Clarinet Ergonomics

December 2015

I’ve played the clarinet since 6th grade; about nine years as of writing this. Through much of that time, I’ve received a lot of trouble from my right pinky finger. D/Eb trills and the like were my nemeses. I would practice for a few hours each day before my mission, and a great deal of that time was spent working on nothing but my right pinky. I never really conquered it. Below is a video of me playing the first movement of the Mozart concerto at a solo & ensemble festival in 2012. My sluggish pinky got the better of me in measure 110 (2:50 in the video—start it at 2:43).

I continued to struggle with the finger until the following September, the beginning of my senior year of high school. One day while I was practicing, I was having even more trouble with the finger than usual. I tried to do a right pinky trill and I simply could not do it, even at ridiculously slow speeds (something like eighth notes at 14 = 60 bpm). After doing that and similar exercises for about an hour, I realized something must be wrong. I had noticed that as I would lift my pinky off a key, it would involuntarily contract. This seemed to be the reason I was no longer able to use my right pinky at all.

I did some internet searching and found that my condition was called focal dystonia (also known as musician’s dystonia). This diagnosis was later confirmed by a doctor. Focal dystonia is a neurological movement disorder whose typical effect is to end the musician’s career (at least on that particular instrument), and that’s basically what it did to me. We tried the standard treatment (botox injections) but to no avail. Fortunately I’m a computer science major; clarinet is just a hobby (albeit an important one). I had to discontinue private lessons and drop out of the Everett Youth Symphony. It was especially a shame since the Symphony had given me a scholarship the year previous that would cover the membership costs for the entire year, not to mention I own two really nice clarinets.

Medium length story short, I went on my mission right after graduating high school, and when I came back, the dystonia was gone. I could play again! Before my mission I had noticed that the dystonia was also affecting my typing (and I typed quite a lot as a CS major). I bent over backwards to avoid using my right pinky, going so far as to create a mirrored version of the Dvorak keyboard layout (which I was already using) that would give more emphasis to the left hand. When I left on my mission, I even stopped typing. We only used computers for an hour and a half per week to email our families. Perhaps giving my finger a rest from both clarinet and typing for two years was enough for my brain to reset itself.

Hence, for the past five months I’ve been practicing for several hours per week. Although my finger is much better without the dystonia, it’s still sluggish like before. I’ve been very careful and patient with my finger exercises as I’ve attempted to train it. I believe what caused my dystonia before was doing extremely repetitive exercises with poor technique in an attempt to brute-force my finger into compliance. I’ve made sure this time around to take things slower and make sure I’m really getting the technique down correctly. However, my progress has still felt like this:

clarinet graph

A few days ago I think I finally figured out why my finger has been such a pain in the neck. Look at the the position of the left thumb in the following picture, and then contrast it with the standard right thumb position:

clarinet back

The position of the thumb affects the rest of the hand. The left hand fingers are more or less perpendicular to the clarinet while the right hand fingers have to be more slanted:

clarinet front

Since my left pinky is completely fine, I thought maybe this was harming my right pinky performance. I messed around with the thumb rest, turning it upside down and whatnot, but then I decided to just take the whole thing off. I’ve been practicing for two or three days now without a thumb rest, supporting the clarinet with my knees. At first I anchored the thumb on the clarinet above where the thumb rest used to be. This put it in a position similar to the left thumb. Today I simply suspended the right thumb in the air and avoided touching the clarinet with it at all. I like that the most.

clarinet front

So far the results have been promising. I’ve been slowly retraining my right fingers with the new position, and progress has been great. Importantly, progress has felt permament. I think I may finally be able to breach the aforementioned suckiness threshold. If this really is the cause of all my pinky sorrows, this is really a huge breakthrough for me. I’ll update this page with my progress after a longer amount of time has passed.

I’ll probably look into alternative ways to support my clarinet so I can play while standing up. I already practice with a neck strap, but it doesn’t suspend the clarinet all by itself—it just takes most of the weight off, still requiring the right thumb to support a bit of the clarinet. I’ll figure something out. I just hope this episode of my clarinet playing is really coming to an end.


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