Monday, May 30, 2016

Saxophone Embouchure

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!!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Saxophone Daily Workout

Saxophone Daily Workout

Pitch Bending (5-15 minutes)

For more detail go to The Secret to Playing the Saxophone.

Saxophone Focus Pitches

These pitches are only a rough guide.  They work for some mouthpieces and some sound concepts, but not all. For jazz, I and many others use a lower focus pitch. Those printed above work well for some classical sound concepts. Lately, I have been playing my S80 C* again on alto, and I find that a higher focus pitch works better than those above. Regardless, play the focus pitch loud, long, and as stable as possible.  Do not attempt the Mouthpiece Pitch Exercise until you can do this.

Mouthpiece Pitch Exercise

To be played on the mouthpiece alone very loudly after the focus pitch has been firmly established.  Example is for alto.  Soprano, tenor, and baritone use their respective focus pitches as the starting point of this exercise.

High Tone Bending

This is a variation of the Mouthpiece Pitch Exercise.  For example, play the following while fingering high Eb only (do not move the fingers).  Then do the same on increasingly higher notes.  This is especially usefully for gaining control and flexibility in the altissimo register.  Go slow.  Don't rush this.


Do a Google search for "saxophone overtones," and you will find many sites with good exercises.  One of the best resources, however, is Donald Sinta's book, Voicing: An Approach to the Saxophone's Third Register.

Long Tones (5-10 minutes)

Traditional long tones are good but often boring.  You may also play slow, lyrical melodies that you know by heart.  Cover the entire range of pitch and dynamics.  Focus on your tone quality.  Great sound is key!

Tuning (15 minutes)

Play notes and intervals on the piano using the sustain pedal.  Sing the notes and intervals.  Then play and match pitch carefully, using a great sound.
Tuning drones like the ones in Steve Colley’s method from Tune Up Systems are also extremely useful.

Scales (up to 1 hour)

Practice according to the phase you are in.  See “Scale Exercises” sheets (to be uploaded soon).  
Focus on good air support and even sound throughout the range.  Slur the scales when not practicing specific articulation exercises.  

Articulation Exercises

The following (Sprints and Endurance) are examples that should be repeated in all keys/notes.


To be played with a metronome as fast as possible.  However, clean, clear articulation is more important than speed.  Be sure to incorporate various styles: staccato, legato, marcato, etc.  Repeat as many times as necessary, and use a whole note to end each pattern with great, stable tone.


To be played with a metronome.  The 16th notes will dictate the tempo.  You must focus on clarity of attack at all subdivisions.  Over time, work to increase the tempo.  Do this on all notes.

Finger Exercises (5 – 10 minutes)

Open and close one key at a time, starting very slowly, smoothly building speed to a fast trill, and then smoothly slowing again.  Do this for every finger.  The finger should never leave the key.  

Dynamic Exercise (5- 10 minutes)

On one note, begin a very soft sound that builds from the silence itself.  Crescendo this sound smoothly to maximum volume while maintaining great pitch and tone.  Then decrescendo smoothly back to silence in the same time it took to crescendo.  Do not decrescendo too quickly.  Do this all on one breath.  You will have to practice your pacing. Now pick other notes in all of the ranges.  

Octave Slurs (2-5 minutes)

Starting in the low register, you should bump the octave key quickly.  The instrument should respond by going up and down the octave according to the position of the octave key. If you get stuck in one octave, adjust the embouchure.  For example, getting stuck in the upper octave could indicate that you are biting too hard and/or that your throat is too closed.  This exercise teaches us to get out of the way and let the instrument do its job. Focus on playing with a stable embouchure and fast, stable air.

