Thursday, November 5, 2015

Quick Tip #1: Are You Biting Too Much?

Inspired by a question posted on reddit, let's go over a method to determine whether you're relying on excessive jaw and lip pressure to support your tone, and a few ways to fix the problem.

The dilemma presented was as follows: when using a soft reed, the horn is easy to play, free blowing, but the top register sounds thin. Switching to a hard reed makes the top of the range sound thicker, but the horn is now stuffy and hard to play.


As a rule of thumb, you should pick a reed strength that allows you to play the low end of the horn with a full tone (as opposed to sub-toning) as softly as possible. The key to getting a thick tone in the upper register, with a softer reed, is quite simply air support. You need to use air and not jaw, or lip, to support your tone.

1. Are You Using Excessive Embouchure Pressure?

Try the following exercise to determine whether you're relying on your embouchure too much, or using correct air support (make sure you pick a reed strength that allows you to play the bell notes easily): play a low Bb with a full tone, at a medium to low volume. Try to make it sound as open and stable as possible. You should pay close attention to any tension that may be creeping in, how your lip is shaped. Remember, your lower lip should be a cushion, and maintain a seal, that's it. Make sure you're playing with a firm, but relaxed embouchure. Now, without moving your lower jaw upward, play a high F. If you do this and sound very flat, or the note does not even sound, or drops an octave, you will know you're not using enough air support and have been relying on excessive jaw / lip support.

Just to make it clear, although the goal here is to keep your embouchure as steady as possible, some saxophonists roll their bottom lip in and out to cover the reed more, or less, depending on what register they're playing. Some other move their whole jaw forward and backward. The one thing you should avoid is biting, or moving your lower jaw up.

2. How do you fix this?

There is a multitude of exercises you can do to improve air support, and correct bad embouchure habits. Let's talk about just a few that I found were particularly effective at fixing this issue:

  • Interval jumps: this exercise is similar to the method we used to determine if you were using excessive embouchure pressure. There are many variations on this exercise, but here are two basic ones: 

1. Octave Jumps: pretty self explanatory. Simply jump octaves while focusing on using air to make the higher note speak, rather than tensing up your embouchure.

2. Variations on the exercise described above:  using the low Bb as a reference of relaxed embouchure, play a note higher up while focusing on being as relaxed and in tune. Low Bb to high F would be the hardest to achieve a clean transition, and be in tune with. As a consequence, it may be better to start with a smaller range. For example, you could divide the range of your instrument in two separate sections: middle D to high F, low Bb to middle C#.

If these are still too hard, don't hesitate use an even smaller range. This is not a competition; you should focus on good tone rather than how wide an interval you can play. In order to determine where you're starting to have trouble, play the exercises below:

Alto Saxophone Interval Exercise 1

Alto Saxophone Interval Exercise 2

Again, if you notice you're tensing up, don't push it. The goal is to un-learn a bad habit. If you're practicing this and tensing up it will work against this goal.

This exercise would also make a great warm-up for players of any level.

  • Overtone practice: the age-old recommendation. In order to make sense of overtone practice, and guide you through gradually developing the necessary skills to master tone production, I'd recommend checking out the two fantastic books by Ben Britton: A Complete Approach to Sound & A Complete Approach to Overtones .


These books are IMO a new standard when it comes to tone production and overtone practice. Unlike some of the "classics" on the same subject, which can be a bit esoteric sometimes, every concept and exercise in these two books is clearly explained. Ben describes how to perform each exercise, things you should pay attention to while practicing them, and what they aim to improve.

You should start with the first book in the series, A Complete Approach to Sound, as, although it is more of a generalist, it will benefit greatly people who are having problems with their embouchure getting in the way. The second book in the series, A Complete Approach to Overtones, is much more challenging and should be tackled after you have acquired a good control over tone production.


And this wraps up the first of (hopefully) a series of tips which don't necessarily justify an extended article, or may be slightly unorthodox, but are still be worth sharing. Stay tuned!



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