Clarinet Altissimo Part II: Equipment

As an advancing clarinetist, having a comfortable, quality setup will provide you with the freedom of flexibility, ease, and expression over time. Likewise, a good setup will provide you with much greater ease when navigating the altissimo registers of the clarinet. Below are some suggestions that can help strengthen anyone's setup. 

 

MOUTHPIECE

Many beginner instruments come with inadequate mouthpieces. The mouthpiece is usually made of a low-quality plastic and has a facing which is either too closed or too open, and is at high risk of chipping and breaking. Students should be playing hard rubber mouthpieces with a medium facing. A good mouthpiece will improve the tone quality, articulation, response, and overall intonation of the performance. In addition, a quality mouthpiece helps students develop strong and consistent breath support. 

For perspective, think of the clarinet like the anatomy of an automobile. The car (or the clarinet) can't function without a good working engine (the mouthpiece). Both parts must work in harmony in order to achieve musical success. 

These mouthpieces are excellent for the beginning or intermediate student wishing to take the next step in their clarinet setup and can be found at most local music stores and online retailers:

 

REEDS

In order to successfully ensure progress and development, it is essential that reed strength issues are addressed at an early age. Generally speaking, a reed that is too soft allows the student to produce a tone on the clarinet despite a poor embouchure. If allowed to go uncorrected, students will continue to practice a poor embouchure and it becomes extremely difficult to correct later on.

Furthermore, a soft reed requires almost no breath support from the student (at least in the middle and low notes of the instrument), This leads to the development of poor breathing mechanics and collectively creates fundamental hurdles that will make other aspects of playing much more challenging. Going back to our car analogy, if our mouthpiece is acting as the motor, we can think of the reed as the key that makes everything work. 

Many young students assume that a harder reed is better, or, that reed strength must be increased as time goes on. These misconceptions are incorrect and will only lead to higher levels of resistance (and frustration!) ALWAYS use reeds that are compatible with your mouthpiece. If it feels too stuffy, try a half step down and vice versa. 

I suggest that beginners start on a size 2 ½ reed and quickly move to a size 3 reed towards the end of their first year of playing. After the initial fuzziness of sound goes away, students will be well on their way to establishing a stronger embouchure and stronger breath support. Additionally, the upper register will be much easier to master if there is substantial strength in the reed. Remember: Just like athletes, musicians also have to maintain a dedicated, consistent approach to playing any instrument well.

As an advancing performer, I believe that your most important job is to make sure that you are practicing correct technique each day. While some days are better (or worse) than others, with time you will discover that your technique will be become second nature, allowing you to focus your energy on creating a powerful musical statement. 

These reeds are excellent choices for the beginning or intermediate student wishing to invest in their setup and can be found at most local music stores or online retailers:

 

LIGATURE

Coupled with the mouthpiece and the reed, a quality ligature will provide greater flexibility, dynamic range, and freedom of resistance. Similar to most clarinet equipment, ligatures are completely relative to the performer's needs and preferences. After many years of trying state-of-the-art products, I have settled on the idea that if it works for you, then use it! While there are many options available, my best recommendation is to find something that is durable and provides you with equal parts flexibility and resistance. For the younger student, I recommend starting with a 'one screw' ligature--these provide a simpler 'setup' process and last a very long time. Metal ligatures run the risk of breaking reeds if placed on the mouthpiece/reed incorrectly.

With a quality mouthpiece, reed, and ligature, you will find that the possibilities for finding your musical voice will blossom. Even without a professional grade clarinet, having a mouthpiece setup that works for you will allow you to play within the altissimo range with greater ease and confidence. (Confidence being the key word!)

These ligatures are excellent choices for the beginning or intermediate student wishing to invest in their setup and can be found at most local music stores:

 

Happy practicing!

-Vince