Top Six Tricks to Improve Your Saxophone Embouchure

I’ve become obsessed with the saxophone embouchure in the last year. It all began when Masato Kumoi, professor of saxophone at Kunitachi College of Music and Shobi University, and his saxophone quartet performed at the 2015 Frederick L. Hemke Saxophone Institute. Their sound was immense, deep, and flexible. When I spoke with the four members, Masato Kumoi (soprano), Wataru Sato (alto), Kazuyuki Hayashida (tenor), and Takahiro Nishio (bari), it became abundantly clear that their luminous sound was due in part to their flexible embouchures.

I began to pore over clarinet and saxophone method books in search of tricks to improve my embouchure. The tricks I found serve two purposes: reduce jaw pressure and allow the reed to vibrate freely. By using these tricks, or what I like to call creative constraints, your embouchure and, ultimately, your sound become more flexible.

 
Luminous, no?

ANCHOR YOUR TOP TEETH 

Students left to their own devices have an overwhelming tendency to bite down on their reeds. One of the first things I teach students about the embouchure is that the top teeth plant firmly on the top of the mouthpiece, and I’m not alone in my opinion on the top teeth’s role. I recently rewatched the classic pedagogical tape “Sinta on Sax”, and was reminded by the Don himself that one should rest their top teeth on their mouthpiece.

Forming an embouchure in this manner accomplishes a couple of things. First, the saxophonist is able to stabilize their tone because the mouthpiece isn’t wriggling in their mouth. Second, it frees up the jaw and bottom lip so they’re free to move for pitch adjustment and vibrato.

I can always tell when a student is not anchoring their top teeth because their chin starts to bunch up. In the absence of the top teeth stabilizing on the mouthpiece the chin will come in to compensate. Bunched chins are usually accompanied by an upward-tilting head, and a small, muffled sound.

The easiest way to combat this issue is by giving the student a mouthpiece patch. For a lot of beginners it’s very uncomfortable to rest their top teeth on a vibrating hard rubber mouthpiece. Utilizing a mouthpiece patch reduces discomfort. Patches have the added benefit of leaving tooth marks, so you can assess whether or not a student is taking enough mouthpiece.

I use the Black D’Addario Reserve Mouthpiece Patches AND Clear D’Addario Reserve Mouthpiece Patches in combination. I stack a clear one on top of a black one and it lasts forever! This also has the added benefit of making my embouchure more vertical, which is discussed later in this article.

 

PLAY WITHOUT PAPER

If you don’t play with paper/EZO/wax paper/cigarette paper on your bottom teeth, then please skip ahead to the next tip. If you play with paper, then shame on you! I’m kidding, but there are a number of reasons why you should experiment with this idea. Playing with paper is often a crutch for saxophonists so they can play with lots of jaw pressure and not hurt their lip. This increased jaw pressure stifles the reed and can lead to intonation problems and a pinched tone.

Using paper allows players to have longer practice sessions. Going longer is a blessing and a curse because while you can get more done you are ignoring the signals of fatigue from your body. Overdoing it in the practice room can lead to all kinds of overuse injuries down the road.

There’s also a time management aspect to playing paper-free because you have to put a time limit on your practice sessions. This last point has been helpful to me because I no longer have to feel guilty for not practicing. Instead I just listen to my body, stop playing before my embouchure fatigues too much, and then get on with the rest of my day.

I suggest the majority of you paper-users stop reading here and experiment with this one tip. I had to do a lot of tweaking with my reeds, jaw pressure, and embouchure to play paper-free. It took a long time to make it work, but there was a huge improvement in my sound, intonation, flexibility, and comfort.

PLAY SOFTER REEDS

This is a simple and quick tip that I use for myself and students to lessen jaw pressure. The premise is simple: the saxophonists must use less jaw pressure to match the sound they are accustom to making on harder reeds. It may not be as simple as that in practice, but whatever physical change you make to compensate for the equipment change will be a positive. In my case I had to push in my mouthpiece, drop my jaw, and engage my lip muscles to create a sound I liked.

