2.17 Embouchure Control

This is supplementary to (but intrinsically different from) Shooshie's Mouthpiece exercise and ten steps guide. Thanks to Jack Laing for the document.

Survey On Embouchure

One of the first things to trouble the beginner on either saxophone or clarinet is the formation of a reliable, steady embouchure which will suit his facial build up, helping him to develop freedom of blowing coupled with a good tone. Faults developed at an early stage carry right through to a moderate or advanced player and, of course, can give trouble at any time.

A bad embouchure can result in a thin, rough or otherwise unpleasant tone, or to uncertain control with poor intonation and vibrato.

Exact measurements as to how much mouthpiece to put in the mouth and how much pressure to apply cannot be given because each player is an individual, with differently shaped teeth, lips, jaw. However, whether you possess thick lips or thin ones, prominent teeth or a receding jaw, there are two basic formations of embouchure. Within these two basic formations are countless tiny variations from one player to another. Both formations are widely used and the adoption of one or the other, coupled with experiments to determine the exact position which gives the best results, depends on the physical features of the player.

1) The Normal lip method. It is called by this name because the lower lip is left in its normal position so that a cushion for the reed and the teeth is formed by the fleshy top of the lip. The lip is neither curled over the teeth nor pouted out but is brought up naturally to the reed as if you were smoking a cigar. Try to imagine that you are pronouncing the letter "F" when saying a word such as field or form.

2) The Closed lip method. Here the lower lip is tuned in slightly over the teeth so that part of the outside of the lip forms the cushion for the reed and the lower teeth are in more positive contact with the inside of the lip. This method is probably used more by alto players than by tenor players and is the norm for clarinet players. Imagine you are pronouncing the letter "V" as in victor or very.

In both methods avoid putting too much pressure on the reed as there should be just enough pressure to give you control of the note; too much will restrict the vibration of the reed and result in a thin tone.

Which Suits You?

First place the mouthpiece in your mouth (try it without the saxophone) with your top teeth on the mouthpiece and bring your bottom teeth up naturally without any facial contortions (it helps if you do this looking into a mirror) and keeping your bottom lip in its normal position. Do the teeth come up just inside the lower lip or do they slide up past it so that, if you continued to bring them up, they would contact the reed? If the teeth sit comfortably inside the lip the normal lip method will probably suit you. If the teeth miss the lip then you should turn the lip over, just enough to find the teeth, and use the closed lip method. There should be a minimal amount of turning in required. Do not exaggerate this as a minor adjustment is all that is usually required. In both methods, the idea is to provide a resilient cushion for the reed assisted by the teeth.

If you double on clarinet, you may find that you need to play the closed lip method on clarinet but the normal lip method may give better results on the sax.

Top Teeth On The Mouthpiece.

This applies to both methods. The top teeth should lie naturally on the mouthpiece in a position relative to the bottom lip, again, with just enough pressure to maintain control. The upper teeth exert a natural downward pressure because of the weight of the head. The top teeth serve to hold the mouthpiece securely, but not viciously. Too much pressure will mean that you will bite into the top of the mouthpiece and too little will send vibrations rattling up into your head. If you have uneven or very sharp teeth you can buy one of those little adhesive patches to stick on the mouthpiece. It might also be worth having a word with your dentist who might suggest a little bit grinding down or, alternatively, making a little shield to go over the teeth while you are playing. If you have very uneven teeth, this could lead to the mouthpiece wobbling in your mouth. In a case like this, you could try moving the mouthpiece away from a central position so as to find a more comfortable spot. Remember, it is your face. It is important to avoid leaning the head too far downward as this restricts the laryngeal area and produces a pinched sound. To avoid this, stand in a normal, relaxed, upright position and bring the saxophone to you; not you to the saxophone. If the sling is correctly adjusted, pushing forward with the right thumb should place the mouthpiece in your mouth without any need to bend the head downwards.

The lower teeth should act as a support for the lower lip, a foundation on which to build your embouchure. They do not act as a means to apply pressure or control; this is done by the facial muscles surrounding the lips. If the lower lip and teeth are too near the tip of the mouthpiece, even a small amount of pressure will tend to close up the reed and restrict the tone. On the other hand, too much mouthpiece in the mouth will result in a raucous tone and the breath will tend to rush away from you. You will get more volume but of the wrong kind.

