The Jazz Saxophonist: Two Methods of Embouchure Formation for Developing a Great Tone
by Tracy Heavner
Forming a correct embouchure is one of the most important aspects of playing the saxophone. Without correct embouchure, a saxophonist’s tone, intonation, response, musical expressiveness, and performance enjoyment will be severely hindered. In addition, it is extremely important to establish a correct embouchure in the very beginning stages of development since a poorly formed embouchure is difficult to change once it has been learned. Therefore, beginning saxophonists and their teachers should carefully monitor embouchure formation from the very first lesson, correcting any flaws until the formation of a correct embouchure becomes a habit.
Two Traditional Methods of Basic Embouchure Formation
Larry Teal’s “O” Shape Embouchure
Larry Teal was a famous saxophonist, clarinetist, flautist and teacher at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Many of his students also became well-known saxophonists and teachers in their own right including Joe Henderson, Lynn Klock, Steven Mauk, Patrick Meighan, John Sampen, Donald Sinta, and others.
Teal’s method of forming a correct saxophone embouchure was to shape the mouth and lips in the form an “O” much as if to say the vowel “O” or as if to whistle. Saxophonists should form this position with just the mouth first, and then slide the mouthpiece into the mouth while holding the “O” formation. There should be equal pressure on all sides the mouthpiece as if a drawstring was being pulled around it or as if being wrapped around by a rubber band.
Joe Allard’s “V” Shape Embouchure
Another very different approach to forming the saxophone embouchure was developed by Joe Allard, who was also a famous saxophonist/clarinetist and teacher at the Julliard School, Manhattan School and the New England Conservatory. He too like Teal, produced many fine players in both classical and jazz styles including Michael Brecker, Eddie Daniels, Stan Getz, Harvey Pittel, Ken Radnofsky, and numerous others.
However, Allard did not agree with Larry Teal’s concept of an “O” shaped embouchure stating that it allowed the lips to assert pressure on the sides of the reed. This restricted the reed’s vibrations and narrowed the amount of overtones produced, reducing the overall tonal resonance. Allard’s approach taught a concept totally opposite of the “O” shape in which the saxophonist applies more pressure to the center, thicker part of the reed while keeping the lips flat and away from the sides of the reed. He often had his students make a “V” with their middle and index fingers, which were used to push the lower lip away from the sides of the reed on each side of the mouthpiece when practicing. Allard’s strategy was to make the embouchure fit the shape of the mouthpiece and reed.
Characteristics of a Good Embouchure
No matter which embouchure approach a saxophonist chooses, there are certain aspects that are commonly shared in the formation of all good embouchures. The first is that the top teeth are placed on the top of the mouthpiece and the corners of the mouth close around the sides to seal off any air leaks. The mouthpiece when placed into the mouth will automatically pull the correct amount of lower lip over the teeth, which is usually about half of the red fleshy part. However, the amount of lip used to cover the reed is also a personal choice since some players prefer more than others depending on their tonal concept and the style of music they are performing.
Another essential factor present in a good embouchure is that as the saxophonist blows air in to the mouthpiece using proper breath support, the correct amount of embouchure pressure should occur naturally as the facial muscles tighten to keep the air from leaking around the mouth. Great care must also be taken to ensure that the chin muscles located directly below the lower lip do not bunch up as air enters the mouthpiece. The chin muscles should be held flat against the chin, which will feel as if one is pushing these muscles down and away from the body.
A third common factor is that the tongue should be placed in a position that is very high in the oral cavity. The sides of the tongue at the back should touch the inside of the upper molars with an overall feeling of saying a “he.” This position will keep the air stream narrow and moving quickly so intonation and response are maximized.
A fourth factor is that pressure from the lower teeth and jaw should be kept to a minimum since this restricts reed vibration, causes intonation problems and can also cause a sore lower lip.
When learning how to form a correct embouchure, only the mouthpiece and neck of the instrument should be used initially allowing the performer to concentrate only on embouchure formation and not instrument position. As the saxophonist feels more comfortable with the embouchure, the instrument may be added.
