5 Helpful Tips for Teaching High Notes on Clarinet and Saxophone
Written by Shawn Royer
As a Yamaha Performing Artist and Vandoren Artist Clinician, I typically work with many young clarinetists and saxophonists each year in sectionals and masterclass settings at middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities, festivals, and conventions. One thing I’ve found that many young players struggle with is playing high notes. Coincidentally, I’ve also found that this seems to be a difficult thing for most ensemble directors to teach. While there are many different approaches to teaching high notes, I would like to share with you what has consistently worked for me.
Tongue Position on Clarinet
In my undergraduate studies at Indiana University, I studied clarinet with James Campbell. He used to have his clarinet studio play warmups from a great book by Avrahm Galper, Tone, Technique, and Staccato, in which the clarinet leaps up a twelfth by pressing the register key, then descends down an arpeggio. During each leap, Professor Campbell would tell us to “think EE on the low notes and OH on the high notes”. I later realized this was a simple way to get a student to accomplish a vital tongue position change.
If I tell a clarinetist to shape their tongue in a certain way, they will either not understand what I’m trying to say or they will overdo the shape. Instead, a great way to get a clarinetist to make a change in tongue position is to have them think of a vowel sound. The tongue position adjustment needed for the high notes is only a small adjustment. Therefore, the student should not try to force the shapes, but only needs to think of each vowel sound. By making the small adjustment from thinking EE on the low notes to OH on the high notes, the intonation of the high notes will typically improve because the OH tongue position allows for more control and allows for more overtones to resonate (which will also have a positive impact on tone). The OH tongue position is most effective for the notes from the G on the top of the staff through altissimo Eb.
The ability to control and alter the tongue position comes in handy when quick adjustments are needed for intonation on the fly, but it is also necessary when playing glissandos, pitch bends, and scoops on clarinet and saxophone. For more detailed instructions on how to play altissimo or a smooth glissando on clarinet, visit my website, www.shawngoodmanjazz.com/clarinet.
Tongue Position on Saxophone
Tongue position also affects the musician’s ability to play the high notes on saxophone. This concept can be easily demonstrated by having a beginning saxophonist finger an altissimo note using an off-the-horn fingering (one which typically incorporates the altissimo key). In this demonstration, the beginner will likely not be able to sound the high note, even when they finger the note correctly. The reason for this is because they have not yet learned how to form or shape those notes with the tongue position.
When I attended a saxophone camp one summer with Dave Liebman, he stressed this point about tongue position and also added that the larynx works in conjunction with the tongue to shape these notes in the same way that a vocalist would shape a note in their throat just before singing a pitch. To learn how to achieve the correct tongue (and larynx) position for altissimo on the saxophone, practice overtone exercises. One example is to finger a middle Bb using the bis key. Then, while holding that pitch, add all the fingers for the low Bb fingering but maintain the middle Bb pitch. Then, while still holding that pitch, slur down to the low Bb by only adjusting the tongue position and not by moving the jaw. (For more helpful overtone exercises, check out Liebman’s book, Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound) These overtone exercises teach the saxophonist how to control the pitch with the tongue. This not only helps them to play the altissimo notes, but this skill is also necessary for making quick adjustments to intonation and for playing smooth pitch bends and scoops.
Pointing the Chin
This idea of changing the tongue position but not moving the jaw or the embouchure is also the same for clarinet. I’ve heard many directors tell clarinetists that struggle with intonation or response of the high notes to “tighten up the embouchure,” only to get minimal improvements in pitch and results that actually sacrifice tone. Here is a simple phrase to remember…
EMBOUCHURE AFFECTS TONE & TONGUE POSITION AFFECTS PITCH
While it is true that if someone tightens up their embouchure on a high C they may get the pitch to come up a little bit, they are also probably exerting more upward pressure against the reed. This causes the sound to generally get smaller and more constricted because the reed is being constricted from vibrating to its full potential. Too much upward pressure will actually close the reed off and will not allow much or sometimes any air to pass through. This excessive upward pressure is sometimes referred to as “biting” the reed. To counteract this tendency, have a student point their chin down and away from the reed. The chin pointing down helps to remove that excessive upward pressure, allowing the reed to vibrate more freely, thus producing a bigger sound.
It is also vital that the clarinetist uses a reed that is hard enough or else the high notes will not sound because the reed will close off. I’ve found that most clarinetists need to use at least a Vandoren 2.5 or a Rico 3 to have any chance of getting the high notes to respond and play in tune. To find out if your student’s reed is too soft, have them put more mouthpiece in their mouth. If the high notes wouldn’t play before and you couldn’t hear any air going through the mouthpiece before, but the high notes come out when they put more mouthpiece in their mouth, then they probably need a harder reed (if the high notes wouldn’t play before but you could hear air going through the mouthpiece, but then when they put more mouthpiece in their mouth, the high notes played just fine, then that means they need to play with more mouthpiece in their mouth all the time). For saxophones, it is generally not necessary to have a harder reed for the high notes to respond.
The Bottom Lip
Adjustments made to the embouchure will mainly affect tone. A tighter bottom lip that is spread like someone is applying chapstick (I call this “chapstick lip”) will provide a clean, pure sound, while a loose bottom lip (I call this “pillow lip”) will provide a bit more of a sotto voce subtone. This flexibility comes in handy when performing jazz or anytime a clarinetist or saxophonist wants to transition from a bright tone (chapstick lip) to a darker, warmer tone (pillow lip) without changing mouthpieces. For jazz on both instruments, I use mainly the pillow lip, and for saxophone, I have the pillow lip turned out a bit more so that wet/dry line on the bottom lip (where the wet stops and the dry begins) is touching the reed.
Interesting post on the clarinet. However it is worth mentioning that it is really important to clean your clarinet, many people don’t and it results in mold growing in it. That’s why it’s really important to take care of any instruments, especially oral ones. To learn more please check out our post, written by pro-clarinetist Bethan Greenaway.
Thank you for reading
Baeli Nelson says
As a student who play Bb clarinet and Bass clarinet, I just want to say how much I appreciate this. Just shortly after reading this I feel as I learned so much. I didn’t know half of the things I did before reading this as I do. Once again, thank you very much!!
I’m an 80 year old woman who attempted to play the clarinet when I was 70. I faired very well until the material contained high notes. Needless to say, I gave up. Too bad that I wasn’t told about your method. Maybe then, there would be a fighting chance.