To double lip, or not to double lip, that is the question (at least for many clarinetists)!
There are few topics of debate which spark such spirited discussion among clarinetists as the decision to use a single or double lip embouchure.
If you don’t already know, a single lip embouchure is one in which the lower lip covers the lower teeth, and the upper teeth make contact with the top of the mouthpiece. In a double lip embouchure, both lips (upper and lower) are curled over the teeth (again, both upper and lower), and the lips – not the teeth – make contact with the mouthpiece. This embouchure is like one used by oboists.
The large majority of clarinetists today use single lip embouchure, as it is more easily taught to beginners, and the double lip embouchure can take great dedication and focus to properly develop. Each embouchure creates a certain tonal quality – single lip is known for its clarity and flexibility, while the double lip yields a rich and velvety tone. (Note: Each clarinetist’s tone is unique; these are general descriptions of these two embouchure types).
History of the double lip embouchure
If you think back to being a rowdy young clarinetist (weren’t we all one at some point?), you probably remember turning your mouthpiece “backwards” so the reed is on top and and trying to produce a sound. In addition to providing hilarity to young clarinetists for many generations, this is also how the clarinet was played throughout much of its history, particularly in the English, French, and German national schools of playing (according to clarinet methods of the time). As a result, using the upper teeth on the reed would produce a shrill sound (if any sound were produced at all), leading many players to use the double lip embouchure.
As innovations and developments were made to the clarinet in the 19th century, many players began playing with the reed on bottom and consequently adopting a single lip embouchure. Over the course of clarinet history, the double lip embouchure waned in popularity to the single lip embouchure. By the mid to late 20th century, the single lip embouchure was the preferred embouchure of choice for the majority of clarinetists. My guess is that this is partially because a single lip embouchure is much easier to teach in group settings such as school band programs (especially when the teacher or band director is not primarily a clarinetist). Also, it would be particularly difficult to achieve a double lip embouchure in school marching band programs, which started to gain popularity around the time of the decline of the double lip embouchure.
Notable twentieth century clarinetists who used double lip (arranged alphabetically)
- Luigi Amodio
- Louis Cahuzac
- Reginald Kell
- Hyacinthe Klosé
- Henri Lefebvre
- Ralph McLane
- Kalmen Opperman
- Cyrille Rose
- David Weber
- Harold Wright
Should you use a single or double lip embouchure?
This is a decision each clarinetist must make, ideally under the tutelage of a teacher with experience in teaching and/or playing with both embouchures. Some clarinetists choose to use double lip during their warm up, while some commit to playing entirely single or double lip, depending on the sound concepts they are trying to create or their performance goals.
Pros of double lip embouchure: different sound concept than single lip; prevents biting; expanded oral cavity; fluid legato
Cons of double lip embouchure: takes time to develop muscles in upper lip; some clarinetists might find it more difficult due to facial structure/lip shape and/or size; possible soreness in both lips; can be difficult to learn since this is only used by a minority of clarinetists
- Clarinet reed position in the 18th century by Eric Hoeprich
- Single or Double Lip? by Ralph McLane
- The Embouchure and Tone Color by Bernard Portnoy
What are your thoughts on using a double lip embouchure? Do you use single or double lip? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!