A clarinetist’s tongue position is perhaps one of the most important components of successful playing since it has a direct effect on tone, intonation, response and the ability to articulate quickly. In addition, the ideal clarinet tone, which is dark, in tune, focused and strived for by all clarinetists, can only be achieved if the tongue is in the correct position.
Many clarinetists have not received proper instruction on how to position the tongue for optimum performance and as a result, these clarinetists are not able to achieve the level of performance they desire. The optimum clarinet tongue position is one that is comfortable, produces a great tone, provides a quick response in all registers and places the tip of the tongue close to the reed for quick and clean articulation. It is very important for clarinetists to find this position since without it, all areas of clarinet performance will suffer.
The Optimum Tongue Position
The optimum clarinet tongue position requires the clarinetist to place the tongue extremely high in the oral cavity where the back of the tongue is very close to roof of the mouth. In this position, the sides of the tongue actually touch the inner sides of the upper teeth as if saying the word, he. By using a high tongue position, the oral cavity is made smaller keeping the air stream narrow, focused, highly pressurized and moving quickly. When this is performed correctly, the air stream will also be a cool air flow rather than warm, as when a person blows warm, moist air on their glasses, trying to fog them up in order to clean them. In addition to assisting in good tone production, response and articulation, this high tongue position will also assist the clarinetist in playing notes in the altissimo register. Although the tongue position may change slightly when playing the clarinet in different registers, the overall high position should basically stay the same throughout the entire range of the instrument. By using this high tongue position, clarinetists will discover that their tone is more focused, response is better, articulation is quicker and playing the instrument is much easier.
Teaching Clarinetists How to Develop the Optimum Tongue Position
Since clarinetists cannot see the position of their tongue inside the oral cavity, this concept can be a challenge to teach since it is difficult to know if the tongue is positioned correctly. However, there is a playing exercise that will allow clarinetists to know if the tongue is in the correct position and if it is not, allow them to learn to position it correctly. The Swab Exercise is an overtone exercise that when performed correctly, will position the tongue and air stream in the optimum position for the best clarinet tone and response.
The Swab Exercise
The Swab Exercise gets its name because the clarinet cleaning swab is used in the exercise to correctly position the tongue. The steps to the exercise are listed below.
- Play the note “B” on the third line of the staff using the traditional fingering.
- Without unfolding the swab, push it into the clarinet bell in order to block the bell’s opening.
- Try to play the note “B” on the third line of the staff once again. If the swab is placed in the bell correctly, this note will not sound
- With the swab still placed in the clarinet bell and the tongue placed in a high position in the oral cavity, finger the third line note “B” and blow a fast, cool, focused, pressurized stream of air into the clarinet. When done correctly, an overtone altissimo note will sound.
- If an overtone altissimo note does not sound, place the tongue higher in the oral cavity and try again. Keep attempting this step until an overtone altissimo note sounds.
- When an overtone altissimo note sounds, adjust the tongue position and air stream direction while the note is still sounding in order to make it louder and more focused.
- Try to play additional overtone altissimo notes by adjusting the height of the tongue and the air stream direction. There are four possible overtone notes that can be sounded through this exercise: Concert A, C#, E, and G.
- Remove the swab from the clarinet bell and finger the third line note “B” once again. Play the third line note “B” while pretending the swab is still in the bell as if attempting to sound the overtone altissimo notes. This thought process should keep the tongue and air stream direction in the same position as when actually playing the overtone altissimo notes.
- The tone and resonance of the third line “B” note will be remarkably improved.
- Play other notes or scales retaining the same high tongue position and air stream direction. The tone and response will be remarkably better for all notes.
Developing the optimum clarinet tongue position is a vital component to successful playing. It is important that all clarinetists understand the correct placement of the tongue and learn to find this position when performing. By correctly practicing the Swab Exercise, clarinetists will learn to place the tongue in the optimum position improving tone, intonation, response and articulation, allowing them to reach their full performance potential.
Dr. Tracy Heavner
Dr. Tracy Heavner is an internationally renowned music educator and distinguished performance artist who has performed in more than fifteen countries on five continents as an artist for Cannonball, D’Addario and Jody Jazz Music Corporations. He is also a recording artist for LiveHorns.com, a music studio whose projects have received two Grammy nominated projects and a Dove Award. Dr. Heavner has served on the faculty of the University of South Alabama for the past twenty-five years, where he is a professor of saxophone, music education and director of jazz studies. In addition, he has authored two books, the most recent is entitled Saxophone Secrets: 60 Performance Strategies for the Advanced Saxophonist published by the Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group.