For all of my years playing the sax, there are certain things that I’ve done just out of force of habit without really knowing exactly where that habit came from, or whether or not it was a good habit to begin with. The amount of mouthpiece I was taking in has been one of those autopilot aspects of my playing that’s needed some looking at, so I’ve done a bit of research and discovered a few things.
- As a starting point, it’s generally considered good practice to find the spot where the reed separates from the bottom of the mouthpiece. One way to do this is to slide a piece of paper between the reed and the mouthpiece. Place your thumb at the spot on the mouthpiece where the paper stops. Then take a rubber band and place it where your thumb is. Practice playing with your lips up to the point of the rubber band.
- The more mouthpiece you take in, the bigger your sound will be, but the downside is that it will also be more difficult to control the instrument in terms of pitch, dynamics, use of the tongue, and intervals. And that horrible squeaking sound? Yep, that’s the result of too much mouthpiece in the mouth, so if you or one of your students is sounding squeaky-squaky, you know what to do.
- Taking in less mouthpiece allows you more control over your sound, but it also makes you sound smaller in terms of volume and resonance. The less mouthpiece you take in, the more of the tip of the reed will be covered by your bottom lip. Keeping your lower lip at the tip of the reed will keep it from vibrating out of control, but it will also constrict the sound – hence the tradeoff between the two approaches.
- It’s important to vary the amount of mouthpiece you take in depending on what style of music you’re playing. For example, on a soft and subtle ballad, you’ll want to take in a smaller amount of mouthpiece than you would while playing a blaring rock and roll solo.
- The more of an overbite you have, the more mouthpiece you’ll need to take in to get the lower lip in its intended position, since it’s the lower lip that controls how much you’re going to let the reed vibrate.
- The longer your tongue is, the more you’ll need to pull the mouthpiece out to reach the tip of the reed.
- You’ll need to experiment to find what works best for you. There is no silver bullet answer here. Factors such as overbite, tongue size, musical style, and even the shape of the mouthpiece itself will determine what the optimal position of the mouthpiece inside the mouth is.
Aside from being based on my personal experience, much of this post references this great article by Pete Thomas, so make sure to give it a read for even more insights. My goal here was to provide a quick guide to get you started in thinking about this stuff.
So go now, move that mouthpiece around, and see for yourself what works best!