Questions and Answers

Q: I am currently working on the 2nd mvt of Mozart's concerto. Could you describe to me the essential atmosphere to the mvt and tell me how to go about creating that? Roughly how soft shld the opening be played?

A: It should be "heavenly", and the opening should be a soloistic "piano" dynamic. I never like to be literal with dynamics, since they are always relative to what is going on around you. For some, that answer might seem vague. For those who need a more literal answer, the opening should then be mezzo-piano.
When the opening melody returns after the "eingang" (ie: the B-flat with a hold on it, where you're supposed to improvise around 10-15 notes based on C dominant 7 chord leading into the next section),you should play pp. Most people quote (another eingang) from the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.
Keep your mouth corners firm, your air supported and abdominals zipped up to begin very soft entrances.
Let me take the liberty to offer some more advice for this movement. The grace notes that you encounter in this movement are not actually grace notes, neither for you nor for the orchestra (piano). You'll notice that there is no "slash" through it, like you would usually see in grace notes. It is what should be called an "accented passing tone", and you should interpret it on the beat as if it's a semi-quaver. So, the notes
E-D-C should be as follows E:semiquaver(the accented passing tone) D:quaver (which comes from it's original length (dotted-quaver) minus the value of the accented passing tone, (which was a semiquaver) and you get quaver C:semiquaver(like it's written anyway).

Q: I have some serious tongue issues i need to work out. Maybe you could help me with it? I can get the 'proper' tongue shape outside of my mouth (relatively, though 'height' is not so good right now, it is thick and narrow), but when I try to put the mouthpiece in my mouth, numerous things happen. as soon as I tongue the reed to produce a note, my tongue falls. or the back of the tongue will fall and the tip rise, or the tip fall and the back rise. It's very frustrating. Any tone I get sounds like it's on the verge of squeaking, or meagre, without any brilliance or density to it. I was wondering if you could give me some tips?

A: I think that it would be better if you tried a fresh approach to your articulation. Let's start over. Just form a proper embouchure, and then when you go to articulate make sure it is the tip of the tongue to the tip of the reed. It may feel funny and tickle at first, but this is correct. Many people make the mistake of keeping the tip behind the front teeth and actually striking the reed with a different part of the tongue. This is called "anchor tonguing", and while some clarinetists can make this work well, I feel that anchor tonguing is less efficient and has more limitations than "tip-to-tip" tonguing, once it is mastered. You may also need to experiment with things like tongue height (try to think of a high vowel when you play, like "oo"), and how much you pull your tongue back after each articulation. If you don't pull back far enough then you may squeak. Also don't "chew" as you tongue. Keep your embouchure stable and with chin pulled down. Another common mistake with tonguing is choking off the reed as well as airstream. Make sure air is always exhaling out of you. It is not enough to simply get the reed vibrating. You must send air through the whole length of the clarinet if you want a nice sound.

Q:I've recently read some articles by Sherman Friedland where he advocates the use of double lip embouchure, so I became curious to know if I should stick with the single lip embouchure or try to change to the double lip, no bite, embouchure. What's your view on this?

A:There are many people who are advocates of the warmer sounding double-lip embouchure. However, I still think the single-lip embouchure is the most practical, as the double lip embouchure can make some people feel the need to be frozen in place while playing play to keep it stable. Anything restrictive while playing is definitely not for me. You can and should apply principles of the double-lip embouchure to your single-lip, however. Think of lengthening the area between ther nose and the upper lip, and that 60% of the embouchure strength comes from above. The teeth will anchor on top of the mouthpiece, but the top lip should help in that anchoring, as the top lip curls slightly down and in toward the top teeth Don't forget the corners of the mouth- they should be very firm so you have support from the sides as well.

Q: I am always too quiet. No matter what I do I cannot seem to make a big sound. When I try to play loudly, the sound just gets ugly and flat. Also, I use La Voz reeds which are good in the lower register, but sometimes Vandorens work better for altissimo. My altissimo notes are usually thin and harsh. Any suggestions?

