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«Sound Advice for Saxophone EMBOUCHURE AND AIR • The mouthpiece should be roughly perpendicular to the face, so that the top teeth will be directly ...»

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Sound Advice for Saxophone


• The mouthpiece should be roughly perpendicular to the face, so that the top teeth will be directly above the bottom

teeth. This is different from the clarinet, but will be the same for all the members of the saxophone family.

• Students should play at the break point of the mouthpiece to get the most robust sound from their instrument. They

can find this by: A) looking at the mouthpiece in profile and placing their thumbnail parallel to the break point before setting their embouchure; or B) sliding cardstock-quality paper between the reed and mouthpiece. You can help students by placing a strip of electrical tape on the mouthpiece directly above the breakpoint; they will slide their upper teeth up the mouthpiece until bumping into the tape.

• Once students are comfortable establishing their embouchure at the break point, you can help them fine-tune their embouchure placement based on their tone. For a thin or “fuzzy” tone, have the student slide their top teeth slightly forward. For an edgy or “buzzy” tone, have them slide their top teeth slightly backward.

• The saxophone requires steady air support and an unchanging embouchure in order to produce a colorful, stable tone suitable for concert playing. Embouchure pressure should be equally distributed by focusing on keeping the corners drawn in, or forward, and by keeping the abdominal muscles engaged.

• To help students find their embouchure, begin by having them rest the weight of their head on the top of the mouthpiece (via the top teeth), keeping the jaw neutral and mouth open. Curling their bottom lip (as if about to say “vooh”), have them make light contact with the reed. Then, have them begin blowing air while drawing the corners forward; eventually the embouchure will seal and they will produce a tone (a good starting note for this is first-finger B in the middle of the staff). Once they understand how much corner pressure is necessary (and how little jaw pressure is necessary), you can have them begin slurring between notes with steady air, and from there develop articulation.

• A handy way to check embouchure and air support in developing students is by having them play on the mouthpiece alone. The alto mouthpiece alone should produce a pitch between concert A and B. Higher than this almost always indicates insufficient air support; the student should practice playing a continuous crescendo on the mouthpiece, allowing the pitch to settle as the volume increases. Once the pitch settles into the proper range, the student should attempt to start again at forte with the same, lower pitch.

• Articulating on the mouthpiece alone will also be illuminating for students. They should strive first for a legato attack with continuous air support, listening for steadiness of pitch both within and between notes. Unsteadiness within a note usually indicates excessive tongue motion in the articulation; unsteadiness between notes often indicates an unstable embouchure.

• When playing, the posture should be upright but relaxed. A common problem involves the elbows: they should be relaxed and close to the body. Remember that the elbows-out marching band posture is good for uniform visuals on the field, but bad for free and unrestricted air flow.


• Most student instruments come packaged with mouthpieces of poor quality, and a reliable mouthpiece should be the student’s first priority when purchasing new equipment. A medium length facing and medium-close tip opening is preferred for concert/orchestral playing; most student mouthpieces will feature very wide tip openings and short facings that allow easy initial sounds to be made with a soft reed, but little control of that sound.

• Reed strength must be matched to the student, and will slowly change as their embouchure muscles develop and they increase their capacity for air support. Harder does not mean better! A reed too soft for the player will sound buzzy above mp and will tend significantly flat in the upper register, while a too-hard reed will respond poorly in the lower register and will tend to be sharp in the upper register.

• Students should begin playing on high-quality reeds as soon as they can consistently demonstrate good reed care and maintenance habits.

• Students should always have two to four reeds that they are comfortable playing on; after a reed is used in a practice session or rehearsal, it should get a “day off,” and be allowed to slowly dry while resting on a flat surface (either the plastic sleeve it came in, or a well-designed reed wallet). Rotating reeds will significantly extend their life and keep them more reliable, so that students are able to produce their best tone regularly.

–  –  –

EMBOUCHURE: The muscles of the lips are the primary support of the embouchure. The jaw remains in a neutral position, never moving forward and never pressing upward. The teeth are just open enough to take in the mouthpiece.

Bring the lips into a relaxed position around the clarinet akin to sucking one’s thumb where you cup the lips forward rather than drawing the corners back. The lower lip should meet the reed at the point where the clarinet mouthpiece begins to curve away from the reed.

Beginners can start by pressing their thumbs up against the bottom of their top teeth. Have them wrap their lips around the thumb and blow. Next, have students do the same with the mouthpiece and barrel. When they can get a consistent, steady sound, have them blow an open G through the clarinet. The clarinet should be held at a 35º angle from the body: further out for an underbite and closer to the body for a more pronounced overbite. The natural alignment of the upper and lower teeth (jaw position) should always be maintained. Bring the lip muscles inward as if closing a drawstring bag, whistling, or drinking through a straw. Say "oo" with the lips. With these instructions, the chin should flatten naturally.

Have students play simple legato tunes with no repeated notes, so that they learn to keep the air and embouchure the same between notes. Delay teaching articulation until students achieve steady embouchure and air control. Watch that students maintain the same embouchure position throughout the range of the clarinet regardless of articulation or dynamic.

Have students use a mirror and videos to check their embouchure position and movement.

To help students who chronically bite (use excess jaw pressure to compensate for lack of proper muscle use in lips), give them a very soft reed. Notes will only speak when the student uses lips muscles with minimal jaw pressure. The great clarinetist Daniel Bonade wrote, “A good reed is designed to be played - not to be squeezed, mauled, and tortured.

