(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.

Mouthpiece Numbers (What do they mean?) – Part II: The Slope

For the majority of single reed players, knowing the tip opening and length of the lay is more than enough information to aid them in their search for the ideal mouthpiece.  But the relationship between the length of the lay and the tip opening are not the whole story.  The shape of the curve, or slope, at key points along the facing are where the true response of the reed, resistance and initial tonal focus are cImagereated.

To discover the shape of the curve, we use the Erick Brand Method and measure the facing at 5 critical points.  To measure these points, we again rely on the graduated glass plate and feeler gauges.

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  • A.  Measured with the .0015″ gauge.
  • B.  Measured with the .010″  gauge.
  • C.  Measured with the .024″  gauge
  • D.  Measured with the .034″  gauge
  • E.   Measured with the taper gauge

It is the regions between these measurement points that dictates how the mouthpiece will perform.

  • A to B is a gradual slope and responsible for reed control by lip pressure.
  • B to C is generally called the “resistance” section and contains a point (marked F on the above illustration) that is commonly referred to as the “break” or “pivot”.  This is the portion of the facing where the reed leaves the lay under actual performance and is responsible for tonal control.  The slope becomes somewhat sharper between B and C.
  • C to E is the portion of the facing known as the vent.  For me, this is the part of the mouthpiece that is crucial to the initial response of the reed and articulation.

Now that we have an idea of how the mouthpiece is measured and how each important area of the facing affects performance, lets go back and look at the numbers associated with our 1.06 mm tip with a medium long facing . . . 36-24-12-6-106.

  • 36: Tells us that the facing begins very near 18 mm.
  • 24: Tells us where the resistance portion of the facing begins
  • 12: Tells us where the resistance ends and the vent begins.  We also know that the break is in between 24 and 12.
  • 6: Tells us roughly the halfway point of the vent.  A smaller number like 4 would show a straighter vent while a larger number like 7 will show a more abrupt curve.
  • 106: Tells us the tip opening.

Mouthpiece Numbers (What do they mean?) – Part I: Tip & Lay

We’ve all heard the terminology when it comes to our mouthpieces.  A player will declare “I prefer a medium tip piece with a longer lay” (facing length).  Those further along the clarinerd trail will espouse the virtues of a  “36-22-12-6-106”  over a “36-24-12-6-106”.  These terms and numbers sound abstruse and can be used to impress all of our clarinet friends . . . but what do they mean and why are they important?

Tip Measurements

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Measuring the tip opening with glass and graduated gauge

Since it is the measurement with which most of us are comfortable, let’s start with the tip.  The tip opening is the distance between the reed tip and the tip rail of the mouthpiece.  It is generally measured in millimeters for clarinets and thousandths of an inch for saxophones. We already know that the more open (greater the distance) a mouthpiece is at the tip, the greater the resistance to and flexibility (softer) will be needed from the reed.

Basic Tip Definitions Terms and Measurements

  • Very Close = 0.95 mm – 0.99 mm
  • Close = 1.00 mm – 1.04 mm
  • Medium Close = 1.05 mm – 1.09 mm
  • Medium = 1.10 mm – 1.14 mm
  • Medium Open = 1.15 mm – 1.19 mm
  • Open = 1.20 mm – 1.24 mm
  • Very Open = 1.25 mm = 1.29 mm
  • Extremely Open = 1.30+ mm

Measuring the Lay

We know from previous articles that the lay begins where the facing begins to curve away from the reed table and ends at the tip opening. The means by which most mouthpiece craftsman measure the lay is the Brand method that utilizes prescribed thicknesses of feeler gauges and a graduated glass plate.  When the zero point of the glass plate is set at the mouthpiece tip, the distance to where the paper thin .0015″ gauge falls represents the length of the lay.  The numbers on the gauge represent the length in millimeters doubled.

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Measuring the lay

Basic Facing Definitions and Measurements

  • Short = 15 mm (30 on gauge)
  • Medium Short = 16 mm (32 on gauge)
  • Medium = 17 mm (34 on gauge)
  • Medium Long = 18 mm (36 on gauge)
  • Long = 19 mm (38 on gauge)
  • Very Long = 20+ mm (40+ on gauge)

OK.  So we have the two anchor points of our mouthpiece measurements.  We know that in the mysterious sequence of numbers 36-24-12-6-106 that the 36 represents 18 mm (medium long) length of the lay and 106 is a medium close 1.06 mm tip opening.  But what about the 24-12-6?  Next we will get into the part of the mouthpiece where the real performance occurs . . . the slope.

Common Mouthpiece Problems

After I had worked with Jerry Hall for a while learning the basics of mouthpiece measuring, geometry and facing techniques, he told me “You know everything that I know.  Now go screw up about a thousand mouthpieces and you’ll be ready”.  Needless to say, I learned a great many of the below issues and remedies while destroying those thousand pieces.

What a great many players don’t realize is that most of these common “troubles” (as Erick Brand called them) can be remedied in less than an hour at the bench.  The most common problem I run into is a crooked facing, especially on older mouthpieces that have warped or twisted reed tables.

Squeaks / Chirps

  • Tip rail too thin
  • Crooked facing
  • Hollow or bump on the tip rail
  • Facing curve is too straight near the tip

Stuffy / Overly Resistant

  • Tip rail too wide
  • Too long or too sharp of a curve near the tip rail
  • Facing too short
  • Tip to open
  • “Break” too short
  • Side walls too narrow

Plays Sharp

  • Chamber is too small or short (Usually from over-facing).

