Clarinet and saxophone embouchures and the “chin”

May 18, 2015

The chin is much-discussed in clarinet pedagogy. Keith Stein suggests a “stretching” of the chin, making it feel “long and pointed” and “rather hard.” David Pino, a student of Stein’s, echoes this. Jane Ellsworth describes a chin that is “drawn downward” (while the jaw provides a “controlled” “upward pressure.” Michele Gingras advocates a “flat” chin. Bil Jackson indicates that the chin “flattens naturally” when the lip configuration and voicing are correct. Tom Ridenour explains that the chin should be “down and flat” and that this happens “virtually automatically” as a result of proper voicing.

The chin gets somewhat less attention in saxophone teaching, but some pedagogical examples can be found. Larry Teal indicates that the “chin muscles” should support the lower lip (as the jaw drops downward), and Timothy McAllister agrees. Tracy Heavner recommends that the chin muscles be “held flat against the chin” with a sensation of those muscles “pushing … down and away from the body.” Brian Utley advocates a “firm but relaxed [chin] position.”

Most of these sources seem to generally agree that the “chin” (or something) must be flattened or stretched or firmed in some way. Let’s look more closely at exactly what is being described, and how it does or doesn’t differ from the clarinet to the saxophone.

“Chin” is probably not a specific enough term for our purposes. Is it a bony structure? a muscular one? The pedagogical literature is rather unclear and contradictory about exactly how the “chin” moves, and even whether it is actively engaged or whether its movement is a result of some other thing moving.

Additionally, there is a common misconception in single-reed teaching that the lower lip forms a “cushion,” without which the teeth would contact the reed. This creates an embouchure that is formed by pressure from the jaw, with the lips serving passively as a gasket, and the lower lip taking quite a bit of abuse from the lower teeth.

A better way to form the embouchure is to bring the jaw (and teeth, and chin) down, away from the reed, and allow the muscles of the lips to form the embouchure. This moves the effort from the larger, stronger jaw muscles to the smaller but more supple muscles of the lips (of the citations above, Teal’s describes this the most clearly). For early beginners (or those who have played for many years with unnecessary jaw pressure and the resulting shredded lower lip) it may be necessary to gradually develop a little endurance in those muscles.

Taking this approach, it becomes clear that the pointing/stretching/whatever, which is actually mostly jaw movement, must be more extreme for the clarinet than for the saxophone, to accommodate the clarinet’s steeper angle.

Left: clarinet jaw position (more open). Right: saxophone jaw position (less open).
Left: clarinet jaw position (more open). Right: saxophone jaw position (less open). Note that the lower teeth clear the reed; the lip will rise to meet the reed and form a muscle-based (rather than jaw/teeth-based) embouchure.

However, the chin area does have muscles, too, and these play an additional role. The lower lip has an acoustical damping effect on the reed, which plays a role in response, tone quality, and volume. Pulling the muscles around the chin downward around its bony structure (this is independent of jaw movement!) firms the lip slightly, reducing the damping. Allowing the muscles to relax softens the lip, increasing the damping. To take an oversimplified view of one aspect of this, we could say generally that the smaller clarinet requires a slightly firmer lip (and thus less damping) to accommodate its higher frequencies (pitches), while the larger saxophone needs less firmness (more damping) to accommodate its lower ones. Note that firmness of the lower lip should not be confused with overall embouchure “tightness.”

Understanding better the anatomical and acoustical aspects of the “chin” (and, of course, the skeletal and muscular systems that combine there) lead to clearer, more accurate teaching and better single reed playing.