top of page

Embouchure and Breath Support 

The formation of the embouchure has been given a great deal of attention over many generations of clarinetists. You only need to read the well-written articles and books of 
Keith SteinJames Collis, Frederick Thurston and others to understand the form and function of the embouchure.

The embouchure is a very delicate structure. It's form and sensitivity determine the quality and flexibility of the clarinet tone. Even though the embouchure needs to be strong and developed, far too often it is suggested that the embouchure should take the bulk of the work in supporting the tone as well as supporting the mouthpiece. Because the muscles of the lips receive the least blood supply of all the muscles in the body, this responsibility more often than not creates an embouchure that invites jaw bite and underdeveloped lips making a sound that is hard or edgy and sharp in pitch.

"Play at the bottom of the sound". This phrase comes from the old Philadelphia Orchestra and Curtis Institute. It is an interesting idea to ponder. Could it mean that you create the sound from a lower place in the body: the great supply of strength that comes from the lower and upper abdominals, rather than the embouchure alone, which is at the top and not nearly as strong as the muscles found in the upper body.

Consider the embouchure as only a part of the system that creates your beauty of tone. The system consists of the entire abdominal wall creating the power and control from below and the embouchure, which acts as a capstone, that is free to be a strong and supple balance for the force of air coming from the lungs.

I will focus here on Double Lip Embouchure with special emphasis on the teaching methods of Robert Marcellus who played and taught single lip while stressing the importance of including techniques used by double lip players. All double lip technique can, with excellent results, be used by single lip players to eliminate jaw pressure, tense fingers, etc., which inhibit a beautiful tone quality and musicality.
​The following two articles by Ralph McLane and James Collis, from the "Clarinet" magazine of the 1950's, are excellent articles about the results that can be obtained with double lip but do not go into detail about the HOW of playing with double lip.


The following youtube videos by Thomas Ridenour and the paragraphs that follow will be an attempt to make clear the HOW of double lip embouchure.give excellent instruction on the formation and technique

of a double lip embouchure... 

The embouchure, whether single or double, is only part of the tone producing equation. A most important element is pressurized air  supply coming from below. The embouchure, once formed and developed, only needs to find a BALANCE with the air coming from the abdominal muscles, upper and lower, that create the wind pressure. This balancing frees the embouchure from the dire task of doing all the work of tone production while holding the mouthpiece. All treatises I have read focus foremost on the embouchure and do not give the "art" of exhaling it's full importance. The following excerpt from the audio CD's of oboist Marcel Tabuteau can explain a great deal about this...

Tabuteau's up up up is a big clue on how to use the abdominal muscles like a singer. As an example, sing your lowest pitch and continue to sing a two octave scale. Observe what happens, naturally, with the abdominal muscles. You will see that they begin to be engage upward as you sing higher. Now do the same with a chord. Sing your lowest pitch and sing a chord upward. The abdominal muscles are engaged upward, naturally to prepare the wind pressure needed for the vocal chords to produce higher pitches. This is exactly what should happen as you play into the upper registers of the clarinet, as was understood by Frederick Thurston when he suggested that we sing through the instrument but bypass the vocal chords (citation). Let us take a closer look at what muscle groups are inside us and how they can function to facilitate wind playing...

This is an accurate representation
of the "Diaphragm" muscle. Notice 
how much space it occupies in the
upper body and how high it 
reaches...just above the sternum.
This is the organ that is
manipulated by the upper and
lower abdominals to create the
wind pressure needed to activate 
the reed. The diaphragm has no
independent movement but relies 
on the abdominals to activate it.

BR1017 Boston Records
Marcel Tabuteau Lessons, Explains / demonstrates his "American Oboe School"

​Below are representations of the upper and lower abdominals...These pictures show two layers of muscles that can firm up to create pressure against the diaphragm, creating the wind pressure needed to vibrate the reed at lower and higher pitches.
The final layer, pictured on the right, is the region that Mr. Tabuteau describes with his up up up. You can hear in his voice as his pitch changes that he is using these muscles upward, toward the sternum, to create more wind pressure with both the
upper and lower abdominals or what Marcellus refers to as the
abdominal wall.
Thus these eight regions can be activated up or down at will
to support lower or higher pitches. ​This is the mechanism
that a developed embouchure needs only to balance with. In fact, the embouchure can only develop properly when aided by a  correctly supported air column. Together, the abdominals and the embouchure create a unit that supports and controls the wind pressure and tone.

One last anatomical diagram to see is the muscles of the Embouchure itself. The Obicularus Oris is the name of the muscle that creates the embouchure.

​For double lip playing it essential to engage the corners and the right and left sides of the upper lip only and not the very center below the nose. At that place, in back of the Obicularus Oris, is a muscle called "Depressor Septi Nasi".

​It is this muscle that functions to flare the nostrils. This action will displace the upper lip and create instability for the double lip player, so it is best not to engage it. Examples of it's successful use by SINGLE LIP players is seen in the next two examples:


Robert Marcellus

Daniel Bonade

Both Marcellus and Bonade had dental problems late in their careers that encouraged them to find ways to include double lip technique into their playing. Ralph McLane and Harold Wright, below, playing double lip, naturally did not use the "Septi Nasi" because it does not work for double lip and it simply feels better not to engage it.


​Ralph McLane
Harold Wright
​There are some interesting exercises that are useful in the development of the embouchure: Ralph McLane suggests this one..." Practice, slowly, thirds, perfect chords and all intervals, constantly thinking of each interval before you play it.....the embouchure will respond and eventually will automatically prepare and support the change in lip pressure and resistance of the reed before each interval whether it is one tone or an octave or more"
Harold Wright made the suggestion to play a low note with a "dressed" embouchure slowly for four beats, relax the lips slowly within another four beat, bring them back to the "dressed" state and then play a large interval. This serves a similar purpose in exercising the upper lip. While relaxing the lips in this exercise, the tone should not sag or loose the pitch. This has a lot to do with the the balance within the mouthpiece and reed. 

An exercise that is very much in line with the "Tabteau" example above is to play low B natural for four beats...think down on beat one then up, up, up to prepare to play a fifth down to low E on the down of beat one, then up,up,up and play an octave up, first line E. Continue this progression as high as you can go comfortably. Continue this progression taking as many rests as you need, especially in the first stages of plating with two lips. These exercises are also beneficial for single lip players. I practice this double lip exercise every day and do all my playing standing with no need to to rest the  instrument on the leg.


After a few weeks of practicing this exercise daily you will find the upper lip has much more strength and resilience. But remember...the embouchure does not do all the work. It balances it's strength with the strength coming from a firm use of the muscles of the abdominal wall working the diaphragm upward as a vocalist would. Keep in mind the idea of the Tabuteau "singing intervals" with no gap between the notes.

This video by Ricardo Morales is an extremely thoughtful and honest endorsement of double-lip embouchure by one of the leading clarinetists of the day. Mr. Morales studied with David Weber, who was a close friend and colleague of Ralph McLane and one of the great exponents of double lip playing in America. It would be of value for clarinetists to visit the site "Classical Clarinet School" with Ricardo Morales to take advantage of his experience and knowledge.


bottom of page