How to form the embouchure
The basic concept of air delivery via the embouchure or “face funnel”
To form the embouchure we need to understand a few basic concepts. The face and the musculature around the face is the vehicle for funnelling the air inside the mouth into the tone chamber of the mouthpiece and beyond into the instrument. En route to the tone chamber the cool fast air passes across the blade of the reed which acts as a spring – clamped firmly one end but thin enough at the tip to vibrate and oscillate if enough air velocity causes sufficient energy to make it vibrate evenly across it s surface and against the rails of the mouthpiece. The speed of the air actually sucks the reed toward the rails of the mouthpiece and creates oscillation – causing a sound to be heard (in simplistic terms). Depending on how efficient the air stream is (how fast and concentrated) the sound will be more or less focused and it is desirable that no extraneous air will be heard hissing in the tube. (N.B. All this is subject to the mouthpiece being in good condition and the reed being correctly balanced and enabled to vibrate freely. If the mouthpiece is damaged or the reed stuffy and imbalanced then the process of making the sound clear and without hiss or undertones (undesirable harmonics) is more difficult even if the embouchure is well formed and delivery of air fast and efficient).
It is, with practise and patience, possible to eliminate all hissing noise in the body of the instrument and undertones, even at the quietest dynamic in the all registers and regions of the clarinet. To do this the embouchure needs to be efficient and allow the lower lip to be passive yet firm enough to form a platform for the reed.
To form the basic embouchure
1 Open the mouth just slightly – enough just to enable the top front teeth to locate with the mouthpiece. At this stage the reed simply makes contact very lightly with the lower lip and no lip is folded over the lower teeth.
(Allowing the lip to form a cushion over the teeth happens later when we begin the “wedge” process.)
2 Another view of first contact with mouthpiece and reed. No lip over teeth at this stage.
3 The next step is to form a definite but relaxed feeling of firmness in the face muscles to funnel the air inside the mouth, employing a smile created by the vowel sound EE (being formed by the tongue being drawn backwards slightly – the tip pointing downward, this in effect raises the central part of the tongue) and pushing inward with the side muscles of the face as if to create the sound OOH. This creates the desired buffer into which the mouthpiece is wedged. Use the right hand thumb – to push gently upwards, in effect wedging the mouth piece into the lips – which must resist the entry of the mouth piece. Maintain the EE vowel and OOH sound throughout this process
It is very important to keep the lips drawn back, flat against the teeth with a gentle smile to counter balance the inwards push of the side muscles. This will create a rounded shape into which the mouthpiece is wedged hence forming a perfect air tight seal. All this must be formed in a relaxed yet positively firm way.
As stated earlier: a combination of two sounds is required; the vowel EE (created by smiling) and the sound OOH (created by pushing sides of mouth inwards).
4 The next step is to enable the lower lip become a platform for the reed by pushing more mouthpiece into the mouth – not too much just enough to become comfortable by wedging a tiny amount of the lower lip (more than before in first wedge) over the bottom teeth. This simply cushions the reed so that no contact with reed and the teeth is possible. Then when fast, pressurised air is released into the mouthpiece a sound will emerge
Front views of correct embouchure formation and final finished embouchure in sequential order
Below – finished embouchure – no pressure but firm face muscles and raised cheeks to form a smile – this employs many facial muscles and creates a funnel inside the mouth – to enable a fast cool stream of air to be delivered without loss of air from the sides of the mouth.
Combining the face “funnel” (embouchure) and pressurised air:
The face is made up of a latticework of interwoven muscles to enable many functions including chewing, speech, smiling and myriad expressions.
To create a good clarinet embouchure – I use a mental image; to imagine one is sucking a drinking straw and smiling at the same time keeping a balance of push and pull in the opposing muscles. The technique of forming the embouchure is similar to smiling and sucking hard on a drinking straw – for instance – to draw up a thick milkshake. In fact it is a good idea to use a wide diameter drinking straw to form the mouth shape required and pretend to suck a thick milk shake. Then instead of sucking, maintain that “EE /OOH” position and blow through a tiny gap in the centre of the mouth, directing the air, fast and downwards, releasing pressurised air into the mouthpiece.
To pressurise the air it is necessary to fill the lungs to capacity, filling the lungs from the bottom up and then holding it in for a few seconds until one feels it is almost impossible to hold the air in longer. If one is doing this correctly one must feel the lower abdomen expand first against the waistband (if wearing trousers !) then fill the “tank” from the bottom up.
I tell students to imaging they are a motor car inner tube that has been over – inflated and that has been punctured by a pin hole and the air is being released in a fine jet but under considerable pressure. When releasing the air it is important the tongue remains drawn back in an EE position directing the air downwards into the gap between reed and mouthpiece rails. Whilst releasing the air, maintain diaphragmatic pressure on the air column by keeping the lower abdomen slightly distended. This combination of muscles and actions will enable a fine, fast flow of air to be delivered into the mouthpiece and creates a clear supported sound that has body and substance. Once the practice of pressurising the air has been understood and learned it will be possible to fill the lungs more quickly and without stress.
Frequently, in the first instance students tend to become tense because they tend to over fill the lungs and hold the air in too long. Filling and emptying the lungs must be a practised and natural feeling – without stress but with musculature support. As one becomes more experienced at this, it becomes a reflex action and should not be stressful in any way.
At first breathing in this way (to pressurise the air) can cause dizziness because to breathe in this fashion is not a normal function of the body. By expelling the air in a fast stream we are in effect causing the oxygen in the blood to be depleted and hence the feeling of dizziness can in some cases be alarming. I have even experienced students becoming so light headed they almost pass out (faint). This tends to be a passing phase until the body gets used to the lack of oxygen going to the brain, not everyone is affected in this way – it depends entirely on one’s physical make – up.
Breathing in everyday life is a natural function we do not normally have to think about. This pressurising of the air does not feel comfortable at first and takes a bit of getting used to. The way we deliver the air into the clarinet is very fast and in fine downward jet. There is no comparison to normal breathing – and it must be practised to master this technique.
The combination of good air delivery, a well balanced reed and an economical mouthpiece that delivers every facet of the tonal spectrum and clean, clear articulation in all registers is the ultimate goal. An efficient ligature to hold the reed firmly flat on the mouthpiece is essential.
For more advice – see some excerpts of my book in “Products” and if you need to upgrade from a student to professional quality mouthpiece please contact me direct and take a look at the mouthpiece page.
Those of you with poor embouchures may benefit from buying my book Instant Help for Playing and Teaching the Clarinet or Tom Ridenour’s Educator’s Guide to the clarinet – or why not both? There is no substitute for hands on advice so getting more advice from a respected pedagogue / teacher is also strongly advised. I hope this article has been of help to those of you who need to learn more about the embouchure. Thanks for visiting.