The Method, Part One: Longtones and warmups

The overarching goal of The Method is to build focus and control over all areas of clarinet playing: intake of air, production of sound, articulation, finger technique; every area I can try to get at. I end up doing the technical part of the practice at somewhat elevated tempos, but I've been doing this for a long time. It's important to practice this stuff at tempos that may test you, but not invite you to fail. Again, particularly in the technical practice, the focus is on control, evenness, and fluidity. The speed will come if the work is smart and focused. Anther way to put that is: the "when" will come, as long as the "how" is right. We've all heard people do freakish things behind practice room doors. The thing is, I never see those players make the finals of high-level auditions. I call them "practice room heroes". Don't be them. You want to build practical, even, reliable technique that will allow you to play even the most difficult music with musicality and fluidity. Plus, showing off is for suckers.

Let's look at a visual analogy for this. This guy:

James Thompson

Fights this guy:

Alexander Emeilanenko

Let's see.

One guy is built for show, one guy is built to fight (and has technique). Don't be a show pony. Technique should be practical, applicable, and most of all musical.

By now it's probably clear that I like to think about my musical practice in athletic terms. I was a pretty decent athlete in my younger days, first as a typical youth football and baseball player, and then as a three-year starter on a quite good high school wrestling team. I made it one step below the state tournament my junior year, which is pretty good considering I was in the first clarinet section of all-state band at the same time. As an adult, I've grown to become fascinated by watching athletes compete at a high level, and I'm probably more fascinated by how they prepare.

All of that is a long-winded prelude to say that I very much put the context of a daily warmup routine into that of a daily routine of a fighter. Could be MMA, but in my mind it's a boxer (I am ever the classicist). Fighters have to do road work - that is to say, they have to run. Every morning. For a long time. They must come to resent it the way I resent having to do my scales every day, but here's the thing: you do not want to find yourself out of gas in the 12th round while millions of people watch someone else punch you in the face. Likewise, you don't want to be faced with a problem in front of a live audience that you don't know how to solve. I've quoted the fabulous pianist Adam Neiman in the past, and I will again: "everyone comes to a moment during a performance where they go, 'oh shit. What's next?' The thing is to have an answer to that question". Fighters have to run. I have to do my scales.

So let's get to it. Some of this might be quite clarinet/wind specific, but try to bear with me.

First, put your phone away. You can look during your breaks. It's a distraction. Be shut of it. None of this works if you are not paying attention. Think of the legendary cellist Janos Starker who said, "if I am in a performance. and my mind wanders for a moment, I am ashamed", and make your practice like that.

In keeping with the "workout" aspect of the warmup, I start with a light body stretch. Then I go into what I feel is the same easy stretch on my horn. I learned this from Deb Chodacki, who was my predecessor at ECU and then taught at Michigan and LSU. I call it "surrounding the G". I play an "open" G and then go down and up a half step. It looks like this:

That should be nice and easy, like a gentle hamstring stretch. Just shaking hands with the horn a little - hello, horn, nice to see you. I try from the start to get a good focus on the tone - it helps if you voice the F# with a slight "Ü" (in English we show that "ue") - it's mostly an "ee" type of voicing with a shade of "u" (a little weird, I know but try it. Nice focus, eh?). I want a seamless legato throughout. In order to accomplish that, I think of blowing IN BETWEEN the notes more than I think of anything else. I want to fill the intervals with air, putting a kind of "glue" between any seams. It takes constant, gentle but insistent air.

Then I have my first use of this bad boy, my spirometer:

You can get those on Amazon. They measure your air intake, and if used correctly, can also expand your capacity and flexibility. I take a controlled inhale, trying to keep the little stopper on the right side suspended in the very center of the chamber. I fill my belly first, then try to fill my lower back, then all the way up into my chest. You can kind imagine this as though your torso were a fireplace bellows:

Then I exhale immediately, just letting it go. Don't hold your breath, or catch it at all as you let it out: a long inhale, and then let the air come out as it wants to, almost in one singular motion. This trains you to breathe into the deepest part of your torso, which in turn helps you train yourself to produce the sound from that same deep place in your body. It's really a singing technique for producing beautiful sustained sounds: breathe deeply into your body and then release it from the same place. My teacher Eli Eban wisely likened it to drawing an arrow on a bow - a beautifully controlled pull, and then just let it go. Don't hold onto the breath at all. Then I do this again:

This goes straight to part of my overall philosophy: leave no reps behind. If one rep is good, why not two? if four is good, why not eight? It might add up to more time and more pain in your ass, but more reps equals more chances to get it right. And no one ever died from busting out extra reps..well, maybe some horn players in the 1600s, but fuck those guys, right?

