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 Embouchures in neutral description
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2018-07-14 23:07

Recently I wrote a post describing the physical facts about the pressure systems involved in clarinet playing. That post contained no opinions at all: it simply described what happens when the clarinet is played.

This stance – to be contrasted with a stance that GIVES ADVICE to a player – is, I think, a useful one. It’s particularly useful here, because what constitutes good advice is highly dependent on whom you are addressing, and in many circumstances we simply don’t know the actual details of someone’s problem, however clearly they try to describe it.

I confess that I'm fed up, here, of reading the opinions of neophytes. When I wrote my 'pressure' post, Paul Aviles leapt in with his opinion that it might not be USEFUL for someone to think about pressure – which, of course, is a no-no word in his limited universe.

But I say that if a player has a clear idea of what needs NECESSARILY to happen, they may be able more effectively to approach their own problems, in their own situation.

Therefore, here is a post that describes what an EMBOUCHURE actually does.

The intention is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I'm certainly not putting forward any theory of ideal embouchures. (Indeed, as some of you may know, my 'theory' of the ideal embouchure is that it's the one that produces the desired sound:-)

The essence of an embouchure lies in the contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the vibrating reed. Other muscles (such as those of the upper lip) are also involved; but their influence on the embouchure occurs largely via their effect on the contact between the lower lip and the reed.

This approach leaves aside the possibility that the upper lip may directly damp vibrations of the mouthpiece itself (not the reed, notice); but I'm going to assume, along with most other people, that that effect is negligible.

Now of course, choice of reed, mouthpiece and ligature come into this; but my approach is to say: GIVEN a mouthpiece, reed and ligature, what does the embouchure do?

So, the embouchure involves the contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the vibrating reed. Description of that contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the vibrating reed can be conveniently if crudely divided into three parts; there's an important refinement that I'll come to afterwards.

The three parts are:

(1) The position on the reed of the area of contact between lower lip muscles and reed;

(2) The size of that area of contact; and

(3) The pressure exerted on the reed by that contact.

(1), (2) and (3) in combination affect both the equilibrium position of the reed (the mean position that it vibrates around) and the nature of the reed vibration.

In general, (1) is located roughly at the point at which the reed leaves the mouthpiece facing.

In this position, the lower lip does two things:

(A) it exerts pressure on the reed, moving the reed’s equilibrium position further towards the mouthpiece, and

(B) it damps the vibration of the reed, thus changing the sound.

For (A), the amount of pressure required to put the reed in its optimum equilibrium position depends a great deal on the type of reed-mouthpiece setup the player is using. It can vary from very little, in the case of a long, close facing (like a German style mouthpiece) to quite a lot (as in the open facings used in the last century by some Italian players, for example.

Different schools of playing therefore require different amounts of pressure. Obviously, the strength of the reed used is also a determining factor.

The damping of the reed-vibration, (B), constitutes the most crucial effect of the embouchure on the sound of the instrument, and much of the complication of 'embouchure-talk' is an attempt to characterise the physical characteristics of the embouchure that the embouchure-talker considers essential in order to achieve the damping required for a 'good' sound. Hence we get ‘pointy chin’, ’smiley embouchure’, ‘drawstring embouchure’ and so on.

It is possible, for special effects, for (1) to be moved very close to the tip or much farther away from the tip, but for ‘normal’ playing, the former usually 'chokes' the reed, and the latter has little effect on the vibration.

(2), the size of the area of contact, is crucial, though. If it's too large, then too many higher harmonics of the vibrating reed are damped out. If it's too small, then a 'bright' reed may be too shrill. And the required amount of damping is dependent on what note you're playing, too. Excellent playing is a matter of balancing these requirements in the service of the music.

Essentially, what's required is REAL TIME control of (2), so that it can vary from moment to moment. Fortunately, the lower lip consists of *muscle*, and therefore is capable of fast response around an initial calibration. Choosing the degree of flexion of the muscles of the lower lip initially to suit a particular reed, and then varying it moment by moment according to what you're playing, is what enables us to play effectively.

