How I Teach Clarinet Embouchure

How I Teach Clarinet Embouchure

This is written in a very conversational tone because it is taken from a podcast. To listen to the entire podcast, click here.

Students MUST have a mirror to watch so they can see what I’m talking about on their own face.

I teach clarinet embouchure with a story. This is what I say to the kids:

“Ok, so how many of you have ever had a milkshake in your life? Raise your hand. So almost everyone – if you haven’t you can use your imagination. Imagine you are at a restaurant that has really great milkshakes. And you’re dying for a milkshake and you order one and their machine is a little out of whack so it makes it extra thick. So imagine this yummy milkshake. It’s really thick and you’re so thirsty. But here’s the catch. They’re out of spoons and regular straws and the only thing they have there for you to drink it is a coffee straw. So imagine you have this really thick, yummy milkshake and you’re drinking it through a coffee straw. Show me what that would look like.”

Then the students try it and most of the time they make a perfect clarinet embouchure – chin, corners, lips – everything on the outside. When they make the milkshake face I tell them to freeze and hold that face for 5 seconds. Then I have them do it again and look in the mirror.

Once they are looking in the mirror I say “Now we’re going to do it again but after you take your big sip of your milkshake I want you to freeze your face muscles in place – don’t let your face move – but breathe in and out. Watch me demonstrate.” That way they can hold the milkshake face without the tension of holding their breath. They should focus on how they need to be relaxed everywhere except their lips/chin. The milkshake analogy can make their body tense up if you’re not careful, so be sure they are only firm on their embouchure and everything else is relaxed.

clarinet embouchure

At this point I have not said a word about “flat chin, corners, bottom lip” anything. They’ll start doing all kinds of weird stuff if you tell them flat chin. They don’t understand that yet. Just have them make the milkshake face. If they are doing it wrong. Say, “Look at my milkshake face. Now look in your mirror and make your face look like mine.”

Once they all seem to be freezing pretty well (maybe on the second or third day) I start to point out what they are doing in more “clarinet embouchure” terms. I tell them that embouchure is the way we set our face to play our instrument. When they are frozen in milkshake face, they are making the clarinet embouchure.

Here’s what I should see for clarinet embouchure:

The muscles of the chin – For most students, when their chin is really flat will have tiny little muscles on the front, bottom edge of their chin (and often on the side edges of the chin too) as those muscles pull down. That’s how I know they are using their muscles correctly. A few kids don’t have those muscles, and if their chin is super flat, and against their bottom teeth, it’s probably ok. But most can find the muscles.

clarinet embouchure

Corners – The corners should be forward, not pulled back. This is one of the reasons I like the milkshake analogy. I tell them if they pull their corners back they are going to bite the straw closed and not get any milkshake. Keep the corners forward. You can say “grip the straw.”

I don’t talk about the bottom lip or the top teeth at this point because nothing is in their mouth. This simplifies the whole thing and lets me focus on just chin and corners at first.

Fun Idea

Use an iPad that is hooked up to a projector to show students their embouchures ‘live.’ Just set the iPad to video (don’t actually record) and it will live stream the picture to the front screen/white board. Students can see their own faces and their classmates’ faces and look for the muscles in the chin and see if  the corners are forward.

They can practice their milkshake face at home. It can be in the car, as they are doing homework, fixing their hair, going to bed, texting, watching Netflix, anything. If they can be in front of a mirror, even better. They should just make their milkshake face and hold it a little longer each time.

To find out what the next step of beginning clarinet class is (moving to actually playing their first sounds) listen to this podcast. If your clarinets are already playing and you need help getting them up to pitch on mouthpiece & barrel, listen to this podcast.

A 1999 music education graduate of WTAMU, Tamarie Sayger held band director positions in Plano and Odessa, TX for 5 years. As a private clarinet instructor in Texas for 16 years, she has taught hundreds of students from grade 6-12 in classes, sectionals, and individual lessons. She has presented at district in-services and co-presented at the Texas Bandmasters Association convention. Her website,, provides resources for clarinet teachers around the country. Mrs. Sayger is also a core contributor for, primarily on the subjects of clarinet and private lessons. Her podcast, Crossing The Break, can be found on iTunes.

Related Reading:
Teaching Clarinets to Roll to A Isn’t Enough
Flute Embouchure: Simple Steps for Great Success!

Additional Reading:
Why My Clarinets Only Need 1/2 Their Instruments for the First Weeks of School (Also by Tamarie Sayger)

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