Probably like most people, the thing that drew me to the saxophone was it’s sound. Initially, Coleman Hawkins on a 1950s French film sound track, then later countless other players.
Early in my playing career it struck me that if you make a great sound then you don’t actually have to play that much; one note can be saturated with emotion…if you just get the sound right!
Of course, choosing the right mouthpiece, reed, ligature and instrument all play a big part in this, but there is something you can do with whatever set up you have, and the only thing it will cost you is time.
That one thing is learning to play on the mouthpiece. Only on the mouthpiece.
I have found that from doing this, all these things have improved:
- breath control
- breadth of tone
- embouchure strength
- aural skills/ears
Why did I experiment with playing the mouthpiece? Well, a few years ago I started practising the trumpet. Any friends I asked who were pro players all said I needed to learn to play the mouthpiece.
It turns out I am not a trumpet player(!), but it made me start to experiment with the same idea on my saxophone mouthpieces.
Over time I have developed a few exercises that I continue to work at myself and that I regularly use in my teaching. I have also included it in a short video course, the Saxophone SUPER FOOD Practice Routine.
To get you started, here’s a couple of exercises that you can try:
Set your mouthpiece up as you normally would, but don’t attach it to the saxophone.
Put the mouthpiece in your mouth and
- form your embouchure as you normally would;
- avoid covering the end of the mouthpiece;
- don’t hold, or grip, the reed;
- hold the mouthpiece at the angle it would be if it were attached to the instrument.
It should look like the image below:
Then take a long breath in, and blow a note. Whatever sound comes out, try to sustain it as long as you can and to make the pitch as even as possible – it will probably wobble all over the place!
The aim of this exercise is to play a long note as evenly as possible. I am yet to achieve an unwavering note, but working towards this goal invaluable practise.
A lot of people can find producing any sound with just the mouthpiece quite difficult, so if that’s you don’t worry; keep trying it, you will get there. If you are struggling, here’s a few tips to try…
- Blow more gently (don’t push the air out as hard).
- Aim at a long, slow exhalation.
- Take a longer, slower breath in and focus upon taking the air as deep into your lungs as possible.
- Try to avoid tensing up your throat, neck and shoulders.
Repeat Exercise 1, but this time we’re aiming at changing the pitch down and then back up again.
The way you do this is by changing the angle of your air flow,
- point the air down to go lower;
- point it upwards to go higher.
DO NOT tighten and relax your bottom lip to change the pitch.
A good way to practise this is to whistle a note, any note will do. Change the pitch so that it goes down and up.
As your note moves up and down, think about what it feels like inside of your mouth and how the shape changes as the pitch changes.
When you have done that for a little while, try the mouthpiece again.
Back on the mouthpiece, any pitch movement is a victory! You don’t need to be brilliant at this straight away, in fact I find that initially most people can only achieve a very small movement.
By practising this over time and getting used to the technique you WILL get better at it.
When you have had a few minutes practicing this, go back to playing your whole saxophone and you should find that everything just feels easier to play and that your notes resonate more.
With these two exercises you are taking the first steps in gaining greater control of your airflow, and therefore your sound.
The knock-on effect of this is massive, though I should say that doing this once is no good – you have to practise this regularly to get better at it and to reap it’s benefits.
I hope that you find these exercises useful – I would love to hear how people get on with it – [email protected]
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"This is great stuff - very powerful exercises, and what I really like is that this is something that a beginner can try without getting overwhelmed, while at the same time really kick your ass if you are an advanced player!"
- Doron Orenstein, Former Member of Tommy Dorsey Orchestra