Using a Mirror
Saxophonists should use a mirror when forming the embouchure since it may be difficult to feel if the embouchure is formed correctly, especially in regards to the proper placement of the chin muscles. A small car visor mirror is a perfect choice for this task. Performers can carry the mirror in their case and place in it on the music stand when practicing in order to check their embouchure. In the beginning, saxophonists may form the correct embouchure but as they begin to focus on other aspects of playing, they may develop some bad embouchure habits. Constant examination through the use of a mirror will keep this from happening. After a short period of time, correct embouchure formation will become a natural occurrence and use of a mirror can be halted.
Determining Proper Embouchure Pressure
Playing with the correct amount of embouchure pressure is a very important aspect of saxophone performance since too much or too little pressure will have an adverse effect tone production, intonation and response. Saxophonists that play with too much embouchure pressure usually have a small pinched tone, intonation that is sharp especially in the upper register, poor response in the low register, problems with producing vibrato and a sore lower lip. It is essential that saxophonists check their embouchure pressure to determine if the proper amount is being used and make corrections if necessary.
Embouchure Pressure: Classical vs. Jazz
There are two primary methods saxophonists use to check for correct embouchure pressure. The first method is to start a tone using only the mouthpiece and neck of the instrument. There are two pitches that can be produced depending on how much pressure is applied to the mouthpiece. The embouchure pressure used by most classical performers produces a Concert A♭ with the mouthpiece positioned on the neck where it is normally placed when the saxophone is in tune. However, some jazz saxophonists play with less embouchure pressure producing a Concert G.
Many times saxophonists will produce a pitch higher than the Concert A♭ indicating that too much pressure is being applied to the mouthpiece. If this is the case, the performer should reduce the amount of pressure applied by the lower lip, jaw and teeth while keeping the air pressure constant in the oral cavity. It is important to drop the lower jaw reducing embouchure pressure without reducing the air pressure inside the mouth. Simply blowing softer is not the answer. The air pressure inside the mouth should not change.
A second method used to check correct embouchure pressure is for the saxophonist to play octaves slurring from the lower octave to the upper and then back down. An excellent note to use for this exercise is low “A”, on the second space of the staff. The saxophonist should play a low “A” and then slur up to the “A” located an octave higher by pressing the octave key. No change in air or embouchure pressure should take place when doing this. After the upper “A” sounds, the saxophonist should release the octave key and the lower “A” should sound immediately. If the low “A” does not sound immediately or is delayed, embouchure pressure is too great and should be reduced by dropping the jaw while keeping the air pressure constant. When the jaw pressure is reduced and the low “A” sounds, the correct embouchure pressure for performing both notes has been established.
If jaw pressure is reduced and the low “A” still does not sound, the saxophonist should take a little more mouthpiece into the mouth. This should allow the reed to vibrate more freely improving tonal resonance and response. With correct embouchure pressure, the performer should be able to slur octaves in 16th notes with ease assuming the instrument and reed is in proper playing condition. This exercise can also be performed on a variety of other notes that use only the octave key to change registers.
It is important for saxophonists to remember that the change in octaves is due only to the octave key being pressed and not due to a change in pressure. It is also very important for saxophonists not to move their embouchure when playing in different registers of the instrument. Some performers develop a bad habit of involuntarily moving the lower jaw especially when playing in the low register. This movement should be avoided, (in classical playing), as it causes notes to have different timbres and may also cause intonation and response problems.
Another variation of this exercise is to allow another person to quickly depress and release the octave key while the saxophonist is holding the note. By doing this, the embouchure cannot be adjusted for each note since the performer does not know when the octave key will be depressed and released. This is an excellent exercise for stopping involuntary movement of the embouchure.
One consistent embouchure setting should be used to play the entire range of the instrument. This setting can be found by playing the lowest note on the saxophone, the low “B♭”. The saxophonist should play low “B♭” remembering the amount of embouchure pressure used and the mouthpiece placement. This setting should then be maintained as the saxophonist plays in all other registers.
