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Engage the Cage! Learning to Support Your Tone

By Denise Gainey

I give clarinet clinics all over the country, and the biggest issue I encounter – no matter what age group I am working with – is insufficient breath support. We play wind instruments, and proper air improves most every aspect of our playing; tone quality, response, articulation, intonation, etc. It's not just about playing loudly; supporting the sound for reed instruments is crucial in keeping the reed vibrating at the appropriate frequency at all dynamic levels to achieve a focused tone. I tell my students to "engage the cage!" to remind them to keep their core engaged the entire time that they are playing. Here are some ideas to help you be more aware of your "cage" and learn to release your best tone!

  • Sit in a chair with your back straight (no cheating – don't rest your back on the back of the chair!), legs straight out in front of you. Play a note at the bottom of your range (for example, a low F on clarinet), and then slowly lift your straightened legs up as far as you can and hold them in the air as you. Notice where you feel the tension in your core – and notice the improvement in your sound! Another version of this exercise is to stand and raise a knee in the air as you sustain the note.
  • Lie down on the floor and play a closed-pipe (all or most fingers down) note and slowly do a sit-up as you continue to play. Notice where in the sit-up that your sound is at its most supported (about three quarters of the way up). That's the feeling you should feel when you play, no matter the dynamic level.
  • Take a small piece of paper and stand a few inches from a wall. Hold the paper against the wall and then try to focus your air, let go of the paper, and use the air to hold the paper against the wall. As you improve, begin to inch your way away from the wall, seeing how far you can get and still keep the paper suspended against the wall.

Add these exercises to your practice routine and discover how to use your air effectively to improve your tone and technique. Engage the cage!