When you’re just beginning a new instrument, one of the most common habits that many slip into is poor posture, when learning it’s easy to be so focused on hitting the right notes or mastering the tune that you often neglect the rest of your body.
We often get a number of young learners and parents visit us asking for adaptations to their instrument with various heads, add-ons or accessories to make playing more comfortable, but we have found that 9 times out of 10, a little posture correction is all that is needed!
Today, we’re looking at clarinet posture and have been busy speaking to one of our trusted Millers Teachers Hannah Williams, a clarinet teacher from High Wycombe. Before we jump in though, it’s important to also note what we actually mean by having great posture and how these tips can help improve your playing.
Hannah best describes posture as being able to: "Comfortably play all of the notes on the clarinet, by making sure that all of your thumbs and fingers are in the correct place."
So without further delay, let's jump into it!
What is the best hand placement for clarinet?
When playing clarinet, your left hand provides support to the top joint of the instrument (which is the longer part closest to the mouthpiece and barrel). The pad of your thumb should cover the hole on the back of the joint, and the pads of the first, second and third fingers should cover the holes on the front of the joint. Make sure you keep them in this order - no finger crossing!
Your right hand supports the bottom joint (which is the longer part closest to the bell), and takes the majority of the weight of the instrument. Your right thumb sits underneath the flat metal plate on the back of the joint, also known as the thumb rest. Then, your first, second and third fingers should be positioned over the three holes on this joint, exactly as before.
You want to use the pads of your fingers, as they are the fleshiest part, so will cover the holes properly. If you're not sure which part that is, just squeeze your finger until you find the part that feels the ‘squishiest’! This part will flatten as you place it over the tone holes, covering the hole completely. It's really important we cover the holes completely, otherwise air will escape, and either play the wrong note, or no note at all!
What is the best posture for clarinet?
Being a wind instrument, the air that we send down our clarinet is really important for creating a good sound, or any sound at all! As such, we need to make sure that we're sending lots of fast air down the instrument and posture is a big part of that.
Firstly, make sure you're standing or sitting up nice and tall with a straight spine. You don't want to be slouching, and your shoulders should be relaxed...not tensed up around your ears! Maintaining a good posture will let you use your lungs to their full capacity and help you control your breathing better.
When it comes to holding your clarinet at an angle, Hannah personally believes that there isn’t a perfect angle to hold your clarinet at, as everyone has different bodies with different proportions. Start by pointing the bell away from your body, and keep your arms relaxed at a 90 degree angle and beginning to feel what is most comfortable. If you are struggling to keep the instrument up, try the same exercise whilst sitting down or lower the angle.
One common problem that often arises here is the player holding their clarinet too far away, or too close to their body. It shouldn't be sticking out so far that you can't hold it comfortably, but you also don't want to rest it on your tummy. If your clarinet is held too close to your body, you will be curling the very top of your spine downwards which is not only bad for your back and neck, but also restricts your air flow massively.
Common mistakes to avoid
One of the most common mistakes that Hannah sees new players fall into is keeping their fingers too far away from the instrument when they aren't covering the tone holes.
Doing this means your hands get tired faster because they're working harder than they need to as they are not supporting the instrument and require more muscle movements to then return to the notes. Also, playing quick passages will become more challenging as each finger has to travel further to cover the tone holes when changing notes. Instead, try to keep your fingers just about the holes without covering them. A good exercise Hannah uses on her students is to experiment with how close they can get their fingers to the body of the clarinet without changing the note.
Little fingers are also a big culprit for this. They often have a mind of their own and like to stick right out when they are not being used. It's true that we don't use them as often, but as soon as a note comes up where we need them, we don't want them to be dancing around miles away from our keywork, so keep that pinky finger in!
Another common issue is tense hands and fingers. This one is a little more complicated to track as unfortunately, just telling someone to relax just isn’t going to work. If there’s tension in the hands and the fingers, there’s probably tension in the back and neck too. In order to overcome this, it’s always good practice to warm up well and do some exercises before playing such as playing long slow scales.
How can a beginner build up better strength and posture?
Unsurprisingly, the only real way to improve things like posture is gradual improvements over time. Slowly increase how long you play for, and be mindful of your posture at all times and eventually those good habits will begin to form and be a natural part of your playing.
There are plenty of exercises you can do to strengthen certain parts of your body, such as cat cow pose for your lower back if you’re finding playing straining your back. As most of us work from desks, this isn’t uncommon as office work also does little to support the lower spine.
Different accessories can also help with posture and hand position. Hannah notes of several double-jointed musicians use neck straps to help take the weight of their clarinet off their right-hand thumb. If you’re experiencing pain, or have any health-related issues, there are special thumb rests that change the position of the weight of the instrument, which can prevent fatigue. However before investing in these, speak to either your teacher or an expert as your posture or positioning might still be the issue!
Likewise, you will often see clarinets with thumb rest cushions too. There are usually black rubber covers that sit over the existing thumb rest on your instrument to help make it more comfortable, these are not a problem and can be an easy fix for those who struggle with the standard thumb rest.
Tips to stop bad habits sneaking in?
Whilst things do come with time, there are still plenty of ways in which you can help prevent your own, or your child’s poor posture from sneaking in. The first, and probably most successful, is to have regular lessons with a clarinet teacher. They will not only be able to assess your posture on a regular basis, but they'll know exactly what issues to look out for.
It can also be really useful to play in front of a mirror occasionally, so you can actually see what your fingers are doing! Unfortunately, clarinet players don’t have the ability to look down at our fingers as they’re playing the clarinet, unlike a pianist, for example. Playing in front of a mirror can help us keep an eye on our hand positioning to see if things are slightly off or causing issues. It is also helpful for checking that we're covering the holes correctly or hitting the correct side keys (especially when we're learning new notes!).
Playing in front of a mirror might not be ideal for checking posture, as you can only see certain angles. For this reason, filming yourself playing can be a great way of assessing your own posture. Hannah recommends filming yourself from the side to check your back is straight and your shoulders are relaxed.
Finally, it's important to note that we should be thinking about our posture regularly. With the best will in the world, we might start off playing with a great posture, but start slouching throughout our practice session. Writing a reminder on a post-it note reminding you of posture can be stuck on your stand. You could even set an alarm on your phone for half-way through your practice session to remind you to check that posture!
If in doubt, never be afraid to ask a teacher to check your posture. You wouldn’t necessarily have to commit to regular lessons with them. You could just book as many as you needed in order to check your posture, then maybe have a lesson every so often to double check. The worst thing you can do is develop bad habits and cause yourself injury later down the line!
We hope these tips help offer a little more insight into how you can improve your clarinet playing and continue developing a tip top posture! If you’d like any further information on any of our instruments or playing advice, our experts are here to help!