What is a clarinet embouchure? The word, ‘embouchure’ is a French that translates to “hold in the mouth”. Having a good embouchure is important to producing a beautiful sound on the clarinet. A bad embouchure can have a negative effect on playing, along with the other technical aspects of playing.
The difficult part about teaching clarinet embouchure is that everyone has different sized lips, cavities, and teeth. It is important to remember these differences and to adapt your explanation according to the student’s physical characteristics. The following are things to consider in developing a clarinet embouchure. It will be useful to use a mirror while teaching this to students so that they are able to understand which muscles are active and inactive in a clarinet embouchure.
1. Begin with a genuine smile. Instruct the student to smile so that it shows their teeth. Make sure that it is not a half smile, and that the student is genuinely smiling and engaging the muscles surrounding their mouth. Genuine smiles engage the small muscles around their mouth used to forming a clarinet embouchure.
2. Pull the corners of the mouth in. This will further engage the chin muscles used in developing a clarinet embouchure. If done properly, the chin muscles should be flat and pointing down. A useful analogy is to think “flat as a table”. If you are able to balance a pencil on your chin, that means that you are engaging the small muscles for the clarinet embouchure.
3. Try your embouchure with the clarinet. Be sure to follow steps 1 and 2 before trying it with the clarinet.
4. Top teeth on top of mouthpiece. Take your front teeth and place them on top of the mouthpiece. Start by taking a little bit of mouthpiece until the student produces a full sound. A good way to see how much mouthpiece to take is by making sure that the clarinet is at about 45 degrees to the body and to adjust it to the student’s physical characteristics to make sure that they do not take too much mouthpiece. Make sure that the student is standing up straight, that their eyes are straight forward while doing this, and to experiment with the amount of mouthpiece they take in, as each person’s mouth cavities are different.
5. Bottom lip tucked into teeth. The amount of bottom lip tucked in depends on the size of the player’s lips. Students with crooked front teeth may need additional assistance with this.
6. The small muscles are evenly engaged. Make sure that the muscles are all evenly engaged so that the reed is able to vibrate freely. Avoid over-engaging the top and bottom muscles of the mouth, often referred to as “biting,” which causes the reed to not vibrate freely.
While following all of these steps, it is important to use a mirror and to remember which muscles are used. In the beginning stages of learning clarinet embouchure, the mirror also helps the student see what they are doing until they are able to incorporate it into their muscle memory as a natural part of their playing.
To maintain your embouchure, it is good to do long tones chromatically throughout the registers of the clarinet. This also allows the player to develop their sound and to maintain strength in the embouchure. If you find your top lip not being able to maintain an embouchure, or find yourself overcompensating by biting, a good exercise is to use double lip. Instead of the top teeth that are placed on top of the mouthpiece, the upper lip is folded in and placed above the mouthpiece. This is a good exercise to not only build the muscles in the upper lip, but also to prevent ‘biting,’ which normally happens when the player is struggling to maintain a solid embouchure.