An Introduction to the Clarinet

by Sarah Beatty, Music & Arts Lesson Instructor

Tools for Success

Music Stand Shop Now >
A music stand is critical for practicing with perfect posture, hand position and air support. Nothing can substitute for a music stand, so it’s recommended to use one in every practice.

Reeds Shop Now >
Good reeds are critical in helping clarinet students successfully create a good sound. Beginners will start on a size 2 reed and move up in strength by half-sizes as they progress in ability. Beginner students will most likely go through reeds quickly as they learn how to properly place them on the mouthpiece and care for them.

Reed Case Shop Now >
Reed cases help protect the reeds from becoming damaged and warped in addition to giving the student a place for storage after use. There are several different kinds of cases that hold anywhere from 4-12 reeds that fit in most instrument cases easily. A student should have at least four working reeds in their case at all times.

Swab Shop Now >
A swab is essential in the care and maintenance of your clarinet. It removes the moisture from the pads after each practice session. Excess moisture left on the pads after practice will wear away at the pads quickly causing them not to seal or possibly fall off. This will cause to instrument to not respond properly, or at all.

Cork Grease Shop Now >
This comes in a small tube that looks like chapstick. A small amount is placed on each of the corked sections of the clarinet when putting it together. Cork grease ensures that the clarinet goes together smoothly without excess force that can bend the keys. New corks should be greased each time the clarinet is put together. Once the clarinet can go together easily, the student should only need to grease the corks once a week.

Metronome (MA) Shop Now >
This device provides steady beats through clicks to help develop the player’s sense of rhythm. It is a useful practice tool that allows the student to start working on a piece or passage slowly and to move faster as they master the music by adjusting the tempo on the metronome.

Chromatic Tuner (MA) Shop Now >
This device helps the student learn how to play in tune. By playing with the tuner, they can learn how to adjust their mouth in order to play each note in tune. It also trains their ear and teaches them how to hear and match pitches.

About The Clarinet

The Clarinet is made up of three parts: the headjoint, body and foot. When connecting the pieces, the hole in the headjoint should line up in a straight line with the row of keys on the body. The main rod on the body of the Clarinet should line up with the middle of the keys on the foot joint.


When putting the clarinet together, it is important that the student first grease all of the corks seen on the mouthpiece, upper and lower joints so they are able to assemble the clarinet easily. After the clarinet is assembled it will look like this:

The Clarinet has four pieces to the body as well as a mouthpiece, ligature and mouthpiece cap. This is what it will look like disassembled in the case:


The Reed, Ligature and Mouthpiece
The reed is a small piece of cane placed on the mouthpiece that is necessary for producing sounds on the clarinet. It is important that the student wet the reed gently in their mouth for approximately one minute prior to placing it on the mouthpiece. This allows the reed to vibrate and respond correctly. The reed will not play correctly, or at all, if it is chipped or broken. The flat part of the reed lies against the flat part of the mouthpiece. It DOES NOT go inside the mouthpiece. It is held onto the mouthpiece by the ligature. The student must be very careful when placing the ligature on the mouthpiece to not chip the reed. Some ligatures go on the mouthpiece with the screws on the reed side and others are fastened with the screws on the back of the mouthpiece. The screws should always be on the right side of the mouthpiece and should be easily tightened with the right hand. The mouthpiece cap goes over the whole setup when not playing to protect the reed and the mouthpiece.

Reading Music: Melody and Rhythm

As the player progresses through their musical studies, they’ll improve their ability to read, write, and understand written music. As with any language, there are several components that, once learned, will provide the player with the ability to fluidly connect musical passages as well as the ability to compose and arrange their own music.

The Components
The following are four major components of written music that students must become familiar with in order to develop as a musician, play as part of an ensemble and to learn fun music that motivates them.

