An experimental study of breath support in the clarinet performance of the student and professional player

  • David Ellis

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


The role of breath support in the generation of clarinet tone is poorly understood. The pedagogical implications of a study of this type rest upon the analysis it provides of breath support, dynamic level, dynamic range and tonal quality of musical performances. Previous studies of clarinet and reed behaviour have involved clarinet-like systems stimulated externally by electrical sound generators or powered by artificial blowing chambers, rather than human performers. The physiological processes of respiration have been well documented, even if their translation Into the pedagogical literature has been sometimes inaccurate and confusing. Despite the wealth of research into the acoustical behaviour of clarinet, the mechanism of reed vibration and the physiological processes involved In inhalation and exhalation, there has been Little analysis of how the breath support should be applied in the clarinet player. In the present study an experimental approach was employed to record the maximum breath support (measured as oral cavity blowing pressure) applied to an experimental manometer and the range of breath support applied to a professional quality clarinet fitted to a manometer. Thirty student clarinet players and three professional clarinet teachers performed the experimental tasks consisting of four short musical phrases performed three times at both the forte and piano dynamic levels. The student subjects were ranked anonymously on the basis of their tape recorded performance and assigned into groups (novice, intermediate and advanced) by rank. The high quality tape recordings of the experimental tasks were edited to produce a master tape from the task recordings. The master tape recording was used for a spectral analysis of the tone samples by Fast Fourier Transform Analysts. and for qualitative analysis using three expert judges. The maximum breath support the subjects were able to supply to the manometer (without the clarinet attached), was unrelated to the breath support applied to the clarinet in the musical performance tasks. The maximum breath support for the tasks showed no significant correlation with age, or playing experience. There were no significant strong correlations, and few significant moderate correlations found between breath support and the forte dynamic level and notably, low or non-significant correlations between breath support and the piano dynamic level. The problem for the less able student subjects was the inability to maintain a reasonable range of breath support pressures and dynamic range between the forte and piano dynamic levels. particularly for the notes F1 and B2. There was found to be moderate to low positive correlations between breath support/dynamic level and breath support range/ dynamic range for some notes, but the role of breath support in the production of other test notes was not established, and may have been confounded by other variables not included In the study, (lip pressure and amount of mouthpiece within the mouth). Multiple regression analysis showed that breath support was significant in the prediction of sound level for the notes Fl. C3, and F4 at the forte dynamic level. The quantitative analysts of the clarinet tones provided very little insight into the spectra of the student subjects, beyond the observation that the student tone appeared to be inherently unstable. The qualitative analysis using paired-opposite descriptors was found to provide valid criteria which could be applied consistently for the analysis of student clarinet tone. The descriptors “free - pinched”. “full – small”. and “clear - fuzzy” provided the greatest discrimination between players and may offer an explanation Into the problems of embouchure that appeared to be the confounding variables that were not Included in the present study. The relationship between breath support and dynamic level in the less experienced student player is not a simple one although the breath support was found to be predictive for the notes F1, C3, and F4. The students’ inability to provide a reasonably loud forte and a reasonably soft piano on the notes F1 and B2 reflected an inability to supply the “continuously varied and adjusted support” recommended by Brymer (1976). The relationship between breath support and tonal quality in the student player was not established experimentally and other factors appear important. Embouchure tension may have been the cause of the low breath support measured at the forte level. Insufficient embouchure control may have been the cause of the excessive pressure used at the piano level and the lack of tonal stability. The lack of harmonic stability which became generally worse at louder dynamics and with the higher notes may similarly have been caused by problems of embouchure or oral cavity. The teacher may find it worthwhile to aim for the development in the student of a reasonable dynamic range of the first register before proceeding to the second. This would involve the development of embouchure control in addition to breath support. There may be benefit In the students’ use of vowels to consciously adjust the oral cavity shape for each note to be played. Breath support in the student clarinettist is of great importance, but it should be the concern to the teacher to ensure that the students’ best efforts in the area of breath support arc not compromised by problems of embouchure, oral cavity, or by uneven and premature development of technique.
Date of Award1992
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Canberra

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