Vibrato Exercise (2-10 minutes)

Saxophone vibrato is generated with the jaw as if saying "yah, yah, yah" or "vah, vah, vah." More important than this exercise, though, is to listen to great examples of vibrato and to emulate the way it is used indifferent styles and contexts.  For example vibrato will be significantly different for the Marcelo Oboe Concerto, than for Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, than for Desmond's Take Five.
  1. Set the metronome to 80
  2. Play a G major scale in whole notes with 4 undulations of vibrato per click of the metronome (like 16th notes).  If this is too difficult, slow the tempo until you can do this, and then speed back up to 80 over time.  Do not go on until you can do this.  
  3. Play in half notes, alternating vibrato on one note and straight-tone on the next, and then reverse the pattern.  Do not go on until you can do this.
  4. Play in quarter notes, alternating vibrato on one note and straight-tone on the next, and then reverse the pattern.  Do not go on until you can do this.
  5. Play odd numbered Ferling etudes at 8th=80 with vibrato on every note long enough for 4 undulations.  


Do this as often as possible. Any new material is fair game. is another great resource.  In the lower left corner of the main page, you will find a small section labelled “Create.”  Here, you can choose a time signature, the number of measures, and the level of difficult (1 is easiest).  This will generate a rhythmic pattern that you should clap and Ta.  Clap the time with the metronome, and Ta the rhythm.  Daily practice with this tool can greatly increase rhythmic proficiency and therefore enhance sight-reading ability.  

Circle of 4ths and 5ths.  

This is an important tool that all musicians should be familiar with.  As seen below, it is the circle of 4ths going clockwise because every new note is a 4th above the previous note.  Whereas going counterclockwise, every note is a 5th above the previous note: the circle of 5ths. This is not the only way to diagram this tool, and you may encounter it in other forms.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Ferling Project Part 2: The Fast Ones - UPDATED 25 JULY 2016

I never really intended to record the even numbered Ferling etudes.  For me, the greatest value lies within the slow etudes.  See my other post The Ferling Project for the complete set of the slow etudes including those in the Mule edition.  Here I am, however, with two of the fast etudes complete.  I am not editing these, and it is a little harder to get a clean take than with the slow ones.  I think it is important, though, to present them raw as they will often be played in practice or in lessons.  My interpretations are fleeting.  The examples I have presented are only that, examples, and the next time I play them might be quite different.  In fact, I was experimenting with several different ideas for etude number 2.  The one I settled on is not necessarily my favorite musical idea, but it is cleaner than the others.  I am not concerned with metronome markings; you may find my tempos quite different than Mule's or Andraud's markings.  That's okay.  Those metronome markings are not Ferling's.  I am, however, trying to capture the spirit of each etude as notated in Ferling's tempo/style markings.  I may add to this project over time, so keep your eye out for updates.  I hope you find these helpful.  Best wishes!

Ferling Etude No. 2

Ferling Etude No. 4

Ferling Etude No. 6

Ferling Etude No. 8

Ferling Etude No. 10

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Few of My Favorite Things

**Updated December 11th 2015**

It's 2015, and it has never been a better time to be a saxophonist.  There are so many good tools and accessories that there is little to keep an aspiring musician from reaching whatever heights they desire.  Below are some of my favorites.

Neckstrap -

I have been using a Just Joe's Sax Gel Strap for a couple years, and it is awesome!  The strap looks great, disappears well, hold its adjustment, and is quite comfortable.  The materials seem every bit as good as claimed, and the strap is holding up very well; it could still almost pass for new!  I forget what size I have, but I can use the same strap on alto, tenor, and bari, though I still prefer a harness for bari.

I also really like Brancher's neckstraps.


The Cannonball Dragon Swab is one of the best designs I have seen.


With the right setup, Legere Signature Series reeds eliminate my need for cane.  I have always dreamed of being able to perform a recital on synthetic, and now I can.  Everything is better.  The tone has greater clarity, faster response and articulation, and the intonation is more stable.  Right now, my favorite mouthpiece to use with these is a custom faced modern Larry Teal.

Legere's Inspiration mouthpiece has a lot of potential as a classical mouthpiece.  I've only played on or seen one, but it is well-made and has good response, tone, and intonation.  For me, it tends to get a bit too buzzy in the lower register, but your results may vary.

The PlayNick LM1 is another mouthpiece with a lot of potential and is designed to work well with Legere reeds.  The example I have is well made and quite a bit darker than the Legere Inspiration.  It also has good response, tone, and intonation.  The tone is very well-balanced in all registers.

