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  • Writer's pictureQueen Reed

Marching Band is Ruining My Clarinet Embouchure!


Marching Band season has begun, and you’re sounding shaky, breathy, spitty, heavy, squeaky, wheezy, and well, your normally graceful, poignant, and tender sound that has been known to make Grandma tear up (in a good way) has been replaced with an asthmatic hairy gorilla playing the kazoo.

Why is this happening and what can be done?

This happening because you are likely (suddenly) playing standing up and moving around quickly with abrupt changes of direction and speed - hello “body.” Your clarinet is wobbling all over the place in your mouth and feels like it’s going to slip out of your sweaty hands.

Also, your concentration is not on your sound, it’s on getting to your dot. It’s on the itchy sweat trickling down your back that you can’t do anything about. It’s on avoiding getting stabbed by the slide of a trombone player who’s two steps off his hash. It’s on cursing the trumpets for making the WHOLE band start from the top. Again.

All of this is compounded if you Didn’t Practice This Summer.

And you have only done what most people do in this situation:

You squeeze tighter with your lips and your fingers - resulting in what we in the biz call “alligator jaws” and “death grip.” On top of that the band director is megaphoning that the clarinets and flutes aren’t loud enough. You suspect at least 1/3 of your section is faking playing entirely because they don’t know the music yet. So you are blasting, driving as much air down the clarinet as you possibly can. You are trying to be the sole source of audio on a regulation-size football field, and you’re competing with trumpets and piccolos for that title. Bless your heart. You are playing like the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. You’ve probably surmised that this does not produce the velvety fluid sound of an angelic choir. Nope, now Grandma is weeping, and it’s not in the good way. She’s grieving the loss of your chops, and so am I.

What can be done to fix this?

1) First and foremost, please don’t say you started this marching band season/school year after ten weeks of Not. Touching. Your. Clarinet. What’s that you say? Too late? Well, okay - step two it is. (My pointer finger has officially wagged in your direction).

2) Let’s say you had good reason to not play your clarinet all summer. Your jaw was wired shut, all ten fingers were individually splinted and under doctor’s care, you found out unexpectedly that you are allergic to Boba because your tongue swelled up to the size of a tennis ball and stayed that way all summer -- I’m sure it was something legit like that. To help you get into the swing of things, whip out a softer reed - just for a few days. Your chops will thank you for it. You can go back to the 5+ you usually use, as soon as your embouchure isn’t leaking air like a balloon flupping around the room.

3) Play music OTHER than the marching band music. If you keep running your fingers and embouchure through the exact same paces day after day and hour after hour (like we do all Fall in marching rehearsals), your embouchure and fingers will narrow in their capabilities. I’ll bet my morning chores that your marching band field show and parade music does not have you up in your highest of high registers AND your low register. I’ll bet most of what you play is within about an octave and a half and is not terribly rhythmically varied either. While that may be good enough for the brass (ooh, shade!), it’s not good enough for any self-respecting woodwind player to keep their chops from getting ruined. That famous old adage is not just for old people: “Use it or lose it.” Play your scales. All of the them. Play your old etudes and solos that you love.

4) Now let’s get into the mechanics of good clarinet support - physical support. We need to let our forearms and fingers relax by distributing the weight of the clarinet better and we need to give our embouchure a little support so that we will sound elegant and strong again.

  • Get a mouthpiece cushion/mouthpiece patch and use it! It will be a little rubbery and you’ll be able to grip the mouthpiece better. You’ll feel more secure and you won’t have to bite to get that security. Bonus - you’ll be protecting your mouthpiece from teeth marks. I personally like the thick cushions (.8mm). If you can’t find those, the thin ones can be doubled-up.

  • Make sure your upper lip is ENGAGED, actively squeezing around the mouthpiece and mouthpiece cushion. Gripping with your upper lip provides stability so that your lower lip can be slightly more flexible to control the reed with precision - helping you play high and low, accomplish large leaps, and change dynamics with ease.

  • Get a thumb rest with a bigger surface area. This is just physics, a larger surface area distributes the weight of the clarinet more widely. The weight of the clarinet interacts with your body at the thumb rest which on some models is puny - the size of a dime or less. A thumb rest the size of a quarter is going to create a lot less pressure for your thumb. Less pressure for your thumb = less pain = less wiggling around (and instability) to get relief.

  • Neck strap. The neck strap is the obvious solution for making the weight of the clarinet get redistributed away from your thumb where it feels like it’s going to slip off at any moment - causing you to grip with your fingers tighter than is good for playing. But, many band directors say no to neck straps because they want a uniform look in their clarinet section. If your band director says you can’t wear a neck strap because no one else is, then perhaps see what the whole section thinks of wearing neck straps. If that fails, you can always Unionize.

  • Big Muscles. Even if you can use a neck strap (and especially if you can’t), use your big muscles. When we play standing up, many of us feel a ton of pressure on the right thumb or at the wrist. This tension translates into stiff, unenjoyable playing. If that sounds like you, try to consciously engage the muscles of your upper arm and shoulder to support the clarinet. Asking your tiny thumb muscle and joint to hold up a two-foot long pipe that weighs slightly more than 1.5 pounds is just not very nice at all. Let the big muscles do that work, and you’ll have instant relief in your thumb and wrist along with a lot more stability for your barkystick. Added stability will give you room to concentrate on your lovely tone.

  • Consciously exert a gentle pressure upwards from your right arm. You’ll feel like you’re pushing the clarinet further into your mouth (with your biceps, not your forearm). Counteract that push with firm, but not biting embouchure. The clarinet is not going to slip out of your grasp if you have it in your mouth, with upper lip engaged, and your thumb is under its thumb rest while your right biceps gently pushes the clarinet up toward your face. Now your forearms can relax and you can play with more facility - and it will feel and sound SO much better!

There you have it. With a few minor changes to your set up and renegotiating how you hold the clarinet, you'll be able to play with ease and sound beautiful all the way through Stars and Stripes, the Alma Mater, and this year's record-breaking 20-minute field show!

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