Science in the Art of the Clarinet Sound

by Dr. Ron Odrich

An expanded version of an article in The Clarinet, September 2017
Minor Editing by Ed Joffe

As woodwind players, we are all striving to find the best way to express ourselves musically. This means that the sound we produce must first inspire ourselves then hopefully those listening. To this end, there are as many pedagogical techniques as there are teachers. There are also as many unique mouths as there are students and performers and teachers. There are then many variables.

It is common to be exposed to a wide variety of rules to follow such as: “play with an open throat; support the column of air with the diaphragm; arch the tongue; blow like you’re blowing out a candle; hold the clarinet at this angle; push the jaw forward to meet the reed,” etc., etc., etc. A unique approach to producing the best quality sound for each player begins by applying scientific principles of fluid dynamics. This approach leads to a physical method that satisfies those scientific principles. Combining those principles with each player’s unique anatomic structures creates a specific “feel” that produces the best distinctive musical sound. Let’s see how.

The Science

We begin with Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). In the early sixteenth century he discovered that the flow of a large volume of fluid when compressed through a small opening under constant pressure underwent a dramatic increase in velocity. By introducing small granules of opaque material in water, he observed the effect in a glass replication of an ox heart as the fluid passed from the large chamber under pressure through the valve separating the heart from the aorta. Significantly for future clarinetists and wind players in general, da Vinci also noted that the smaller the opening (aperture) the greater the velocity.

Our concerns as clarinetists, and for that matter all wind players, involve the mechanics of airflow dynamics. In the science of physics, the study of fluid dynamics includes the flow of air as well as liquids. It is generally acknowledged in clarinet pedagogy that a column of air (COA) with a high velocity is indispensable in achieving an exquisite tone and legato. This correlation is a key point in understanding the role of science and its effect on musical sounds. Leonardo’s observations, based upon the laws of conservation of mass, became a significant part of the law of fluid dynamics as applied to the flow of the COA. Swiss physicist Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) developed an equation describing the inverse relationship between velocity and pressure in a flowing column of air also based upon the law of conservation of mass. This formulation was further refined by Giovanni Battista Venturi, (1746-1822), an Italian physicist/priest. The “Venturi Apparatus” clearly demonstrated the reciprocal reduction in pressure within the column of air as it passed from a large volume tube through a small aperture into a narrow tube resulting in an increased velocity. The principles established by these historic developments form the basis for creating a beautiful clarinet tone and an effective legato. Three requirements are needed to apply these scientific principles to woodwind playing:

  1. The creation of an expanded volume of air to act as a primary source, which will be shaped into a directed column of air (COA).
  2. A method for shaping the COA flow as it is directed to the tip of the reed or the “Velocity Point “(VP), as it will be referred to.
  3. The formation of a small aperture at the VP, which will ensure the optimum velocity of the COA as it activates the reed.

The “Open Throat”—Creation of a Larger Volume of Air

Clarinetist and instrument maker Luis Rossi reports that Anton Stadler in 1800 recommended the “open throat” vocal technique to produce a beautiful clarinet tone. (The Clarinet, Vol. 42 #3, June 2015) In his day, Stadler was celebrated for the beautiful voice-like quality of his sound. What is generally thought of as the throat is a structure that is anatomically impossible to “open” or even “expand,” given that it is lined with cartilage rings and “voice box.” To create a larger space and to accommodate a larger volume of air, it is necessary to enlarge the space in the oropharynx. Raising the soft palate and expanding the surrounding soft tissues to create a large resonating chamber for the vibrating reed is a way of getting a more “vocal” sound on the clarinet and any wind instrument. Single lip players will note that curling the upper lip against the facial aspects of the upper front teeth and gently pulling back slightly raises the soft palate. Clarinetists who use a “double lip” embouchure automatically create some additional space. The largest possible space can best be created by the technique described below, which will house a greater volume of air as a primary source and in the process form a large resonating chamber. Such an action can also trigger the yawn reflex, which results from significantly raising the soft palate. If you do yawn while following these directions, we can assume you’re “getting it,” and not the other conclusion.

The “Open Throat”— Facts and Fallacies

It is essential for the wind instrumentalist to become familiar with the anatomy of the oral cavity and the names and function of surrounding structures. In order to ensure a good understanding of some of the terms used in this article, a glossary is included for many of us who may not be familiar with the related scientific nomenclature. It is strongly recommended that every wind instrument player make use of the internet to become well-grounded in the anatomy of the head, neck, and its related structures.

