Forming a correct Clarinet Embouchure can be a challenge to achieve. It is complex and can be difficult to understand. It is the single most important thing that you need to accomplish to become a fine clarinetist, but more importantly, to become a clarinetist that other people want to listen to!
An incorrect embouchure will result in multiple problems. You may have experienced some or all of these:
- Frequent squeaks
- Stuffy sound
- Poor intonation (cannot hold correct pitch)
- Bright, edgy, or “screechy” sound in the upper register
- Inability to play in the upper (clarion) register
- Thin sound
- Unfocused tone (possibly big and loud, but too open, “wild,” or uncharacteristic sound)
- Much trouble crossing the “break”
- Poor, inconsistent articulation or difficulty tonguing in general
- A “scooping” sound when tonguing
- Air leaking (hissing from corners of mouth)
- Overly sore bottom lip (from teeth cutting in)
- Jaw pain
In this tutorial, I will be explaining correct and incorrect embouchures and how to form and maintain a correct clarinet embouchure, using photos and short sound bits to illustrate and demonstrate what I am discussing. All sound clips are of myself playing the mouthpiece and barrel only, tuned to A-440. Have your tuner on when you play the sound clips–I do not explain whether pitch is sharp or flat, but you can see for yourself!
What does a correct embouchure look like?
In the photos of correct embouchure, you should notice a few important things.
- The chin is stretched flat (the natural curve in the middle is ok).
- The upper lip is extended downward.
- The corners of the mouth are flat (not curved upward).
- The lower lip can be seen.
- Creases or “dimples” form where the muscles are working.
- The nostrils are being stretched downward with the upper lip.
Essentially, the embouchure is formed by pressing inward toward the mouthpiece all the way around. It’s not quite that simple, so keep reading (and doing).
CHECK YOUR EMBOUCHURE
What you need:
- Quality clarinet reed that is at least a strength 3 (I find that a 3.5 reed is best on my mouthpiece)
- Clarinet Mouthpiece and Barrel assembled
GOAL: create an F# concert on the tuner with the mouthpiece and barrel.
Warm up a little first on the mouthpiece and barrel, then test yourself with the tuner.
Here is the F# long tone:
Did you do it?
Yes? Great! You’re doing things right so far, but keep going to see if you are checking all the boxes.
No? Something is wrong. Check all these points carefully in the mirror.
Lower lip placement
The placement of the lower lip on the reed is important because it can hinder the reed’s proper vibration if it is too high, or allow the reed to vibrate too freely (uncontrolled) if the lip is placed too low.
1. Check placement of bottom lip on the reed.
Trick: take a piece of paper and slip it between the reed and the mouthpiece until it stops. Place your thumb on the reed just under where the edge of the paper is, then remove the paper. Place the mouthpiece in your mouth, resting the reed against your bottom lip and against your thumb.
2. Make sure your bottom lip is not rolled over your teeth. You should still see the lip on either side of the mouthpiece, even if you have thin lips. Often, a symptom of this problem is the inability to play in the upper (clarion) register easily or at all. A flat, stuffy sound is another symptom.
Are your top teeth resting on the top of the mouthpiece?
They should be! Your upper teeth are your anchor. If your top teeth are not on the top of the mouthpiece, fix this now. It will help stabilize everything.
In the photo to the right, notice how the face looks soft. The upper lip is stretched into a full extension as required, but without the teeth anchoring, there is much less control. This is an incorrect embouchure.
You may have heard of a double lip embouchure, but this is not it! I plan to cover double lip embouchure in a future post.
Below is an example of what it might sound like. The fluctuations in sound are not done intentionally.
Are your corners pressed inward?
The corners of your mouth should be pressed inward towards the mouthpiece as well as inward top lip to bottom lip.
Never draw the lips back into a “smiling” position. It causes many problems!
Notice the difference in the shapes of the lines and dimples. In the “smiling” embouchure photo, you may notice that there are more defined vertical lines, where in the correct embouchure, the “lines” are much more like dimples.
Although the chin is flat in the “smile,” you may notice that there is more upper lip visible. This is due to the fact that the corners pulling away from the mouthpiece are preventing the upper lip from pressing downward to the top of the mouthpiece.
When you play, you should not hear air leaking from the corners of your mouth!
Example of what a “smiling” embouchure may sound like.
