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  • Writer's pictureQueen Reed

When High Notes Won't Come Out

If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you’re a little bit frustrated. High notes are elusive on the clarinet. Squeaky, groany, squirrelly, and really hard to get out. On top of that, we can’t see inside our mouths while we play, so we really have no good idea what we are doing in there. We can’t see if we actually ARE holding our tongue a certain way, or opening our throat a certain way. And our teachers can’t see in there either. But, a good teacher can tell by what they do hear and see what is likely preventing your high notes from coming out.

In my experience, here are the most common culprits, in order of likeliness:

1) You are not blowing hard enough. We want FAST FAST FAST air. Shoot your air like an arrow that will go through your clarinet, and right through the floor below you. This is tied in a dead heat with Your embouchure is not firm enough. Think of a drawstring bag and tighten those lips around the mouthpiece.

2) You don’t have enough mouthpiece in your mouth. There is a spot on the mouthpiece where the reed and mouthpiece are totally touching together, and there is a spot where the mouthpiece pulls away from the reed and the reed is “free.” You want your lower lip slightly below that spot, so as much of the “free” part of the reed is IN your mouth - not stifled by your lip.

3) Your reed is too soft. Soft reeds will NOT play high notes. If you are just starting to delve into your altissimo range, and nothing is coming out up there, AND most of the rest of the clarinet is pretty easy to play, your reeds might be too soft. A “just right” reed will be one that fights back a little. You want to feel like you are pushing against it a bit with your air - even on “easy” notes like open G. (Think of how it feels to get a balloon started - you have to push a bit to get the air going, and then it will fill. It is similar on the clarinet, but to me, less pushing is needed for clarinet than for a stubborn balloon). If playing an open G or lower requires minimal effort, I’m betting you need a stiffer reed.

4) Your lower lip and/or lower jaw are not pushing against the reed with enough firmness. Imagine a bulldog - notice how their lower jaw juts forward? You might need to jut your lower jaw forward into the reed and mouthpiece just a bit, to increase the amount of pressure on the reed. (Don't bite down like an alligator - just jut forward like a bulldog). A reed that is not receiving enough pressure will not vibrate optimally. (Also, if you are jutting forward WAY TOO much, the reed will not vibrate well - but usually when high notes won’t come out, this is not the problem). And remember to squinch up your lower lip (like puckering up) under that reed. Don’t let your lower lip be flat and loose. Again, think drawstring bag.

5) Tongue position. This is the hardest one for any of us to be aware of, but generally, you want to keep the air moving fast through your mouth. You can't put your tongue on the bottom of your mouth and expect your air to move fast. Physics won’t allow it. Here’s why: your wind pipe is between ½ and ¾ inch in diameter and your mouth is much bigger in diameter. Any gas or fluid that is moving through a pipe will slow down if the pipe gets larger (and it will speed up if the pipe gets smaller). So if your air is coming up fast out of your wind pipe, and then it enters the cavernous hole that is your mouth when your tongue is laying low (as in saying Ah, or Oh, or Uh), then your air will have no choice but to slow down. And slow air hitting a reed is NOT going to produce a high note. Really, it just won’t.

Instead, focus on creating a smaller diameter pathway through your mouth for your air. Yehuda Gilad taught me to say EEEEE with my tongue (as in meat, cheese) so that the sides of my tongue can feel my molars, and at the same time, say OOOOH (rhymes with moo) with my lips.

6) Your clarinet angle may not be right for your jaw. I'm giving you permission to nod politely with no intention of obeying when your band director says all the clarinets have to hold the instrument at the same angle for a uniform look during marching band. (They will get their wish that you will all look alike, but they will be sorely disappointed when they hear that half of you can’t play your high notes this way). Your overbite (gap between the top teeth and bottom teeth when your jaws are together) is not the same as anyone else in your clarinet section, and therefore the angle at which you need to hold the clarinet to your body is not going to be the same. Experiment with this angle -- try playing high notes with the clarinet straight out in front of you (parallel to the floor, ala Benny Goodman!), to straight up and down (perpendicular to the floor) and see where your high notes come out best. I guarantee, there is a sweet spot for you somewhere along that continuum.

With a little experimentation, patience, and persistence, your high notes will come out consistently. There’s no secret magic, just keep trying, and keep thinking about these six pointers. You will get there. And did I mention to keep practicing? Yes, keep practicing. We wouldn’t want to deprive our neighbors and bandmates of our journey to high-note glory.

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