Keeping a stiff lower lip

Lip pushups anyone?

During my deeper explorations of clarinet playing, I stumble upon tiny techniques which have huge effects on playing. One of these is the importance of a firmly supported lower lip. (The upper lip has a different function, which I will address in another post.)

Since the lower lip is the only contact with the vibrating reed, its importance is obvious. It is especially critical to control of the reed in technical passages, when the reed must jump around with precision.

Any serious player has thought about this. Yet it is often forgotten when a clarinetist has achieved a certain level of competence. And while students may have been instructed in various embouchure formations, the importance of the lower lip may have been lost in other efforts.

I tell my students that the reed is like a puppy needing to be trained. And the embouchure, particularly the lower lip, is the leash to control it. If it's too loose, the puppy runs wild. Too tight and you choke it.

Let me clarify what is NOT involved in the use of the lower lip. Jaw pressure is NOT to be increased as the lower lip is tightened. Throat muscles are NEVER tightened.

I'll start with the assumption that you know how to form a basic clarinet embouchure: chin flat, corners pulled in towards each other, cheeks pulled in against the teeth and gums.

If you say the word "Ewww", with pursed lips, your lower lip should bunch up. Pull that bunched up lower lip into your mouth and form and embouchure. Say "Ewww" again, more emphatically. Tighten that lower lip in and together as much as you can, and a little more. Keep your chin pulled down.

The critical part of this musculature is the tension between the pulled down chin and the pulled up lip. Think of two arrows pointing up toward the reed as the direction of the lower lip. See the following illustration.

diagram of clarinet embouchure

clarinet embouchure with direction of tension of lower lip

While doing the above exercise, check in with jaw and throat to be sure they didn't come along for the ride. It's harder than it seems to tighten your lower lip muscles without engaging those others unnecessarily. For that reason, I suggest the following exercise.

Form the embouchure as suggested above, place the clarinet in your mouth in ready position. Close the embouchure around the mouthpiece. Take a breath and DON'T play. Exhale through your nose. Keep the embouchure formed, concentrate on the lower lip pulling in and up. Relax your jaw and throat exaggeratedly.

Do this several times. Each time take note to relax the following in addition to jaw and throat: behind the eyes, forehead, sinuses, neck, shoulders, hips, knees, feet. You may enjoy this exercise and wish to continue for many breaths. Be careful not to hyper-ventilate.

Now play some slow scales, taking care to maintain the above achievements as you play.

Happy Music Making!

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3 comments for “Keeping a stiff lower lip

  1. January 2, 2010 at

    As a clarinetist, I was taught by my applied teacher to form the lower lip by pulling the lip back into the mouth as far as possible, then "scraping" the lower lip along the lower teeth until the "red" part comes to the edge of the lower bite surface. The result is a firm lower lip and pointed chin.

    • January 2, 2010 at

      Hi Tom.

      That's a classic and valid way to get to the right lower lip position. I emphasized it in an article to point out that 1) the lower lip control can become lazy and needs occasional renewing and 2) the jaw and throat tend to go with it.

  2. John Peacock
    December 30, 2009 at

    Hi David. How important do you think the flat chin really is? You certainly have a very flat one, judging by the pictures on this blog. But some players seem to succeed without doing this at all:

    In Brymer's book, he says the flat chin stops the reed being damped by soft lip tissue, but I've never been clear whether he meant skin below the lip touching the reed, or having extra lip inside the mouth.

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