Stop teaching clarinet and saxophone embouchures like this

As a ten-year-old beginning saxophonist, I was taught to form an embouchure like this:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your lower lip sort of roll or squish over your lower teeth
  • Close your mouth

That’s how I played for years. As I advanced and started to practice more, I would sometimes hurt the inside of my lower lip, drawing blood or forming blisters or scar tissue. I considered this a badge of honor: I practiced until I bled.

But I don’t play that way anymore, nor do I teach students that way. I made an important change to my embouchure that lets me play for extended periods pain- and blood-free, while sounding better and having more control.

The problem with the lower-lip-over-the-teeth approach is that it sets the lower lip up to serve as a sacrificial cushion, to protect the reed from the lower teeth. Sure, you can just tell your students to “stop biting,” but if you’re teaching them an embouchure that’s based on biting, then good luck.

It’s more useful to think of the embouchure this way:

  • Put your top teeth on the mouthpiece
  • Let your jaw hang open a bit, so your lower teeth stay clear of the reed
  • Keep your jaw open, and allow your lips to close around the mouthpiece and reed.

This approach makes sure the lips are used to form the embouchure, not the jaw. It improves tone, response, dynamic range, and more, and virtually eliminates lower lip pain.

Left: jaw-formed clarinet embouchure. Right: lip-formed clarinet embouchure.

If you are used to a jaw-formed embouchure concept, you might find that switching to the lip-formed embouchure leaves you feeling like you’ve lost some control of pitch and tone. If so, double-check your breath support; with the jaw out of the way you will need to depend on those support muscles more for stability.

Don’t play through pain—use a better approach.

10 ways to strengthen your embouchure right now!

"heavy weights" by Tobias Häring is licensed under CC BY
  1. You don’t need a “strong” embouchure, you need a relaxed embouchure.
  2. Embouchure “strength” is a myth. Stop biting and pinching.
  3. Your embouchure is made up of little facial muscles, which are good at subtle, expressive movements, like for facial expressions and language (or for nuanced variations in woodwind dynamics and tone color). They aren’t good at feats of strength or endurance.
  4. Your abdominal muscles, on the other hand, are very good at strength and endurance. You use them all day long and they probably never feel tired unless you are doing sit-ups or something. Instead of straining with your embouchure, let breath support do the work.
  5. You should probably check on your voicing, too. I mean, you could bite your clarinet up to pitch instead, but it’s painful and causes lots of other problems.
  6. You know that thing where you play a reed instrument and you get a blister or callus from your teeth on your lower lip? Good news, you don’t need a dental appliance or some kind of tape. You just need to relax your embouchure. Try it! Now you can practice for hours without fatigue or blood, and sound better doing it.
  7. Ever try to play in one of the upper registers of the flute, and get an undertone or some dirtiness/growliness in your attacks? The key to clear, beautiful transitions into the upper register is a relaxed and flexible embouchure.
  8. We can argue about whether your jaw is part of your embouchure. Nah, never mind, I have better things to do. But in any case it should be open, creating space for the soft tissues of your lip and facial muscles to make the aperture. Go ahead and unclench. By the way, opening up your jaw is what people really mean when they tell clarinetists (mostly) to do weird things with their chins.
  9. I know, somebody taught you in your formative years about the vital importance of a brutishly muscular embouchure. Take a deep, cleansing breath. Everything is going to be fine.
  10. Go practice.

The right clarinet or saxophone reed strength “for you”

"Mouthpiece" by APMus is licensed under CC BY-SA

How do you pick the clarinet or saxophone reed that is the right strength “for you?” You mostly don’t, really.

It’s important that the reed be a good match to the mouthpiece. In most cases the primary consideration is the mouthpiece’s facing curve and resultant tip opening. Generally, a shorter curve and/or wider opening require a softer reed, that can flex enough to meet the mouthpiece while vibrating. A longer curve and/or narrower opening need a stiffer reed, which will have enough guts to spring back after flexing to the mouthpiece.

This means that the “right” strength for a player using a particular mouthpiece will be pretty close to the “right” reed for anyone else using that mouthpiece.

Some players and teachers object to this, insisting that the “strength” of the embouchure needs to be accounted for. But the embouchure shouldn’t employ much “strength”—it should close just airtight (but not tight) around the mouthpiece and reed. If you are using your embouchure to muscle the reed around, then you might think you need a stiffer reed, but what you really need is a more open, relaxed embouchure. (If you feel like you will lose control by relaxing your embouchure, make up for it with powerful breath support.)

