Monday, August 11, 2014

Saxophone Skills: Your Embouchure Is The Nerve Centre For Technical Greatness

Can you whistle?

Why not?

Why is whistling, a pleasant hobby if there ever was one, going the way of the dinosaurs?

Oh yes, the iPod.

Instead of reproducing, or, better yet, creating your own music, you’ve decided to tune out everything around you and listen to someone else having all the fun. That’s nice. That’s nice you are facilitating and enhancing the careers of today’s leading pop stars. Keep it up. They need the money and the continued faith of their fans. This will help reassure them that what they are doing is musically important.


Sorry, I’ll put away my mean streak.

Back to the iPod.

En route, you’ve become accustomed to another’s rhythm. Why not move to the step of a different drummer?

(If need be, feel free to pause here and type, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions...” into your search engine of choice.)

It’s a neat idea, don’t you think?

I’ve always been interested in whistlers. These people add to the environment, sharing their sense of contentment with the rest of us. I feel safer. Plus, I have an ear for business.

‘Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice what a good whistler you are! Your pitch is excellent, and the way in which you are maintaining your lips in a circular shape, well, that’s exactly what we need to do when forming a good saxophone embouchure! Have you ever thought about lessons?’

If the person isn’t running away or calling Security, I hand them my business card.

OK. Just kidding. I haven’t done that. Yet.

Whistling is just one of several companion skills worth cultivating. A human being can have up to 43 different muscles in the face, several of which are called into action as soon as you place your mouth on the mouthpiece.

Channel your inner grandfather and purse your lips: it’s time to form the perfect saxophone embouchure.

Embouchure is a French word. We find the word for mouth (bouche) conveniently tucked in the middle. When we form an embouchure we are placing our mouths on the mouthpiece... THOUGHTFULLY. You must THINK about this. The steps are simple, but the execution is sophisticated. What you don’t do matters just as much as what you do.

A good embouchure is like the perfect black dress or a well cut suit. The clothes are so flattering that you don’t notice them. They are so simple and refined that your attention is drawn to the person wearing them, not the clothes themselves.

It’s the same with embouchure. It should be so simple that it fades into the background. The audience isn’t aware of your embouchure, but because it’s perfect, they notice all your other attributes.

Insiders know, the embouchure is the nerve centre for technical greatness.

At this point it’s useful to remind ourselves what the embouchure is for. The main purpose is to connect the wind source (you) to the instrument. A great embouchure is great because that is all it does. It acts as an airtight passageway to allow the wind column to continue on its journey from you into the mouthpiece.

I’m grateful to Antony Pay, who paraphrases in his article, “The Mechanics of Playing the Clarinet”, a very useful quote by the French oboist Maurice Bourgue. Bourgue states,

“The real embouchure is in the stomach. The other is only a connection. You should take the reed as you take a forkful of food: simply.”

You know that stomachache you had last week? And how you thought it was the dodgy burrito you ate for lunch? Well, that was actually your “real embouchure” in the shape of a Lifesaver, bouncing around and causing gastrointestinal distress. Surprised emoticon!

I admit that the first part of the quote, “the real embouchure is in the stomach” is misleading. I suspect Bourgue may be referring to the abdominal support required to play properly. Exert the abdominals, he is suggesting, not the facial muscles. And that is good advice!

For oboists, clarinetists, saxophonists, it cannot be over-emphasized: the embouchure is delicate. No extra tension, no extra force should come from the facial muscles. We need just enough muscle control to form a circle and maintain it. This carefully established position is easily distorted. You have to concentrate, keeping the rest of the unused muscles in a Zen-like state of calm.

Natural chin, tight corners, circular shape
That’s why embouchure is hard to master. Some muscles must be strong, and some must remain totally relaxed. On top of that, facial muscles are hard to control. You may start out with a perfect embouchure, but when technical frustrations crop up and your mind is on other things, the embouchure position is easily lost.

One last, small example that can complicate the issue. To the untrained eye, distorting or scrunching up your facial muscles may actually look expressive. The player looks demonstrative, active, involved, soulful. A scrunched up embouchure makes a great photograph with a live-performance kind of feel. Check a music festival brochure and you’ll see what I mean. If a photograph of a saxophonist is selected, he or she will never look passive. The pose will be dramatic, even if the activity is counter-productive to good technique. This is just like swinging your sax into the air. It only LOOKS like you are doing something artistic and clever. Leave the extreme visual cues to the pop stars.

Oh no, you didn’t!

No more jokes about pop stars. They’re easy targets. How weak of me. For shame!

