I almost exclusively teach bassoon, but have taught the occasional clarinet lesson and woodwinds methods course. Many of my private double reed students over the years have, in fact, been primary clarinet students taking bassoon as a secondary instrument. It isn’t an unusual doubling. Many professionals double on bassoon and clarinet, or specialize in the auxiliary instruments from both the single and double reed families. Many bassoon students played clarinet before making the switch, and many of my bassoon students play clarinet during marching band season. Embouchure differs quite a bit between bassoon and clarinet; understanding and articulating these differences can shed light on issues that arise in embouchure formation of both of these instruments. Here, I am focusing on a basic understanding of clarinet embouchure and tongue position, with explanations of how it contrasts with related bassoon technique.
The orientation of the tongue within the mouth has a huge impact on tone, intonation and articulation. While we can easily see the mouth and facial muscles of a clarinet student, it is not so easy to determine the placement of the tongue by the same person. Even though the exterior embouchure may appear solid and consistent, the clarinetist may continue to encounter difficulties due to poor tongue position.
Double-lip is the embouchure of choice for a few clarinetists. While the exterior formation of this embouchure is more similar to approaches to the bassoon, I do not teach this clarinet embouchure and will not be addressing it here. Because there are historically two opposing types of single-lip clarinet embouchure, both requiring different tongue positions for optimal results, we must first establish what type of embouchure is the basis for the desired tongue position. The “smiling embouchure” taught more frequently in the past requires a low tongue position to counteract the tight stretch of the lips. This is not the recommended approach. I advocate a rounded clarinet embouchure, which requires a high tongue position.
To form the embouchure, think of the shape your mouth takes on when you slowly say the letter “Q”, this rounded approach to lip shape being the same for basic bassoon embouchure. The lower lip should slightly cover the lower teeth. Some red of the lower lip should continue to be visible for most players. Chin muscles should point down and be flat. Flaring the nostrils and visualizing the tip of the nose pointing up will help to maintain the flat chin and proper mouth shape. The upper teeth rest on the mouthpiece approximately one quarter of an inch from the tip. The upper lip should be flush against the upper teeth, to prevent air pockets from collecting, and should seal firmly on the mouthpiece, itself. The clarinet should be held at approximately a forty-degree angle, with some upward pressure so that the weight of the clarinet does not rest on the lower half of the embouchure.
When aiming for a warm, round, characteristic tone quality on bassoon, the throat and oral cavity should be opened and expanded while playing in every range of the instrument. The tongue position is low, to the point of being forced down, thus expanding the size of the oral cavity to its maximum capacity. To find a good tongue position, draw out the word “hoe” in the lowest range of your vocal range. This consciously open position is counter to good embouchure position on clarinet.
When playing clarinet, the tongue must be in a high, relaxed position to create a well-focused air stream. This, in turn, allows for a focused, resonant tone, even intonation and clean articulation. To find a good tongue position, whisper the word “he”. Note that the back and middle of the tongue are very close to the roof of the mouth. Whisper “heeeeeeee…” again, holding out the “eeeee”. Do this with fast air and notice that you can feel the pressure of the air on both the tongue and roof of the mouth. Notice that the sides of the tongue are touching the molars of your top teeth. Put your hand very close to your mouth, almost touching it, and do the exercise again. You should be able to feel a focused air stream against your hand. It should be exiting your mouth with the same angle at which the clarinet will be held. Now repeat the exercise while bringing the embouchure into place (think of the letter “Q”). In this position, you would speak the words “who” or “coo” if you used less focused air and allowed the vocal chords to sound. However, with the more focused air you should be able to whistle with this tongue and mouth position. Correct tongue position for clarinet is completely counter to good tongue position for bassoon. To play with a warm, round, in-tune bassoon tone, the tongue position is deliberately dropped and the oral cavity is as open and as expanded as is possible. When students first switch back and forth between clarinet and bassoon they need to be reminded to be conscious of their tongue position for each respective instrument.
The clarinet tongue position should feel natural and relaxed. The tongue is a very large muscle and when we articulate only the smallest percentage of the tip is actually moving. The very tip of the tongue should not be “anchored” to the lower teeth, but free to move. When the clarinet is placed in the mouth, the area of the reed just below the tip should make contact with the tongue just behind the tip (about 1/4 inch back form the tip of the muscle). Touching the very tip of the reed with the very tip of the tongue is incorrect. Both reed and tongue should contact just behind their tips. This contact point is universal for playing all reeded instruments. Do not tongue into the opening of any mouthpiece or reed, but always approach tonguing from the bottom. . The tongue comes in contact with the bottom blade of the double or single reed behind the tip.
When playing, allow the tongue to remain in this high position and do not push the back of the tongue down in order to open the throat, as you do in certain other wind instruments such as the bassoon. Dynamics, timbre and phrasing should be accomplished through changes in airspeed rather than tongue position. Pitch and tone color will be more consistent throughout the registers and dynamics if this proper oral cavity is maintained.
If a student is playing with puffed cheeks, they are playing with a low tongue position, which is allowing air to be directed sideways rather than forward and strait into the bore of the instrument. If articulation is brittle, the student may be placing the very tip of the tongue on the very tip of the reed, which then forces the tongue back in the mouth and creates tension. Heavy attacks and slower tongue speed may evidence “anchor tonguing”. If, when articulating, there is the presence of a thud accompanied by a slight hesitation, the student may be tonguing on the roof of the mouth rather than articulating on the reed. This symptom of poor tongue placement is even more evident in the high register. To maintain good tongue position, the student should think of the syllables “tee-tee-tee” or “thee-thee-thee” rather than “tah-tah-tah” or “du-du-du” as many method books recommend. The tip of the tongue acts similarly using all of these syllables, but there is a pronounced difference in the placement of the tongue in the back of the oral cavity between the correct and incorrect syllable models.
The concept of tongue position is sometimes difficult for students to grasp and maintain when they first become aware of it, but is an important component of the embouchure. Though tongue orientation made more difficult because we cannot see into our student’s mouths while they are playing, there are audible and physical cues to guide us. Listen for these cues in your students’ playing that may indicate incorrect tongue placement. Be sure that students understand what the inside of their mouth should feel like. Correct embouchure and oral cavity should feel natural and serve allow the clarinetist the tone and flexibility they need to achieve their musical goals. It is an issue worth re-examining with all of our clarinet students.