue. Keeping an open throat does not have to be confused with not focusing the air stream with the back of the tongue. You are active, not passive, otherwise you will lose your core.

Problem #3 – I am trying to improve my finger position.

Fingers – yes, keep them very firm, curved, and remember to keep loose and movable wrists and hands rather than a commonly “locked” position. Don’t slap down your fingers, but lift them highly and firmly – pretend they’re like molasses – try the whole tone scales as exercises. For bell “b”, we often find leaks in the pads that cover the holes. Therefore, weight your hand toward your pinkies. You should find quicker response and less chance for the odd “skwak” that occurs when playing rapid leaps to bell “b, c, or c-sharp”.

Problem #4 – People notice noises when I breathe in.

Relax. Just fill out your chest-expand like jelly-you’ll get more air, and no noise. You might think OH or AH but you must change your oral cavity when blowing out, therefore HAY might be more helpful. This forcing in and out in the name of support is a myth. The most intense note on the trumpet requires two pounds of pressure (as discovered by measuring the playing of the legendary 1st trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony, Adolph Herseth). How much pressure does the clarinet require?

On a less technical note, Antony Pay just played basset horn in Mozart’s “Gran Partita” with us and Geoffrey Haydock, recently retired Principal Clarinettist with The BBC Scottish Orchestra gave a master class at The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. I will perform Baermann’s “Adagio” with The Hong Kong Philharmonic in early July.

All the best.

Happy Practicing!!!!

Andrew Simon
Principal Clarinettist, The Hong Kong Philharmonic.

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