Ligature -

Wonderful new design!  I have always been a fan of the string ligature, and this one is fantastic!  It is the best sounding ligature in my collection, and the sound can be modified by adjusting the side bars.

I am no longer so enamored with this ligature.  Yes, it can sound really good with some of my mouthpieces but not all of them.  I do tend to like it with my Larry Teal and Beechler, but there is a major problem, one that plagues many minimal contact ligatures especially with Legere reeds.  You see, Legere reeds have much less friction against the mouthpiece than cane.  This means they slide around easily and really rely on a ligature to hold them in place.  The Silverstien can hold them in place... until I need to adjust my mouthpiece for intonation.  Then, the whole setup slides.  This makes quick pitch adjustments on the fly in a performance impossible, and therefore, I cannot use this ligature in performance.  I have even tried sticking a thick BG mouthpiece patch to the top of the mouthpiece where the ligature's two primary contacts are.  This gives them something better to hold onto, but it is not enough.  I can never seem to get the ligature tight enough to keep the reed secure, and I've even tightened the top screw with pliers.  I still think there is a lot of potential in this design, but more refinement is needed.  By the way, contrary to the claims of the makers, the string material in my ligature has indeed stretched over time.  The problems I have described have been getting worse.  

Tuning Drones -

Steve Colley's Tuneup Bootcamp System has helped me refine my my ability to hear fine intonation and play in tune like nothing else.  Every musician should use this daily!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Yanagisawa WO10 Alto: First Impressions Review UPDATED 1 January 2015

One of the coolest parts of my job is that I have access to lots of saxophones.  I have been able to compare many different Yamahas and Selmers, and just recently we received two brand new Yanagisawa WO10 altos.  I was very excited because I had never had more than a couple minutes at a time to spend on a Yany, certainly not enough to form an educated opinion.  Now I was going to have as much time as I would need to really get to know these instruments.

First impressions were good.  They both arrived in good, solid looking cases with cool features like the large external pouch and backpack straps.  The horns were well-constructed; I could not find any visual flaws with either.  They felt the same, too.  I'm not sure I could tell them apart by feel without much more experience with them.  This is pretty rare.  Even among good brands like Yamaha and Selmer, I find that two horns of the same model will still feel different, sometimes dramatically.  The first notes were exciting, and again both horns felt very similar.  There was enough of a difference, though, that I was able to pick a favorite, sign it out, and take it home.  The horn I left behind had slightly fuzzier tone, and low register response was not as good; it might have just needed a good setup.

Now that I have lived with the horn for a week, I have some meaningful thoughts to share.  I will say, though, that one week is still not enough time to truly get to know a new instrument, especially one of a different brand than you normally play.  In my experience, some pros and cons don't reveal themselves clearly until you have played a horn for a long time, seen how it breaks in and holds adjustments, and how it responds to different music.  That is why I call this a "First Impressions Review."  I will be updating the lists below over time as more becomes clear.


- Build quality: I still have not found a flaw in the horn's construction.  It is beautiful.
- Action: This is some of the smoothest, quietest, most refined action I have ever experienced in a new saxophone.
- Comfort: With a couple exceptions listed below, this horn is every bit as comfortable as my Yamaha, which sets the standard in my opinion.  I might like the Yany's front F key better, and the left hand pinky spatulas are awesome.  I can nearly trill low B-C#, and I can trill low Bb-B. 
- Tone: Beautiful sound that is exactly what I am looking for in the classical realm.  It is in the same sound family as the new Yamaha EX with the V1 neck.  In fact, when I recorded the Yanagisawa and the Yamaha back to back, it was difficult to tell the two apart.  I don't think most audiences would hear the difference.  For me, however, the Yanagisawa is slightly more even throughout the range, with a touch more clarity and focus.  I love the balance of harmonics.  There are enough high frequencies present to give good color and resonance, but it never sounds buzzy or thin.
- It has a lyre mount.  I wish all Yamahas still did.  This is an important consideration for high schools and military bands.
- Reasonable price that is between Yamaha and Selmer.

