Teaching and learning articulation on the clarinet is difficult and often leads to tears and frustrations. I was very fortunate to have a teacher that was OBSESSED with articulation and sound, and my time with him set me up for an honorary doctorate in Nerd-ology. The ideas I have on articulation are by no means revolutionary, and I don't think they will work for everyone. I would love to hear your interpretations and arguments... because down deep I am a mega-clarinet nerd, a perpetual student, and I love talking about the clarinet.
Mental To-Do While Practicing:
1. Be creative. Being creative doesn't necessarily mean you have to tell yourself your legato articulation should sound like the voices of a thousand angels singing in unison (although if that helps... go for it). Use your imagination to think of how the body is working and how you can control yourself efficiently and comfortably. Create ways to practice things YOU need to work on.
2. Be open-minded. Often we have issues that we "forget about"over time because we use our brains and ears to figure out ways to hide them. Don't be afraid to tackle these issues. No one is perfect!
3. Calm down. Just because you have that secret problem hiding in your "clarinet closet" doesn't mean you are terrible. Simply embrace the problem and fix it! With the problem out in the open and fixed, you are prepared for some great stress-free music making. The more glitches you get out of your playing, the more confident you can feel during performance.
Articulation, as described by Daniel Bonade:
Staccato is an interruption of the tone by touching the tip of the tongue to the reed, and not by a hitting motion. When making a succession of staccato notes one should remember that the tongue should always be on the reed between staccato notes while the finger or fingers should move quickly, preparing the next note ahead. This anticipated preparation will be very beneficial and useful as it forces the eye of the player to read always one note "ahead" and will develop faster reading of music, even in legato playing. Staccato should be practiced very slowly, playing with a fast motion of the fingers after each played note. Do not forget that the tempo at which you play, determines of short staccato and articulations should be made. (Clarinetist's Compendium)
This is probably how everyone is taught to articulate. Through some "creative thinking" I've decided for me, it's best not to think of hitting or touching the tongue to the reed. I choose to think of releasing the tongue from the reed instead. I find it makes it easier for me to keep the air moving quickly, which give the tongue a solid foundation to work on. It also keeps me from hitting the reed too hard.
On the issue of playing staccato notes at the correct length (staccato notes should be one half of the written value); I find that in faster tempos it's easier not to think of playing short at all. A prime example of this would be the Mendelssohn Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream. With all of the staccato markings and accent markings indicated, one's brain might begin thinking all of this should be played very short... but in performance, it would probably be best to think of the sixteenth notes without the staccato. This helps keep air behind the articulation, and no one would be able to hear the difference at this tempo.
This is also a case where I would use the HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL "nee" articulation syllable. I've gotten in a few arguments over this particular idea, but "nee" has some reputable supporters out there. Basically, instead of using the traditional "tee" or "dee" syllables, I've chosen to use "nee." The reasoning is simple, "nee" is easier to say than "tee" or "dee." I also think that it most accurately mimics the motion your tongue should make when touching the reed (high and motion-less in the back, and pointed in the front). You may be asking yourself now, "Why do I care what syllable you use to verbalize articulation?" and I would say... "Very good question!"
I firmly believe that verbalizing music with prescribed syllables (whatever they may be) is the key to learning and internalizing music. It is also much easier to learn rhythms and coordination when you don't have the "black agony stick" in your mouth. Add the clarinet to the process once you have mastered the technique without the clarinet.
I definitely use more than one syllable when verbalizing music. I use "nee" when I'm practicing a very specific type of articulation - the "short" fast articulation. When verbalizing more lyrical music, a wide variety of syllables can be used. The idea behind the verbalization is to learn rhythm, articulation patterns, and feel. You don't have to be Pavarotti to do this! The idea is to coordinate your tongue with your ear so when you add the fingers, there is less confusion.
Once you have the verbalization portion down, you can try to add the clarinet. Using the Mendelssohn Scherzo as an example, try playing the excerpt on all one note.
1. I would use an open G first...
2. ...then do the same exercise on a more challenging note like middle line B (because it has a lot of back pressure)...
3. ... and then perhaps the C two lines above the staff (because it is a more difficult note to control)
Once you have mastered the one note version of this excerpt, try the whole thing as written. At this point you may notice the hardest part is going from throat A to B on the staff. I would take this opportunity to play the rhythm of the excerpts with only those two notes.
Another thing to practice is starting the sixteenth notes with a burst of air instead of the tongue:
This would help get the air started and ensure that you don't over-articulate. Though I sometimes use this when there are sections that are too rapid to tongue everything, I can't think of a time I've used it in a solo situation.
Daniel Bonade again:
Precise articulation presumes a properly developed staccato. Articulations can be classified thus:
Long - (legato staccato)
Medium - (ordinary)
Short - (fast staccato)
Very short - (staccatissimo or pizzicato)
Now, as stated above, the last note of any slur must be clipped, so as to permit the fingers to be ready for the following note, but only when the next note is a staccato note. When a slur is followed by another slur there is not shortening of the last note of the slur unless succeeding slurs are off beat (or syncopated). A syncopated articulation always requires an accent on the 1st note of the slur. (Clarinetist's Compendium)
Basically, we are always doing some version of the "staccato tongue" when articulating on the clarinet. It's the amount of space we leave between notes that creates the articulation we are looking for, not the motion of the tongue that changes. The motion should always be the same. Here is a visual example of that idea.
Medium or ordinary (using Bonade's terms):
(___ represents the air stream, T represents the time the tongue is on the reed)
(The small t represents a shorter time the tongue touches the reed)
Supposing these examples all take the same amount of time to complete, you can easily see the shorter articulations have more tongue-on-reed compared to sound time, and the longer articulations have a longer sound compared to tongue-on-reed time.
Bonade mentions the fingers in both excerpts I've included from the Clarinetist's Compendium. He is indicating that to have the cleanest articulation, you would have to move your fingers rapidly between notes. This is hard to coordinate, especially when you're playing lyrically. For the cleanest sound in articulated passages, the fingers would have to move rapidly to the next note while the tongue is on the reed. Using the example above as a visual aid, just imagine that every time you get to the "T" you would also immediately move your finger to the next note. As you can see, you would have to move your fingers more rapidly in the legato passages because your tongue is on the reed for less time.
Thanks to Timothy Phillips for asking me a random question about articulation and prompting me to write this stuff down... whether anyone agrees with me or not! The only real conclusion I have to this posting is that there is no conclusion! I still think about articulation all of the time... it's the vehicle for sound and musical communication!
Don't give up... he's watching!