So, assuming a reed reasonably well-matched to the mouthpiece, and a correctly-formed embouchure, the only thing left to consider is personal preference for how much resistance is in the setup. A slightly more resistant setup is good for things like soft, gentle articulations and stable pitch and tone. A slightly less resistant setup favors crisp, immediate articulations and some pitch and tone flexibility. I find this acceptable range of reed stiffnesses to be small enough that I can usually find some softer and some stiffer specimens within a box of reeds that are nominally the same strength.

Some mouthpiece and reed makers publish information about which reeds match to which mouthpieces. If you find yourself straying far from these recommendations, take a closer look at your embouchure and your stability/flexibility priorities.

Woodwind doubling and clarinet problems

"clarinet 1" by steffenz is licensed under CC BY

Here are a few of the common problems woodwind doublers have with the clarinet:

Flabby/saggy/tubby/airy tone and flat pitch. This is a dead giveaway for a self-“taught” clarinet doubler. The clarinet’s voicing is quite high, higher than any of the other woodwinds, and beginning clarinetists sometimes struggle for years to make that proper voicing a consistent habit. Once it settles in, pitch problems mostly evaporate, tone becomes clear and ringing, and notes respond beautifully and easily in every register. If you’re thinking about buying a shorter barrel because your “clarinet” is so flat all the time, don’t. Work on your voicing instead. Voicing is the #1 crucial technique for successful clarinet doubling, and will solve most of your problems.

It may also be worth checking your mouthpiece angle—it should be quite steep compared to saxophone or double reed instruments. Keep your head up straight and eyes forward, and aim in the ballpark of keeping the clarinet around 30° from vertical. You can also use the paper trick to make sure you’re taking in the right amount of mouthpiece.

Reeds can be a contributing factor, too. Often (but not always) saxophonists lean toward a slightly more open mouthpiece and softer reed, while clarinetists lean toward a little more closed mouthpiece and stiffer reed. The strength you prefer on a typical saxophone mouthpiece may not be right strength for a typical clarinet mouthpiece.

Constricted tone. Bafflingly, there’s a common pedagogical idea that clarinetists should tighten their embouchures to fix various problems. This is nonsense. Keep your jaw open to make space for the reed to vibrate, and let your lips (not your jaw/teeth) close around the mouthpiece, not tight but just airtight. Notes will respond more readily, with a fuller, prettier tone, and you can throw away the tape or paper or dental appliance you have been using to cushion your lower lip from your teeth.

Squeaks. 95% of the time this is an issue of fingers failing to properly cover toneholes. (And 95% of the time, struggling clarinet doublers blame it on something having vaguely to do with embouchure, reeds, or the clarinet somehow just being a squeaky instrument.) Use the large, fleshy pads of your fingers (not the tippy-tips) to cover the holes. Sometimes a quick check in the mirror can reveal that your fingers aren’t where you think they are.

Fingering awkwardness. The clarinet’s fingering system and unique overtone series provide tremendous advantages: an expansive range, clean and precise technique, and lots of useful alternate fingerings. (It’s superior to the saxophone’s “easier” system with awkward palm keys and relatively few alternates. Fight me.)

But if you’re coming from another instrument, you might find the 12th between the lower and clarion registers confounding. That’s because you’re still thinking about the fingerings. Practice your scales, arpeggios, and études until your fingers move on autopilot, like they already do on your primary instrument. It can be done.

The clarinet’s dreaded “break” as a technique concern is mostly a myth. Keep your support, voicing, and embouchure well-formed and stable, and just move your fingers. Your left index finger should rock or tilt between its tonehole and the A key, not hop (losing contact with the instrument) or slide (dragging along the key). Work toward a tiny, efficient, relaxed movement.

The clarinet’s clever system of redundant pinky keys enables lightning-fast technique in virtually any key, but it takes real effort to learn to use them well. Remember that for those pinky-finger notes there aren’t really “standard” vs. “alternate” fingerings—you need to know them all well enough to use interchangeably. And if you have beginner habits like using both pinkies for third-line B, you will need to learn to use a single pinky in many cases for the most efficient and flexible approach.

Ledger line catastrophes. Because of the clarinet’s broad tessitura, clarinetists have to be fluent in ledger lines above the staff (maybe more than you’re used to if you’re an oboist) and below the staff (more than you’re used to on any treble-clef woodwind). Hit the Baermann or Kroepsh books for thorough workouts spanning the clarinet’s range.