When initially correcting poor embouchure formation, fatigue of the embouchure muscles may be experienced after playing for only a short while. However, endurance will develop quickly and the saxophonist will be able to play for much longer periods of time. If the embouchure collapses due to fatigue, practice should stop immediately. This will ensure that the performer does not begin to bite into the lower lip due to a lack of embouchure muscle support or revert back to an old, incorrect embouchure formation. After a short period of rest, the embouchure muscles will regain their strength and practice may resume.
Determining Proper Mouthpiece Placement and Angle
Proper mouthpiece placement and mouthpiece angle have a huge effect on saxophone tone and response. The exact placement of the mouthpiece varies depending on the facial features of the performer and the type of mouthpiece facing used.
Mouthpiece angle can also vary especially when switching from one saxophone type to another, such as alto to tenor. Since every saxophonist is a unique individual, each performer must learn the exact mouthpiece placement and angle through experimentation and trial and error. However, there are some general guidelines that all saxophonists should follow to get them headed in the right direction.
When the correct amount of mouthpiece is placed in the mouth, a saxophonist’s lower teeth will be in line with the point at where the reed and mouthpiece separate. This is equal to taking about one-half inch of mouthpiece into the mouth. To find the exact point, the performer can carefully slip a sheet of paper in between the reed and mouthpiece and slide it down until it first meets resistance. This resistance identifies the point where the reed and mouthpiece separate and is the fulcrum for optimum control. The saxophonist can mark this point on the reed and then make sure to take enough mouthpiece in the mouth to allow the lower teeth to be in line with this point.
The performer should also experiment with taking slightly differing amounts of mouthpiece in the mouth while listening for optimum tone and control. If not enough mouthpiece is taken into the mouth, a small muted tone and poor instrument response will be the result. If too much mouthpiece is taken, the tone will become harsh and uncontrolled.
If saxophonists are having problems with note response especially when slurring quickly from one register to the next and they are sure their embouchure pressure is correct, taking a little more mouthpiece into the mouth should solve the problem. Sometimes performers with response problems do not have enough mouthpiece in the mouth to allow the instrument to work properly.
Mouthpiece angle is also a factor in tone production and instrument response. The proper mouthpiece angle slightly varies depending on the type of saxophone being played and the playing style of the performer. The mouthpiece angle for soprano and alto saxophones is slightly downward. When playing the tenor and baritone saxophones, the mouthpiece is angled less, almost going straight in the mouth.
As a mouthpiece is angled more into the body, the lip pressure moves forward from directly on top of the lower teeth to a position more on the front of the teeth. This movement will have an effect on the tone and response of the instrument. There is some latitude in the exact mouthpiece angle to be used as many performers angle their instruments in a way that assists them in achieving a desired tone quality. Perhaps the best way for saxophonists to determine the correct mouthpiece angle is to try different positions while listening to the tone. When the tone is at its optimum resonance, the correct angle has been established.
Correct embouchure formation is an extremely important aspect of learning to play the saxophone and it is a personal decision on which method, the “O” shape technique of Larry Teal, Joe Allard’s “V” shape approach or even another method, is used. The amount of lip pressure, mouthpiece placement, mouthpiece angle and the style of music performed are also integral factors of embouchure development. It is very important to form a correct embouchure from the very beginning but if saxophonists find they are not satisfied with their embouchure after playing for a period of time, there is still a very good chance it can be corrected with the right instruction, through careful monitoring and much patience. Perhaps the most important factor in improving a poor embouchure is the desire to change. If saxophonists have a sincere desire to improve, anything is possible.
Dr. Tracy Lee Heavner is a professor of saxophone, music education and director of jazz studies at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. He is an accomplished author, music educator and distinguished performance artist for Cannonball, Yamaha, Beechler and D’Addario music corporations. He is also a recording artist for LiveHorns and has performed throughout the United States and at international venues around the world. His latest book entitled Saxophone Secrets: 60 Performance Strategies for the Advanced Saxophonist has received rave reviews and is published by the Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group.