The clarinet embouchure is a key element in creating a good sound. Characteristics of a good clarinet sound include dark, round, and focused qualities. A tight or poorly formed embouchure will inhibit these qualities. Below are steps for creating an embouchure that supports the dark, round, and focused sound.
- The top front teeth rest directly on the top of the mouthpiece
- The top lip goes in front of the top teeth down on the mouthpiece
- The bottom lip curls over the bottom teeth until the bottom teeth are directly below where the red of your lip meets the skin
- The corners of the mouth come in towards the mouthpiece like you are saying “Ooo”
- The chin should be in a normal or pointed position (not bunched).
The embouchure should be relaxed, but create enough seal around the mouthpiece and reed so that no air escapes. The lips should passively resist the mouthpiece with the top lip firm and the bottom lips creating a gentle cushion for the reed. A general rule is that you should see very little or no red of the lip.
The top lip is essential in creating a good tone. A firm upper lip down on the mouthpiece (FULPDOMP) is an excellent cue to remember. A firm upper lip frees the bottom lip to relax which lets the reed vibrate freely. Also a firm upper lip down on the mouthpiece allows the soft pallet to rise which creates a rounder sound.
Be aware of changing the shape of the inside of the mouth while playing. This creates fluctuations in tone and intonation. The inside of the mouth should not be closed and narrow, but open and spacious. Think of the inside of the mouth like the inside of a large cathedral with a tall arched ceiling rather than a narrow crawl space.
The tongue should be in a “Eee” position while playing. This means it should be high in the back near the molars. Dropping the tongue low in the mouth creates an unfocused sound.
The throat should be open when playing like you are saying “ah” or yawning. The air stream should be fast when playing. Think of fast air moving between your front teeth. Also, be aware that the air should be focused and fast like cooling soup or a hot drink with cool air under pressure rather than hot slow air like fogging a window.
Some general problems I have seen that restrict sound and make playing difficult are:
- Biting: This often happens when there is a lack of air support. Instead of supporting the sound with air, the embouchure works to support the sound. Some cues to help with biting are to think of opening your mouth more and making your back teeth farther apart. Also keep in mind that there is an equal force between the lips and the mouthpiece. You don’t want the lips to apply more force than the mouthpiece gives the lips.
- Angle of the Clarinet: The angle of the clarinet determines how much reed is exposed in the mouth. If the angle is too far out, the reed is dampened by the bottom lip. Generally when sitting the bell should be at knee height.
- Jaw and embouchure movement: Movement of the jaw and embouchure invites squeaks, fluctuation in pitch, and tone. Pointing the chin helps to reduce embouchure movement. As well, think of freezing the lips in one place like a ventriloquist.
- Lack of Air Support: Air support is essential for a good tone. Taking a breath when playing the clarinet fulfills three needs: 1) to keep us alive (obviously) 2) to blow through the instrument and vibrate the reed 3) to keep in storage at the bottom of the lungs to support the tone. This last function is often forgotten, but helps us to relax the embouchure so the reed can vibrate freely.
- Pinching off at the tip of the mouthpiece: Playing at the tip of the reed and mouthpiece pinches off the sound and limits the amount of reed that can vibrate. Here is a good way to determine how much mouthpiece to take. Hold any note and move the embouchure down the mouthpiece until the sound distorts into a squeak. Back off slightly so that you are in a safe space where it won’t squeak, this is about where you should be on the mouthpiece when playing.
The clarinet embouchure is something personal to develop. I have outlined what works for me and has worked for my students in my teaching practice, however each clarinetist has to experiment to find what works for them to create dark, round, and focused tone. You may have heard contradictory advice about embouchure from other clarinetists; they are explaining what works for them. Your job as a student is to take in all the information provided and experiment to find what works for you. Hopefully the points listed will set you in the right direction. For any questions please contact me directly.