Remember the best money you can spend on your clarinet playing isn’t another mouthpiece or barrel or book—it’s some lessons with an excellent teacher. Learn the instrument on its own terms, and, whatever you do, try not to sound like a doubler.

Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

"Reeds, ready" by vincentfuh is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

"Oboe reed" by quack.a.duck is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

Decrescendo to zero

"Volume" by Jenn Durfey is licensed under CC BY

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero.

There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect just exposes a common shortfall in the fundamentals of tone production. Correcting this makes good decrescendos possible.

Softer dynamics are produced on the woodwinds by shrinking the aperture (opening) in the embouchure. The flute has an independent aperture, which can be made smaller or larger at will. The aperture on reed instruments is built around the opening of the double reed, or the opening between the single reed and the mouthpiece. Reducing the aperture of the lips on reed instruments applies a slight pressure that squishes the reed closed a little, reducing its opening. (This is a lip movement, not a jaw movement).

As the opening is reduced, airflow into the instrument decreases. At a certain point there is no longer enough power to keep the reed or flute air jet vibrating, so it stops. Hopefully, this occurs at such a soft volume that it seems like the note faded away completely.

When the note ends too abruptly, check to make sure breath support isn’t decreasing with the decrescendo. Steady, powerful breath support as the aperture decreases equals an increase in air pressure. This keeps the reed vibrating as the opening and the volume decrease toward zero.

Consistent, strong breath support and a flexible, well-formed embouchure are the keys to successful decrescendos.

Things beginning band directors say to clarinet sections

photo, byronv2
  • “Firm up those embouchures!” An efficient embouchure is relaxed, not tight (nor “firm” nor any other euphemism) and allows the reed to vibrate easily for a beautiful, seemingly effortless sound.
  • “You’re flat!” This is very, very often a voicing issue. It’s not helpful in the long run try to fix it with biting (or “lipping up”), overly resistant reeds, or needless equipment purchases.
  • “Next year, I’m making you all move up a reed strength.” Stiffer reeds won’t make you play better any more than larger shoes make you better at basketball. Use what fits
  • “You all need to switch to a ________ mouthpiece.” Sweeping gear recommendations aren’t useful. Often they are based on outdated or incomplete information, plus mouthpiece purchases in the beginner stage are often pricey lateral moves. Mouthpieces aren’t always made consistently, either, and having a student switch blindly to a bad specimen (even of a highly-regarded model) may actually make things worse. Generally, stock mouthpieces are fine for beginners, and advancing players would be wise to consult with a private teacher who can work with them individually on upgrades. And the finest professional clarinet sections in the world play on non-homogenous equipment and blend beautifully—having everybody play the same thing isn’t the key to matching tone or pitch.
  • “Get ready, because next month you’re going to learn how to cross the break, and it’s going to be hard.” Crossing the break is only as hard as you make it. If you are teaching good tone production and finger technique, crossing the break is a non-event, not even worth mentioning.
  • “Keep those chins flat and pointed.” “Wow, your chin sounds amazing,” said nobody. Focus on the real issue: forming a relaxed embouchure within the space of an open jaw, backed up with good voicing and breath support. You will know it’s working because of good response, characteristic tone, and stable intonation, not because everybody’s chins look a certain way.

Focus on the important and too-often-overlooked fundamentals for success in your clarinet section.

Bassoon jaw movement: survey of published opinions

photo, Indiana Public Media

I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to examine a “controversial” aspect of bassoon playing: the movement of the jaw during articulation.

I was already aware of Terry Ewell’s well-reasoned article from The Double Reed journal, which concludes that jaw movement is unnecessary and inefficient. But I was also under the impression that there were advocates of jaw movement. A skimming of some pedagogical materials at hand seems to debunk this—I couldn’t find a single author strongly and clearly in favor of jaw movement.

The Ewell article should be the go-to for anyone interested in the topic. In a different article, Ewell summarizes:

Chewing motions with the jaw should not be used during the tonguing because the tongue should function independently of the jaw.

Terry Ewell: “Basic Bassoon Articulations,” in Woodwind Anthology, Volume II, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 951. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist

Here are the other anti-jaw-movement examples I could find:

One of the worst possible habits is to tongue in a “chewing” fashion. The movement of the jaw and lips not only distorts the tone each time they move, but actually slows down the action of the tongue.

