(Not) Teaching Embouchure at the First Lesson

There are thousands of opinions and much has been written regarding the best way to teach the clarinet embouchure in the first lesson.  Since this is the one topic of which I am questioned the most by my band director colleagues, I figured I would throw my opinion into the mix.  In a word . . . DON’T!

OK, before you delete this article from your inbox and lobby the clarinet world to declare me a heretic, hear me out.  There is usually a lot going on in that first lesson and I believe that if we as clarinet teachers get too wrapped up in trying to teach the perfect embouchure, it can more closely resemble a golf lesson (flat lip, chin down, corners in, not too tight, not too loose) than that of a musical instrument.

After many years of slow results and incredibly frustrated students, I developed the below approach.  I don’t think there is anything about this technique that is a revelation. It is simply designed to give the student one thing on which to concentrate instead of the 50 items of the “golf” approach.

  1. Remember that the clarinet is a WIND instrument (not to be confused with a lower lip instrument).  Start your lesson by having your students focus their air by blowing at a specific target. Be creative.  I like to use a small toy pinwheel with my beginners.  It gives them immediate and easy to understand feedback on what their air is doing.  We move the pinwheels away from the faces and challenge them to keep them rotating with the same velocity.  This gets them to focus and project their airstreams.
  2. Next, using the mouthpiece and barrel (yes . . . we already learned how to put them together and apply the reed and lig), I have the students comfortably close their lips around the mouthpieces and blow as if they are still trying to turn their pinwheels.  This creates a terrible noise in most cases but get the kids focusing on air right away.
  3. Once the kids can comfortably get the reeds vibrating, we begin to “focus” the sound.  We start by introducing the idea of blowing a long “HEEE” sound. This lifts the tongue and creates increased air speed.  Even with the “HEEE”, we still imagine turning the pinwheel.
  4. Finally, once the students can handle keeping the air steady with the “HEEE” tongue placement, I introduce the TOP lip.  I instruct my students to grab the top of the mouthpiece with the top lip and hold it firmly while blowing.  From here you will begin to see the chins come down and more closely resemble those photo perfect embouchures we see in the method books.  This is also the point at which I will begin making adjustments in the angle and placement of the lips on mouthpiece (i.e. bottom lip to the bottom of the curve).

Why teach top lip over bottom lip?  My answer is two-fold.

  • Concentrating on an active top lip keeps the focus of the sound in the top, forward part of the mouth making for better air speed and tonal control.
  • Because of the way in which the lip muscles are designed, grabbing with the top lip activates the lower lip as well.  In most case, when grabbing a mouthpiece (or even your won thumb), the corners will come in.  If you drop your chin ,will drop the bottom lip stretches across the teethe.