This point of view explains why a given reed may be 'too much trouble' for a good player, even though the results obtained are satisfactory to the listener.

The 'refinement' I mentioned above comes in here. The refinement is that when we play, the lower lip also vibrates, and therefore the optimal state of the bit of it in contact with the reed can't even be captured by specifying the size and shape of the area of contact. The vibrational qualities of things are always much more tricky to characterise and reproduce than their mere geometries and masses. That's why violins are difficult to copy -- and bows too, because they vibrate when they're used. Even *how you hold a bow* makes a
difference!

The upshot is that the precise nature of your lower lip when you play is crucial. Where you put it on the reed, how flexed it is, how much it overlaps the part of the reed that's vibrating away from the mouthpiece, all affect your sound from moment to moment, and therefore must be capable of subtle change from moment to moment.

Now, obviously we haven't a hope in hell of controlling all of that consciously. But we can learn how to have it under our (unconscious) control by practising in the understanding that both flexibility and feedback are required.

Consider: how did we learn our 'other' sort of speaking, which is much more miraculous, I'd say? Answer, by BOTH babbling AND listening.

And -- you know why 'biting' is wrong?

It's *not* because it involves the exertion of pressure, or because it involves forces between lips and teeth. Controlled and precisely modulated pressure is the name of the game! Dogmas about 'zero pressure' can be as counterproductive for some players as excessively hard reeds can be for others.

No, it's because 'biting', at its extreme, reduces the subtle musculature of the lower lip to the status of a dead piece of meat covering the teeth. Such a move puts beyond our grasp the flexibility required to learn how to play the clarinet.

Tony



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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: Paul Aviles 
Date:   2018-07-15 01:31





If I may, I would like to say that I appreciate the well thought out and well spoken post above. I also do appreciate differentiating between a description and prescribing for someone without any real context. Perhaps a poster such as "jam12" will get far more out of the detailed post above and find a better path for himself. I am certain we all want better outcomes for those seeking information here.


I am comfortable representing the neophytes though. I see this Forum more as a conversation than just great information from the experts. One might respond better to a certain turn of phrase or word even if, on the face of it, that description may seem a little inadequate. Mouthpieces, for example are not "one-size-fits-all," and teaching often falls into that category as well.





.................Paul Aviles (the patron saint of mediocrity)



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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: kdk 2017
Date:   2018-07-15 03:37

Tony, I'm only now trying to rationalize your description of the basic process with the sensations I feel in forming an embouchure. I haven't given it very much time.

You leave out, I think deliberately, any idea of an oppositional muscle for the lower lip muscle to press the mouthpiece against or toward. Are you saying that the lower lip presses against the reed independent of anything else? I suppose the upper teeth hold the mouthpiece in place whether or not the upper lip sits between in a double-lip embouchure. But I'm having trouble actually producing anything I think feels useful without any flexion in the corners of my upper lip. Maybe I'm just too used to pulling my lips toward each other.

"So, the embouchure involves the contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the vibrating reed. "

So, then, is this contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the vibrating reed only one, but not the only, function of the overall embouchure? Doesn't the embouchure also provide the closure needed to direct air into the mouthpiece past the reed? Doesn't this function need some action from the upper lip muscles?

Karl

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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: Matt74 
Date:   2018-07-15 07:46

Tony would you say something about Joe Allard’s “zero pressure” approach, I understand he taught clarinet as well as saxophone. I studied with Roger Greenberg, a student of his. All my saxophone teachers taught this, but when I tried it all I could do was get the thing to honk uncontrollably. I suspected that my teachers weren’t really playing with a relaxed lip. My clarinet teachers always taught a firm embouchure of some sort.

- Matthew Simington


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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: GenEric 
Date:   2018-07-15 08:18

This was a great read! One of the main reasons I bite is because I don't want air leaking out of the sides of my mouth. Instead of biting, would it be more appropriate to "wrap" my lips around the mouthpiece instead with minimal biting?

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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: Phurster 
Date:   2018-07-15 12:08

Thanks very much Tony.
Your most gives clarity to an aspect of playing that seems to have many dogmatic views.
Chris.