William Spencer, rev. Frederick A Mueller: The Art of Bassoon Playing. Princeton, New Jersey: Summy-Birchard Music, 1958, p. 54.

In staccato passages, the collapse of pressure can produce a ‘gobbling’ reaction in the jaw. As a result the quality of tone and attack may suffer. … As we tongue more rapidly, we must try to involve only the tongue and not allow the jaw and throat to become involved… The momentary opening and closing of our lower jaw may be in response to the change of pressure inside the mouth once the support is switched off; however it is more likely to betray and involuntary ‘gobbling’ with the jaw in sympathy with the activity of the tongue.

William Waterhouse, BassoonYehudi Menuhin Music Guides. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003, p. 116-123.

Needless to say, there should be minimum outward movement of the lip or jaw, as this will hinder the tongue’s freedom of motion.

Homer Pence, Teacher’s Guide to the Bassoon. Elkhart, Indiana: H. & A. Selmer, Inc., 1963, p. 2-3.

The following refers to the woodwinds in general:

Jaw should not move during articulation

H. Gene Griswold: Teaching Woodwinds. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008, p. 31.

Movement of the jaw in tonguing. This is the result of too large or too violent movement of the tongue, frequently accompanied by changes in pitch of the tone. … Jaw movements can occur with all methods of correct tongue placement, as well as with incorrect tongue placement, and these prevent the development of speed in articulation.

Frederick W. Westphal, Guide to Teaching Woodwinds, Fifth Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1990, p. 227.

This may include the jaw:

The goal on all wind instruments, and particularly the bassoon, is to maintain an open mouth and throat position while playing. The bassoon tone is very sensitive to this positioning.

William Dietz: Teaching Woodwinds: A method and resource handbook for music educators. Belmont, California: Schirmer, 1998, p. 14.

Here is the closest I could find to advocacy for jaw movement, though it’s not 100% clear that that is what the author intends:

On both double reeds, embouchure pressure on the reed will vary to control the ends of notes. Increasing pressure on the reed will keep the pitch from dropping. For this reason, you will see embouchure movement while articulating, which will be more pronounced with bassoonists…

Charles West: Woodwind Methods: An essential resource for educators, conductors, and students. Delray Beach, Florida: Meredith Music, 2015, p. 68.

I also turned to Christopher Weait’s Bassoon Strategies for the Next Level and Arthur Weisberg’s The Art of Wind Playingboth of which seemed like likely sources on information, but could not locate passages in either that directly addressed the issue.

In summary, there seems to be little support for the idea of jaw movement in bassoon articulation. If you are aware of sources that encourage this technique, I would be curious to hear about them.

Saxophone low notes

The saxophone’s lowest notes can be notoriously unresponsive. This is partly due to the instrument’s acoustics, particularly its fairly extreme conical bore. (For technical details, see for example Acoustics of Musical Instruments by Chaigne and Kergomard, section 7.4.6.1.) The oboe and bassoon, whose bores are conical but not to such an extreme, have this problem to a lesser extent, and the tips that follow apply to those instruments as well.

For the best chance at successful low notes you need:

  • A well-adjusted, high-quality instrument. Even a small leak anywhere on the saxophone makes the lowest notes more difficult. And the best-designed and most meticulously-made instruments help to minimize the difficulties of the low range.
  • A good mouthpiece and reed combination. This may involve tradeoffs: a mouthpiece/reed combination that really improves the low register may, for example, make the highest notes more difficult. Since mouthpieces and reeds vary in so many ways it’s hard to make reliable generalizations, but often I find that a wider tip opening with a softer reed tend to favor the low register more (and the high register less).
  • Good, stable fundamentals of saxophone technique. Breath support, voicing, articulation, and embouchure (let’s include jaw position in embouchure here) should be properly set, and shouldn’t change for the low register. If you find that you need to increase breath support, lower your voicing, change your embouchure or tonguing, or open your jaw to make the low notes succeed, then you should probably already be doing those things, in every register. Don’t make the low notes even harder by creating a moving target.

To expand on that last point a little, if you find that your low notes need a little extra help, then a small alteration to your voicing is the right way to provide it. But know the tradeoffs: lowering your voicing as you approach the low register affects pitch and tone, besides creating instability in your tone production technique. Manage these concerns by aiming for the smallest possible change.

Practice smart. No shortcuts!