Who doesn’t love a dark, rich, and vibrant clarinet sound? It’s a beautiful instrument, and when our clarinet section sounds amazing, our band does too! But how do we get there? Many resources, most notably our beginning band method books, provide an incomplete picture of how to achieve the sound we all desire from our clarinet students. However, it’s not difficult to teach students to play with a resonant and gorgeous sound if we add just a few pieces of knowledge to what we already know and teach.
We all know that the vibrations of the reed against the mouthpiece create the sound on clarinet. Therefore, it follows that anything that stifles the reed’s ability to vibrate will negatively impact sound quality. Thus, everything that we do with the physical set up must maximize the reed’s ability to vibrate.
Characteristic Clarinet Tone
It is crucial on clarinet, like all other wind instruments, to teach posture and breathing first, and without the instrument. I utilize words such as natural, balanced, and tension-free in my instruction of posture. When teaching breathing, it’s vital that the inhale is full and relaxed, allowing for expansion around the middle of the body. The exhale consists of a fast, focused, and directional air stream with cold air moving straight forward. As we know, if the posture and air stream are not correct, we will be fighting an uphill battle toward our goal of beautiful tone.
The clarinet embouchure must be built, so it’s important to teach it in steps. As students are first learning, and throughout their early training, provide frequent verbal prompts and feedback, utilize mirrors, and check your students individually whenever you can.
I teach clarinet embouchure in three phases with each new phase introduced as the student is ready to handle additional challenge and information. Skipping steps here often results in students who play with a stuffy sound or whose pitch is significantly flat.
Phase 1: Embouchure Basics
Below you will find the kid-friendly language I use with students to build their embouchures as well as additional explanation for the teacher.
1. Pretend you are putting Chapstick on your bottom lip.
This creates the traditional clarinet embouchure shape that we look for as the lower jaw and teeth move forward to flatten the bottom lip. The lower lip is not a “cushion” and we do not “roll” the bottom lip over the teeth, despite these being common instructions seen in beginning method books.
Clarinet Embouchure: Bottom Lip
2. Feel for the valley in your chin.
The “valley” is the concave shape of the chin that results from the lower jaw and teeth pressing against the lip. When the “valley” does not exist, this means the student has pulled too much lip into their mouth and/or they have positioned their lower jaw incorrectly which causes the chin to bunch, resulting in the mouthpiece being unsupported.
3. Mark your “spot.”
If you hold the clarinet mouthpiece sideways up to the light, you can see that the reed does not touch the mouthpiece at the tip. However, as you travel down, there comes a point around ¾ of an inch from the top where the reed and mouthpiece facing are flush. The “spot” is the location where the reed and mouthpiece come together.
4. Place the reed on your bottom lip at “the spot.”
The spot is also where the mouthpiece should be placed on the lower lip. When students know the location of the spot, they know just how far the mouthpiece needs to be placed in the mouth.
Mark Your Spot: How Much Mouthpiece to Take In
5. Place your top teeth on the mouthpiece.
This is the number one error I see in young clarinetists regarding embouchure setup. Some students will attempt to hold the mouthpiece with the lips, rather than anchor it under the top teeth. Perform the “wiggle test” to check for this error by holding onto the bottom of the mouthpiece or barrel and gently wiggling the mouthpiece back and forth. If you are able to wiggle the mouthpiece, the top teeth are not in place.
Clarinet Embouchure: Top Teeth
6. Hug your lips around the mouthpiece.
The lips should close around the mouthpiece like a drawstring bag, forming a seal so that the air does not leak out the sides.
Phase 2: Next Level Embouchure
Once students are consistently demonstrating the basics, begin introducing the following:
- The top teeth and the right thumb support the clarinet, not the lips. Help students accomplish this by having them gently push up with their right thumb (on the thumb rest, if using the entire instrument) toward the top teeth.
- The mouthpiece should be anchored under the top teeth. If the bottom lip is pushing up to support the mouthpiece, or the reed is pushing down against the bottom lip, then the reed cannot vibrate fully and the sound will be stuffy.
- The angle of the clarinet is around 35 degrees. An incorrect angle will cause issues with pitch.
Clarinet Anchor Points (Removing Pressure from the Reed)
Voicing refers to the shape and size of the oral cavity, and is controlled by the position of the tongue. To demonstrate voicing to your students, have them whistle a high note and a low note while noticing the change in tongue position. The clarinet has the highest voicing of all woodwinds. The tongue should be arched high near the roof of the mouth as if you are saying “ee,” or hissing like a cat. Voicing errors cause our clarinet students to play flat. You can check voicing by having the students play on mouthpiece and barrel only. The resulting pitch, if voicing is correct, will be a slightly sharp Concert F#.
Teach Concepts on the Small Instrument
I’m a firm believer in simplifying new skills as they are taught. By teaching all embouchure concepts (even more advanced ones) on the mouthpiece and barrel only, we give students the ability to focus only on embouchure without having to worry about other elements of playing.
Clarinet Hand Position
Getting your clarinet students’ embouchures set up in a way that allows strong vibrations of the reed is the basis for developing a vibrant clarinet sound. In my beginning band instruction, we spend at least a semester starting each class with mouthpiece and barrel playing. This is a great way to develop, reinforce, and solidify the fundamental skills necessary for playing.
Best wishes for many years of successful students!