Acquiring a good and well developed embouchure for the clarinet is often regarded and experienced as something a bit mysterious—an art that, with proper application of technique, seems to almost magically progress. The student will be schooled in many points of technique and encouraged to diligently practice and persist, culminating after some number of years in a fine sound production from bottom to top on the instrument. All fine and good. Success of embouchure is then logically and commonly attributed to the mastery of the many points of technique: the student having mastered the technique therefore has acquired the ability. But this is not the whole story, there is far more to it than that. And this simple truth was brought home to me as a result of my 34 year lay off from playing the clarinet.
After 10 years away, I was still able to produce a fine sound on the clarinet, to utilize an excellent embouchure from the bottom to the top of the instrument. The muscles would tire quickly, but all the notes were still there. After 20 years, even though the technique had not changed and I was still able to apply as much muscular force in forming the embouchure as I ever had, this was no longer the case. This is called losing one's lip, or chops. After 34 years, the loss was nearly complete. I could manage, by force of technique, only the bottom and second registers (called the chalumeau and clarion respectively). The third and highest register (the altissimo) had become inaccessible. The quality of the clarion was poor, the throat tones (upper chalumeau) were thin and airy, the very bottom alarmingly weak. Yet I still had plenty of muscle to apply the requisite force of the lips and cheeks, and the technique had never left me. Why was the reed not responding to my efforts?
Beginning once again to practice, though not overly much—just an hour or so twice a week, focusing my effort in the low register first, the low register came back surprisingly quickly—a very decent tone in less than a month. But this had no substantial effect on the quality of the second register. Yet as soon as I started practicing the notes in the second register, it too recovered quickly. But here's the really important point: only the notes that I practiced actuallly improved. Mind you, not from any improvement in technique or muscular development. The recovery was wholly dependent on the notes simply being played. A lousy note remained a lousy note if it was not played any significant amount. But once a note was played on for some time, even if only a few minutes in a day, then a few days later, the note improved markedly. And after playing the note again for a few minutes, then a few days later, the note would improve markedly again. Yet at the same time as all of this, notes that were not played would not improve.
What was going on here? The simple truth of the clarinet embouchure is that the conditioning of the tissues of the lips (completely apart from the development of the musculature) is as important, perhaps more so even, than technique. That given even nominal technique, if the aspiring clarinetist will simply play the notes that he or she wishes to acquire, the very act of playing stimulates a sympathetic development of the lips. (And I must stress that I am not talking about the development of the cheek and lip muscles which the novice must also acquire and must be conditioned for stamina). It seems the very tissue of the lips must adapt to the vibration of the reed and the air column for each and every note—individually:
To play the note is to acquire the note.
Technique then, is the means by which the clarinetist achieves a desired tone color and an embouchure that will most easily support various dependent techniques, such as facility of tonguing and smoothness of slurring, evenness of tone production, stability of intonation, etc. But it is the act of actually playing the note that develops the tissue of the lips and the ability to sound the note—a consideration entirely separate and additional to the development of the muscles of the lips and cheeks and any element or application of technique. And so this is the encouraging message to the aspiring student or nervous teacher or guy or gal who hasn't touched the instrument in decades: fear not, try to play the note, and the note will soon play.
Let me also offer some very practical advice to the teacher. The beginning student, while rather quickly able to blow the open G and other throat tones of the left hand chalumeau, will often have difficulty acquiring the lowest notes of the instrument, the notes in the right hand. There are two likely reasons. The first is that the fingers of the young student are often small and the tone holes of the lower joint are larger than the upper, and even the slightest miss over a tone hole can result in a sliver of a leak past the fingertip, which will make sounding the note impossible and the squawk an inevitable result. And not just the new tone holes are the culprits, ones that are already covered may spring a leak. (To combat this it helps for the student to actually observe the indentations of the rings and tone holes on the fingertips—to help raise awareness of the source of the problem and thereby develop a more advantageous positioning of the hands and fingers.)
But the second reason is simply this: the notes must be attempted, and then the lips will adapt—in a matter of days the notes will begin to sound with much greater ease and security. Once the chalumeau is conquered, one will find that the clarion is readily available with the simple addition of the register key, provided there are no leaking fingers, the embouchure technique is of approximate fair quality, and fear has not already been instilled in the student. The playing then of these notes will soon improve the sounding of them.
And here's the surprise, all the notes further up are easily acquired, too—yes, the notorious and often feared altissimo. It should not be feared. The aspiring student has only to practice them—no matter how awful they may first sound, because the lip must adapt to each and every note, individually. These notes being formed entirely of upper partials, this adaptation will require the most time of any of the notes. But not really an overly long time, we're talking weeks here for a nominally acceptable sound for each note attempted, with proper respect of technique—technique already acquired in the lowly chalumeau. There is no need to fear the altissimo. Play it, and it will come. In a surprisingly short time.
(Failure to acquire the altissimo is mainly due to failure to attempt it and persist in the attempt. That said, it must be acknowledged that a stiffer, higher quality reed and a superior mouthpiece make the altissimo notes more easily sounded and more stable in pitch.)