Upper lip importance?

by Tom

I have played the clarinet for many years in amateur wind orchestras in Norway. My embouchure was quite wrong at the beginning, but I was reasonably clever technically, so I was able to keep up my enthusiasm.

During the years I discovered that I did not hold the clarinet centered in my mouth, that I had my tongue low and forward against my lower front teeth and that I held the clarinet at a too large angle. I changed this and gradually things have become better. Some of the changes were obvious, but keeping the tongue high and back in the mouth helped me a lot, - faster air stream and better chin and lower lip position.

I have had a couple of clarinet teachers over the years and they told me to stiffen the muscles on the sides of the upper lip, in effect narrowing and stiffening the whole upper lip and giving the mouth a smaller and more round shape. After having corrected all the other mistakes, I am trying this now. I tried before, but then the wrong position of my tongue made this difficult.

This works for me now, and I have feeling that this is quite essential in forming the embouchure. The sound is more open and the embouchure feels much stronger and fixed. It also helps the chin and lower lip positions. It requires some practice since the upper lip is almost carrying the whole embouchure.

I wonder why the importance of the upper lip is not mentioned more on various clarinet sites on the net. I have looked around quite a bit, and there is a lot about chin position and some about the tongue, but little about the importance of the upper lip. Since my feeling now is that the upper lip muscles are the most important, even nearly the only ones needed to form the embouchure, I am a little puzzled.

Do you have any comments to this?


Hello Tom,

Thanks for the questions and solid descriptions. Perhaps the reason most of the focus is on the chin and lower lip in internet and book descriptions is because that is where the majority of the faults lay in forming a proper clarinet embouchure.

However, I’m glad you brought this to my attention as I did update the Clarinet-Embouchure page below using the EeeeOooo and growling dog descriptions.

Below excerpt and update to Clarinet Embouchure page.

4. Bite down with the top teeth onto the mouthpiece putting 1/4 inch of the mouthpiece into your mouth. Close your mouth around the mouthpiece like a drawstring.

If you were to make vowel sounds with your mouth, you would start with Eeee and slowly change the mouth to Oooo or Uuuu. Therefore, try this, say EeeeOooo. Notice how round your mouth is. The top lip, corners, and bottom lip should all have equal pressure on the mouthpiece/reed. Another way to think about the top lip is to say Rrrr like a dog growling.

Now, close off the lips so air can only blow into the mouthpiece. Keep the chin flat.

Below excerpt from the bottom of the Poor Clarinet Embouchure page.

Are you familiar with drawstring purses? You take two sides of the drawstring, pull them and it closes the purse down in an even circle. The clarinet embouchure is very similar to the drawstring purse as you do not wish air to escape out of the mouth but only into the mouthpiece.

Another great analogy that I’ve heard recently from J. Lawrie Bloom, clarinetist and bass clarinet with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is this, a growling dog. Have you ever seen a growling dog? Do that now and growl at the computer. Now go growl at a mirror. This gives you both a good flat chin and it tones up the upper lip some for a good clarinet embouchure. The upper lip actually curls in a little bit (which is good).

So, I do have a couple other thoughts to type out about your descriptions. Sounds like you have tongue placement in an up position. My recommendation is that the tip of the tongue operate very closely to the reed (only millimeters away from the reed when not articulating). You can arch the tongue in the mouth to keep a fast air stream, but if you wish to have a rapid articulation, keeping the tip of the tongue very close to the reed is important. If you were to return to have the tongue near the lower teeth, that would mean the tip is way too far away from the reed.

Keeping the mouthpiece centered on the mouth is also good. Everyone has a different mouth, though. Teeth might not be symmetrical and one tooth might hang lower or higher than another tooth. If the mouthpiece is in the best position suited for you to make a great sound, that should be the final position. Experimenting with a mirror and/or a clarinet teacher will also help.

Also, sounds like you have improved the angle of the clarinet. Typically, I’ll tell students to put the bell of the clarinet between their knees and keep the forehead in an upright position. If you play a long tone with the bell in the air and then slowly bring the clarinet to your knees, you will hear that the sound becomes more focused. That is a magical moment for many of my students.

Now, to throw you for a loop, have you ever heard of double-lip clarinet embouchure? This is placing the upper lip under the teeth and on top of the mouthpiece and then sealing the mouth around the mouthpiece and reed. This is the embouchure I play and it takes a long time to develop. I would only recommend studying this embouchure with a teacher who plays it. One of these days I’ll write a full description of that embouchure.

Keep in touch and please let me know how you develop on clarinet. Thanks.




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