 Moving along, I move on to whole steps around open G. Again, I'm trying for a warm, focused consistent sound throughout, as well as a seamless legato between the notes. Try the Ü thing again.

Repeat the spirometer step then another rep. Then finally on to two reps of this, again separated by some sweet spirometer action:


So now I'm lightly stretched and starting to get warm. Now that I've blown into my horn and worked on my intake a bit, I want to do some more directed long tones. I have three basic forms I rotate daily (only doing one set a day), so I don't bore myself entirely to death. The first of these is quite widely used and originates from David Weber. 

Longtone 1

The ns on either end are key here. The clarinet is capable of incredible dynamic range and contrast, and I want to control and exploit it. I look for a seamless legato again and try to make as much of a "straight line" with my crescendos and decrescendos as possible - no "bubbles". I get as loud as I can control and then ride the decrescendo all the way down until it disappears. This should take an entire breath. Remember to maintain focus as you get louder - don't allow the sound to fray or allow the pitch to sag too much. I do this on every half step until I get to Open G:

As you go up the instrument, it gets harder and harder to keep the pitch from rising during the decrescendos. I combat this by "shading" - hovering my unused fingers close to the open toneholes. By doing this you can check the pitch and actually develop pinpoint control over it. I also take another turn on the spirometer every after every few reps.


Longtone 2

I learned this one from Elsa Verdehr. It's a simple scale over two octaves that looks like this:

Seems simple enough. You repeat this exercise, again moving up half-step by half-step until you get to thumb F:

When I do this one, I am looking for a few things: a seamless legato (starting to sense a pattern here?); a beautiful, full tone throughout; and good intonation. I really try to listen for the quality of the sound during the long notes and the quality of the legato through the moving notes - again blowing between and through the notes. This one is deceptive. It can get easy to let little technical faults slide - at slow tempos you can really hear small breaks between notes or seams in the legato. Don't let those things go. Retake reps if necessary. Don't be satisfied by making it to the end. The object is a beautiful, musical, seamless scale. Once again, I hit the spirometer after about every three reps.

I also use this as an intonation exercise. I set my metronome to produce a drone one the tonic. Then as I play I listen intently for three intervals: perfect 4ths, 5ths, and octaves. It can be tricky to try to tune other intervals as the go by, but perfect intervals are obvious in their intonation. If you play this exercise, going up half-step by half-step with a drone, and your perfect intervals are good throughout, you play in tune. Frankly it's the only intonation exercise I do and I play in tune.


Longtone 3

This one varies, but always focuses on intervals. I've worked on chromatic and diatonic steps in my previous longtones, and I don't want to short-change working on intervals. Here are a couple I like to do:

Go up chromatically to 

If you're not comfortable going up into that range, then go as high as you are comfortable. Also, work on that shit.

If you're not comfortable going up into that range, then go as high as you are comfortable. Also, work on that shit.

I use a medium dynamic throughout, looking for a seamless legato and an easy trip up and down the horn. The legato here is key, especially going over the breaks. It's even more important to think of blowing between the notes here - almost like a constant gentle crescendo, just really trying to make those intervals as sticky as possible. Once you begin to get comfortable with this one, it can really sort out a lot of issues - legato, voicing, even the action of your fingers.

Another interval-based longtone exercise I do consists of simply stacking 4ths:

The same as above applies here: seamless legato, good sound, focused tone and blowing throughout. As before, go up a half-step at a time, as comfortably high as you can (again, I'm all about the top C). As always, liberal use of the spirometer is clutch.

12ths are great for this. Really any focused interval training would work. Make up your own. Use it as an opportunity to get to know your instrument better. Add, subtract, find what works for you.