So; we come to the question, how much is the right amount? First of all, this depends on your teeth formation. The normal "bite" is where your teeth come slightly behind the front teeth when the jaw is closed. Because of the differences in our facial structure, this is like trying to find an average family of 2.4 children. Some people have top teeth which project considerably in front of the bottom ones; some have top teeth which exactly meet the bottom teeth; some have a jaw structure where the bottom teeth project in front of the upper ones; this is called an underbite.

Because the lower lip is the most important one in playing the saxophone, it follows that it is the placement of that lip that is important and the top teeth are placed in relation to the lower lip and teeth and in accordance with your facial structure.

Most people advocate placing the bottom lip at the point where the reed parts company with the mouthpiece, and, in order to find this point, you should fix your reed on the mouthpiece, just as you normally do, then drop a piece of thin card or stiff paper down between the reed and the mouthpiece. Pencil a mark on the reed where the paper comes to rest. This is where you should place your bottom lip and the top teeth should come down naturally in accordance with your facial structure.

If you use an old reed for this, you can cut a little notch on either side so that you can feel it with your lip. If you then place a patch, such as a bicycle puncture patch or a piece of electrician's tape, with the edge at the point where your top teeth go, you can feel this with your top teeth and use it as a guide until you get used to the feel of how much mouthpiece to put in your mouth.

It is important to keep your face in as normal a position as possible and not make any weird contortions with the bottom jaw just so that you can look like your favourite sax player.

The Upper Lip.

These comments apply to both methods. The top lip is not drawn in under the top teeth, nor is it pushed forward. The lip is not allowed to be blown forward by the force of air. Place your teeth on top of the mouthpiece, bearing down slightly, and close your top lip down naturally. Now lift it and place it very slightly nearer the teeth. The top lip is not left in a flabby state, neither is it used in a vicious squeeze. The muscles in the lip and those which run down from the nose to the corners of the mouth are used to give an easy, comfortable control to the lip in order to stop the air blowing past it.

The Lower Lip...

Normal method. Putting your top teeth on the mouthpiece, bring up your bottom lip naturally. The reed will then rest on the fleshy part of the lip. The lip is not turned out abnormally since this would make it too flabby and the lower teeth could not offer any support to the lip. By bearing down with the top teeth (not too hard) the mouthpiece is pushed down slightly into the bottom lip causing a little ridge to form inside the lip. The lower teeth come up inside that ridge contacting the lip from the top of the lip. The amount will vary with different people as some of us have thin lips and some have thicker lips. The teeth should not cut into the lip. If this happens, you are either putting too much pressure on or there is some sort of irregularity in the teeth which is causing discomfort.

Closed method. This method is advised where the bottom teeth are back in the mouth or where the lower lip protrudes when you adopt your normal expression, making it difficult to bring your bottom teeth up into the lower lip. Do not jut the jaw forward to find the lip, but turn the lower lip over slightly in order to cover the bottom teeth. The idea is to form a cushion for the reed. Turn over only enough lip to feel a comfortable contact.

There should be nothing exaggerated about any formation of the lips around the mouthpiece. If the lower lip is turned over too much, there is too much tension and the contact with the reed loses sensitivity. Experiment a little to see what suits you best.

I would suggest that you try experimenting with your bottom lip position using the mouthpiece alone - with a reed on of course - so that you can look into a mirror to see if everything looks natural and you are not jutting your jaw forward; try to get a sideways view as well as a frontal one. If you are happy with how things look, blow into the mouthpiece to make sure that your cheeks are not ballooning out, then try blowing with just the mouthpiece and crook, again in front of the mirror.

Once you are happy with the way things are going, try a few notes on the sax, avoiding the extreme upper and lower notes for the moment. You should be aiming for a controlled relaxation, or a relaxed control if you would rather put it that way. The same expression should also apply to your fingers, by the way. Try to think of your bottom lip as being above the teeth, rather than on it. Relaxed doesn't mean collapsed. The next stage is rather difficult to describe in print.

