To achieve a beautiful sound, master these embouchure techniques
by Julie DeRoche
DePaul University, Chicago
Julie DeRoche is coordinator of the woodwind department and clarinet faculty at DePaul University, where she teaches with Larry Combs and John Bruce Yeh, fellow members of the Chicago Clarinet Trio. She served as acting second clarinet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the 2000–2001 season and continues to perform and tour frequently with the CSO. In addition to her involvement with numerous chamber and orchestral groups, she currently serves as president of the International Clarinet Association. Her instrument of choice is the Opus model Leblanc France clarinet. This is the second in a series of articles in which Julie DeRoche details basic clarinet technique.
One of the most important aspects of good clarinet performance is the ability to achieve beautiful sound. It is something that all clarinet players search for and yet is often difficult to define—especially in writing. In fact, there are many different types of clarinet sound and many ideas of what constitutes a beautiful sound.
To me, beautiful sound is much like a spectrum of light—with qualities that are bright and lively at the top, warm and vibrant in the middle, and deep or dark at the bottom. Good sound must have aspects of all of these qualities. It cannot be too bright or lacking depth. It cannot be hollow in the middle or lacking center. And it cannot be simply “dark,” lacking vibration, clarity and projection.
Many things affect tone production on the clarinet. Reed choice, as well as qualities of the ligature, the mouthpiece and the instrument itself, will impact the quality of the sound. So will the use of air and the control and relaxation of breathing. But the most important factor in creating beautiful tone is the ability to form and control the embouchure and to maintain the correct position of the tongue in the mouth while playing—whether slurring or tonguing.
In this segment of “Clarinet Basics,” I will describe embouchure formation and correct tongue position, which can be used by anyone of any age or experience with great success.
One dictionary defines embouchure as “the method of applying the lips and tongue to the mouthpiece of a wind instrument.” While this is technically correct, I believe that there is a better and more productive way to think of embouchure position. While you will in fact be applying your lips to the mouthpiece, it is far better to think of building the muscles of your embouchure around the structure of your face—your cheekbones, gums, teeth and jaw—rather than around the mouthpiece.
It is this structure that gives the embouchure support, just as the beams and girders of a building hold the walls, floors and ceilings. Therefore, when creating good embouchure, it is best to concentrate on two areas: the setup of this structure, followed by the building of the muscles around it.
To set the structure of your embouchure, begin by opening your mouth so that your teeth are approximately one half inch apart. Gently move the lower jaw very slightly forward so that the bottom teeth are almost parallel or “lined up” with the upper teeth. This position of the jaw allows for good control of the reed in a forward direction rather than an upward direction, which is a key factor in avoiding biting the reed. In fact, it actually opens the bite slightly, allowing you to maintain control of the sound without pinching or cutting off vibration of the reed.
Opening your mouth the correct distance will allow you to set the top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece approximately one quarter of an inch from the tip. Your “pressure point,” or lower lip and teeth, will be approximately one half inch from the tip of the reed. Do not open your mouth too wide, as this will make it difficult to place the mouthpiece in the mouth correctly and will adversely affect the angle or amount of mouthpiece in the mouth.
When you place the mouthpiece in your mouth, remember to apply some upward pressure of the two hands toward the top teeth so that the weight of the clarinet does not rest on the lower half of the embouchure. This will help you to maintain firm, comfortable control of the sound without lower-lip injury.
To set the muscles of the embouchure, begin by rolling the bottom lip over the bottom teeth until the top edge of the lower teeth is lined up with the area of the lip that forms the outer boundary between the lip and skin, or the “color change” between lip and face. This is what I referred to as the pressure point—the point where the reed touches your lip, which in turn touches your teeth.
It makes no difference whether your lip is thin, thick or medium in width. It is important to create the pressure point in this way, as this is the strongest area of the lower lip. Too little lip places the pressure point on a weak area of lip tissue rather than the line of muscle at the color change. Too much lip makes it difficult to do the next important step.
Remember to move the jaw slightly forward. While doing this, and rolling the lip into the mouth, pull the chin muscle flat against the jawbone. You will now have a leverage of “lip in, chin down, and jaw forward.”
Next, pull the corners of your lips in toward your “canine” teeth. They will be directed toward the sides of your mouthpiece when the mouthpiece is placed in the mouth.
Last, but definitely not least, your top lip will also be held tightly against the teeth and will move downward toward the mouthpiece. This is important for two reasons. First, it eliminates the air leak that often plagues clarinet players. Second, it causes the chin to remain flat.
To experience this, stretch your lip under your nose in a downward direction and notice what happens to your chin. It automatically moves just as described above. Now try to stretch your top lip down without moving your chin. You will find that it is impossible. Therefore, one of the best and easiest ways to accomplish the difficult task of keeping the chin down is to use the top lip properly.
In addition to maintaining good basic embouchure structure and firm embouchure muscles, the tongue must be in a position that will allow for a well-focused air stream and consistent pitch. This means that the tongue should be relaxed and high in the mouth and that it should not move or change position as you play. (The exception is the motion involved in articulation, which I will address in the next issue of the Bell and which does not alter this basic position.)
To find good tongue position, say “sh” as if you are telling someone to be quiet. You will note that your tongue is relaxed and that the air is directed toward the reed in a small, focused stream. Keep your tongue in this position when you form your embouchure.
Your tongue should not push forward or withdraw into your mouth unnaturally. It should remain in its space inside your teeth. The middle of the tongue should be raised and the back of the tongue should graze the upper molars.
Do not push the back of the tongue down in order to “open the throat.” This creates a hollow sound on the clarinet. Dynamic and musical contrast is achieved by changing air speed rather than opening the throat, and consistent pitch and quality of sound over all registers can be achieved only by keeping tongue position constant.
Furthermore, if you keep the tongue position high, you will not be able to puff your cheeks. Puffing cheeks are caused by an incorrect, low tongue position, which directs the airflow sideways toward the cheeks and forces them out.
You are now ready for the final step.
Keep your embouchure held against the structure of your face, and then place the mouthpiece in your mouth. Remember to set the embouchure first, and then move the clarinet up to you with your arms. Do not move your embouchure muscles and body or head toward the clarinet, and do not set the embouchure after you have placed the mouthpiece in your mouth.
Finally, make a seal around the mouthpiece with your lips by pulling them tight against your teeth and around and in toward the mouthpiece. Since you were already in good embouchure position before placing the mouthpiece in your mouth, it will take only a slight additional adjustment to make a seal around the mouthpiece.
Achieving a well-controlled embouchure and correct tongue position requires attention and practice; it may seem a bit complicated at first. However, if you repeat these steps, either as you try to put them into practice yourself or as you teach them, you will find that the tone achieved—by you or by your students of any age—grows resonant, focused and in tune.
Furthermore, a correct embouchure will provide the flexibility and consistency to allow your tone to serve your music making without discomfort or too much effort. It is simply a matter of muscle development and exercise—or “getting in shape.”
The effort will be well worth it. The wonderful clarinet sound that you achieve will produce great satisfaction and reward.