How To Practice Clarinet Quietly (Love Thy Neighbor!)

Following an evening session practicing your clarinet in your apartment, the next morning your neighbor mentions in passing he could hear you enjoy playing your clarinet. As a result, you’re wondering whether it is possible to practice quietly to avoid trouble with your neighbors.

Mutes are not as effective for the clarinet as for brass instruments, and may change the way you use air. Techniques for playing quietly are surprisingly tricky and can also lead to bad habits. Clarinet players will play into a closet, soundproof a room, or find a quiet place outside their home.

As there are only limited options of what you can do with the clarinet itself to make it quieter, you also have to consider other aspects to create an ideal practice environment. These include sound-proofing ideas, finding a quiet place away from people, and working on your technique for playing more quietly.

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Making a clarinet quieter sounding

Although the clarinet is generally considered the quietest instrument in a wind band, you sometimes need it quieter.  Especially when you are practicing, you don’t want people to share in your hard work!

Unfortunately, a woodwind instrument cannot be muted like a brass instrument. With a brass instrument, you can put a mute in the bell of the instrument and immediately get a reduced sound.

With a woodwind instrument, the sound exits from the first available keyhole up to the bell. Putting a mute in the bell alone, will not be enough.

To mute your clarinet you have to cover the whole instrument. There are mutes comprising three parts – one for the mouthpiece, one for the barrel and one for the bell.

By using a combination of these three parts you’ll be able to dampen the sound. The mute manufacturers claim that with a 3-part mute it is still possible to play naturally on the clarinet and you can expect at least a 50% reduction in the volume of your instrument.

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Many players dispute this. According to professional players the use of any mute changes the way you use your air, and that even with the 3-part mute the reduction in volume is limited, in the range of 35% amounting to around 7 decibels.

While using a mute is a good way to show your neighbors you are considerate when practicing, it’s not an effective noise-reduction option for extended practice time. 

Some players use a mouthpiece with a less open facing or use harder reeds to reduce the volume. Many others, however, don’t find any result with this method.

Some also use a mute such as Saxmute for clarinet (Amazon).

To find a sustainable way to spare your neighbors’ ears, you’ll have to look at other possibilities as well.

Find a quiet place for clarinet practice

Find a quiet place for clarinet practice

A more long-term solution is to find a place where you can practice with no-one nearby. It might be a basement storage area or even the parking garage.

In many towns and cities, there are music stores and recording studios that have soundproof rooms for rent for a few hours a day at affordable prices. If your office building is empty in the evening, you can ask permission to practice in your office after hours.

Generally, churches are designed to keep sound out, but at the same time, they keep sound in. Talk to the pastor at a nearby church and perhaps you find a time that suits you and the church to practice in the empty church.

A classroom and hall at a school are also good places to practice when nobody is on campus. Find a school nearby and find out whether you can use its facilities.

In good weather, you can try to find a secluded area in a nearby park, or drive to an area where you can park and practice in your car. If you are living near a lake or the seaside, you’ll most probably find a quiet place where you can practice without anybody within earshot. 

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You prefer to practice at home. If so, you need a place in your house where you can either do some soundproofing or otherwise reduce the audible sound. Many players often play into a closet with clothing or linen as the material dampens the sound.

If you are lucky enough to have a room that you can turn into a music room, buy some cheap but heavy drapes and hang them on the walls and in front of the closed windows for practicing. You can also reuse egg packaging and glue them on the walls behind the drapes for an extra layer of soundproofing material.  

That said, if you can afford it, the best solution is to get professional soundproofing for your music room.

Build technique for playing clarinet quietly

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For non-clarinet players, it may seem logical that blowing softer will produce a lower sound. Unfortunately, it is not so easy.

It is true that if you play pianissimo when you are practicing, the decibels will be lesser and the chances that your neighbors will share in your practice sessions will be lower.

But if you always play pianissimo when practicing, it will not only keep you from learning dynamics, but most likely will lead to bad physical habits that will be hard to break moving forward.

During your clarinet practice sessions, you need to practice the techniques and music you’ll play in real life. The way you use air and your abdominal muscles are key aspects of your practice. 

Thus, using pianissimo to practice should only be done for short periods and when no other damping solution is available. 

Whether you practice pianissimo playing for artistic reasons or only to keep the sound level low, you should do it with correct technique. Don’t try to use less air to play quietly as it only results in an airy tone and inconsistent air support. For quiet playing, you have to use the same amount of air as normal but just lessen the pressure.

The irony is that although pianissimo playing can sometimes be useful for practice when there is no other way of dampening the sound, you’ll initially need to practice the technique at a place where you cannot disturb anyone.

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To learn to play pianissimo you typically start the note loudly with a full tone and then decrescendo very slowly. So when learning to play quieter, you first have to play loud, and it can take time before you’ve mastered the technique of playing pianissimo.

You have to focus on keeping a lot of air going consistently and engaging your abdominal muscles so that the air stays pressurized even when less wind is moving through the instrument.

Other options for quiet clarinet practice

A DIY device some clarinet players use covers the whole instrument and looks like a box with arm holes to put your hands and arms in. The inside is padded with sound-absorbing material.

Such a device is not available in the open marketplace but can be custom made by a handyman.  It is, however, an incredibly cumbersome way to practice.

Although an electronic clarinet may seem like an option for quiet practice, it’s generally not recommended as in reality it’s quite different with a distinct mouthpiece and embouchure. 

If you only just need to practice and memorize fingerings for a piece of music, you can simply take out the mouthpiece and create the melody in your head for a zero noise clarinet practice session.

A final and more common approach is to talk to your neighbors and arrange specific practice times that everyone is OK with.  

Final thoughts

In conclusion, playing quietly is an option, but it is surprisingly tricky. It is also not good to always use pianissimo when practicing as you’ll skip the dynamics aspect. Mutes can also be used but they change the way you use your air.

There are a few things you can do to make your clarinet practice more acceptable for your neighbors, or to move your practice sessions away from your home, vs playing softly during every practice session.

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Photo credits:
Featured image: “IMG_1852’” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by 潘周迪
(1) “clarinet fingers” (CC BY 2.0) by MikeBlogs