Saxophone Embouchure Basics
By Dr. Brian R. Utley, Assistant Professor of Music at SFA School of Music
The saxophone embouchure must be thought of as “forward with downward pressure,” and not pulled back in any way. One of the most common issues encountered with the embouchures of saxophone players at any level is a tightly pulled-back “smiling” formation with lots pressure exerted by the lower teeth and jaw. This hinders the vibration of the reed, causing a thin, pinched tone, poor (often sharp) intonation, and an ever-present “zing” in the sound created by the pressure of the lower teeth biting into the reed. There are several facets that must be examined in order to ensure that you or your student is forming a satisfactory saxophone embouchure: embouchure position on the mouthpiece, formation of the embouchure corners, alignment of the upper and lower teeth, and the amount of pressure exerted by the lower teeth/jaw.
The embouchure must make contact with the mouthpiece at the point at which the reed and mouthpiece rails meet. This contact point can be found by inserting a piece of paper between the reed and mouthpiece. Push the paper downward until it comes to a comfortable stop; mark this position with your thumb, pull the paper out, and form the embouchure at the point marked by your thumb. You will find most often, particularly on the bigger horns (tenor and baritone), that too little mouthpiece is going into the mouth. Once this correct contact point has been reached, a fuller sound should be evident.
The corners of the embouchure should be focused inward, not pulled back as when one is smiling. With inwardly focused corners, sufficient support is provided to the upper and lower lips so that they will not be too tense, allowing for maximum vibration of the reed. Tightly drawn corners, as noted above, will hinder vibration of the reed, possibly cutting off the sound completely (especially in the higher register), and causing a thin tone with poor intonation. A good exercise is to whistle and notice the puckering of the lip corners, or to think of sucking a very thick milkshake through a straw; saying the syllable “oooh” is another excellent demonstration for the proper inward focus of the embouchure corners.
A further consideration is that of jaw alignment. For most of us, the natural alignment of our jaw is that of a slight overbite, particularly if we have had our teeth corrected by an orthodontist at some point in our lives. A few of us, however, have naturally occurring under bites, and it should be noted that people with severe under bites may have trouble forming a proper embouchure. For purposes of playing the saxophone, we should strive for an even bite; that is, the upper and lower teeth should be in complete alignment without an overbite or under bite. This will likely require the lower jaw to push forward just slightly to be in alignment with the upper teeth.
A habit that many saxophonists develop very early in their playing is biting into the lower lip with the lower teeth. Many think that the lower lip acts as a cushion into which your teeth can bite; again, this results in a hindrance in the vibration of the reed, not to mention the fatigue and pain that can be caused by the teeth actually restricting blood flow to the lip. Therefore, the lower teeth should merely REST against the lip, not bite into it, and the chin muscles should be strong enough to support the lower lip (see exercises below) to prevent the lower teeth from biting into the lip. By the same token, the chin should not be bunched up, but should remain in a firm but relaxed position.
There are some good exercises that can help to strengthen the embouchure muscles. ( These exercises have been adapted and slightly varied from those in The Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal, published by Summy-Birchard. This is an excellent resource for all students and educators.) The first exercise begins by casually closing the jaw, allowing the bottom teeth and top teeth to merely make contact; it is very important to not clamp the jaw shut during this exercise. Then, push the upper and lower lips tightly against one another, maintaining a straight line with the lips. Again, do not clamp the jaw shut! Hold this position for a set amount of time (five seconds when you first begin, then increase to ten seconds, then increase to longer periods of time), rest and repeat. The second exercise begins with the teeth together. Slowly open the jaw while keeping the lips closed. Open the jaw as far as you can while keeping the lips closed, hold this position again for a set amount of time, rest and repeat. Just like weight lifting, we are training muscles that are probably seldom used, so take breaks often and be careful to not overdo it. Happy exercising, but no smiling!
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