Sunday, June 7, 2009

Clarinet Exercises For Endurance

Tips on Breathing

Breathing is at the very core of clarinet playing. It is the foundation upon which everything rests – tone, technique, articulation, endurance, and musicality. Because of this is it is in our best interest to spend considerable time working on all aspects of breathing; including inhalation, exhalation, air quantity, air speed, and endurance.

For this discussion I would like to focus on endurance, but first a quick refresher on proper breathing technique. To maximize our air capacity we must breath low with a relaxed and open throat. This enables solid diaphragmatic support. We should avoid the higher chest or throat breath which limits capacity and increases tension in the throat, chest and shoulders.


The pitch of your breath will sound high if you are breathing from the chest or throat. The pitch of your breath will sound lower if it is a low breath with a relaxed and open throat.


Place the palm of your hand on your back, just above the waist and toward the side. If you are breathing properly you will feel expansion along your rib cage.

Two Types of Endurance

We need to work on two types of endurance; the first is 'rested endurance', which is the length of time you can hold a note with a rested, relaxed breath, such as the first breath of a piece. The second type of endurance, 'cumulative endurance,' is a series of quick breaths, which become increasingly more taxing until you are able to take a relaxed, cleansing breath.

Any long tone exercise can be used to work on this. Today we will talk about the 2-Register Warm-up, and how we can use it to work on endurance skills.

The 2-Register Warm-up

This is a three-note pattern which spans the chalumeau and clarion registers. The pattern is:

Low note – add register key – ascend half-step – breath – repeat.


Low E – Long B – C – Breath

Low F – C – C# - Breath

Low F# - C# - D – Breath

Repeat pattern until :

Throat tone E – top clarion B – C.

You should put the metronome on 60 so you can track seconds (it also keeps you from hurrying through your warm-up). When warming up I like to play the pattern with whole-notes, giving a 12 second pattern. Completing the pattern from Low E through throat tone E will give you an excellent start to your warm-up.

Using the 2-Register Warm-up for Endurance Work

For Relaxed Endurance:

Begin the pattern on Low E, starting with a pattern that is long enough to approach your limit without pushing your endurance to the point of gasping for breath. This will of course vary from person to person. For some it might be a five-second per note – 15 second pattern, for others an eight-second per note - 24 second pattern.

Play one or two sets to establish your breathing. Then as you move on through the exercise, extend the last note as long as possible, really pushing to your very limit. In between patterns be sure to rest and start the next pattern refreshed. When you are pushing your limits it will take several seconds to recover between patterns. When you are consistently extending the third note three beats, increase your pattern by a beat for each pitch. Again, resume the pattern and continue extending the third pitch as long as possible.

This is a rewarding exercise because if done consistently, you will see objective, measurable results. Your pattern will increase in length and you can clearly monitor your progress.

For Cumulative Endurance:

Begin the pattern on Low E, again starting with a pattern long enough to approach your endurance limit but not long enough to leave you gasping for breath. For this exercise you will not be increasing the length of the third note, but rather decreasing the length of time in which you breath in between patterns. Start by taking two beats to breath between each set. Reduce to one beat between each. This will eventually take a toll and you will not be able to make the entire pattern before needing a breath. (If this doesn't happen, then your initial pattern is not long enough and should be increased.) As you become increasingly tired, concentrate on a keeping a relaxed throat and a low-pitched breath during each inhalation.


I tend not to work on both types of endurance in one practice session. The two types of endurance each have a somewhat different focus and one's practice will be more efficient and more productive when focus is on one set of skills at a time.

Good luck and please let me know how it works for you! As always I look forward to comments or questions. If you prefer not to comment directly on the post, feel free to email me at

Happy Summer!!

Dr D


  1. Dr. Donaghue--- I'm looking forward to trying this with my longtones, especially the "cumulative endurance." I've always tried to plan my breaths so that I don't get to that "hypoxic" point, but I've never considered pushing my limits with that (in other words,it has never occurred to me that there is more than one type of endurance).
    Regarding the "relaxed endurance" I will say that when I began holding the last note of my five-note chromatic warm-up to niente rather than for 6 beats, 8 beats, etc., I noticed a HUGE difference in my endurance and breath control after one week. Being a tiny person, endurance has always been an issue for me, so I'm always looking for suggestions on how to work on this. Thanks for this, and I look forward to reading more!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Katie! I'm with you - well-planned breaths are a must and will almost always keep away that hypoxic feeling. Once in a while however, its just not possible and the piece is written in such a way that the issue of the 'cumulative breath' comes into play. Abime des Oiseaux comes to mind! I also have been recently playing Bach Solo Violin works on clarinet, so maybe that is why this is on my mind. The cumulative breath is definitely a consideration there!
    I hope you find some helpful information here and I look forward to hearing how its working for you!

  3. Dr. D - This is excellent advice, especially concerning the strenuous breathing exercises, Thank you so much, I really appreciate this help. I did have a question however: When I play pieces with little time to rest, I find myself having to skip notes to catch my breath. Would my tonguing have an influence on my shortness breath? Besides that, I thank you for your great exercises and tips!