Glossary

The Pharynx: The technical name for the throat.
The Oropharynx: Part of the pharynx just behind the tongue.
The Hypopharynx: Part of the pharynx just below the oropharynx.
The Hard Palate: The front two thirds of the roof of the mouth-the bony part of the roof.
The Soft Palate: Located behind the hard palate, it is composed of soft tissue and a mobile structure which has a central portion that droops down called the uvula.
The Mandible: The lower jaw.
The Larynx: The voice box. A cup-like rather rigid structure which houses the vocal cords.
Proprioceptive: Having to do with stimuli related to sensing the position and movement of the body.
Palatal: The inside aspect of the mouth. Toward the palate.

The Oropharynx Position

The word “throat” generally refers to the Hypopharynx and is different from the Oropharynx in ways that are significant. The Hypopharynx part of the throat is formed by the Larynx (voice box) and reinforced with a series of rings of cartilages further down forming a tube called the trachea. This Hypopharynx part of the throat is relatively rigid and resists any voluntary attempts at expansion. The Oropharynx is the major emphasis in this discussion, and it lies above the lower Hypopharynx. It is made up of the space and surrounding flexible structures directly behind the tongue. How these structures operate together significantly affects the creation of the feeling of an “open throat.” It is specifically the Oropharynx we want to open or expand, but the adjacent structures, although less flexible, do affect what it feels like to accomplish this. The wind instrumentalist would do well to learn how to utilize this approach at will. This technique exploits the natural physiology of the human body to create the position that will lead the player to the feeling referred to as the “open throat.” Follow these instructions to capture how it feels to create and experience this famous but elusive magic wand.

The Technique

  1. Using the thumb and forefinger, gently cradle the sides of the throat just underneath the back part of the mandible. The harder structure you feel just below your fingers is the larynx, which holds your vocal cords.
  2. While keeping a very gentle touch, swallow. The larynx slides up then comes back to rest in its normal position. Follow this motion with your thumb and forefinger. The larynx may not expand but it is obviously very mobile vertically upward.
  3. With your fingers lightly in place, gently push your lower jaw (mandible) forward to its comfortable limit. Suck in and down on your upper lip, covering the biting edges of your upper front teeth. Place the biting edges of your lower front teeth as high as possible over your upper lip. Now push up your lower lip as high as possible reaching over your upper lip as if attempting to touch your nose. Hold it there and notice:
    1. how the entire complex of the Oropharynx, Tongue and floor of the mouth have gone south. Also, note that the soft palate has raised up high as you inhale.
    2. how easy it is to inhale.
    3. the different sound the intake of the air makes.
    4. the muscles in the corners of your lips are contracted downwards firmly.
    5. how you have created a large space in back of your tongue.
  4. You have now achieved an optimally formed space. Keep it! It helps to follow this drill several times to impress the feeling on your proprioceptive nerve memory. This will make it easier to keep that sensation and recreate it easily.

Now you can follow these directions and apply the feeling of that position to playing the instrument with an open space in the Oropharynx. For ease and precision in communication, we will now refer to this as the “Open Oropharynx Position” (OOP).

Adapting the Embouchure to the OOP

As previously stated, notice that in this OOP position it feels as though you are stifling a yawn. Hold that position, keep the upper lip pulled back and down, and slowly glide the lower jaw back to its normal spot. Be certain to maintain the open space in back of the tongue. The corners of the mouth will be kept drawn downward while maintaining the firmness in the muscles of the corners of the mouth. Place the mouthpiece in the mouth with the tip comfortably close to the gum tissue behind the upper front teeth. Slide the tip of the tongue forward to the tip of the reed and retract it as little as possible, barely losing contact with the reed tip. The tongue is now used to form a very small aperture in keeping with creating an increased velocity in the COA, as described by da Vinci and Bernoulli. Take a deep breath, exhale gently as in a sigh, and play an open G. Initially, by maintaining the normal jaw position firmly while keeping the tongue forward, there will be a counter-intuitive sensation. This can be overcome by concentrating on maintaining the position until it feels normal and becomes a regular part of the embouchure, which will also include a marked cushioning of the reed with the lower lip. The muscles of the corners of the mouth are held firmly in a downward direction and the open space in the OOP is maintained. If indicated, this position may be modified slightly by the individual player depending upon the anatomy of the structures mentioned above. This establishment of the “ideal” position directed at fulfilling the basic physical principles of fluid dynamics must be considered a starting point and may be slightly modified by the player. In some instances, it may be more effective to assume a gentle smile. There are so many variables regarding oral and oropharyngeal anatomy in each individual’s natural structures that no rigid rules work for all. Each player must find the optimum position. The important point is that the above method is the most effective way to open up the space in the oropharynx and act as a basis for each player to have a unique anatomic “feel” as a tool for creating the optimum volume of air to begin with. Since the reed vibrates within the oral cavity, the larger oral space also acts as a resonating chamber adding a lovely deep tonal quality. Some of the many variables affecting the practical application of these principles will be mentioned below. As a few interesting asides, a common treatment to reduce or eliminate snoring involves the use of an oral appliance that holds the lower jaw in a similar forward position described above. Other clarinetists introduced to this approach resulting in a downward angle of the corners of the mouth have suggested it be named “The Striped Bass Embouchure”.