Do not move your jaw either backwards or forwards but by dropping the chin very, very slightly, and supporting the reed with the facial muscles rather than the teeth, try to smooth out the bit of your face between the bottom lip and the bottom of your chin. The front of the chin should be flat and not bunched into little dimples. These remarks apply more to the Normal Lip method than The Closed since the closed method tends to put the chin in the correct position. It helps if you think of the syllable "D", as in dream, just as you are bringing the lip up to the mouthpiece. Since the embouchure relies on the musculature of the face for support, the following exercises can be helpful:

1. Place your lips as though you were whistling. The mouth corners automatically move inwards. Now smile as broadly as possible. Then alternate the smile and the whistle, slowly at first, but in regular rhythm. Think "OO" - "EE" alternately.

2. Push the lower lip tightly against the upper. Keep the line of the lips straight but press as hard as possible. Hold for about ten seconds then repeat twenty times.

3. Holding the above position, drop the jaw while keeping the lips pressed together. Now open the mouth maintaining the same relationship between the jaw and the lower lip. Place the forefinger against the lower lip and press down. The lower lip should resist the pressure of the finger and support itself by using the chin muscles.

Many people advocate making an "O" shape of your mouth as you put the mouthpiece into your mouth but I think this comes from the days when sax players tried to visualise their lips as a rubber band around the mouthpiece (but see below). Joe Allard, the American sax teacher advocated keeping the lower lip as straight as possible in order not to curl the reed up at the side but if you have placed your bottom lip at the point where the reed separates from the mouthpiece, I cannot see how it is possible to bend the sides of the reed.

I would like to quote from an article on embouchure which appeared in the Saxophone Journal. "Three basic concepts must be considered in any discussion of tone production. They are Embouchure formation, Throat position and Breath support, and one can easily interpret these concepts through mouthpiece blowing.

The "O" embouchure

The purpose of the basic embouchure is to allow the reed to vibrate in a free manner. The embouchure can be attained in four basic steps.

First form the mouth in the shape of an "O" maintaining a lower lip which is somewhat thick. Do not allow the lower lip to become flat, thin or tight. Two syllables that will help achieve the necessary round formation are "O" or ""OOO". Carefully roll the thick lower lip over the lower teeth with just the mouthpiece, reed and ligature combination i.e. without the sax. Be certain to maintain the "O" shape. Next rest the weight of the head on the top of the mouthpiece with the upper teeth. This will remove excess pressure from the lower lip, enabling the reed to vibrate freely. Bring the remainder of the lips round the mouthpiece, maintaining the basic "O" shape.

The throat.

Think of the throat as a tube whose object in life is to carry air directly from the lungs to the mouthpiece and ultimately into the saxophone. Thus the shape of the throat will have an effect on the tone which is produced. Any tension in the throat will have an immediate impact on the freedom of movement experienced by the column of air being directed into the sax mouthpiece. It is best to relax the throat muscles as they would be during normal breathing. This relaxation may be achieved by striving for a "bottomless pit" sensation by whispering the syllable AHHHH.

Breath support.

Two areas of concern must be addressed in a discussion of breath support. The first is taking the air into the lungs. Inhale quickly and deeply through the corners of the mouth, filling the lungs to capacity. Inhalation through the corners will prevent a breakdown of the embouchure formation. This technique of inhalation should be similar to your natural breathing but deeper. Relaxation is very important. Next, maintain a constant rate of air speed as the air is pushed into the mouthpiece by the muscles of the abdominal wall using the concept of "warm air." Warm air is the type of air used to fog a mirror or a window. When applied to the saxophone it allows the performer to use a very large air stream, creating the optimum balance between embouchure, throat position and breath support.

When trying the above, use only the mouthpiece, ligature and reed while watching yourself in a mirror. Using a well tuned piano or electronic tuning device try to achieve a specific tonal pitch as follows:-

Soprano....Concert C

Alto.......Concert A

Tenor......Concert G

Baritone...Concert D

I quote from the same magazine another way of forming the embouchure. Imagine saying the three syllables "D" "U" and "PIU" as you are putting the mouthpiece into your mouth. Pronouncing the letter "D" flattens the chin, "U" focuses the corners of the embouchure and "PIU" completes the embouchure by centering the top lip. You pays your money and you takes your choice. The thing to remember is that you need to take pressure off the reed but still need to maintain control.

Date: 17/06/96

From: [email protected] (J R Laing)

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