At this point I insert my first articulation exercise of the day, and it's a doozy. I truly hate it, but it works to strengthen your stopped staccato and burst articulation. It's by Rudolf Jettel, and it's 20 consecutive measures of this pattern:

So...this one hurts. This is all about the stopped first note. I don't use a "T" sound with my initial articulation, rather something like a "D". I stop the note with a T, making something resembling "dit". Then I start each stroke of the triplet with a D, again stopping the last one with a T. So, without sounding too dumb, it should feel something like saying this: "dit......didididit...didididit" and so on ad nauseum ad infinitum ad astra per aspera et cetera. Let me talk for a second about why I start with D instead of T. Both consonants are achieved by touching your tongue to your hard palate, but T is ever so slightly sibilant and higher on the palate. I find that D is a clearer first stroke, and D also approximates the position of my mouthpiece in my mouth quite well. Back to the exercise: 20 measures of that pattern equals eighty reps of that short burst. I set my metronome to subdivide at the 16th note (I'm trying to place that 32nd note triplet precisely within the last 16th of each beat), set it to 21 loops of that measure, take one measure for tempo, and play it until the metronome runs out. I don't count measures, I just try to lay down 80 good, identical reps. That is really, really hard. Right now, I'm going this exercise at 63 on the metronome, and I am worn out by the end. Find a tempo that wears you out, but one where you can actually play it accurately as written. Be warned that this one can shred your chops and any reed that's not really ready to be played on. A lot of people might not like that one and choose to leave it out. That's cool. I don't leave it out.


Now I start to warm up my fingers to actually do scale work. For this warmup, I simply play whatever scale I'm working on in two-octave bits, starting on each diatonic scale degree. For minor scales, I just do the natural form (it ends up being the same exercise as the relative major). That way I hit all three forms of the minor, plus we're just trying to warm up here. Let's not go nuts yet. I learned this from Howard Klug . It goes like this:



The metronome is subdiving eighth notes. I do this at 80 on the metronome, but you can start at 60 at the beginning if you'd like. If you can't play your scales in 16th notes at 60, you are not ready for The Method (or much else, for that matter. Haul your ass to the practice room). Always start on the lowest possible note in the key and work up to the highest note in your normal range (I go to F, F#/Gb, and G - Ab when it's the tonic). This exercise gets some blood moving in your fingers and prepares your hands and your mind for the serious scale work we're about to do. Again, I'm looking for a seamless legato (you guys get the point about that by now, right?) and an easy focused evenness to the technique. It helps to think about the second 16th note of each beat leading into the first note of the next, in this grouping:

That grouping is the absolute recipe for even technique. Always think of going toward the next beat instead of away from the previous one. After a while, this will become how you feel everything. It's an essential part of building a fluid and musical technique.


I finish this first segment of The Method with another brutal articulation exercise by Rudolf Jettel. It's very similar to the 80-rep burst articulation above, now expanded for a two octave scale. It starts out simply enough:

Those articulation marks indicate a very short, powerful staccato. That is both absolutely true and absolutely deceptive. While every note needs to be a stopped staccato, what I actually try to do is make short, loud bursts of beautiful sound. I don't even worry about the shortness of the staccato - that will take care of itself. I concern myself almost entirely with making as beautiful a sound for a 10th of a second as I would for 10 seconds. Then I move on to the next iterations of this exercise:

 Now imagine these patterns also go back down to the tonic as above

 Now imagine these patterns also go back down to the tonic as above

For this one, cheat each 64th as close to the next downbeat as possible - very quick, like a grace note.

For this one, cheat each 64th as close to the next downbeat as possible - very quick, like a grace note.

I set the subdivision on my metronome to the smallest relevant subdivision (mostly to the 16th) and play these all the way through, one after the other. Again, the real key is to not think of the articulation itself, but to think of trying to make each note a tiny burst or packet of beautiful sound. That is really hard when you're hammering away at your instrument like that, but it can be done. This will improve your voicing and overall strength of your tongue. It will also strengthen your embouchure because it is a real chop-buster of an exercise. Until you have done this for a few days, this one will really kill you. Even when you're in shape, it's a real test at the end of the first part of The Method. In fact, I frontload all of the truly taxing stuff into the first part of The Method so I can hit it while I'm as fresh as possible. Again, you may choose to leave this one out. Again, I do not.


Pat yourself on the back. You've made it through the first third. Tomorrow: scale work. As always, you can see me do this live and on recorded video on our YouTube channel, See you soon!