The Clarinet Web Site
Articles - Double Lip technique
When I first began playing the clarinet, I was taught to play using double lip embouchure. For those who have not heard the term, it means covering the upper teeth with the top lip in addition to the lower teeth being covered with the bottom lip. This is the same way in which our oboe and bassoon colleagues play their instruments, and is not as unusual or difficult as it may first seem.
In fact playing double lip was more than likely to have been the way the first clarinetists would have played, as many played with the reed on the top lip, not as we now play with the reed on the bottom lip (See "Clarinet reed position in the 18th Century" by Eric Hoeprich Oxford Journals).
The double lip style was common until the beginning of the 1960's, but sadly has declined since then. So why should its use continue, should we mourn its decline?
When I continued my studies with Paul Dintinger, he thought that I should stop using double lip as no one really used it any more. He was right to say that, and I developed my single lip playing (including many of the bad habits that go with it) for the rest of my conservatoire study.
However, when some years later I had a car crash which resulted in damage to my jaw, I found playing very difficult and painful.
I was very fortunate to be working with Tom Ridenour at that point, who is great friend and pedagogue of the clarinet. He knew of my previous experience of "double lip", and with his encouragement, I made the transition back to playing pain free, by going back to double lip, avoiding pressure on my jaw.
I have never looked back and am proud to be the last of what seems to be a dying breed. Perhaps as a result of reading this article, other clarinettists may feel it is worth a try.
Historically, many of the finest
clarinet players used double lip, including British players like Reginald
Kell#, however, double lip is also referred to as French embouchure,
as it was much more common in France.
In the US, double lip playing is much more common.
Many great players like Harold Wright**,Ralph Maclean# were great exponents, and their students are continuing the tradition today. Benny Goodman was re-educated into double lip embouchure having established a successful career playing single lip by Reg Kell*, a lesson for us all there!
So what is all the mystery, why put up with perceived discomfort? Are
there any reasons to try this for yourself?
I will try to attempt a summary and comparison of the main differences. Understanding the role of the embouchure clearly is the key to the relevance of double lip.
The principal role is to allow the reed to vibrate freely, to allow this, the lower lip should be drawn tightly over the lower teeth. This give a firm surface for the reed to vibrate on as any softness of the lower lip will result in reduced resonance and vibration. Imagine striking a tuning fork and then putting it in contact with some soft foam, the result would damp the sound considerably.
If you try to play with your top lip over the top teeth, you will be
surprised as to how much easier it is to tuck the lower lip firmly over
the bottom teeth and maintain it. Somehow it feels more natural, even
if you are not used to it. It is also easier to make an airtight seal
at the sides of the mouth. You would never drink through a straw by putting your
teeth on it, you would use both lips to cover the teeth. If you try just
pulling the edge of the lower lip tight over the bottom teeth, you will
find it doesn't feel that natural, and is difficult to maintain
The main difference between single and double lip is the the role of the upper teeth. Many single lip players use an upward pressure from the lower jaw to help produce the sound.
Using double lip, the instinct is not to push up as it will hurt! This has the effect of freeing the reed's vibration and leaves the hard work to the muscles, which are the embouchure. The jaw should remain open and not move up or down, rather like the neck of a wine bottle.
The biting culture of the single lip player can be seen on the mouthpiece and mouthpiece patch, teethmarks, indentations and in the worst cases holes.
In a previous article for CASS on thumbrests, I mentioned that poor design of the thumbrest can result in biting, as the player struggles for stability.
It is understandable therefore that players who have to stand to perform, may choose to resort to single lip. That is, if they choose not to change their thumbrest.
Chris King, Principal Clarinet of the Ulster Orchestra and long-time friend, has always advocated the use of double lip, even though he finds it impossible himself due to a short top lip.
His view is that the sound produced using double lip cannot be fully achieved using single lip. He pointed out to me that when the upper lip is over the top teeth, the soft palate area is naturally raised. This is very difficult to do without the use of double lip, and has the benefit of allowing further resonance to develop in the nasal cavities, just as a singer would use.
The "British clarinet sound" is often described as vocal in its approach, and players like Kell with his use of vibrato and double lip got very close to vocalising with their instrument.
The ability to keep the lower lip firm is crucial in the development of any players sound, and in my view is much easier to maintain with the use of double lip.
As a teacher I have not forced any of my students to use double lip, but have encouraged them all to do some of their practise using it. Only one of my students came to me using double lip, his teacher was a bassoon player, and he has used it ever since with great success.
Certain myths exist about double lip clarinet playing, which are generally incorrect.
It is thought to be more uncomfortable on the inside of the lips. This can also be true with single lip, but the secret lies in not pushing the lower jaw upwards. Holding an opening into which the mouthpiece will fit snugly works best for both methods!
It is reputedly more difficult to produce high notes. Done incorrectly, it can be just as hard single lip, but in truth, it is much easier using double lip as the reed switches vibrational modes far easier when it can vibrate along its full length. In addition, one can maintain a more natural feeling of an open jaw with double lip. This means the necessary inward movement of the reed on the surface of the firm lip is smoother and greatly improves the third harmonic production, right up to top C and beyond, with no extra effort required. Most single lip players will be envious of that.
Stamina is often reported as difficult to maintain, however, this is not the case. Less jaw pressure means no discomfort in the mandibular region or on the surface of the lips. As is the case with single lip, correct development of the muscles of the embouchure will take time. They are small and have poor blood supply so need short but frequent amounts of practice
Biting can seem more appealing, as at first it can appear to be a good solution to a weak embouchure. Reducing the distance between the mouthpiece tip and the reed means it vibrates with less effort. However, it can compromise the quality, flexibility and volume of your sound, as it does not allow the reed to vibrate along its full length. This produces a thinner rather pinched sound and reduces the ease of changing the colour or pitch of a note.
Many fine players have developed their single lip playing to avoid many of the disadvantages, and have no need of a change to double lip. Equally I know quite a few who will spend at least some of their practice and performance time using double lip to avoid the " bad habits" associated with single lip playing.
Whenever, I heard the Boston Symphony on recordings, I envied the excellent staccato that Harold Wright achieved. It made the clarinet match the other woodwinds in their articulation instead of sticking out. Years later I have discovered how important the use of double lip is in this area, do listen to any recordings you can find of the Boston orchestra.
Since developing my double lip playing, I have found that articulation has become easier and faster, not clamping the reed closed allows the quality of the staccato to be full and pingy.
Perhaps the most important advantage of using double lip comes when balancing reeds. Many of my colleagues struggle to feel the area on the reed that needs adjusting (which has the greater resistance), as they find the blow test difficult using single lip as it lacks the sensitivity of the alternative. Quite a few have learned to use double lip just for this reason.
This however, may need a separate article altogether!
I do hope that you will try playing double lip for yourself at some stage. If only we could ask Benny, I am sure that he would say there are significant benefits as a reward for the hard work involved in making the change over.
Do feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.
**Harold Wright playing Brahms Sonatas on Boston Records BR1005CD!