A: If you're habitually too quiet, it could be because of many things: poor use of air, reed choice, too little mouthpiece, mouthpiece choice, embouchure, and more. However, from the little bit that you told me, I have a hunch that you need to use a stronger reed. In order to make a big sound, you need to have a thick enough "heart" of the reed to push against. Otherwise, you have to relax the pressure of the bottom lip too much just to let the air through, which will make you go very flat- particularly if your reed is soft. A thicker reed may sound slightly less clear than a softer reed in say, your bedroom or dry practice room, but we do our performing in larger spaces and need to cater to that acoustic.

Q: The idea of playing with other people frightens me to death. I even have trouble playing in front of my teacher. I've threatened to send him a tape because I play much better at home than I do at my lesson. Last night I went to a Mozart concert and the Clarinet Concerto in A Major was on the program. To stand up there and play as he played must take a lot of nerve, or do you think some people find it easy?

A: I was always a little nervous for every lesson I've ever taken, too. It's perfectly normal for a young player to be less inhibited when you're alone. I hope that in time you will want to make music with others. To me, it's one of the most fun things in the world and part of the reason we play our instruments in the first place.

When I performed the Mozart Concerto with the SSO, the first performance I was calm and relaxed and it wasn't until the second performance that I felt nervous. It's strange how nerves work. People who are soloists for a career often thrive on that excitement and adrenalin, and it is true that if you do it all the time, you just get used to the feeling of being in the spotlight and can often play better in front of the audience. Those of us who don't perform alone very often may feel anxiety when the time comes to be in the spotlight. The solution? Breathe! When you start to feel the first twinge of anxiety, just stop whatever you're doing, and breathe in slowly for 6 counts and out slowly for twelve. If you do this 4 or 5 times, it will cut off one of the bodily signals that makes stress rise. This is a clinically tested theraputic technique for managing stress. Also, it is important to play in front of people as often as possible.

Q: I have just started to play and am using vandoren 2.5 reeds. I do have trouble with them sounding fuzzy, my teacher sometimes manages to adjust them but I find it difficult to do on my own. Can you recommend a better reed that I could use. Cost doesn't matter.

A: Yes, I can offer another option. While Vandoren reeds are basically fine, they are not what I would recommend for young players for the very reason that they need too much fussing with to play well. Try something like Rico Royal. They still have the French cutting, but they are much cheaper and many more in the box will play for you. If you played on Vandoren 2.5, then maybe a Rico Royal 3 would feel about the same.

Q: The present piece I am playing has got slurred running notes that last for 4 bars. What can I do to really retain "enough air" to play the 4 bars smoothly ? [The piece I am refering to is from the second movement of 1st Suite written by G.Holst].

A: Well, that depends. My first suggestion would be to inhale on the word "how". This will give you increased intake. The other thing would be to conserve a little air during this passage. Could you get by with dropping the dynamic a bit? Finally, are you alone or with many others playing the same thing? If it's the latter, why don't you sneak a quick breath somewhere and then sneak back in. Don't re-enter full volume- it will be obvious. Re-enter softly, gradually coming back up to full volume.

Q: I've recently had some problems with the Zonda reeds. Although they appear to be better in terms of structure than the Vandoren V12 reeds that I've been using before, they do not seem to season as well, and when played, even though they allow me to produce a warmer tone, they are only applicable to the lower registers and not on the higher registers. Also, they warp much faster then the Vandorens even though they are kept in the same way. I keep 2 of each type in my reed guard of 4. Also, it seems that the Zonda's do not really respond as well after a few practices on them, while the Vandorens are still managable. I would prefer to use the Zonda as a much warmer tone can be achieved, though not for long, while the Vandoren gives a similar tone for all registers. Can you help me out in anyway?

A: Yes, I agree that Zondas can be a nice reed, but the cane is often more porous and less dense than the cane of a V-12, which may be why the Zondas aren't lasting as long for you. More porous cane equals more water drenching of the reed, which equals faster decay of the cane due to so many enzymes from your saliva going in the reed. If you love using Zondas, don't play on the reed for more than 5 minutes every day for a week. After a week, it should be okay. It won't have a chance to deteriorate from getting soaked, but that amount of exposure to saliva will be just enough to calcify over the pores of the reed to some extent, so saliva won't go in the cane so deeply and break down the wood. I think the V-12 is still a better reed. It has more material at the tip and denser cane, and the thick butt and heart keep it strong for longer. The main problem is the cutting, or profiling, but with practice, this can be adjusted yourself. I actually find the Zonda a bit bright, but that's just me.