Plays Flat

  • Chamber too large or long

Mouthpieces for Beginners

Prior to writing this article, I did a little web research to see what teachers are recommending for their students.  Unfortunately, the most common reference to student mouthpieces that I found can be summarized as “Try to eliminate all stock mouthpieces. Encourage quality student mouthpieces”.  Thanks for narrowing it down so-called experts . . . OK . . . So what constitutes as quality student mouthpiece?

To me, a student mouthpiece must . . .

  • Be comfortable and free blowing: We all know that one of the fastest ways to discourage a kid from playing an instrument is to make him work too hard to get air through the horn.  I use a slight A frame in my JCII mouthpieces that allow for greater ease of blowing but still hold the sound.
  • Allow for slightly heavier reeds: Many student mouthpieces feature a short lay and a fairly open tip which make them great for the soft, orange box reeds but too difficult to play as the student progresses.  I recommend a medium to medium long lay (17 mm – 18 mm) with a medium close tip (1.06ish).  These dimensions allow the student to begin with a “blue” box reed of 2 or 2.5 that will hold the sound while not being too resistant.
  • Provide focused resistance: I teach students to feel the sound in the front of their mouths which requires a mouthpiece to offer enough “positive” resistance at the tip for the student to feel secure.  Even longer faced mouthpieces that can be used with heavy reeds, in my mind, are too flexible for the beginner.  I prefer to allow students the flexibility once they have a grasp of a good sound/air relationship.
  • Be affordable: Convincing a parent to swap out the “perfectly good” mouthpiece that came in the rental or new clarinet he just purchased can be a challenge. All the better if it is not overly expensive.  The tipping point for most parents in my area is $35.

So what fits the bill?  Below are mouthpieces that I believe match up well with what I look for for my students.  Even though I make my own, I feel comfortable when a new student comes to me with any of the below.

Don’t Be “That Girl” – Keep it Clean

To clean or not to clean.  That is the question I likely get asked the most when giving clinics.  The answer is of course . . . Clean.   No matter how well you rinse your mouth prior to playing, there will still be a build-up of proteins and minerals inside the mouthpiece when your session is completed.  Over time this build-up can not only be create an unattractive white crust (or worse), but can also change the interior geometry of your mouthpiece.  These changes can affect response and pitch more than you might imagine.

I once had a young student who could not play up to pitch to save her life.  After working on air focus, tongue placement and embouchure, I finally looked through the bore of her mouthpiece and discovered a clogged mess that would frighten even the most experienced plumber.  After several vinegar treatments and some serious excavation, she could finally find her way to 440.  (I may also suggest that her overall health improved after removing the proverbial petri dish from her piece).

The moral of the story?  Simple daily cleanings will help you avoid becoming “that girl”.  Below is a list of Dos and Don’ts that I’ve collected over the years.  These will not only help you keep your piece in excellent performance shape but help prevent premature problems.

DO: Rinse mouthpiece at least once a week with lukewarm water and maybe a bit of soap to cut through the proteins.
DON’T:  No matter how tempted you are to get that mess clean, do not use hot water.  The temperature can cause the hard rubber from which your piece was made to shift or warp.

DO:   Use a very soft cloth (micro fiber ) to provide a bit more scrubbing power if needed.  Sometimes a SOFT bristled toothbrush works as well.  Just be careful to keep the head from striking the walls or baffle.
DON’T:   Use any product called mouthpiece brush sold in care kits.  These have bristles that are far to hard and the unprotected, wire stem is just a major scratch waiting to happen.

DO:   Allow your mouthpiece to air dry after cleaning or playing.
DON’T:  Run a swab through the mouthpiece to remove any excess moisture.  Continual swabbing can  erode the interior of the mouthpiece causing a change on response, color and intonation.

Clarinet Mouthpiece Basics

It is generally accepted that at some point during your playing career, you will be on the hunt for a new mouthpiece.  Though the reasons for your search may vary, it is important to arm yourself with some basic knowledge of mouthpiece geometry and how it impacts performance before you begin wading through seemingly endless supply of options.  Below is a bit of a primer that will help guide you in the direction of the mouthpiece that best suits your needs.  It covers the VERY BASIC aspects of mouthpiece design.  I will be adding greater detail in the weeks ahead. 

ImageThe Tip Opening: The more open a mouthpiece is at the tip, the greater the resistance to and flexibility (softer) needed from the reed.

The Facing Curve: Begins above the bottom of the window and ends at the tip opening. The greater the arc (shorter) of the curve, the greater the resistance.The shallower this arc (longer), the less the resistance.

ImageChamber Sidewalls:

The sidewalls of the chamber dictate the shape or “focus” of the sound. Generally, the more narrow the walls, the more focused the sound (and greater the resistance) while wider walls create a broader sound (and more free blowing). A – Frame sidewalls prove a good hybrid and provide good focus with warmth and flexibility.  I use parallel walls for my Z series mouthpieces and an A for the JC series.  My student JCII pieces feature a modified or slight A that allows for greater ease of blowing while still providing a good core sound.  

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Chamber Baffle:
As a general rule, the straighter and more shallow a baffle, the more brilliant the sound while deeper and more concave baffles produce richer and darker tones.