Updated: Jul 16, 2020
Once a week I get to see one of my former students who is a first year teacher and teaches beginning clarinet. We usually discuss a bit of what's been going on in his classes, and last night he inspired the title of this article. I recall similar frustration! His students have been working on crossing the break from A to B and some just can't keep the holes covered in the right hand. He also added that those having trouble are mostly students with small hands. So short of waiting for them to grow, what can help? Read on!
First of all, if you haven't read my 3 previous articles on crossing the break, do that. They are grouped together in the menu at the top of the page. Click on "Across the Break". They outline a very sequential process that makes going across the break much less frustrating for both students AND the teacher!
But those kiddos with smallish hands have a special challenge. Most thumb rests put the thumb too far below the index finger. This puts stress on the hand and can pull the fingers off of the tone holes. See the third finger?
The optimum position for the thumb is higher up to form a "C" shape, similar to what you teach flute players to do. There are 3 ways to accomplish this.
#1. If the thumb rest is adjustable, make sure it is in its highest position, If it's still too low, turn it upside down and readjust.
#2. If the thumb rest isn't adjustable, try turning it upside down. This won't work with all instruments.
#3. The most effective way I found for helping students with small hands is to put the thumb on top of the thumb rest.
I started playing like this several years ago to relieve decades of tension on my thumb, and I quickly noticed that my technique improved! I guess you're never too old for better hand position.
To create this set up you'll need a neck strap. Neck straps help with many other hand position issues as well, and I have beginners use them from day one. (That former student I mentioned earlier still uses his!) Put it on your supply list for next year. Two good ones are the BG and Protec. While the BG is more expensive, it has a cloth lining around the neck and is more comfortable. I've had students complain that the Protec is scratchy, but both do a good job of supporting the clarinet.
But what if there's not ring to attach the neck strap? If the clarinet doesn't have a ring for the neck strap, or if it's stripped out, as they tend to do, you can create one for 57 cents. No, really. 57 cents. What I've used in the photo came from the faucet repair section of a big box hardware supply store and the school supply aisle of another famous big box store.
Here's what I used.
"0" Flat Washers, 17/32" - Box of 10 for $2.48
#17 O-ring - Box of 10 for $2.47
Rubber pencil grip (not the foam ones) - A box of 20 for $2.84 makes 80 thumb rests
Just squeeze the O-ring through the hole in the washer and put it over the thumb rest. The pencil grip helps to keep it in place.
Take it from a player with smallish hands. Getting that thumb higher REALLY helps - and not just going from A to B. It will improve technique in general. And what's a clarinet player without technique?!
Marilyn Mattei is the author of For Clarinets Only, a Method for Successful Beginning Class Instruction. You can get more information about For Clarinets Only and see Sample Pages at matteimusicservices.com