The Velocity Point (VP)

Gentle air pressure created by the relaxed resilient contraction of the muscles of the torso during exhalation directs the COA forward to front of the mouth. The forward tongue position serves both to shape the flowing COA and act as the floor of a valve that will deliver the COA to the reed tip. In this way, the tongue at its tip can precisely sculpt the size and shape of the COA and control the size of the aperture at its tip, making it as small as desired. An unmistakably identifiable sensation of the airstream coursing swiftly over the tip of the tongue as it directs the COA into the reed/mouthpiece tip crevasse validates that the tongue has successfully shaped and delivered the COA to the VP. It should feel as though the player is exhaling the non-vocalized “SSSSS” sound as in “THUSSSSS.” In using this technique, it is best to not attempt to arch the tongue, but rather let it assume its own unvoiced “THUSSSS” position while keeping the tip of the tongue close to the reed tip.

To achieve optimum air velocity, it is necessary to create a small opening at the velocity point, (VP) through which the COA from the oropharynx will flow and be delivered to the tip of the reed. The following three elements are involved in forming the most ideal VP aperture.

  1. The margin of gum tissue just behind the upper front teeth.
    The first of the three elements which form the small aperture is immobile—the gum tissue directly behind the upper anterior teeth. It is a fixed anatomical tissue. 
  2. The tip of the reed/mouthpiece complex.
    The second element, the tip of the reed/mouthpiece, is an adjustable structure which can be brought close to the gum tissue. The final location of the tip of the mouthpiece depends upon certain variables. For most clarinetists, placing the tip of the mouthpiece nearest the upper front gum tissue would necessitate holding the clarinet down, perhaps closer than usual to the body. Such a position pivots the beak on the incisal edges of the upper front teeth and brings the tip of the mouthpiece closer to the gum tissue in back of the upper front teeth, or in some cases it may even rest on that tissue.
  3. The tip of the tongue.
    The third and most flexible of these three elements is the tongue. To allow the tongue to properly shape the COA, it is helpful to very slightly retract the lower jaw while allowing the tongue to rest in its forward position and spreading its lateral borders to sit between the biting surfaces of the teeth. The lateral borders of the tongue will rest against the inner cheek mucosa. The tip of the tongue remains in place close to the VP.

These elements must be brought into close proximity to “squeeze” the air through to the reed. It is important to recognize that it is the velocity of the stream of air that creates the smooth connection of notes (the legato), and not an increase in pressure exerted that achieves the best result. The smallest possible aperture creates the maximum velocity. Using the so-called “diaphragmatic push” in attempting to get a better legato by increasing the pressure “between the notes” only creates a crescendo to the next note. It is counterproductive and can produce an unmusical pattern in phrasing.

Playing “between the notes” with an increased velocity of the air stream allows for a smoothly connected legato at any volume. Two legendary clarinetists and former mentors, Daniel Bonade and Bob Marcellus, were famous for their superb legato playing. Each of them drew back the upper lip and held the clarinet in this downward position placing the mouthpiece tip close to the palate. They also both felt and taught that to attain a beautiful clarinet sound, the tip of the tongue must be held very close to the reed. Such a conjoining of the three important components—the upper front gum line tissue, the tip of the reed, and the tip of the tongue plus raising the soft palate which increases the oropharynx space—is ideal for creating a large volume of air to be delivered to the smallest aperture through which the larger column of air can be “squeezed” to achieve maximum velocity. It is appropriate to recall that as teachers, Bob Marcellus, and Daniel Bonade emphasized the need to have the tip of the tongue close to the reed to produce a beautiful clarinet sound.

Examples of the benefits of this approach can be heard in Marcellus’ beautiful solos in the Szell recordings of Schubert Octet and the Rosamunde Overture. Bonade’s rapidly ascending and descending solo in Scheherezade are fine examples of this approach. Also, test it for yourself on the very delicate “F#” entry at the beginning of the Copeland Concerto or the first ppp above the staff “A-natural” entry in Piazzola’s Oblivion.