The Jury's Still Out

- Intonation: Quite different than my Yamahas.  I am having to raise the upper register and lower the low register more than I am used to.  I think this is going to end up being in the Pro list, but more time will tell.  So far, I think this may be one of the easier saxes to play in tune.
- Response: Initially I was having some trouble with the low D# bobbling, but this seems to have gone away now that I am getting used to the horn.  Also, the overall response, especially when navigating big descending intervals, seemed a little sluggish, but again, this may be improving as I get accustomed to the horn.  Similar results in the altissimo register.  All notes up to the F an octave above the palm keys come out fine, and with the fingerings I am an used to, but they respond differently than my Yamaha.  And right now, I am still missing the target more often, though this seems to be improving.  Playing the overtone bugle call is pretty easy.
- Build quality: It is still too early to know how well this horn will hold up over time and hold its adjustments when it does need some work.  There is a clunk sound that only shows up when I play extremely fast, Le Api, for example.  When the first finger in the right hand opens very quickly, it allows the connector rod to slam a bit.  I'm not sure how they would fix this without using a material that would compress too much over time.
- Jazz sound: I have not yet played enough jazz on it.


- Palm Keys: D and D# are too pointed at the top and dig into my hand just a bit, though not as bad as some earlier model Yany's.
- High F# key: This is not comfortable for me, and I keep nearly missing it.  Crunch G is very awkward.  For those who are not familiar with Crunch G, it is a special fingering for altissimo G that allows one to play the note very softly and in tune.  It is called Crunch G because the right hand has to grab the first finger F key, the high F# key, and the side Bb key (RSK 1) at the same time, which sort crunches the hand.  I can do this comfortably on my Yamaha, but not yet on the Yany.  BTW, I use this fingering all the time; it is one of my favorites for high G.
- The neck cannot be secured tightly enough and moves on me while I am playing.

Update 1 January 2015

I did not get much farther than the first impressions review with this horn.  I always had a sense that the response was slow, especially when playing the Bach Flute Partita BWV 1013 and other pieces with larger interval leaps into the lower register.   This prompted me to bring out my Cannonball Big Bell Stone Series, which I had not played for several months.  Response was much easier on my Cannonball, and I was reminded, again, why I bought the horn in the first place: tone and intonation.  The intonation on my Cannonball is better than on any other alto I have played, and I really like the sound as well.  So where does this leave the Yany?  For now, it is sitting in my office as a backup horn.  I prefer its sound to my Yamaha, and the intonation is no more difficult to manage, just different.  I will probably lean toward Yanagisawa, for now, if I have to choose between Yany and Yamaha, but the brass model feels like a teaser.  It's good, but I'm left wondering what the bronze and silver versions are like....

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Secret to Playing the Saxophone

To make a long story short: Pitch Bending.

The longer story:

If you were to blow a note on just the mouthpiece, it should sound a certain pitch.  For a classical sound and on mouthpieces that lend themselves more easily to that sound these pitches are more or less:

C for Soprano
A for Alto
G for Tenor
D for Bari

For a jazz sound, you would typically shoot for a focus pitch lower than what is listed above, but this can vary greatly depending on the sound you are after.  For example, to emulate Parker you will need a different focus pitch than you will for Desmond.  Regardless of the sound you are after, you should practice sounding the focus pitch by playing it loud and as stable as possible, using a keyboard for reference and pitch accuracy.  That is step one.  Warning: you will annoy anyone nearby and possibly even yourself. 

Step two is the ability to bend this pitch in a controlled manner as low as possible down to an octave below the focus pitch.  To do this you must learn to control the muscles in the back of the mouth and down into the throat.  These are the same muscles you use to control the pitch of your voice.  Although, you won't use them in quite the same way on the saxophone.  Controlling these muscles will allow you to control the airstream into the saxophone, thus having a great effect on pitch and tone.  As you do this pitch bending exercise, it is important to minimize jaw motion.  This step should be practiced everyday at various intervals throughout a practice session.  Don't get discouraged if you can't do this right away.  It can take months or more to even gain proficiency.

