A proper clarinet embouchure can mean the difference between a pleasing sound and a reedy, squeaky or airy sound. And developing a strong embouchure is a common challenge among beginner clarinetists.
I’ve played the clarinet and bass clarinet for over 30 years. Developing a good embouchure did take time—up to two years. My elementary school and middle school band directors were a great help to my progress, nipping bad habits in the bud.
Here I hope to pass that knowledge onto you by showing the steps and best practices for perfecting your embouchure. You’ll also learn about some common mistakes clarinetists make and how to avoid them.
What is an embouchure?
Embouchure is a French word meaning how the lips and mouth are held when playing a wind instrument. Among musicians, a proper and strong embouchure is also called the musician’s “chops.” A good embouchure enables you to play more easily and with a nicer sound.
Each woodwind and brass instrument has its own requirements for a good embouchure. Saxophone has the most in common with the clarinet in this area. But there are important differences musicians should adjust for if they’re moving between these two instruments.
Developing a proper embouchure is the key to making a pleasant, consistent sound on the clarinet. A poor embouchure can lead to squeaking, an airy sound and a reedy tone that most people find unpleasant to listen to. These are the telltale signs of a new clarinetist.
6 Steps for the proper clarinet embouchure
Luckily, there are concrete steps that a clarinetist of any age can follow to fix their embouchure:
1. Start by sitting up as straight as possible, toward the edge of your chair.
This may seem like it has nothing to do with how you hold your lips and mouth. But the proper angle of the instrument means a lot for your embouchure.
2. Roll your lower lip slightly inward over your bottom teeth.
Make sure your lower teeth are covered to help avoid biting the reed from the bottom. At the same time, don’t roll your lip too far in. Trial and error will let you know when you have gotten this right.
If you play the saxophone, you may have been taught that the mouthpiece should rest on your lower lip like a pillow. Be sure to roll your lip under and flatten your chin to adapt to the clarinet.
3. Rest the mouthpiece in the center of your lower lip.
Close your mouth over the mouthpiece, making sure you have a good seal all the way around.
4. Put the mouthpiece in your mouth, resting against your curled-over lower lip.
You may need some trial and error to discover just how far the mouthpiece should go into your mouth. Getting it right means that you’ll have a better sound.
5. Above all, keep your cheeks engaged while you’re playing.
Keep your chin flat and your face engaged but not too tense. Sitting up straight will help with keeping your chin flat.
6. Without changing the arrangement of your lips and mouth, take a deep breath with your diaphragm and blow through the instrument.
Focus on blowing a warm, consistent supply of air through your instrument. Always breathe from your diaphragm so you have enough air to make a good sound.
Learning proper technique from reading these steps alone can be tricky. Watching some online videos from a reputable source and practicing your embouchure in front of a mirror can help, especially if you’re learning on your own.
12 Common mistakes with a clarinet embouchure
One reason many clarinetists struggle with their embouchure is that there’s a lot of room for error. Here are some of the most common mistakes you might face that are holding you back:
1. Leaning on the back of your chair
This inhibits you from keeping the instrument at the proper angle to give you the foundation for a good embouchure. Be sure to breathe from your diaphragm and concentrate on releasing a warm column of air, “blowing through” your instrument. Breathing properly will help you maintain a good embouchure.
2. Turning your lip out
This will cause the reed to vibrate your lip in an uncomfortable way. You may also experience chapping and sores.
3. Inadequately sealing your lips and mouth around the mouthpiece
This typically causes a “windy” or airy sound and may also cause squeaking. Every new clarinetist squeaks. But you should be able to reduce the problem considerably with proper attention to these steps and guidelines.
4. Not using enough facial strength to back up your embouchure
Saliva coming out of the corners of your mouth is a common sign of this problem. You need to strengthen your facial muscles. This takes time to develop, but you should get better after several months of playing.
5. Bunching up your chin muscles
This can give you a “mushy” sound. Keep your chin flattened or pointed. Keeping a certain level of tension in your chin will help you form a correct embouchure.
6. Puffing out your cheeks
This can cause serious problems with your embouchure and your tone. Many young players do this. And it’s a bad habit that should be broken right away.
7. “Choking up” on the mouthpiece or not putting enough of it in your mouth
This may require some trial and error to get it right. If you “choke up” on the mouthpiece, the reed will not be able to vibrate properly. This will lead to a lot of squeaking and can make your tone too sharp.
8. Putting your tongue on the reed
This will keep the reed from vibrating properly. It will also hurt your tongue and lips if you do it too often.
9. Biting the top of your mouthpiece
It’s okay to gently rest your teeth against the mouthpiece. And you can buy a silicone cushion that you can affix to your mouthpiece to prevent damage from biting down. If you are biting down, however, it’s likely you’re not allowing enough air to move through your instrument.
10. Using too much tongue to articulate a note
This can cause your embouchure to become imbalanced, slipping out of alignment every time you apply your tongue. When you articulate a note, your chin should not move.
11. Holding your clarinet at the wrong angle
Keep your clarinet at a steady 30- to 40-degree angle. Any more or less and you will misalign your embouchure. Be sure that you’re not moving your head a great deal while you play.
Even experienced players may do this when they’re going over the “break,” or the divide between the written B-flat and B-natural on the staff. Going across the break is difficult for all clarinetists. But the head movement won’t really help you and will create bad habits.
12. Keeping your embouchure too tight
This will cause you to play sharp compared to the proper pitch. Clarinets are notorious for being sharp. If you have this problem, relax your throat and make sure you’re not choking up on the mouthpiece.
A proper clarinet embouchure will ensure you have a fine, warm, pleasant tone without excessive squeaking or airiness. It will also help you avoid sounding like an absolute beginner.
Achieving a proper embouchure takes time. But with these points in mind, you’ll be able to work up to it more quickly.
Don’t neglect daily practice. You can understand everything about how to create a proper embouchure. But you won’t sound good unless your facial muscles are properly toned.
Try to practice every day, or if you can’t, a few times a week for at least an hour. This will build endurance and keep your sound bright and clean. With a little practice, you’ll build the foundation for an excellent sound on your new instrument.