The following is a comprehensive list of what clarinetists need to do to successfully Cross the Dreaded Break:
- Put the correct fingers in the correct places at the correct time.
- That is all.
I frequently meet young clarinetists who have been taught that a successful Crossing of the Dreaded Break requires many other things, including but not limited to:
- A long lecture by the band director or private teacher about how impossibly difficult this is going to be
- Tightening the embouchure
- Experiencing crippling fear
- Blowing harder
- Getting a more expensive mouthpiece
- Using a band method book that postpones crossing the break for absolutely months and months
- Being really tense and working much too hard
- Moving up to a much harder reed
If breath support, embouchure, and voicing are correctly established, then Crossing the Dreaded Break ceases to be a Thing. It’s just another note: a moment ago you were playing B-flat, and now you are playing B-natural. As long as your fingers get where they are supposed to go, then that’s all there is to it. Personally, I don’t even use the word “break” with a beginning student—there’s no need to get them all uptight about what really is a non-event.
If you are a band director or teacher of beginning (or advanced) clarinetists, and you find that they have difficulty crossing the break, you must first diagnose basic tone production issues:
- Are the instrument, mouthpiece, and reed of basic decent quality and in good functional condition?
- Is the breath support firm and constant?
- Is the voicing nice and high?
- Is the embouchure well-formed, without excess tension?
If not, (re-)teach these as basic concepts of clarinet playing, not as special things to be done at Dreaded Break-Crossing time.
If all is well with basic tone production, then all that remains is to move fingers. Granted, a stepwise break crossing does mean that many fingers must move precisely at the same time, and this may require training and practice. But if the fingers are covering and uncovering the right holes in unison, then a successful crossing is assured.
Crossing the break is only as hard as you tell your students it is!
7 thoughts on “Crossing the break on the clarinet is easy”
AMEN!!! I can’t tell you how many clarinet students I’ve come across that can’t cross the break, only because they’ve been told how hard it was! As soon as my students can cover all of the holes, I add the register key for them for the first time! (that also means, they spent a lot of time getting the embouchure correct before the clarinet was even put together!) My 7 y/o student, who’s hands are barely big enough to cover the holes on an Eb clarinet, is now playing over the break with ease. If we don’t make a big fuss about it, they’ll never think otherwise.
Great post Bret!
My kids don’t know what “The Break” is! I never use that term in my class. The first note that I teach them is the low G, teaching them to cover all the holes. The first exercise I teach them is “Joy to the World”, starting on thumb F. It comes down to covering the holes, as long as the clarinet seals properly. You would be surprised how many of the low pads come with leaks from the rental shop!
I have 2 anecdotes concerning “The Break”.
First, for me, as an adult beginner on clarinet (with experience as a saxophonist), I despaired of ever being able to play the darn thing without squeaking on every other note. The Break was a challenge I wondered if I’d ever be able to overcome. I can now play across The Break, but it took a lot of time in the woodshed to get there.
On the other hand, my daughter began clarinet in 3rd grade, when our elementary band starts. One day, the teacher marveled that the clarinets had just crossed The Break. She had no idea what the fuss was about.
So maybe it’s just that old saxophonists have problems with The Break. :-)
Brett has this nailed—
“If breath support, embouchure, and voicing are correctly established…”
And the same thing for altissimo—just part of the clarinet.
Similar for me coming to saxophone from clarinet to being able to play low notes on saxophone at any dynamic; correct voicing and breath support.
Sax is my primary instrument and clarinet is one of my doubles. I was doing way too much work with throat and embouchure changes, so my teacher took my clarinet and had me sit down beside him. He held the clarinet up to me and said “form a good embouchure and blow.” So I did, and he proceeded to rip some amazing licks out of my clarinet, going over “the break” many times without a glitch. That was a real light bulb moment for me. I was my own worst enemy when playing clarinet. Because I didnt know what notes were coming next it just wasn’t possible for me to anticipate the notes I was afraid of and do the wrong things with my embouchure that had become habit over decades of playing without a teacher. A fundamentally good embouchure and breath support are just that – fundamental to good clarinet playing. It’s not exactly “set it and forget it” but it’s often closer than we are led to believe.
I thoroughly approve of that type of thinking. I learnt the saxophone 35 years ago and it seems much like whistling in it’s difficulty level, but suddenly I need to start playing clarinet – and ‘the break’ was what has always put me off. I find, however, that if I stab about for notes using my knowledge of theory and how the instrument works I am gradually crossing it without really knowing any particular difficulties.
As for the ‘key change’ that appears as you go between registers, that is currently proving annoyingly difficult.