Clarinet playing technique (skills that can be acquired by practice) consists of two main aspects: the finger-technique and the embouchure (a relation of mouth, tongue, and jaw to the mouthpiece). The former provides fluency of execution of different sounds and the latter is responsible for sound timbre and articulation. The way in which the tone is being controlled on the clarinet directly impacts the response of the instrument across registers, tone quality, intonation and its dynamic range. It is safe to say that the quality of the embouchure will determine expressivity and player’s personal musicianship. It is much more difficult and time consuming to develop a proper embouchure (on average 4 years or more) than to acquire fluency of finger-technique (a student can play sequences of notes in pieces studied for a year or less). Teaching the embouchure presents all instructors with a very unique problem. As opposed to the finger-technique, embouchure’s crucial components (the oral articulators) remain invisible inside payer’s mouth. The tongue, jaws and lips are all supported by muscles that need to provide ‘a dynamic balance’ throughout any performance for embouchure is subject to frequent changes in back pressure from the instrument requiring constantly making necessary adjustments. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how a proper, dynamic embouchure works in order to teach it effectively.
For last 200 years, clarinet teaching method books show very little change in the approach to develop clarinet embouchure. Both old and newer methods concentrate on developing a fluent technique through long tones, scales, arpeggios and more complex etudes. Comments referring strictly to embouchure actions are either taught verbally using demonstrations from an instructor or self-taught based on scarce commentary in the method or evidence found in other sources such as books on clarinet playing or the Internet. However, there are no method books that would consist of both comprehensive, up-to-date explanation of what the embouchure “should be doing” and corresponding musical exercises helping with practical applications of it. One of the reasons for this omission is that almost all existing method books have been written by instructors-musicians who with even a great deal of experience in teaching and performing are informed not by evidenced based research of the matter but by personal experience and intuition. This professional culture resulted in very different ‘schools’ of teaching trying to approach the technique related issues in their own unique way. Through the development of ‘national schools’, we have observed a great richness in aesthetics of various styles and sound but not in evidenced based embouchure teaching.
In the professional clarinet literature available in English the intuitive approach to the embouchure is probably best summarized by the work of William Stubbins in his book on acoustical mechanics of the clarinet using the following representation:
Stubbins’ is the first most serious and descriptive account employed in a book on the clarinet. However, Stubbins’ explanations do not venture into all dynamic relations between the oral articulators leaving out answers to important questions on for example double-tonguing, frullato, rapid register changes in legato playing and other contemporary techniques as well as issues related directly to the sound quality. The 1950s mark the beginning of a more scientific approach on acoustics and physics of woodwind instruments; most notably in the works by A. Benade. This type of research has found its incorporation in clarinet design and production. Even though Benade’s work in general greatly contributes to the knowledge of the instrument’s acoustics, it has very little significance to clarinet instruction.
With technological advancement scientists and clarinetists alike expressed interest in observing the behavior of the oral articulators while playing (in real time). In the early 70s, Ray Wheeler pioneered with the first X-Ray video of himself playing the clarinet.
This video recording of the working embouchure showed, for the first time, that embouchure mechanics work in contrary to common believes of that time. Prior to Wheeler’s experiment it was accepted knowledge that the tongue should stay in a low position in the low register and vice versa. Wheeler’s data showed the exact opposite pattern (see Figure 2).
Wheeler’s observations unfortunately, have never been published nor included in any teaching method. More substantial information on the role of oral articulators in playing the clarinet comes from a 1982 scientific paper published by Australian researchers. By using X-ray fluoroscopy as well as collecting sound spectra from inside the mouth and close to the bell, it was concluded that the shape of the vocal tract impacts not only the tone production in all registers but also tone quality, therefore they concluded that, “(…) the vocal tract resonant frequencies must match the frequency of the required notes in clarinet and saxophone performance”.
Most recently, Dr. J. Gardner at the Arizona State University presented a real-time video ultrasound of the tongue for an individual playing a clarinet. This can only provide a demonstration of tongue actions with various articulation and register changes without the ability to quantify relevant information related to lip control, tongue dynamics etc…
What J. Gardner’s study does not show are the temporal and spatial relationships which are highly relevant in understanding embouchure.
Neither ‘national schools’ nor the data presented above provide a detailed and more or less complete ‘look inside’ the clarinetist’s mouth to explain relevant theoretical issues or to aid in understanding how to prevent common issues for clarinet players such as occurrences of tendonitis, temporal-mandibular joint (TMJ) problems, the so-called “biting effect” or other painful conditions developed by improper use and positioning of the oral motor structures, in particular lips, jaw and tongue often leading to so-called embouchure dystonia. As mentioned, the existing teaching methods have been based primarily on intuition and subjective examinations of sound quality, rather than a more rigorous evaluation of the structures directly responsible for tone production inside a player’s mouth. Although, some training approaches (‘schools’) have been successful in producing excellent players from time to time, the old, unresolved question still remains: how to properly train what you do not observe, in order to improve the quality of instruction for next generations of clarinet players?
