There’s one trick that I learnt from another saxophone teacher that has stayed with me. Many, many years ago I took over Lance’s Saturday classes and for one week, as a bit of meet and greet between myself and students, I sat in on his lessons. Was I still a teenager at the time? It was so long ago.
The trick Lance used was “buzzing” the saxophone mouthpiece, i.e. just blowing the mouthpiece and reed to make a sound.
The thing is, I could make a sound with my clarinet mouth piece at the time, but not my saxophone one (not a good sound at least). It’s just something that I’d not really thought much about, and so never really did, and I guess I’d considered it more a party trick to make some silly sounds.
But here I am sitting in on one of Lance’s lessons and he’s getting one of his students to play the saxophone mouthpiece by itself to generate not just a sound, but a good sound; actually pitching the note!
Why is this important?
Embouchure is something that is hard to refine and hard to maintain. Hard to refine meaning its hard enough getting it right in the first place, but then, because of fatigue, it’s hard to keep steady. That’s not even including the variables such as reed and mouthpieces, that seem to fight you all the way to creating a tone you want.
By playing the mouthpiece but itself, you instantly realise a few things
- There’s a high likelihood you’re gripping the mouthpiece too hard. This will make the tone sound a bit strangled. It’s important to note squeeze the reed too much. If anything, try squeezing (gripping) the sides of the mouthpiece with the corners of your mouth.
- The shape of the inside of your mouth is critical. It’s incredibly hard to describe, but say “too” and “tor” and notice how the back of the tongue and the soft palette changes shape. The “tor” creates a better resonance.
Airflow and sustained tone generation
It’s quite difficult to maintain the note when playing just the mouthpiece with reed, especially if the reed is very hard, or the gap between mouthpiece tip and reed is really large. Getting a sound and sustaining it is obviously a prerequisite to anything that comes next.
It’s important to not grip the mouthpiece for dear life, and often squeezing too much is a beginner’s default embouchure.
As a prerequisite for pitching a note, you must be prepared to “bend” the note by loosing (and then tightening) the embouchure. Another way of thinking about this is loosening such that you’re dropping the jaw such that the reed has plenty of room to vibrate. Conversely, we tighten by starting to squeeze mouthpiece and reed to bring the pitch up.
Typically student struggle with pitching the note down, and I wonder if that is their mental inertia telling them that it will sound gross if they do so. The thing is, this is exactly what we want; loosen up and drop the pitch so that your reaching for the next note down, making it as ugly as possible.
Note that the lower bend, the more airflow is going to be required to sustain it. This too, is an important realisation.
By trying to pitch the note with just the mouthpiece, Lance was demonstrating that embouchure is not just for generating sound, but for assisting pitch. Even though the saxophone (and clarinet) have keys to press down to make the sound, it’s the embouchure that is assisting getting these notes in tune by almost being that note. In practise though, this applies to the high notes than the lower ones, and perhaps for the throat notes of the clarinet which have a tendency to go sharp.
As saxophone and clarinetists (I can’t speak for how an Oboe, flute or bassoon behaves), we get a bit lazy in that we blow air, push some keys, then expect the note to be accurate, but flexibility of embouchure is important for getting notes in tune. The advanced player is likely doing this without even realising it, and yes, obviously a quality instrument will have less intonation issue.
Unsuitable mouthpiece and reed combo
Once upon a time I saved up my teenage dollars and bought a metal Yanagisawa mouthpiece. It’s of the most difficult types of mouthpieces to pitch; it’s bright and aggressive and mine had a large tip opening, so quite difficult to get subtlety of control. Admittedly this was the early 2000s, so perhaps I could do that now.
What I’m getting at is there’s a chance you’re fighting your equipment, and your equipment is winning. Sometimes you just have to take a step back, try some different combinations, get things working, then work back into the equipment you really want to use. e.g. and Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece with a size 7 tip opening, and a 2 1/2 – 3 strength reed is about as “average” as you can get. First of all, this is a great setup, but it’s also a baseline to which you can try out other crazy things, like metal Yanagisawas or massive Berg Larson grained ebonite.
The concept of buzzing is not just a brass-player thing but and core skill for saxophone and clarinetists too. Admittedly we musicians tolerate brass players warming up this way, but we’d get funny looks if we started doing this on a saxophone or clarinet at the beginning of a rehearsal.
As it’s core though, the concepts are the same, but it also reveals some truths about our playing technique that we may not have been aware of.