It almost goes without saying that a good embouchure is key to saxophone tone production. I find, however, that many students lack the fundamental understanding of what the embouchure does and how it can affect tone. In this article, I will describe the basic function of the embouchure, its variables, and how those variables can be manipulated to affect the tone of the saxophone. It is important to remember that the first step to good tone production is the formulation of your sound concept.
Your sound concept is the mental image of the way your sound should be. It will shape everything about your playing from equipment choices to your embouchure. Great sound concepts are usually generated by emulating great players. Often, the serious student will emulate famous artist A for a period of time, copying every detail of their sound and style. Eventually, the student will move on to famous artist B and do the same. Over time, the student will develop their own unique sound concept that is a hybrid of all the artists they have emulated filtered through their own soul and creativity. It is fair to say that a sound concept may be constantly evolving, but without it you are flying blind. Your efforts to understand embouchure will only produce fruit when you have a solid sound concept that is calibrated to the highest professional standards.
There are two major components of the embouchure, the internal and the external. The internal component shapes the air-stream as it enters the instrument and is controlled by muscles in the throat and tongue. This is often referred to as voicing and can be learned through the pitch bending exercises in the Saxophone Daily Workout. The external component involves the lips and jaw and is what most people think of when using the word embouchure. The rest of this article will focus on understanding the external component.
There are basically three variables at play: amount of mouthpiece in the mouth, amount of lower lip between the teeth and reed, and amount of pressure from the jaw. The function of these variables is to change the damping factor on the reed. They each do so in subtly different ways, and the right balance of these variables in combination with the internal component will help you produce a sound matching your sound concept.
Start by putting the mouthpiece all the way into your mouth, as close to the ligature as you can. Now blow hard. The sound should be wild, uncontrolled, and honky. This is the sound of the reed vibrating freely with no damping factor from the embouchure. Now do the opposite. Put barely any mouthpiece in your mouth at all. The sound should be airy, stuffy, fuzzy, etc. This is the sound of a reed that is over-damped. Notice, also, that there are qualities of subtone here. You have just experienced how the first variable, amount of mouthpiece in the mouth, affects the sound from one extreme to the other. Use the sounds of those extremes to guide you to your proper balance for your sound concept. If your sound is too honky, you may need less mouthpiece in your mouth. If your sound is too stuffy, you may need more.
The second variable is the amount of lower lip between the bottom teeth. Start with a comfortable amount of mouthpiece in your mouth. Now roll your lip out as far as possible so that it is actually bent towards the ligature. Blow. You should hear a wild, honky sound because there is little damping factor on the reed, but it will be different than with the first variable. Next, roll your lip in as far as you can. Again, you are over-damping the reed and should hear a stuffy, airy, soft, sound with hints of subtone. As with the first variable, use these extremes to guide you to the balance that works best for your sound concept.
The third variable is the amount of pressure from the jaw. Start with a comfortable amount of mouthpiece and lip. Bite extra hard, but DO NOT hurt yourself. The sound should be pinched, and thin. Next, blow hard and drop your jaw as far as possible. With practice, you should be able to pull the lower lip completely off the reed for a brief period of time, if you use enough air. Now the reed is under-damped and back to its wild, honky state. Somewhere in that spectrum from biting too much to pulling your lip completely off the reed is the right amount of pressure for your sound concept. Move through the spectrum slowly until you find the sweet spot.
As you can see, good tone is all about having a strong sound concept, and then you can manipulate the three external embouchure variables to achieve an optimal balance that will help you create that sound. You must be willing to experiment and make subtle changes to each variable in order to find the correct damping factor for your sound. Do not allow yourself to lapse back into old, comfortable habits, but constantly compare what comes out of your instrument to what you hear in your head. With time, diligent practice, and attention to detail you will find your sound to be improving.
Best of luck!!