Double-Lip Embouchure and the Clarinet

2011Symposium_1_2Oboists use it, bassoonists use it, brass players use it. Using both lips to form the embouchure for playing these instruments is rarely if ever given a second thought. Not so with the clarinet. Because of the type of mouthpiece used on a clarinet, double-lip embouchure can seem difficult to learn at first, but when properly understood and used, it is the only way a player can produce the most free and overtone-rich sound possible, and it is the only way that the upper register can be made to speak clearly, reliably and most important expressively and beautifully. With that bit of hype as an introduction, let me explain why double-lip is recommended and how it is properly formed and used.

I’ll begin with a bit of science. The sound on a clarinet is made by the reed vibrating against the mouthpiece. The sound of the vibrating reed picks up its timbre from the sound waves produced entering into and resonating in the oral cavity, the mouthpiece, and barrel. The more freely and unencumbered the reed can vibrate, the richer in overtones the timbre will be. Within the control of the embouchure, more richness is a good thing, and is the hallmark of the best players’ sound. Here’s where double-lip is so valuable.

First, when used correctly, the player never bites or clamps down on the reed with the jaw. There is little upward pressure exerted by the jaw; only enough to assist the lower lip in exerting sufficient support onto the read. This allows the reed to vibrate more freely. Also, the pain and fatigue that results from biting with a double lip embouchure are themselves sufficient to dissuade most from doing so.

Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman

Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman

Instead of pressing the jaw upward, in a double-lip embouchure, the jaw remains open, lips cover both upper and lower front teeth, and the clarinet is pushed into the lips, while at the same time, the lips press into the mouthpiece (upper) or reed (lower) causing the necessary pressure to be applied to the reed. It may be necessary for the lower jaw to assist the lower lip, but this is always minimal, and never enough to be considered biting.  Because the pressure on the reed is applied both horizontally and vertically, it is less oppressive to the vibrations of the reed, immediately resulting in better tone.

With the top and bottom lips simultaneously pressed toward the center of the mouthpiece, the appearance of the double-lip embouchure is that of  the shape and appearance of drinking from a straw. The combination of the inward pressing of the lips and the upward pressing of the clarinet into the lips while the bottom jaw remains unmoving, completes the well-formed double-lip embouchure.

To this embouchure is added a constant flow of air. With the above described embouchure in place, there is no need to adjust airflow to play any interval or register. The reed is now vibrating freely, and a constant and unaltered air stream will produce beautiful results. One of the natural response to pressing the upper lip downward is that the tongue will rise in the mouth. This help channel the airflow through a smaller passage which speeds up the air speed and enhances tone production. The height of the tongue can also be adjusted to create expressive changes in color, and can be useful in improving higher notes. The player will also notice that tonguing immediately improves with this embouchure. Even with the tongue elevated, the tip of the tongue easily contacts the near tip of the reed. The increased airflow facilitates accurate tonguing.


Harold Wright

Double-lip embouchure is very different from single-lip on the clarinet. When one is beginning double-lip, the added muscle strength needed to press the top and bottom lips down and up, respectively, toward the center, and the sides of the mouth inward as well, takes time to develop. Frequent periods of short practice are recommended, gradually building up to longer playing periods. At first, it will be nearly impossible to play the clarinet standing up, and the player will be greatly helped by supporting the clarinet by bracing it by the bell held on or between the knees. Remember, upward pressing of the clarinet is critical, so the right thumb must constantly push up.

For examples of what truly great clarinet playing sounds like when double-lip embouchure is used, I’ve included some audio files below. The first is of Harold Wright performing the last movement of Weber’s Concerto No. 2, the second is of  Richard Stoltzman performing “Girl With the Flaxen Hair” recorded at a Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, and the third is of Ralph McLane playing the second movement from a performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. The late Kalmen Opperman also played double lip, and was both a student of McLane and Mr. Stoltzman’s teacher.

Life-changing Memories

There are a handful of orchestral concerts I attended years ago that I still remember, while there are many more I don’t recall in the least. Today, I’m interested in why this is. Why is it that I remember some performances and not others? When I thought about it, I realized that in each case, there was a specialness to what was going on in the concert, to the person I attended the concert with, or to the reason I was at that particular concert. In other words, what made each of these concert memorable was the context in which they were given and in which I attended.

Sometimes in the winter of 1974, I attended a performance of Verdi’s Requium. The performance was in a huge cathedral with an echo I seem to remember timing at 7-11 seconds. The choir was massively big. It was a field trip taken with my high school music appreciation class, and it was the first time I had heard a choir that large. To this day, the Verdi Requiem is one of my favorite pieces. Later that same year, in the spring, I attended my first opera with the same class. It was Puccini’s La Boheme, and the effect on me was much the same. I was enthralled with the music, captivated by the plot, and was absolutely carried away when the tenor sang Che gelida maninia. To this day, La Boheme is, you guessed it, my favorite opera. In both of these cases, with the Requiem and with La Boheme, there was an exciting newness, and a powerful emotional surge that burned the whole package—music, staging, story, and how it all made me feel—into my memory. As a music educator, I cannot forget the impact that a music teacher who took his students to these concerts had on me, and the ways in which it brought my love for music to full bloom.