The Notes: Every note written on a piece of music corresponds with a fingering on the clarinet. The notes on the staff will tell you which notes to play and consequently, which fingers to use. In beginner books, the fingering is often written out for the student each time a new note is introduced. They also often include a fingering chart in the book, normally on the first or last page. Each darkened circle or key represents a hole that is to be covered or a key that is to be pushed down. Sometimes both! These charts can also be purchased separately to keep on the stand as a reference. They will look something like this:


The Rhythms: Each note will be a certain shape. Some will be colored in and others will empty. Some will have beams connecting them and others will have a single stem. These differences in shape, beams and stems dictate how long each note should be held for. Here is a basic chart explaining the length of notes:

the rhythms

The Time Signatures: The time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure. It also tells you what type of note will receive the value of one beat. In most cases, the quarter note will receive one down beat. If you were to tap your foot with the metronome on, each tap or click would be equivalent to one quarter note in many cases. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure you are playing. The chart below is a brief summary of some of the most common time signatures the student will see:

The Time Signatures:

The Key Signature The key signature tells you which notes are changed to flats or sharps throughout the piece. There is a fingering that corresponds with each note that is sharpened or flattened. To sharpen a note, you raise the pitch of that note by half a step by altering the fingering. To flatten a note, you lower the pitch by half a step also by altering the fingering. A key signature can have anywhere from zero to seven flats or zero to seven sharps. You will never see flats AND sharps together in a key signature––it will only be one or the other. However, you could see a flat or sharp in the key signature and individual notes altered to the other within the music. These are called accidentals. Below is an example of what key signatures look like:

The Key Signatures:

Practice Time and Good Practice Habits

Scheduling the Right Amount of Time
For most beginning clarinet students, a reasonable amount of practice time is approximately 15 to 20 minutes per day. Often, a beginner student’s mouth cannot hold out for much longer than that as they are still developing their embouchure muscles. They can slowly extend their practice time to 30 minutes as their endurance increases. An intermediate player should be practicing 30 minutes a day and an advanced player 45 minutes to an hour.

Using Your Time Efficiently
Proper practice technique is key to successful practice and the mastery of music. Always sit down with a specific goal in mind rather than practicing aimlessly and without direction. Decide what you’d like to accomplish before you begin the session and work toward that goal. Breaking the piece into smaller sections, isolating problem measures and slowing down difficult passages will always result in a successful practice session. Working backwards is also a very successful practice technique. Start with the last measure or group of notes and work backwards adding more on as you master each section. The piece or passage will come together very quickly!

Where to Practice
Always use a music stand and supportive chair when practicing. This will ensure proper hand and body position as well as proper air support. Sit up straight with both feet on the floor and the clarinet angled at 45 degrees or approximately resting on your knees. Make sure you are taking in an adequate amount of mouthpiece so that you are resonating correctly and filling the entire clarinet up with air, promoting the best quality sound. Embouchure (the way the mouth is sealed around the mouthpiece) should be firm with no puffing cheeks or air leaking from the corners. Fingers should be relaxed and curved, as if you were holding a can of soda. Make sure you are in a quiet location where you can listen to your sound, work with your tuner and not get distracted from your goals.

Maintaining Your Instrument

About Your Clarinet
Most beginner clarinets are made of plastic because it’s more durable for beginners and is not affected by the environment. This is also why students in marching bands use plastic clarinets. Intermediate or advanced level clarinets are made of wood, generally Granadilla. They are used in a concert band setting only and can be far more temperamental than plastic clarinets. However the sound quality, response and intonation is far superior. Live wood is constantly changing due to its environment. It is wise to keep your wood clarinet in a room where the temperature and humidity do not fluctuate to prevent cracking or swelling.

Basic Care
The clarinet should be swabbed out after every playing session. Depending on the length of practice, pulling the swab through about five times should be adequate. Also, the corks should be greased about once a week. Always remove the reed from the mouthpiece when finished playing and place it in a reed case to prevent warping and chipping. Never force the case closed or put anything on top of the clarinet inside the case. Make sure all the parts are placed back neatly and correctly in the case before closing.

Once a year tune up
Your clarinet will last the test of time with routine maintenance! You should send your clarinet in once a year for a “tune up” to a certified technician, even if you don’t think anything is wrong. There are many tiny parts on a clarinet that need a routine checking-over. Pads will be replaced if they are starting to tear or are no longer sealing correctly. This can make a world of difference in the way the clarinet responds. Springs, the little needle like things that open and close the keys, can rust out and break off or lose tension, causing the key not to lift or close. The clarinet may also need to be regulated, which means all the keys might not be coming down correctly or at the same height or time. Wood clarinets will need to have their bores oiled each year previous to cold and dry weather to help prevent crackin

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