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Master Articulation
With surprising ease, and some practice, any player can master articulation
by Julie DeRoche
DePaul University, Chicago
Julie DeRoche is coordinator of the woodwind department and clarinet faculty at DePaul University, where she teaches with Larry Combs and John Bruce Yeh, fellow members of the Chicago Clarinet Trio. She served as acting second clarinet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the 2000–2001 season and continues to perform and tour frequently with the CSO. In addition to her involvement with numerous chamber and orchestral groups, she currently serves as president of the International Clarinet Association. Her instrument of choice is the Opus model Leblanc France clarinet. This is the third in a series of articles in which Julie DeRoche details basic clarinet technique.

Many clarinetists have a great deal of difficulty with articulation on the instrument. This is because it is one of the most misunderstood aspects of clarinet pedagogy. Students go through tremendous difficulties trying to create a good articulation and, ironically, are often working too hard.

In fact, articulation, if done correctly, can be an almost effortless technique. Many of my own students, after learning a correct articulation, ask, “Is that all?” Or they tell me, “But that’s so easy!”

In order to understand the basics of articulation, it is important to remember how clarinet sound is created. In part two of “Clarinet Basics,” we discussed ways to create a good embouchure and consistent tongue position so that the air can be directed at the reed in a small and focused stream. This, of course, causes the reed to vibrate. When the reed is vibrating, it will create sound.

When it is not, there will be silence.

There are two ways to create this silence. One is to stop the air. The other is to stop the reed.

While there will be occasions when it is best to allow a note to stop by reducing and then eliminating the airflow (such as when we want a smooth diminuendo to silence), in most cases we will be required to use the tongue to stop the sound.

Articulating with the tongue allows us to create silence quickly, cleanly and efficiently and in rapid succession. It gives our clarinet playing definition and adds an element of clarity to our music making, much as the consonants in our language add clarity to our speech. Therefore, we must find a way to use our tongue muscle to stop the reed cleanly, without noise or force, and lightly, so that we can develop speed.

You may be asking yourself, If you stop the reed with the tongue, how do you start the reed?

Starting a note merely requires letting go of the reed. Many clarinet players are under the mistaken impression that we must start a note with the force of the tongue. Rather, we must start a note with the air while simply removing the tongue from the reed, allowing it to vibrate. We then gently return the tongue to the reed in order to make it stop again.

To learn how to accomplish this, first practice articulation motion without the clarinet.

Close your mouth and think about the position of your tongue while it is at rest. It is most likely lying along the roof of your mouth, and the “tip of the top” of the tongue is resting gently behind your front teeth. This is the tongue’s natural and relaxed position.

Now open your mouth slightly, keeping your tongue relaxed and high, without altering the forward or backward position of the tongue. Inhale, and then replace the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth (or gum line) just behind the front teeth.

Think the syllable “tee.” Let go of the air, or blow, while “saying” this syllable; do not actually use the vocal chords. Merely blow the tongue off of the roof of your mouth, lightly and without any tension or force of the tongue. Let the air do the majority of the work.

Repeat this action until you are sure that you are moving only the tip of your tongue. Most of your tongue remains stationary, and the tip of the tongue moves in a small downward motion. Be sure to articulate this syllable from the gum line behind your top teeth. Do not allow your tongue to touch the back of your top or bottom teeth or your bottom lip.

Now try to repeat this motion while playing your clarinet.

When you place the mouthpiece in your mouth, the tip of the reed will be just behind your top teeth, in almost exactly the same place as described above, near your gum line. However, instead of moving your tongue off the roof of your mouth, you will now move it off the reed.

Inhale. Touch the reed with the “tip of the top” of your tongue, very slightly below the tip or top edge of the reed. Think the syllable “tee.” Using the exact same motion that you used while practicing without the clarinet, remove your tongue from the tip of the reed. When you release the reed, release your air. If you have taken a good breath, your reed will vibrate the very instant it is released.

When you want it to stop again, return the tongue to the exact position from which you just removed it. You do not have to push the reed in order to stop it. Since you are now articulating at the thinnest point of your reed, you may merely touch it and it will stop.

Practice this very slowly, on one note, repeating the “tee, tee, tee” syllable until you are sure that you are achieving the correct articulation motion. You will hear that your tone quality and pitch are consistent, you will feel that your tongue is relaxed, and you will find there is no noise associated with your articulation.

Be sure that you do not stop the air between notes. Use your air as if you were playing a long tone. Your tongue is now creating the silence between notes. Very little of your tongue is moving, so it will be easy to gain speed.

When you are comfortable with your articulation motion, it is time to address the coordination of your tongue with your fingers. Every clarinetist has had moments when this seems to get jumbled. This is because if you move your fingers while your tongue is off the reed, you will get more than one note—a slur.

The secret to good tongue-and-finger coordination in an articulated passage is that they must work opposite each other. You move your tongue off the reed and back on while your fingers remain unmoving on the clarinet. Then you move your fingers while your tongue rests on the reed, during the silence.

To practice this, play a scale, such as C-major, in slow motion. Begin with your fingers on low C. Take a good breath. Using the articulation motion that you practiced as described above, move your tongue off the reed to play the note, and then replace it. You have played low C.

While the tongue rests on the reed, and while keeping the air support behind the reed, move your finger to low D. Your tongue has stopped the reed’s vibration and you are able to move your finger during the resultant silence. Once you remove your tongue again, the D will sound. Replace your tongue and you will again have silence.

Continue practicing this for the remaining notes of your scale. Do not wait to move your fingers until just before you play the next note in your scale. Instead, move them immediately after you finish the note you have just played.

As you gain speed, the space between notes becomes shorter and shorter, so your fingers must move quickly to the next note in your articulated passage during the short silences that are created by your tongue.

After you have achieved a good articu-lation and practiced control of tongue-and-finger coordination, you will want to add variety to your style of articulation. This is done in two ways. One is by changing the length of notes, and the other is by changing the way you use your air.

To change the length of notes, you merely change the amount of time that your tongue is off the reed. Using the articulation motion that you have just learned, move the tongue off and on the reed quickly to create staccato notes. To create legato, you do this more slowly.

The word “staccato” does not mean to tongue in a harder way. It means to play the note shorter—or to create more space between notes. “Legato” means to play the notes longer, with very little space between the notes.

Accents are achieved by using the air with a burst of speed, not with a harder tongue. Except for occasional extended techniques, your entire repertoire of musical articulation can be achieved with this one motion, while simply varying length and air speed.

With practice, it will become clear that this method of articulation is really quite simple. The tongue is able to stay relaxed and in its proper position for good tone, whether slurring or tonguing. Because the tongue is relaxed and because it does not have to move very far, it is easy to achieve a light and quick motion.

As mentioned in our previous installments of “Clarinet Basics,” all players, regardless of age or experience, can successfully make use of these techniques. In fact, if you teach this to your students, or if you try it yourself, you will be saying, just as my students often do, “But that’s so easy!”