Clarinet Breathing Technique

General comments about breathing technique

In order to draw a tone out the clarinet you first have to suck in air through the mouth into the lungs and blow that air out again through the clarinet tube. Proper breathing is essential for producing sound out of the clarinet. In order to make optimal use of your breathing you must use “diaphragm breathing” also called “breathing from the belly”. Let’s do a simple exercise without the clarinet in order to learn this way of breathing: Put your hands in your sides at your waist. Breathe out completely and feel that your belly has been retracted. Inhale the air with having an open throat and open mouth in the yawning position. You will feel your belly expand. As the lungs are filling themselves the diaphragm goes downward and the space in your belly area becomes smaller. Your belly does not only expand to the front but also sideways. Brace your belly muscles to keep the air as long as possible and exhale very slowly. This way of “belly breathing” is called “breath support”. If you want to feel the optimal effect of this exercise you can repeat the same exercise while squatting with your back against the wall and with your legs making an angle of 90 degrees with your upper body and lower legs. (drawing or photo). In this posture you will feel the muscles of your belly better at the moment of inhaling breath; it causes you to become more aware of your breath support. Try to recall the same awareness of breath support when you start to play the clarinet in an upright standing position. Make breath support your point of departure and do so with a relaxed upper body engaging only the minimal amount of muscle tension for embouchure (lipping), fingers, hands arms and the upper part of your back in order to optimally perform all clarinet techniques.

Learning the proper breathing

While practising take a short moment to concentrate on breathing and by doing the above described exercise you will get accustomed of using the muscles of your belly for optimal breathing. In this way proper breathing will become an automatic habit.

The advantages of breath support

The advantages of breath support are among other things

  1. that you will be able to contain the air much longer
  2. that you can regulate the air flow
  3. that you will be able to give short marked bursts to play staccato
  4. that the feeling of muscle tension in the central part of your body has positive repercussions for the relaxation of your upper body

The conscious application of breath support

Breath support does not have to be applied consciously all the time since you have made it an automatic habit. On critical moments, during a challenging technical moment, a conscious application of breath support will however help you take that barrier. A conscious use of breath support will also give you the possibility to calm down when you are nervous.

The clarinet is wind instrument

Just compare legato intervals and register changes on the clarinet with singing. When singing you will go from one tone to the next automatically without any diminishing or interruption of the airflow. A continuous uninterrupted air flow will remedy most problems that concern legato playing, register changes and intonation. Only with an uninterrupted air flow you will be able to produce tied (legato) tones. Take the risk that a tied note does not respond; do not hold back your air flow but keep on blowing! Give some extra force when preparing for a difficult tied note (legato) to the next tone. The result will be that the particular tone does not squeak out disproportionally.

Use your breathing technique to make music

Use your breath to bring to facilitate your musical phrasing. Your musical approach is determined for the greater part by gradually increasing the airflow towards peaks in the musical phrases or by gradually decreasing the airflow if the phrase requires such. Your breathing technique for that matter is an excellent tool to play the clarinet in a musical way.

Determine the amount of air

Listen to check if your tone in a particular room “carries well”. It could be that it is too loud or too soft. Also listen to the balance of your sound compared to other instruments. You can continually regulate the right airflow while playing. Your ability to do so is decisive for your impression you make on your audience.

Problems and solutions

— Breathing and playing fast notes

Problem: Fast notes and difficult passages require a lot of attention. This creates the danger of neglecting a steady and sufficient airflow. This will affect your sound in a negative way.

Solution: Play the fast passages a little slower with a full continuous airflow, or practise 6 or 8 tones separately in rhythmic variations as a technical study. This will allow your fingers to master the fingerings and it will also allow you to pay attention to your breathing. (** see rhythmical of short fragments, coming soon on this site)

Breathing and the altissimo register

Problem: For playing in the altissimo register, i.e. the high notes above C ‘’’, it is important to let the airflow continue in spite of the tricky fingerings. Relaxation and regaining of your lipping (embouchure) and of the airflow causes the sound to “drop”.

Solution: First practise the fingerings dry (i.e. without blowing) in order to get the fingerings memorized. Then play the high notes in a slow tempo without letting your lips relax in such a way that the tones connect smoothly.

The moment of inhaling

Problem: When inhaling you let go of the embouchure with the risk that that you apply to much tension on the lips when you try to regain your embouchure. This might cause the reed not to respond immediately after breathing in. Recovery of the right lip tension comes after the entry of the tone which causes a delayed response of the tone and that in ist turn influences your rhythm.

Solution: Breathe in as much as possible on spots where musical phrases end. That’s where you have the time to prepare in advance for getting back consciously to the most adequate embouchure. Mark your part with commas where to inhale and also indicate when you need more air for the next phrase.

Breathing and coming in “after the beat”

Problem: Taking in breath automatically at all rests even within a musical phrase has the tendency to become a quickly picked up habit. When coming in after the beat or when playing continuously “off beat” (contre temps) there is the tendency to breathe unnecessarily on the beat to the detriment of the music.

Solution: With closed lips you are quicker prepared to come in on the following note. This helps to enhance the quality of more rhythmical playing. That comes in very handy when you have to come in together with other players. It also has a positive effect on your tone production as your embouchure does not have to be slackened and regained so many times. In order to remind yourself of saving your breath you can indicate this in your part by an arrow that is pointing to the right.

Breathing in case of prolonged rests

Problem: After a number of counts rest or bars rest an entry which is done at the last moment will not be rhythmical.

Solution: In case of prolonged rests or prolonged bars rest breathe in and, if you like, through the nose. Close your lips around the mouthpiece which blocks a quick inhalation or embouchure slacking . You are now completely prepared for your entry and you are in control of the moment of your entry and of the quality of your tone. Mark this in your part where there are many rests to remind you of a slow conscious breathing.


Copyright 2013 – Kees Vos



English translation – Art Marshall


Copyright 2013 – Kees Vos


English translation – Art Marshall