I recommend you go down at least one reed strength and play with it for at least a week. When you come back to your harder reeds, you will immediately notice positive changes in your sound. Alternatively, you might realize how much easier it is to play on a softer reed and switch completely.

DOUBLE-LIP EMBOUCHURE

I first read about using a double-lip embouchure in the “Art of Clarinet Playing” by Keith Stein. He recommended using double-lip embouchure for altissimo practice and playing over large intervals. Although there are many players who use double-lip, most clarinetists today use double-lip embouchure as an exercise or supplement to their single-lip embouchure. Double-lip is an easy tool because there is a powerful feedback mechanism: the top lip. If you use too much jaw pressure, it hurts your top lip.

I recommend you use double-lip embouchure at least 50% of the time when you start out. If you’re sound is unusually stuffy and airy when double-lipping then you rely too much on biting to produce your sound. Additionally, you might have to use softer reeds to make it work.

I use double-lip when I play scales because it ensures I keep a consistent, flexible embouchure throughout the range of the horn. Most students immediately notice that their upper register is not as full when they first attempt double-lip embouchure. This is an important diagnostic as a teacher because it shows you that the student is used to biting whenever they play high.

As you get better at this trick your double-lip sound and single-lip sound will begin to match. I argue that you want your single-lip sound to match your double-lip sound as closely as possible and not the other way around. I think Ricardo Morales agrees:

 
Here’s Ricardo Morales making the case that double-lip embouchure is better than single-lip!

RAISE YOUR TOP LIP

I picked this one up from Dr. Nathan Nabb and Joe Allard (link). I will admit that I cannot precisely articulate why this works so well. I find lifting my top lip forces my bottom lip to engage, which provides a very plush, and supported cushion for my reed. Whatever the bottom lip does to compensate when playing sans top lip makes it difficult to bite down on the reed; thus, it vibrates freely.

This trick is great with students because it is fun and forces you to use a lot of air. Try playing a passage from the student’s music to see how far you can get and challenge them to go further. This way you can improve a student’s embouchure AND air support in one simple drill. While I don’t know the ins and outs of why this drill is so effective the best thing is for you to try it out for yourself. Leave a comment below if you think you can explain it!

MOVE VERTICALLY AND HORIZONTALLY 

I picked this trick up from Charles Neidich, my favorite clarinetist. He advocates keeping as vertical an embouchure as your sound will allow. For every bit you open the jaw the reed is able to vibrate more, which results in a better sound. If you open your jaw too much, the reed does not respond optimally and the sound becomes undesirable. You should experiment with this one variable, and establish boundaries of embouchure verticality for each range of the saxophone.

The horizontal aspect of the embouchure, moving the jaw forward and back, is the last thing the saxophonist should address. Once you master the aforementioned exercises you will have the freedom and flexibility to move your jaw forward and back. Dave Liebman wrote about the horizontal (forward and back) motion in his book Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound. This is how Liebman is able to play subtone, and explore different colors.

Moving the jaw back and forth is an indispensable part of jazz saxophone pedagogy, but is underexplored in classical pedagogy. Neidich explains that the reed is like a violin string, and by placing the fulcrum (teeth/bottom lip) forward and back on the reed you achieve different overtones. He gives a very convincing demonstration of overtones using this concept in his Play With a Pro masterclass, clarinet fundamentals.

I love this clip of Cannonball Adderley playing “Work Song.” You can see his embouchure from all angles, and see the different colors he achieves moving his jaw forward and back.

Be sure to try these embouchure tricks in the proper sequence because each one builds on the next:

  1. Anchor Your Top Teeth
  2. Play Without Paper
  3. Play Softer Reeds (go down AT LEAST one reed strength)
  4. Double-Lip Embouchure
  5. Raise Your Top Lip
  6. Move Vertically then Horizontally

Do you have any tricks you would like to share? Please leave a comment below!
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