Is your chin flat?
If the upper lip is pressing down and the corners are pressing in, it is much easier to flatten the chin. If the corners are not pressing inward, the chin is likely to bunch up and is likely to move while you are playing. This can cause many problems such as poor tone quality, poor intonation, and articulation issues.
I find this to be the most common embouchure problem in young clarinetists. It is because they do not press the corners of the lips inward! It is impossible to keep the chin flat without properly engaging the corners. This incorrect embouchure may result in too much tooth pressure against the bottom lip and the reed.
I struggled with this for years because I was told, “flatten your chin” over and over, but the chin was not my primary problem: it was the corners. I tried to fix it as I was told, but to no avail, as the chin was not the culprit!
Simply put, fix the corners to fix the chin.
A bunched-chin embouchure may result in this:
A rolled-out lip might sound something like this:
Forming the Embouchure
So now that you know what an embouchure looks like and and what it shouldn’t look like, how do you form it properly? One way to think of it is like pulling a drawstring bag closed–even pressure all the way around. After you read steps 1-4, examine the photos that follow.
While standing in front of a mirror, flatten your bottom lip against–but not over–your bottom teeth. Your lip should look stretched flat, as if you were to apply lip balm. Or, try saying “wee” and freeze, then firm the lip against the teeth.
Place the mouthpiece in your mouth, resting (not pressing) the reed on the center of the bottom lip. Be sure you know where the reed is touching the mouthpiece rails so you place the mouthpiece on your lip there. Refer back to “Lower Lip Placement” above.
Firm the corners inward towards each other and the mouthpiece while pressing downward with the upper lip. Think “oooo” and then press inward firmly. Look in the mirror to see if your nostrils are being pulled downward; if they are, you are using your upper lip correctly. Maybe thinking about sucking a thick milkshake through a straw will help.
Contract the muscles in the chin in an upward (toward the reed) motion while simultaneously stretching the chin downward. Yes, these muscles move in opposition. You may find that when you press your upper lip downward that this happens automatically.
At this point, your lips should be wrapped firmly around the mouthpiece, creating even pressure all the way around.
Do notice the subtle differences in the last three photos. Details, details!
Maintaining the Correct Embouchure
Like anything physical, maintaining your embouchure will take daily practice and careful attention. Warming up and practicing in front of a mirror is highly recommended. Even after nearly 28 years of playing the clarinet, I warm up in front of a mirror! I find that the visual check is very helpful.
Long tones, which everyone who plays an instrument absolutely loves, are essential. Boring, you say? Ok. Yes. I’ll admit that I often get out my clarinet with something in mind that I really want to practice and I want to skip those long tones and get right to it. Then I think rationally about how much better my face will feel, how much more focused I will be mentally and physically, and how much more stamina I will have after I work my long tones.
There is no substitute for long tones. Get creative with them, but not too fancy. Change them up a little from day to day.
I strongly urge you to practice long tones in front of the mirror.
The good thing about this is that you have multiple senses involved in your process: Hearing, Feeling, and Seeing,
and Tasting. This keeps you more engaged.
When building your embouchure, you should spend one or two minutes in the beginning, gradually increasing your long tones to five minutes or more in every practice session (even if you have multiple sessions in a day). You cannot play too many long tones!
At the end of your practice session, it is a good idea to “cool down” on two or three minutes of long tones as well.
If your embouchure collapses or gives out (you may notice you start biting or shaking), STOP. Rest your face for a minute or two and try again. DO NOT PLAY WITH A FATIGUED OR FAILED EMBOUCHURE. It is super difficult to break habits and form new ones. Do it right!
Practice needs to happen every day.
Just like the rest of your body needs daily exercise, your face needs daily exercise to stay in working order. Just imagine if you sat in a chair and didn’t get up for three days (never mind bodily functions) and you could not move your legs the entire time. How well do you think your legs would work after just three days of sitting still?
Your embouchure needs exercise every day.
What if you have a busy day and can’t spend time really practicing? Find 10 minutes that you can just do long tones on the mouthpiece and barrel if nothing else. Even forming an embouchure around your thumb is better than nothing!
There is more to creating that perfect tone than just the embouchure. In part two, you will learn more about what needs to happen inside the oral cavity (more than just your mouth) to really make the best tone possible.
As always, practice with patience and perseverance!