This is one of the reasons why players with hard embouchures require new reeds after a few days of playing. The player with a flexible embouchure can play a reed several weeks.” VOICING: (more advanced) For proper tuning, focusing of tone, and a smoother legato (as well as fixing puffed cheeks), say “ee” or “sh” with the tongue. This brings the front of the tongue up to direct the air and increase the air speed. The sides of tongue should be touching the upper molars. This tongue position should be used for the entire range of the clarinet. (Extreme high altissimo notes may require the tongue to move even higher and closer to the reed.) EQUIPMENT: The mouthpiece and reed have more effect on one's sound than the rest of the clarinet, so acquiring an appropriate mouthpiece is essential to one's success as a performer. Stock mouthpieces provided with new clarinets are inferior mouthpieces and should not be used. It is necessary to purchase a quality mouthpiece separately from the clarinet.

For younger students or those on a budget, there are a few well-designed plastic mouthpieces that can cost about half the price of a standard hard rubber mouthpiece.

Stick to the tried and tested makes and models of instruments and equipment. What’s good advice for cars is good for clarinets – wait until others have had time to test and the manufacturer has worked all the kinks out. Used instruments can be a great option for students; but they need to be in excellent working order, and should be play tested and approved by a reputable clarinetist.

In my experience, there is no such thing as a good student model clarinet reed. It is worth the extra price to pay for better reeds. I play custom made cane reeds in my performances, but I often play synthetic Légère Reeds when I am teaching and my office is particularly dry. Synthetic reeds are particularly good for outdoor playing, and they are probably a more appropriate alternative to cane reeds for younger students. I would not hesitate to recommend them to high school clarinetists for rehearsals and performances, since these reeds often play much better than the cane reeds that most players use. Regardless of the material, reeds must be stored in a reed holder and carefully handled.

Besides holding the reed securely on the mouthpiece, a ligature should allow the reed to vibrate freely. The best ones do so without contacting the sides of the reed.

Dr. Shannon Thompson QUESTIONS? Feel free to contact me at thompson@wcu.edu. Western Carolina University School of Music carolinaclarinetist.com !

Sound Advice for Oboe Breathing. A good intake of air is required to start and sustain the tone, but because only a small amount of air actually goes into the instrument, stale de-oxygenated air remains in the lungs while playing. Oboists must learn to exhale stale air before inhaling fresh air. At the start of a piece in 4/4 time, for example, exhale on beat 3, inhale on beat 4, and play on beat 1. As the player’s breathing becomes more efficient, an exhale/inhale cycle may be completed even during a relatively short rest. But where rests are very short or absent altogether, the oboist must plan for a place to exhale excess air several beats before the next opportunity to inhale fresh air.

Embouchure. Because tone quality, intonation and articulation are directly influenced by the embouchure, the oboist must develop a stable supportive embouchure that allows the reed to vibrate freely. Therefore, the jaws should be relaxed with the teeth about ½ inch apart, and the pressure of the lips on the reed should be more side-to-side than from above and below (don’t smile or bite). Lips vary in size and thickness, so individual embouchures do not look the same.

Easy-to-find syllables put the facial muscles in the best position for making a good embouchure:

• “ooo” as in “food” pushes the lips forward

• while the lips are forward, “err” firms the embouchure around the reed

• corners of the mouth stay forward and draw inward like a “drawstring” purse

• the chin now flattens and appears pointed, not rounded or “bunched” • “mmm” rolls the lips a natural amount over the teeth Articulation. The tone is begun by releasing the tongue from the reed, not striking the reed with the tongue. Touch the very tip of the reed with the tip of the tongue. This may require keeping the tongue further back in the mouth than one might realize. Tonguing with a “tah” keeps the tongue low and the inside shape of the mouth open for a good combination of clarity and resonance. “Tee” raises the tongue inside the mouth, making the mouth cavity more compact, and is best used for tonguing faster passages. “Dah” softens the low note entrances and helps keep a smooth legato in softer passages.

Intonation adjustments:

To lower a tendency to play sharp, try the following in this order:

1) use less embouchure pressure (relax the embouchure)

2) open the jaw about ¼ inch

3) shift the reed out of the mouth slightly (even a millimeter can make a big difference)

To raise a tendency to play flat, try the following in this order:

1) increase the grip of the lips around the reed, but do not “bite” with the teeth

2) shift the reed into the mouth slightly (even a millimeter can make a big difference) Reed. Beginners should start on relatively soft reeds. Try several different brands to see what feels best to the student while producing the qualities you are looking for in the ensemble.

• Soak the reed only 3-4 minutes in warm (never cold) water.

• The reed should “crow” easily around C and respond immediately to articulation.

• The reed will only do so much of the work. Students must understand that it is up to them to discover what combination of air and embouchure makes the reed perform properly.

–  –  –

Variables associated with the performer:

• Posture. Sit at the back of the chair, not at the front edge. Put the seat strap across the front edge of the chair, which is necessary for the instrument to be in the proper playing position. Bassoon is angled slightly forward and across the body so that student reads the music to the right of the bassoon’s body. Head should be fairly level and the end of the bocal should be roughly parallel to the floor so that student can blow straight into the instrument. Reed should be mounted on the bocal in such a way that the head does not tilt or put undue pressure on the reed.

• Embouchure. Say “ma.” The “m” turns the lips in slightly (but mostly in front of the teeth) while the “ah” opens the jaws and relaxes the throat. Create a seal around the reed with the lips, but do not bite! An underbite can make a proper embouchure difficult to form.

• Amount of reed in the mouth. If too little of the reed is in the mouth, the tone will be flat and buzzy. If too much reed is in the mouth, there may be a loss of control. The best position is to put the lips where the freest “crow” is achieved on the reed alone.

• Air. Air that moves too slowly will cause the second-space C to fall about a half-step flat with a flabby tone. Speeding up the air (usually by engaging the abdominal muscles) will cause the C to “hop” up to the correct pitch, and the tone will improve dramatically.

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