Practical Considerations

We are all built similarly but not identically. There are a great many variables in oral and cranial anatomy and mouthpiece shapes which obviate the likelihood of complete success in dictating fixed rules for positioning the mouthpiece, lips and tongue in an individual’s mouth. A short list of variables would include the size of the tongue; alignment of the teeth; degrees of overbite and overjet; the height of the vault of the palate; thickness of the lips; chin prominence, the height and width of the mouthpiece tip, etc. It is a long list. As mentioned above, the approach proposed is presented as the science-based starting point of an ideal method for achieving the optimum results for each individual. Clearly, clarinetists need to adapt the principles to their particular anatomical composite. The idea is to set the ideal approach as a point of departure and approximate it as closely as possible. If the positioning of the mouthpiece/reed described above is too uncomfortable, try the following modification. While sustaining a middle register “B-natural,” slowly rotate the tip away from the palate by pivoting on the teeth/ mouthpiece contact and slowly raising the angle of the clarinet. When a workable position begins to feel doable, experiment with this position for a practice session. The benefits described above related to tongue positioning and enlarged oropharyngeal space will still apply. Once these initial steps become routine, what at first was felt to be a bizarre approach will become a comfortable norm. Notice the effect this approach has on the sound produced.

One method to establish the recommended placement for the tip of the tongue involves the “lisp” technique. Try saying “s” as though lisping by placing your tongue between your upper and lower teeth while producing an unvoiced “thhhhh.” Keep the air flowing and slowly draw your tongue back into your mouth as you continue forming the “thhhhhh” sound until the tip of the tongue follows the surfaces of the back of the front teeth and rests just above and behind them producing an “ssssss” sound. The column of air at a given point will cause a whistle to be heard, much like a teakettle at the boiling point. 

Experimenting with pianissimo, legato entrances helps establish what it is like to feel the air column flow over the tip of the tongue. A practical approach would be to begin with gently exhaling a COA with steady air pressure. Place the tip of the tongue lightly on the reed and slowly remove it, sliding the tip upward close to the palate keeping it in the position where the note first appears at a pianissimo level. Then, hold a long tone there to get the feel of the COA flowing over the tongue tip. Flutter-tonguing brings the tip of the tongue directly behind the most forward part of the hard palate. (See Jeanjean’s Vade Mecum du Clarinettiste “dental tremolo” exercise, p.13.) 

Another method of learning to “play between the notes” is achieved by keeping the tip of the tongue gently on the reed, allowing it to vibrate while playing a legato chromatic scale pianissimo from low “E” to”C” above the staff and back down. The COA must remain steady from one note to the other. Then repeat after lifting off the tongue just enough to allow the reed to vibrate freely. The same can be done with articulation exercises by keeping the tongue on the vibrating reed when it is supposed to stop the sound. This exercise requires the performer to apply a constant gently flowing COA for legato and staccato playing.

Once more, a word about the relationship of pressure and velocity as it relates to playing wind instruments. An increase in pressure will create an increase in loudness. An increase in velocity helps to ensure the continuity of the sound, which is important in achieving the goal of “playing between the notes” (the legato) at any dynamic level. Another practical application of this method is quickly appreciated when at the end of a phrase a note is held in a controlled tapering diminuendo. Try holding a forte B-natural, midline in the staff, while slowly diminishing to a pianissimo the more difficult it is to sustain the note. As this occurs, slowly and delicately raise the tip of the tongue closer to the reed tip. This will squeeze the column of air even further, making it possible to keep the reed vibrating without exerting more pressure and continuing the diminuendo with no change in pitch. It takes practice and also works very well particularly in the upper registers. 

As an aside, it is also interesting to note that the revolutionary clarinet barrel design by Hans Moennig applies the da Vinci discovery. Just before the airflow enters the upper joint, it passes through a reverse tapered bore…a Venturi tube.

Final Thoughts

With careful application of these principles, it is possible to devise an efficient and highly personalized method of forming the optimum shape and delivery of the column of air for each individual. This will facilitate the achievement of a centered tone and lovely legato given the various anatomical structures of each individual and the equipment used. It is hoped that the application of these scientific fundamentals to the art of clarinet teaching and playing will help in understanding the importance of the principles of fluid dynamics in achieving a beautiful clarinet sound and lovely legato.

Editor’s Notes: Dr. Ron Odrich is a world- renowned periodontal surgeon, one of the greatest jazz clarinetists alive and not too bad on tenor sax and flute as well! He has a unique perspective on the relationship between the anatomical and practical aspects of playing woodwind instruments. He has studied with Sal Amato, Daniel Bonade, Jimmy Abato, Buddy DeFranco, Robert Marcellus, Kal Opperman and Dave Weber and recorded extensively with jazz greats such as Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, Zoot Simms, Buddy DeFranco, etc. Dr. Odrich’s initial article on this subject was honored with the 2016 International Clarinet Association’s Research Competition Award. In 2019, he was named an honorary member of the ICA. Please check out the video Interview with Ron Odrich on this website: https://joffewoodwinds.com/videos/dr-ron-odrich-renaissance-man/

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