The ability to pitch bend will have a huge impact on your ability to play in the altissimo register, as well as harmonics and multiphonics.

There are indeed other ways to practice this same skill.  You can pitch bend on the instrument.  For example, play high Eb, D, Eb, C#, Eb, C.  Now try to do it without moving your fingers; you will keep fingering high Eb and just bend the pitch with your throat.  Don't worry.  I couldn't do it at first either.  In fact, I wouldn't have thought it was possible if I had not just heard Dr. Rousseau do it right in front of me.  But, with practice I was able to do it too, and -- this is the good news -- as soon as I learned to do this, my ability to play harmonics and altissimo improved immensely.  I do find this much more difficult on tenor and bari.  In fact, the higher the note, the easier it is.  I spent at least a year pitch bending all of my altissimo notes every time I played the instrument, even while warming up for band rehearsals, and I think it is the single most important factor that allowed me some control of that register.

Harmonics are another great way to gain control of the tongue and throat muscles, and many great exercises are available in various method books.  In fact, everything on this page is available in greater detail from other sources.

One of my favorite new resources is Eugene Rousseau's Saxophone Artistry in Performance and Pedagogy, available from
I always thought you could boil down playing the saxophone into pretty simple and concise terms even if it would take a lifetime to master them.  Now Eugene Rousseau has done just that.  Everything I learned about mastering the instrument from Dr. Rousseau in my six years of study with him is here and more.  This should be required reading for every saxophonist. 

For more detail, however, look to Rousseau's Saxophone High Tones and Donald Sinta's Voicing: An Approach to the Saxophone's Third Register.  They provide different and complementary strategies for mastery of the altissimo register and ultimately the saxophone as a whole.  Each of these books is very important and can greatly aid saxophonists of all levels... well, maybe not beginners.  Sigurd Rascher has a book on this subject as well, but I have found that Rousseau's and Sinta's books make it obsolete.

I do feel that simple pitch bending exercises on the mouthpiece alone are of great benefit to beginners and will lay a solid foundation for further study in the Rousseau and Sinta books in later years.

Best wishes on your journey with the saxophone, and now, go learn how to pitch bend.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


This is a piece with a long history.  I started writing it as a sophomore or junior theory project back around 1998 while I was a student at Indiana University.  We had to write a composition in the style of another composer, and I chose to write in the style of Berlioz's requiem.  However, I was only ever happy with some of the ideas, not the piece as a whole.  By my last year or so at IU, I had already started reworking the piece.  I scrapped the original accompaniment and added the harp line that you hear today.  I even played it on a recital to celebrate my wife's graduation.  One of her friends from the dorm played the harp part, and I recruited another to play a very simple drum line that had not yet matured into what it is currently.  By 2001, I bought a modest recording rig running Cubase VST 32, Wavelab 3, and Gigastudio.  With GigaHarp and some sounds from my Casio keyboard, I was able to get one step closer to my vision.  I still have the recording somewhere, but it sounds so thin and amateur compared to this.  By 2010 and thanks to my job as an Army Musician, I was able to afford a computer powerful enough to run LA Scoring Strings, Storm Drum 2, and other sample libraries that were a huge improvement over what I had previously.  I reworked Windstorm yet again, adding orchestra, an improved drum track, and I rerecorded the sax part with an AEA R84/TRP combination.  The result was so much better, that I was finally starting to be content.  I can't tell you how many mixes I did, though.  It took a couple more years of tweaking here and there before I finally decided to put it to rest.  Fortunately, by that point we had been living in Alaska for a couple years and collected some great pictures.  The slide show contains pictures taken by my wife and myself.  Some were just with my iPad.  The scenery is of Fairbanks, Anchorage, Denali, and Sitka.  I really think they suite the mood of the piece, and I hope you like it too.  I still think about tweaking things sometimes, maybe recording the sax part again, but I've learned that I need to keep moving forward.  There are many new projects to do.  Whenever I watch this, I miss Alaska.  It was a state that I never wanted to visit, but now that I have lived there, I wish I could go back.