In my last post about clarinet embouchure, you learned about visible part of your face when you make a correct or incorrect embouchure. There are a few things that you still need to know about the part of the embouchure that you cannot see: the unique clarinet tongue position and the shape of the throat. Since I am without X-ray photos and and live MRI videos, you will have to take my words and use your mind’s eye to figure this out. Hopefully, the short audio examples at the end will give you a bit more understanding.
First, I’d like to start by mentioning something I left out in my previous post.
I didn’t even mention it. After all the photos you saw, I hope that you noticed that the cheeks were never puffed out.
Unless you are using a technique called circular breathing, you should never puff your cheeks when you play. I guess I didn’t mention it because if you do all the right things with your lips, your cheeks really cannot puff out.
The Right Hand Thumb
Its only job is to hold up the clarinet.
The right hand thumb has a very important job that is often not taught to beginning clarinet players, which is to press the clarinet into the embouchure so that the correct pressure is created around the mouthpiece. The embouchure itself is not quite enough, and it really does need a boost. Try “snugging up” the clarinet into the embouchure by use of the right hand thumb and see what happens.
Tasting and talking are the primary jobs of the tongue, but it is also necessary to manipulate correctly when playing the clarinet. It is a powerful muscle with amazing versatility.
Aside from the obvious, the position of the tongue inside the mouth is largely responsible for the shape of your tone and your intonation.
Here’s a simple but thorough explanation:
The tongue should be arced up in the back of the mouth and anchored against the upper molars (most of the time), while lying low in the front of the mouth.
Say “Keeeee” to correctly position the tongue.
I was paying very close attention to the position of my tongue in a recent practice session and I did notice that depending on the passage I was playing and the range of the clarinet, the tongue position varied slightly. The back of the tongue was sometimes a bit lower and not “anchored” against the upper molars, while other times it was slightly pressed or more firmly pressed against the teeth.
Intonation is affected greatly by the position of the tongue, as is the tone. If the tongue is too low, the pitch is too low. The tone will sound open, unfocused, and possibly uncharacteristic. If the tongue is too high, the pitch may become too high (sharp); it will block off adequate air flow, causing a myriad of problems as well, including a thin or shrill tone quality.
I’d like to address anchor tonguing.
Anchor tonguing is something you should not do. It means that you anchor the tip of the tongue behind the teeth. The tip of the tongue needs to remain free so that you can use it for articulating. If you anchor tongue, you will struggle to articulate quickly and effectively. Additionally, it makes the sound more stuffy and you risk stopping the vibration of the reed because of the constant close proximity of the tongue to the reed. It may also result in tension in the throat.
The Throat and Mouth
Something I learned later in my college years was the proper way to “position” the throat. It wasn’t until I spent some time in flute lessons that I figured this out on my own.
This may sound contrary to what you’ve been told, but your throat needs to feel somewhat open and relaxed.
I played with a tight throat for a long time. Result? A bright tone that didn’t sound as full and focused (Audio Ex. 2 below). I also had some other problems with pitch and technique.
Do you have problems going over the break smoothly?
A more open, relaxed throat may be part of your answer.
The other part lies in the shape of the front of the mouth. While teaching a private student, I was explaining to her this concept of an open feeling inside of the mouth. After playing a passage of music, which she played much smoother and prettier immediately after my instruction, I asked her what she did exactly to achieve the obvious improvement. She said she imagined a bubble behind her teeth.
Why didn’t I think of that?
Your turn: Imagine a bubble behind your teeth that you want to keep there when playing smooth passages; don’t pop the bubble! Also, imagine a bubble behind your tongue at the top of your throat (soft palate). Need more help? Try THIS:
- Act like you’re fogging up a window (Haaaaaaah)
- Close your lips, keeping your mouth very open on the inside (still fogging)
- Raise the back of your tongue up to meet your upper molars like you are saying “Kee”
- Remember this word: HOCKEY.
HEAR ME NOW! This is the secret you’ve been searching for. It works with every student I have taught it to!!!
Try it out!
- Clarinet, fully assembled
- Recording device (the voice recorder on smart phones works well–just don’t play directly into it!)
- Music (optional)
- Record yourself: With your usual playing habits, play something you are familiar with. Try to choose something that demonstrates your current full range, such as a scale.
- Play the recording back so you can hear the results; check out your playback with a tuner.
- Analyze: Take some notes down about your sound and how you felt physically (pertaining to the embouchure) while playing.
- Consider your tongue position and the “bubbles” I spoke of.
- Record yourself playing the same exact thing you already played, using the bubble concept.
- Play back while looking at the tuner.
- Analyze: take some notes down about your sound and how you felt while playing.
- Compare your “bubble concept” attempt(s) with your usual habits.
Be sure to test out going over the “break” with the bubble concept. This is where you will notice the most difference. Many clarinetists tense up or close the throat when crossing the break (up) and hence, a break in the sound occurs. If you are working in the altissimo range, test it out over the altissimo break. You should notice more continuity in your sound and tone.
It is possible to overdo the bubble in the throat. This is why you must use a tuner and listen to recordings of yourself. You will find some audio clips at the end with examples to help you make sense of it all.
I will not spend much time here, as this is a topic that needs its own post. However, it is important to understand the importance of embouchure when articulating, or tonguing, as some like to say.
It is of utmost importance that you keep your embouchure steady and firm while articulating. This includes the throat.
I’m going to keep this as simple as possible:
The only thing that moves during articulation is the tip of the tongue.
If anything else moves, you are working too hard (and you’re doing it wrong!).
In the following examples 1-5, I am playing a short music excerpt that crosses the break over 3rd line B. The tone quality and intonation should be noticeably consistent and stable in Example 1 and again in a different excerpt in Example 6, whereas you should notice more inconsistencies in the other examples. Also, listen with a tuner near your speakers and see the difference in intonation! (Side note: performing the excerpts with incorrect tongue and/or throat position was exceedingly difficult! I was surprised at how tired I became in just the 15 seconds I was playing. Playing correctly is LESS tiring!)
One last suggestion is to listen to Example 1 between each of the other examples for better comparison.
Example 1: My normal playing
Example 2: Closed-throat
Example 3: Closed front of the mouth
Example 4: Anchor Tongue
Example 5: Throat too open
Example 6: More normal playing (Devienne Sonata excerpt)
I did warn you when I told you that the clarinet embouchure was complex! However, you can achieve a correct clarinet embouchure inside and out with daily practice and attention to all the details!
But, you can achieve a great clarinet embouchure when you practice with patience and perseverance!
Remember to leave your comments below!
Bubble: By Spechtarts – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28664314
Anchor: CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=332162
Hockey Player:By DMighton at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30277892
Baby: By Avsar Aras – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41160454