Sometimes, when I take my students to concerts, I am sure that a similar awakening will occur in at least some of them. It is not always readily apparent, Many kids, when asked after the performance how they liked it, will nonchalantly reply that it was “good,” or “okay.” Then, maybe a year or two later, when they realize I’m taking another class to a concert, they will light up and excitedly tell me how much they liked going to a concert, and many will ask if they can go again. These kinds of encounters with the arts are deep-seated, life-changing, permanent memories. The emotions the arts draw out of us, at those moments when they are especially strong, change us.

I know my memories won’t be the same as yours, but here are just a few more of mine; a sort of greatest hits from my musical memory.

Harold Wright playing Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto

Richard Stoltzman playing Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in Carnegie Hall with the Tokyo String Quartet

Leonard Bernstein conducting Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony at Tanglewood

Pavarotti giving a recital in Hartford, Connecticut, 1977

What Does an Embouchure Do?

2011Symposium_1_2Today I will discuss embouchure. Virtually every wind instrument music teacher uses the word, and teaches students how to form and use one. Yet embouchure can easily become one in a list of things the student must do to produce a pleasing sound on a musical instrument. When difficulties arise, or when obstacles (such as dental braces) are introduced, teachers and students alike can be at a loss as to what to do, because the concept of what an embouchure is and what it does has been overlooked.

As is often the case, beginning with the word itself can be helpful in understanding what the word means, and how the thing it represents can be used. The word embouchure is French derived from the verb embouchure meaning to put to one’s mouth. The word contains bouche, which in English means mouth. A suitable definition of embouchure is found in “the correct application of the lips and tongue in playing a wind instrument.” The term “wind instrument” refers to both brass and woodwind instruments.

Regardless of the details of playing each kind of instrument, there is one thing all embouchures must do: An embouchure must firmly hold or grasp the material attached to the vibrating element so that the vibrating element can vibrate freely while having the right amount of control placed on it to produce the  characteristic sound of the instrument being played.

Doc Severinson

Doc Severinson

For brass instruments, the embouchure firmly holds the corners of the mouth and lips so that the center of the lips can freely vibrate, yet still be under control so that poor tone and blasting is avoided. In this respect, one part of the mouth is serving as the embouchure, while another part of the mouth is serving as the vibrating element.  When the mouthpiece is applied, it contacts the lips on the embouchure, but must not be delegated the task of doing the job of the embouchure, that is, of holding the vibrating portion of the lips. Such an arrangement leaves the vibrating portion of the lips at liberty to vibrate freely, unimpeded by the presence of the mouthpiece. When the embouchure is so employed, the need for mouthpiece pressure is at least nearly eliminated, and the impact of braces is reduced, if not eliminated. The other part of the embouchure (frequently overlooked) is the tongue. It adds to the work of the embouchure portion of the lips by directing air flow in side the mouth, and varying the size of the passage between the tongue and the roof of the mouth through which air must flow to reach the vibrating element. When the tongue is raised, the passageway is made smaller causing the air to flow faster in support of higher pitches. When the tongue is lowered, the passageway is made smaller causing the air to flow slower in support of lower pitches. Much of this happens rather naturally, and can be over controlled, causing tension in the throat. The throat must remain open and relaxed so that airflow is not restricted out of the lungs.

Kalmen Opperman

Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman playing clarinet with French embouchures.

For reed instruments, the lips are employed only in holding the vibrating element; they are in no way employed as the sound source. The lip is minimally curled over the lower teeth for single reed instruments and over top and lower teeth for double reed instruments. The French embouchure for clarinet, which I strongly prefer, also curls the top lip over the top teeth, with the top lip firmly placed on the top of the clarinet mouthpiece. Because the lips are directly contacting the reed, the point of contact on the reed is where all vibration stops, and where the embouchure begins. For this reason, the embouchure should be placed on the reed as far back on the reed as possible to maximize the length of reed that is free to vibrate. Remember that the further back the embouchure is placed, the firmer it must be to hold the reed, because all reeds become thicker moving away from the tip. The point at which all pitches can be played with a full and characteristic tone without need of moving or adjusting the embouchure is the correct placement.

Understanding the how as well as the what of wind instrument embouchures is key in forming and using a proper embouchure, and in correctly responding to obstacles and problems that inevitably crop up over time for every wind player. It is important to remember that the embouchure is used to hold the vibrating element with the lips, and direct the airflow through the mouth with the tongue. The later purpose is why articulation is properly done with the end of the tongue, leaving the rest of the tongue to funnel the airstream. When formed and used properly, an embouchure results in a characteristic tone evenly distributed across the entire range of the instrument with little to no adjustment.