Q: I tried your method you posted on your webpage on how to season your reeds. The first problem is that when I tried to keep it moist, it gets mouldy and it looks too digusting to play. The second problem is that while I kept it dry, it warps. I have lost four reeds aleardy and they aren't convenient to get as the shop that sells it is rather out of the way. The good news is that ONE of the reeds survived the ordeal and it is really fantastic! Any tips on how to SUCCESSFULLY get it right?

A: Keep the reeds HUMID, not wet, so that they don't get moldy. Regarding reeds warping- when you have to leave the reeds for a little while, wet the top of the reed- not the back- with water or saliva. Do this again just before you put it away. And cap your reeded mouthpiece when not playing for a while in rehearsal. Hope this helps.

Q: I am a professional jazz clarinetist in Denver, Colorado and I can count on my right hand the number of times I have played on a perfectly responsive reed and got a beautiful sound. Could you tell me how long you soak your reeds in water before you play them? What kind of reed case do you have?

A: I usually dip the reeds in water for a few seconds when they're really new.  That way they are wet, but not water-logged. I do that for 3 or 4 days. I keep my reeds in a Harrison reed case that I then put in a ziplock bag with a small Dampit inside. Moisture is critical in Denver. I performed out at Aspen for a couple of summers, so I can relate to your situation. If the reeds can stay humid, they will not change as much from day to day.

Q: My altissimo notes, particularly "D", sounds shrill and screamy. What can I do do to make the sound darker?

A: Try to resonate the altissimo notes somewhat out of your nose. Singers do this, where they project the sound out of the "mask" of the face. I like to adapt this technique for clarinet. Putting some of the sound vibrations in your head can take away some of the harshness in the altissimo. If adapted for the chalumeau register, you can add focus to the sound by projecting out the mask and thinking more "nasaly". This is, of course, assuming that you play on a nice clarinet, good mouthpiece, barrel, ligature, and reed. Another wonderful trick is also adding the left-hand E/B key to your D fingering.

Q: I was wondering what mouthpiece should I buy. I have been playing the clarinet for 2 years.

A: If you're still playing on the mouthpiece that came with your instrument and are looking for a significant improvement, I would say that a Vandoren B45, 5RV or any of the other Vandoren mouthpieces might be a good place to start for now. Try several of each model before you make your final purchase. Not long ago, someone wrote in to me to say that he had very good results with students playing the Fobes "Debut" mouthpiece, that it is perhaps better than the Vandorens as a step-up mouthpiece. Good value for money, and many reeds work on it.

Q: I'm curious as to your clarinet setup... what instrument do you play? What reeds, ligature and mouthpiece do you use?

A: I play all Buffet R-13 clarinets, that is, Bb, A, and Eb. I used to play on a Dan Johnston mouthpiece (he's a maker who lives in Buffalo, New York), then used a Morgan RM15, but now am on a Chadash-Hill "9". I am currently using the Vandoren Optimum ligature, Moennig or Chadash barrels, and I play on Vandoren V-12 strength 3.5 reeds.

Q: Can you give me some tips for clear and round tonguing?

A: The most efficient method of articulating on clarinet is by using the very tip of the tongue to the very tip of the reed, and without retracting the tongue too far back after an attack. The tongue needs to stay relaxed to move rapidly, just like any other muscle. There are also tricks for making sensitive entrances, such as blowing a little air through the reed first and THEN tonguing. Also, you can try silently tapping the reed with the tongue before tonguing. Both of these tricks can help achieve the more delicate, exposed attacks.

Q: How do I make the altissimo notes sound promptly when I tongue them and how to make the sound not so squeezy and not so harsh? It seems that the dynamic range I can produce on these notes is also very small. I cannot play a really soft chromatic up to E"4, for example.

