This handout is for teachers, the next step after teaching the student formation of the embouchure:
This story was related to me by saxophonist and manufacturer Santy Runyon. Many years ago a fellow approached Mr. Runyon where he was performing and said that he liked Mr. Runyon's playing, but that Mr. Runyon played the sax wrong. Mr. Runyon was a little surprised, since he practiced eight hours a day to develop his craft. The fellow invited Mr. Runyon to his lab and assembled an alto saxophone. To this he attached a mouthpiece which had been cut apart, leaving only the shank. To this mouthpiece shank he had attached a small speaker, which was then connected to a Theramin (the first electronic synthesizer, often heard in old horror movies and the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations"). The Theramin was tuned so that the mouthpiece/speaker assembly produced the pitch of A, 880 Hz. Then, when the mouthpiece/speaker was placed on the alto sax, the entire range of the saxophone could be played by just fingering the notes. If tuned to a pitch much below A, 880 Hz, only the low register would speak. If tuned much above A, 880 Hz, only the upper register would speak. But when tuned to A, 880 Hz, both upper and lower register would speak.
Mr. Runyon realized that it was not the air moving through the instrument that made the tone, as it was obvious no air could move through this sax/speaker/Theramin setup. It was the reed, driven by the air stream, that excited the air column in the instrument to produce the tone. This is known as a "standing wave" for you scientific types. There is a demonstration in Larry Teal's "The Art of Saxophone Playing" which shows a 1" square of tissue paper floating in the bell of a sax while the player plays a low Bb. No matter how hard the player blows, he is unable to blow the tissue square from the bell of the sax. This tissue square is anchored in place by the standing wave.
Mr. Runyon found that if the mouthpiece and reed only are blown, and the player can produce the A, 880 Hz (for the alto saxophone), then the correct embouchure tension, bite, and airstream velocity are being used. The following method was developed for teaching beginners and correcting embouchure problems.
Teach the student to assemble the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature correctly. Only the mouthpiece assembly will be used for the first few weeks. Show the student that there is a curve to the facing which allows the reed room to vibrate. Find the fulcrum point of the facing by slipping an index card between the reed and mouthpiece. The fulcrum point is the point at which the card stops. With a pencil, lightly draw a line across the reed even with the edge of the card. Show the student how to form the sax or clarinet embouchure. Using the thumb as a stop lined up with the pencil mark on the reed, insert the mouthpiece until the thumb touches the lower lip. This will be very close to the correct amount of bite. Have the student blow the mouthpiece. If the tone is squawky and uncontrolled, use less mouthpiece. If the tone is choked off, or not produced at all, insert more mouthpiece. For alto sax, have the student match the concert A, 880 Hz that you play on the piano or keyboard (this is the A one octave and a sixth above middle C). For the Bb soprano clarinet, match the concert B one step above the A, 880 Hz. For the tenor sax, match the G one step below the A, 880 Hz. For baritone sax, match concert Eb. For soprano sax, match Db two octaves and a half step above middle C on the piano. Here you may download MIDI files with the correct mouthpiece pitch for Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, and Baritone Sax, as well as Bb Soprano Clarinet.
Do you have a young clarinetist who has trouble playing above high C? Have him play the concert B (his altissimo C#) on the mouthpiece only. You have just proven to him that the reed will vibrate fast enough. Now, using the exact same embouchure, he can play the high C# on his clarinet. Hint: Do NOT lift the first finger, left hand, all the way off the tone hole in the altissimo (or third) register of the clarinet. What you are doing with the first finger is forming a second register vent. While playing fourth space E, roll the first finger down to just slightly crack a vent ("half-hole"). If the embouchure is correct, the high C# will pop right out. Now play top line F, roll the finger down, and high D pops out. Play F#, roll the finger down, out pops high Eb, etc. You may demonstrate this by turning the mouthpiece around and letting the student blow while you finger the notes. There is no change in embouchure tension from register to register. Biting to squeeze out the high notes is detrimental to clarinet (and sax). With this demonstration it can be seen by all that the embouchure is the same for the entire range of the clarinet. (Exception: For the upper register of the bass clarinet, it is helpful to drop the jaw slightly.)
As aside: Many youngsters blame the reed or embouchure for squeaks, when in reality it is usually poor hand and finger position. A tone hole may be slightly cracked, forming an unneeded register vent, or the hand may be slightly opening a side key. There may be a leaky pad. The young player squeaks, and then starts doing weird things with his embouchure trying to stop the squeaks. When the student squeaks, he should first check his hand position.
Use the "flick trick" to check embouchure tension. Have the student play his second space A. The student closes his eyes (so he can't anticipate) and the teacher operates the octave key. If the upper register does not speak, or is flat and soggy, then the embouchure is too loose. If the upper A responds, but does not drop down to the low A when the octave key is released, then the embouchure is too tight. It is OK if there is a little hesitation dropping back down. If both octaves speak readily, the embouchure tension is just right.
The student should not drop or pull back the jaw for the low notes, nor should he bite for the high notes. The teacher or another saxophonist stands behind the student and fingers the notes while the student blows the mouthpiece with the same embouchure tension as is used to produce the proper pitch on the mouthpiece only. The entire range of the sax can be played, with the possible exception of high E and F (these notes require a slightly arched tongue position). If the low notes do not speak, the sax may need adjustment. Check that the G# pad does not crack open when playing low C#, B, or Bb. Doping the pads helps low register playing by sealing up little leaks.
The palm key notes and altissimo register require an altered oral cavity. This is accomplished by arching the tongue up into an "EEE" position, producing a faster airstream. (On soprano sax, this altered oral cavity is begun around high C. Tenor and bari sax require less of this alteration for high E and F, but do require arching the tongue for the altissimo register.)
Created: August 1999
Update: January 10, 2005
© 1999-2005 Harri Rautiainen and respective authors