Thoughts on Embouchure

A wind musician’s embouchure refers to how they apply their lips and the muscles around their mouth to the mouthpiece of the instrument in order to make a sound. Each instrument requires a different type of embouchure. The shape of a musician’s embouchure also depends on the shape of their lips.

Unlike most other wind players, a flutist does not blow air directly inside of the mouthpiece to make a sound. Instead, the air is directed over the top of the embouchure hole, similar to blowing across the top of a bottle. Sound is produced when the air column hits the back wall of the head joint, splitting the air into two separate pathways. Half of the air leaves the instrument, and the other half vibrates through the flute. (This is why it takes so much air to play the flute – most of the air you use leaves the flute and doesn’t even go into producing a sound!)

There are plenty of articles out there on establishing a solid flute embouchure (See especially Dr. Cate Hummel’s “Three Essential Skills” article for embouchure: https://drcatesflutetips.wordpress.com/tag/flute-embouchure/).

Nevertheless, I’ll briefly go over creating a basic set-up here.

  1. Placement on the face

  2. Balancing the flute in your hands

  3. Shape of the aperture

Figure out where to place the flute mouthpiece on your bottom lip. Bringing up the flute to your face (NOT bringing the flute to you), find the place where the bottom edge of the embouchure hole just touches the edge where your lip and chin meet. The flute should fit snugly in your chin like a shelf.  You want to make as much of a connection as possible between the flute and your chin – the flute shouldn’t wobble easily on your face. (As Marianne Gedigian describes it, you want to have a strong “lip grip,” as if there are tiny magnets on your mouth. This will ensure stable and reliable tone production.) It should be noted that the corners of the mouth are engaged slightly to create this grip, but most of the work is being done by the orbicularis oris, a band of muscle that encircles the mouth.

This “shelf” position may be lower on the face than some students are used to, especially if they first learned their embouchure via the “kiss and roll” method. In the kiss and roll method, flutists are told to press the lips together and “kiss” the flute so that the lips are centered in the embouchure hole, and then roll the flute out. However, this usually creates placement that is too high on the bottom lip, resulting in a thin and sharp sound. Having the flute lower on the lips allows for the possibility of developing a fuller and more powerful sound because of the longer “transit time” of the air as it exits the aperture and hits the blowing edge of the embouchure hole. A lower placement also frees up the bottom lip, giving it the flexibility to make subtle changes in the size and shape of the aperture for a finer manipulation of sound and tone color.

The exact placement of the flute in relation to the lip depends on an individual’s lip shape. People with a fuller bottom lip may need to put the flute relatively higher on the face, maybe even slightly on the bottom lip itself, while people with thinner lips may need to place the embouchure hole slightly below the lip. The key is to experiment until you find the position that gives you the optimal air transit time for a full and focused sound. It’s important to treat this process of finding your optimal embouchure as an experiment. Don’t be afraid to move things around or change things if they are not working. Each time you make a change, observe how it feels, and observe how your sound is affected. Notice that I used the word “observe” and not “judge.” It can be easy to get frustrated about not creating a perfect or ideal sound, but this process is not about sounding perfect all the time: it’s about working through what doesn’t work so you can get to what does work. That process will take time – so be patient. Most importantly, don’t tense up about it. Make sure you are checking in and not overly tightening the lips to force out the sound. This can be easy to do when we are focusing on our embouchure, but remember that embouchure is only one part of the picture – think of your air and abdominal support are the foundation of sound, and your embouchure as the channel that directs that sound out (rather than forcing or pulling the sound out).

 

Your embouchure is not only affected by what you do with your mouth, but also by how you hold your flute. In relation to the body of the flute, the headjoint should be turned inward slightly so that the embouchure hole lines up in between the rods and the top keys (rather than lined up exactly with the keys, as many beginning band books specify.) In this position, the relatively heavy rods are rotated to be more on top of the flute, taking weight off the hands and allowing the hands to naturally rest on top of the keys. This position is more ergonomic, as it allows the flutist to play even open-keyed notes without gripping or tensing up in the hands and wrists.

If the headjoint is rolled out a lot, a flutist has to compensate their embouchure by drawing the lips forward and blowing more upwards. Some flutists like the sound produced by this position because it creates a longer transit time between the lips and the wall of the mouthpiece, resulting in a fuller and more open sound. However, it also decreases bottom lip flexibility and thus makes it more difficult to execute changes in dynamics, tone color, and intonation.

Conversely, if the headjoint is rolled too much inward (lining up closer to the rods than the keys), the flutist must compensate their embouchure by drawing the top lip over the bottom and blowing more downwards to hit the wall of the mouthpiece. This ends up covering a lot of the tone hole, so while the resulting tone may sound clear and “pure” (which is dangerously satisfying to the ear, especially up close), the sound doesn’t project well beyond a few feet, and again prevents flexibility of the bottom lip.

 

The aperture refers to the size of the opening our lips make when blowing air into the flute. The lips form the shape of the aperture by gripping the opening around the air column as it moves out of the body and across the mouthpiece. As Dr. Cate Hummel describes, forming an aperture with a stable grip around the air column is what creates resistance necessary for producing a strong, open, focused tone on the flute. For most wind instruments, sound is made when the musician uses air to build up enough air pressure to overcome the resistance of the reed or mouthpiece. But for flutists, our lips are our mouthpiece! This means that the lips themselves have to create that resistance through a strong (but not tense) aperture that guides the air out.  Generally speaking, a flute aperture size is similar to the opening of a flat coffee straw or an oboe reed. However, the aperture size must change slightly to control the sound.

Where the aperture forms – whether in the center of the lips or off to one side – depends again on the shape of the player’s lips. Generally speaking, a centered aperture will work best to creating a good tone, but a teardrop-shaped upper lip may require an aperture that is slightly off-center either to the left or the right (however, a left-of-center aperture, towards the crown of the headjoint, will better facilitate tone production). Again, experiment with what aperture size is needed to create a focused sound and at what angle to aim the aperture. The blowing angle of the aperture can be controlled by the degree to which you “pout” with the upper and lower lip. Pouting out the upper lip in relation to the lower lip creates a downwards blowing angle, and pouting out the lower lip in relation to the upper lip creates an upwards blowing angle. This subtle changing of the size and angle of the aperture is key not only for creating a basic embouchure, but also for manipulating factors such as register, dynamics, pitch, and tone color.

 

Remember, embouchure and aperture are only a part of the equation to producing a strong sound. All of this needs to happen over a foundation of strong breath support – how we control the pressure and volume of our air during the exhale as it comes out of the lungs and across the mouthpiece of the flute. My next post will cover useful (and not so useful) ways to conceptualize air pressure and volume, and how we can best manipulate these factors while playing the flute. Thanks for reading!