A: This is difficult to answer without hearing you in a lesson, but imagine your embouchure as frowning rather than smiling- this will free up the ears of the reed and keep them from choking on you. Also, if you are trying to get an altissimo to respond immediately after an articulation, note that a "tip-to-tip" (tip of the tongue to tip of the reed) articulation will be more accurate than an anchored tongue (tonguing farther back on the tongue). Lastly, have you tried a harder reed? Sometimes this really helps. Finally, your reed needs to be balanced and you need to have good air support with a well-flowing airstream.

Q:What reed would you recommend for a darker sound than Zonda but as easy to use?

A: This is tricky, and you might want to ask others, but some people have reported very good results from the Alexander Superial reeds. It is a nice reed, and use the same strength as you would for Vandoren.

Q: What size of V12 is traditional Vandoren size 3 equal to?

A: A traditional Vandoren strength 3 is close to a V12 3.5. The V12 3.5 would still be slightly harder than the traditional 3.

Q: Do you have information on how to avoid cracking the clarinet?

A: Do not expose it to abrupt temperature changes. This is most important. Also, keep some humidity around your clarinet by keeping a moist Dampit in the case.

Q: How do you break in a new instrument or one that has not been played in year?

A: Play on it for 5 minutes a day for the first week. Then for ten minutes a day during the second week. You're getting it used to vibrations. By week three it can probably handle 20 minutes. By week four it's ready for sustained playing. However, keep a dampit in the case, and keep it at room temperature. It cannot handle any trauma when it's new.

Q: What is the proper way to swab out an instrument?

A: After playing, disassemble and swab each piece all the way through (except the mouthpiece) 2 or 3 times. If you need to swab in the middle of a playing session, it's best to take off the mouthpiece, and swab the assembled clarinet upside down (bell up). Silk swabs are the most absorbent and least abrasive.

Q: How do I clean a mouthpiece?

A: Soak mouthpiece in a plastic bowl (so you don't risk any chips or dings in the mouthpiece) of cool/tepid water (never warm or hot- or it might warp or turn yellow) with some baking soda for 5-10 minutes once every three weeks. Then rinse well. Since the cork might swell from soaking it in water, try to keep it out of the water. If this happens, it will shrink again, but wait for it to thoroughly dry before playing in it again and do apply additional cork grease. The glue under the cork mught need to reharden after getting wet. Otherwise your cork might come off or break off. Though an easy repair, it can be avoided.

If you have calcifications, a cotton swab dipped in malic acid will take them off, though I don't know where to get that. If you try this, do not mix the malic acid with other chemicals together, and do rinse the mouthpiece well with cool (preferrable distilled) water when you're finished with the acid. Alternatively, I once swished the beak of my mouthpiece in some Plax, the mouthrinse, and that worked pretty well. Avoid all mouthpiece brushes or even swabbing the mouthpiece. You don't want to put anything abrasive in the inside of a mouthpiece.

Q: How do I do a "smear", like in the opening of Rhapsody in Blue?

A: That passage goes from low G to high C 2.5 octaves higher. Smearing doesn't work well in the low register. The notes don't bend very much or very easily. In this case, you have to gliss (lifting fingers quickly one at a time) from low G to, say, the G (or A) two octaves higher- one space or one ledger line above the staff. However- when your fingers hit this G or A, you must not really play the G or A. Aim much lower with your embouchure to produce a tone somewhere around top space E. That means imagining you are playing a note MUCH lower than even that E. Imagine you are playing a third line B or something. Your bottom lip should fall away from the reed so you are not pressing into the reed much at all. This should produce a note sounding around E. Gradually, increase the pressure of your lower lip against the reed. The pitch should rise gradually as well. Since your goal is to get to high c, you'll have to gradually finger up to c, but all the while aiming below the note you are fingering, and without pressure from your bottom lip . For example, if you finger high b, blow around a g#, and once you finger high c, take your time increasing the lower lip pressure into the reed until you gradually bring it all the way up in tune. A little side note for your amusement...the last time I performed this piece, I ended up marrying the pianist.


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Copyright 2000 Jean Johnson