But the message holds: what you see in photos may not be how it’s actually done.

Embouchure in four steps.

1. Roll your bottom lip over your bottom teeth.

2. Place your top teeth on top of the mouthpiece.

3. Draw the corners of your lips in to form a circular shape.

4. Take 1.5 to 2 centimeters of mouthpiece into your mouth.

C’est ├ža. C’est tout. Easy, right? Not so fast, cowgirl!

1. When rolling your bottom lip it’s important to consider size. You must roll enough lip so that the reed rests solely on the flesh of your outer lip. The bottom lip acts as a shock absorber for the vibrating reed. I have to roll my entire lip over my bottom teeth to do this. People with larger lips may only need to roll half of their lip over to achieve the same result.

After approximately two hours of practising, you may feel some pain at the point where your bottom teeth make contact with the inside of your bottom lip. Flip over your bottom lip in the mirror to see where this small callus develops. The cells in your mouth regenerate quickly, so the callus should heal by the next day. If you need to keep practising, slip some cigarette paper over your bottom teeth. I usually fold one piece over several times to make a small rectangle. The material is waterproof, and won’t disintegrate in your mouth.

2. When placing your top teeth on top of the mouthpiece, it’s important to apply just enough downward pressure. There is a simple test. Put the mouthpiece in your mouth and stabilize the instrument with your left hand. Use your right hand to tap the neck of the saxophone. If the neck moves at all, you need to apply more pressure with the top teeth.

Notice I didn’t say, ‘clamp down’ or ‘bite down’ to describe the motion. Teeth are not chisels! Don’t grind your teeth into the mouthpiece! You’re not trying to whittle down that expensive piece of equipment. If you clamp down, over time, a ridge or indentation will remain on the top of the mouthpiece. In addition to the damage, you may experience jaw pain. As mentioned in a previous article, don’t apply a black rubber pad. This doesn’t address the fundamental problem. You will still be applying too much force.

3. When forming a circle with your lips, keep the corners tight and the upper and lower parts loose. Turn away from the screen and do your best poker face. (In other words, all your facial muscles are relaxed so that you are showing no emotion.) Draw the corners of your lips in, as if whistling, to form a circle. Use your fingers to feel the tightness of the corners and the pudginess of the top and bottom parts of your lips. An extreme and over-the-top version of this can be achieved with a fish face. Suck in your cheeks and open and close your lips. Aw...what a cute fish you are! Obviously this is not the correct position. However, it does force the middle top and bottom parts of your lips to relax. Use your fingers to feel how soft the lip tissue can be. This softness should be maintained. The bottom lip, in particular, has the extremely important job of absorbing the reed’s vibrations.

Keep your chin in a relaxed and natural position. There is a small indentation between your lower lip and the base of your chin. This indentation should remain when you form an embouchure. Don’t pull down or flatten your chin. This is a holdover from clarinet technique that doesn’t apply to us.

4. How much mouthpiece you take in depends on which saxophone you are playing. Less for soprano and more for baritone. Err on the side of less. Less is more, right? Certainly when it comes to playing the saxophone. Take in too much mouthpiece and you sound like a duck; too little and you lose the sound completely. Less mouthpiece equals more control, so it’s best to experiment using the least amount required. Beginners often take too much mouthpiece because they are eager to make a sound --totally understandable. However, once you understand how much air you need (lots) and how to force it into the mouthpiece (using your inter-costal and abdominal muscles) you can get an extremely loud sound without much mouthpiece. The tone quality will be better, and it will be easier to play at all dynamic levels. We all know the most powerful dynamic level, right? Hint: it’s pianississimo.

Shades of the Bourgue quote are returning. Remember that “embouchure in the stomach” idea? He understands that it’s too easy to force the sound using the embouchure. Tightening or manipulating the embouchure welcomes many problems, and is almost always counter-productive. Most issues are easily resolved when the core muscles are working hard, pushing the air into the mouthpiece. A well supported air column allows the embouchure to remain relaxed.

How do you know if your embouchure is correct? Play a low C at a forte dynamic level. After two seconds, lift finger 4 (index finger on your right hand). A multiphonic should emerge. Most of the time, saxophonists only play one note at a time. With this fingering, you will hear at least two notes vibrating back and forth to create the effect of multiple sounds. If the multiphonic doesn’t pop out, your embouchure is too tight. Relax, reform the position, and try it again.

Embouchure is a sophisticated topic. If it all seems like too much, put your saxophone away, and try some old fashioned whistling. It’s fun!

Series presented by

Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction

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