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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2018-07-16 23:44

I'm keen to keep this thread clean of opinion, so I'll answer the question about Joe Allard and his system in another thread.

But, I will answer Karl's question here. He says:

>> Are you saying that the lower lip presses against the reed independent of anything else? >>

No, I'm saying that what is important about the EMBOUCHURE must lie in the details of the contact of the lower lip and the reed. The post characterised that contact.

Of course other things come into it, and there are many other aspects of clarinet playing without which whatever you do with your embouchure would be useless.

>> So, then, is this contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the vibrating reed only one, but not the only, function of the overall embouchure? >>

Yes, if you want to expand the frame of discourse.

>> Doesn't the embouchure also provide the closure needed to direct air into the mouthpiece past the reed? Doesn't this function need some action from the upper lip muscles? >>

But that is surely secondary - even trivial. In THAT sense, you have an 'embouchure' when you 'blow' up a balloon.

You 'blow' the clarinet too. But you need, as you're doing that, to make sure that your lower lip is in a condition – that we clarinet players call an embouchure – such that it can learn, over time, to control the reed for musical purposes.

I was describing what that control must consist of.

Tony

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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: D Dow 
Date:   2018-07-17 19:31

Mr Pay wrote
Are you saying that the lower lip presses against the reed independent of anything else? >>

No, I'm saying that what is important about the EMBOUCHURE must lie in the details of the contact of the lower lip and the reed. The post characterised that contact.

Of course other things come into it, and there are many other aspects of clarinet playing without which whatever you do with your embouchure would be useless.

>> So, then, is this contact between the muscles of the lower lip and the vibrating reed only one, but not the only, function of the overall embouchure? >>

Yes, if you want to expand the frame of discourse.

>> Doesn't the embouchure also provide the closure needed to direct air into the mouthpiece past the reed? Doesn't this function need some action from the upper lip muscles? >>

But that is surely secondary - even trivial. In THAT sense, you have an 'embouchure' when you 'blow' up a balloon.
response



Having studied neural science (I have MA Neuroscience ) I think there are several problems that have been posed...the air is specifically separate and is directed from a different part of the brain..also the reed is secondary to the embouchure pressure..so from a functionality aspect I feel this idea of the embouchure balloon idea is not relevant in the purely physical aspect of performance. The idea the lower reed being blow separate confounds this arguement..l..remember all activity is directed from the brain so think several centres of movement are involved. You have to remember performing comes from a purely physical phyche aspect of how the body interacts with the reed and mouthpiece. The brain also mirrors the stomach in terms of nerve linearity so this discussion is further complicated by how we also feel while we play\

https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection

The ASPECT of holding the clarinet also adds another physical element into this area and so the way we hold and mirror the way we want to sound further mitigates discussion..ie do we have an overbite underbite and our air pressure. Ie the upper lip has two major nerves across the top and they can certainly play a great role in the perception of the lower lip and jaw of how the sound we create conforms to this physical process of performance

https://www.ebmconsult.com/articles/anatomy-dermatomes-face

i would quickly add the lower lip may be a refiner of the elements but also providing there is no nerve damage in the upper lip we are talking about a fixed systems of nerves that need to work together. Another further element as we get older nerve damage can occur without us knowing...ie
https://www.nf2is.org/facial_nerve.php clarinet playing is greatly affected by disorders we can develop with aging.

https://www.nf2is.org/nf_img/facialnerves2.png

dd

David Dow

Post Edited (2018-07-17 19:48)

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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: Tony Pay 2017
Date:   2018-07-17 23:44

I'm sorry, replying to that is beyond me.

Tony

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 Re: Embouchures in neutral description
Author: Arnoldstang 
Date:   2018-07-18 19:29

David, I will respond. Tony from the first few sentences of his initial post is focusing on the “physical facts”. This is the bare bones of a clarinet embouchure. Your ideas are cluttering the bones. Do you dispute that the bottom lip is the basic building block here?

Freelance woodwind performer

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