E is for Voicing

Had a somewhat brief conversation with a colleague this evening about voicing. Unfortunately, it was at a bar – so you know what happens – drink too much, carouse too much, and then shop talk comes up and it takes you 15 minutes to even be able to say the word embouchure.

Needless to say, the topic of voicing came up. Voicing, for me, is something I’ve thought about for YEARS and YEARS on end. To put it mildly, I don’t have it as easy as other clarinet players – I’m not petite, I’m not 5’6″, and don’t have slivers for lips. On the contrary, I’m 6’3″, enormous hands (from thumb to pinky, I can span a 12th on the piano), have large lips, and a tongue the size of a beached whale (note the David Pino reference to Whales and the tongue, if you’ve ever read his clarinet book).

I’ve done everything and anything one could possible do wrong in order the clarinet: using my throat to start/stop the sound, rolling to much bottom lip, voicing all over the place. I don’t blame this on anyone, other than evolution and my genetic code, I just have to accomplish and practice things a little differently than others. Ultimately, I had to really understand WHAT I was doing wrong in order to do what is right. BUT, ultimately, what’s right for me – is not necessarily right for you.

Remember: one size does not fit all.

Getting back to the bar scene – Voicing.

We talked about voicing and the “EE” vowel tongue position came up. I don’t necessarily have qualms with the “EE,” I feel that there are better ways to approach voicing, like not at all, than using vowel. In more cases than not, teachers mess up students voicing by telling them to do the wrong thing, or focused on the wrong part of the mouth. This is a really tricky area to teach to students – shoot, to anyone really. You mess up a student voicing and it could take them years…YEARS…YEARS to fix it. Not that the “E” vowel messes things up considerably, it’s just not efficient.

I don’t even really teach this to my students because I find it to be counterproductive sometimes. And really, for that matter, I never even bring up voicing unless it’s an issue. In most cases, if the embouchure is right and the horn angle is right, then the tongue will rest in its normal position – forward and high.

The problem with the “EE” vowel is that, even though it raises the tongue, it creates “U” shape in the very center of the tongue. Sort of creating a mini pool.  Looking at the “U”, imagine each ends of the “U” touching the molars of the teeth.

On top of that, it actually drops that back portion of the tongue into the throat and obstructing the flow of air. You’ll notice that some players, just before they start playing and set the “EE” vowel, the neck and throat area actually balloon open. That’s because the back of the tongue is being forced lower in the throat, the pressure from the air builds in the throat causing the balloon effect. One of my teachers called in a bottle neck effect.

The core and basic elements of playing  are based on free and natural motions.  Ever notice someone who plays with a grunt just before releasing the air? Well, that comes from inhaling and then, just before you exhale, you hold the air in your throat – using those muscles to constrict that passage closed. Once it’s released, a grunt emerges from everything going craaazzyyy (very technical example, I know).

As I mentioned a moment ago, correct voicing varies from player to player – based on their body and physical make up. What is important with voicing, and when teaching voicing, is understanding its purpose. So, what is the purpose of voicing? Well, it’s purpose is to direct the air out of the body and into the instrument. In a sense, it is what puts the final spin on the air as it hits the reed – that last moment of finesse, if you will.

Okay, well think about what the “EE” vowel does then – if it raises the sides of the tongue to create a “U” position – it’s not really shaping or speeding up the air. Because the tongue is in the throat now, with this particular position, the back pressure builds, is released, slows down from where the bottle neck started, enters the oral cavity, hits the arch in the tongue, gets to the middle of the aural (now were the dip of the “U” is) and slows down again.

Here are the issues – the air should enter and exit the body as naturally and efficiently as possible – the aural cavity as well as the throat should feel the same way on both the inhale and exhale – in its relaxed state. The “EE” vowel begins obstructing the exhale, causing the air to slow down in two separate places – first the throat, then the center of the aural cavity.

No bueno for clarinet playing.

Here are some things I would evaluate, and what I told my friend tonight  First, look at the horn angle of the student. So many issues emerge as a result of too high of a horn angle, I can testify to that because I am a direct result of the playing at a 60% angle. If you bring the instrument close towards you, say rough a 35 degree angle – your aural cavity stays in a natural position. The tongue is forward, as though it is resting, and the arch of the tongue – when you go to play – is actually far more forward than we think. It’s not the back of the tongue that is all the important (though not completely unimportant), it is the middle and front of the tongue that ultimately make the difference.

When I played at my “horns-up-angle”, I would bite the mouthpiece and reed because there was not resistance on the reed, it was like playing the sax. At a normal and close angle, there is natural resistance on the reed from the bottom lip giving you more as well as more control as well as allowing for more of the reed to vibrate in the mouth. Additionally, I had to do some really weird things with my tongue because of this awful horn angle – farther back, tonguing was never consistent because I would get undertones as a result of my tongue being too far back in the mouth.

Oh – and the undertones as well as starting attacks – they would do a sort of “WAAHH” sound before settling because the voicing was too far back, then I’d move it forward to compensate, then articulate in the wrong place.

UGH – how did I play the clarinet like this?!?!?

As soon as I fixed that horn angle, and such a small fix it was, everything changed. I had to go back, WAY BACK, to the core basic and sort of relearn everything. I had to think differently.

Wait, no, actually I had to STOP thinking and just let things be natural in the aural cavity. Fixing the horn angle allowed me to play in a normal and natural way. After that, playing became – and I swear as a drunken sailor – exponentially easier. My sound was extremely focused –  yet rich, I could control attacks at any range and dynamic (so long as I was relaxed and the air was there) and most importantly, my legato was…GORGEOUS…large leaps and jumps became effortless and I could play the entire opening of the Copland Concerto as smooth as a babies behind.

Look, I don’t often get excited about my playing – but when I made that change (and I made a few other changes too) – I was very happy with my playing and very happy with my sound.

Some additional not-so-positive things about the “EE” vowel. When we say “EE” it actually brings the corners of the mouth back and…UP. Like you’re smiling. I think a lot of people with disagree with me on this – that’s fine – but keep in mind, what works for you, will not work for me. I would think about anchoring the corners of the mouth between the teeth – I’ve seen a few people angle those corners upwards. The goal is to get off the bottom – as my now professor says. The mouth, and it’s muscles, really are only a seal – there should be no pressure from those muscles or on the reed. The pressure, however, should come from the angle of the clarinet and the right hand thumb pushing upwards.

Something I’ve learned, and found, was that when you say “EE,” you’ll notice that the muscles just bellow the back portion of the jaw and the lower neck…tense and constrict. I discovered this playing a concert once, when, after gaining a few pounds (okay a lot of pounds), my tux shirt was a WHEE bit tight. When you have something around your neck, like a button up, you begin to notice, and really quickly, what your neck area is doing.

So then, what vowel should we think of.

My general philosophy is that, if you think about it too much – as I did – then you’re only going to work yourself into circles. Why not just stop thinking about it for a while – focus on just playing. Voicing, like musicianship, should come naturally – because the natural position of your tongue is high and forward.

I’ve learned a lot in the pasty few years, and this is something that has taken me the longest to learn. Relaxation is the key – as soon as any ounce of tension creeps up into the shoulders and neck, expect to lose that voicing, your air  – and sense of comfort. Then it’s just a slippery slop from there.

Random Rant of the Evening – I’ll try to make something a little more coherent next time.

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One response to “E is for Voicing

  1. I love this post! I totally agree that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to clarinet. It’s really a case by case basis for me when it comes to working with students.

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