In the past this was hard to avoid given the lack of technology to study oral motor function, but such an excuse is less tenable these days. Over more than a decade, technologies that offer reliable assessment of oral structures such as lips, tongue and jaw hove been in existence and are widely used in the realm of speech research. Although producing speech and playing the clarinet require different oral activities, there are common principles related to motor control in general. In a generic way of speaking, clarinetists use their embouchure in order to create and articulate sounds on the clarinet while speakers use the same structures to articulate sounds for speech. Both areas of research have yet another unique similarity, which is the role of auditory perception of the articulators’ output that may serve as a feedback source for self-correction and problem solving during playing or generating speech. The ultimate goal of my post-doctorate fellowship proposal is to conduct a systematic investigation on the oral motor control mechanisms involved in clarinet playing to provide clarinet teachers with evidence based information on properly working, healthy embouchure techniques. However, for pedagogues to better diagnose and solve problems in their teaching studios and classrooms outside a laboratory, this will also require a unique, hi-tech teaching aid that needs to be designed and built based on the outcomes of this investigation in future projects.
Next Section: 2. Research Goals
1. Introduction | 2. Research Goals | 3. Method | 4. Research Benefits
- Robert W. McKinney, “Clarinet Compendium: Embouchure”, https://www.tcnj.edu/~mckinney/clarinet%20compendium.htm, (accessed 10 Sept. 2015)
- Lefèvre J. X., Méthode de clarinette (Paris, 1802), Galper, A., Clarinet: Tone, Technique and Staccato (Toronto; Mharva Music, 1999)
- Sherman Friedland’s Clarinet Corner, “Schools of Clarinet: French, German, English, Italian”, https://clarinetcorner.wordpress.com/2006/04/12/schools-of-clarinet-frenchgermanenglish-italian/, (accessed 10 Sept. 2015)
- William H. Stubbins, The Art of Clarinetistry: The Acoustical Mechanics of the Clarinet as a Basis for the Art of Music Performance, Ann Arbor Publishers; Second Edition, Revised; Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104 (1965), pp. 194
- Benade, H., A., “On the relation of bore diameter and length to ease of overblowing in woodwinds”, C. G. Conn, Ltd., Engineering Report No. 1266 (30 January 1958), [9 pp.]
- Ray Wheeler, “X-Ray Video of Dancing Tongue in Clarinetist’s Mouth”, http://blog.davidhthomas.net/2011/08/x-ray-video-of-dancing-tongue-in-clarinetists-mouth-not-what-you-expect/#sthash.HIWNwbxv.dpuf, uploaded on Mar 5, 2010 (accessed 10 Sept. 2015)
- Clinch, P. G.; Troup, G. J.; Harris, L., “The Importance of Vocal Tract Resonance in Clarinet and Saxophone Performance, A Preliminary Account”, Acta Acustica, 50, Number 4, 1 April 1982, pp. 280-284(5)
- Op. cit.
- Robert Spring, “Ultrasound of the Clarinetist’s Tongue” – 1/4, uploaded on Aug 10, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRG4rx6mWwE, (accessed 10 Sept. 2015)
- It is a lack of balance between facial muscles participating in playing; resulting in excessive tension upon the lower lip causing sharp pain.
- Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, “Embouchure Dystonia”, https://www.dystonia-foundation.org/what-is-dystonia/forms-of-dystonia/musicians-dystonias/embouchure-dystonia, (accessed 10 Sept. 2015)
- British Journal of Music Education, “Performers as teachers: exploring the teaching approaches of instrumental teachers in conservatoires”, / Volume 22 / Issue 03 / November 2005, pp 287-298, Published online: 21 October 2005, (accessed 10 Sept. 2015)
- Most notably French: G. Deplus, P. Cuper; German: C. Leister, S. Meyer; British: M. Collins, J. Brymer; Italian: E. Cavallini, A. Carbonare; American: A. Shaw, B. Goodman
- Oral articulators and facial muscles participating in speech production as well as in clarinet playing, Robert W. McKinney, “Clarinet Compendium: Embouchure”, https://www.tcnj.edu/~mckinney/clarinet_embouchure.htm, Fig. 1 & 2 (accessed 10 Sept. 2015)