Why You Need to Play Saxophone Without Paper

This is the follow-up post to my article Top Six Tricks to Improve Your Embouchure. I want to get into a little bit more detail about how this one creative constraint can make a world of difference in your playing. Even if you don’t use anything to cover your teeth I still encourage you to keep reading.

Here’s a short list of why I think people use paper/EZO/cigarette paper/wax paper/saran wrap/whatever else:

  1. Playing won’t hurt your lip
  2. Enables you to have longer practice sessions
  3. Makes high notes, especially altissimo, easier to play
  4. Gives you more control over your sound
  5. Enables you to play harder reeds to get a darker, denser sound

Suppose you agree with the list above, but then decide to play without paper. Ask yourself if you can still do the following:

  1. Produce a good sound on your current setup
  2. Play without hurting your lip
  3. Practice for longer than 20-30 minutes at a time
  4. Play altissimo
  5. Play altissimo in tune
  6. Produce a desirable sound in all registers
  7. Play the reed strength you were using before

If you answered “no” to any of these questions then I would continue to play without paper until those “noes” (I admit I had to look up the plural of ‘no’) into “yeses”. Experimenting with just this one creative constraint will open up your sound and approach to playing saxophone. Below are a couple of the benefits you will experience from playing paper-free.

 

NO MORE LOWER LIP PAIN

Initially when you embark on your paper-free journey it will hurt a lot to play. The pain is an important feedback mechanism because you know that you are using too much jaw pressure. However, in order for paper-free to equal pain-free there are a few adjustments you will need to make to your mouth and equipment.

I immediately found that I had to drop my jaw when playing. The pressure from my teeth was just too much for my lip to take, so I had to loosen up. Remember that every bit you open your jaw you have to compensate with the lips. This results in the lip muscles engaging more, which creates a flexible but supported platform for the reed (lips > teeth). At first, your sound will be airier than usual but that will change as your lips get stronger.

To help facilitate this change here are two more pieces of advice. First, switch to a softer reed. It will eliminate a lot of the airiness. I suggest either picking reeds that are on the softer side of your current strength, or like I recommended here going down one strength (i.e. size 3.5 –>size 3). Commit to playing with the softer reed for one month, and, who knows, you might not want to switch back!

Secondly, push in your mouthpiece because the softer reed and lower jaw position lowers your center of pitch. Pushing in your mouthpiece does wonders to saxophone intonation and response. For many of us, we play instruments that were designed either in France or Japan where the pitch standard is A=442hz. Therefore, any bit that we can push in brings the saxophone into better balance. If you don’t believe me try this for yourself:

  1. Push in further than you would normally
  2. Play a descending C major scale down to low C
  3. Pull out a little and repeat the C major scale
  4. Continue pulling out your mouthpiece and testing the C major scale

You’ll notice that the more you pull out the more the low C will begin to “warble.” This low note warble has all kinds of implications for the intonation of the rest of the horn, so the further in you can get your mouthpiece the better.

“Hi, I’m Charles Neidich, and I don’t need stuff on my teeth. Plus, I’m pretty good at clarinet.”

 

SHORTER PRACTICE SESSIONS

We have all felt the pressure of the practice monster. You know that feeling when you are hanging out with friends or binging on Netflix, and you realize you didn’t practice enough that day. Only a measly two hours!  Playing paper-free allows you to put a time limit on your practice sessions. It’s the natural way to play saxophone because you are able to receive feedback from your body. When you have a wad of paper protecting your lip from your teeth you can’t feel when enough is enough. You will play past the point of fatigue because, frankly, teeth and jaw muscles don’t fatigue. However, your lips muscles do fatigue, which is the perfect indication to stop playing.

If you are not able to play for 20-30 minutes at a time, then you probably need to change your setup and approach. Go down the checklist again:

  1. Drop your jaw
  2. Play a softer reed
  3. Push in

Plus, it’s always best to leave the practice room wanting more instead of beating yourself into the ground. Now you can go live the rest of your life outside the practice room guilt-free!

Do you play paper-free? With stuff on your teeth? Do you have an opinion either way? Please share your experiences by commenting below!

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2 comments

  1. I like the idea of this as an experiment, and I have done this several times. However, the idea that if you use something over your lower teeth means you use too much pressure, is absurd. Some people who use paper/ezo/whatever use too much pressure, others don’t.

    There is an appropriate amount of pressure that one must use to get an optimal sound and using too much or too little pressure will cause problems.

    One thought on teaching the above method to students: Many of my students come to me playing with a ‘bunched’ chin…which is very difficult to correct. When my students are first experimenting with a ‘straight’ or ‘pointed’ chin, they put more pressure on their lower lip…using ezo/paper/sports guard can significantly increase success, and can prevent falling back to previous habit when their lip gets sore.

    1. Hi James,

      Great points all around, and you are definitely ahead of the curve having already experimented with this stuff. Yes, there are definitely those who use paper and use the right amount of lip pressure, but for those who do not I think my article is helpful.

      To your point that “there is an appropriate amount of pressure one must use,” I agree entirely. Suppose, however, you had a student who came in with a S80 C*, a size 3.5 reed, paper over their teeth, but they sounded great. All seems well and good on the surface until they play with piano and you realize they play flat in the left-hand lower register. Once they push in it doesn’t help because now their middle E is 20 cents sharp. We all know this scenario. I think that this student would benefit immensely from the advice in my article. They could certainly make all the adjustments listed above and STILL use paper, but I find getting rid of it serves as a forcing function for loosening up the embouchure.

      Lastly, to your point about students playing with a ‘bunched’ chin, I agree with you there, too! Paper definitely comes in handy in this scenario, but if the student’s muscles can’t support the new embouchure-formation for very long shouldn’t they just stop playing? Haha, I don’t mean quit, I just mean they should shorten their practice sessions. This way they are listening to their body, and are simultaneously using a power feedback mechanism: pain. If it hurts, they put down the horn and try again later to get a beautiful, flat, pointed chin going.

      Did you see the “Q-T” exercise posted on the Vandoren blog by Michael Lowenstern? I thought it was an incredibly useful exercise. I think it’s always helpful to find ways to strengthen these muscles away from the horn. I’ve also started thinking about the ring of muscles around the lips not as a rubber band, as I often hear it described, but as pillars on the side of the face (future article?). If you make an “O” face you can grab those muscles I’m talking about. I think the stronger the pillars the less demand placed on the bottom lip.

      This article was not an indictment on everyone who puts stuff on their teeth, but just
      another perspective that hopefully helps people play with more comfort in the long
      run. Anyway, just some of my thoughts, but I would love to continue this conversation! I hope to see you and the other Oasis guys soon.

      Also, if you want to write a rebuttal, I would love to publish it! It would be so cool coming from someone with your pedigree. Thanks for taking the time to comment and read my blog!

      Best,
      Sean

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