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Improve Your Tone Without Picking Up the Horn

Practicing on the Saxophone Mouthpiece

Dexter Gordon, Marcel Mule, David Sanborn – what do these legendary musicians all have in common?

The answer, of course, is a big, beautiful, and distinctive tone.

If you’re like me, for years and years, the only thing I ever heard about improving my sound was to practice long tones and support the air from the diaphragm. And that’s rock solid advice- but there’s oh-so-much-more to it than just that.

As I’ve mentioned many times throughout this site, a good sound takes not only a proper embouchure , strong support from the diaphragm, and good equipment. There are also things to consider such as throat control, shape of the oral cavity, and tongue position which come heavily into play as well.

No Saxophone Required

One way to improve your tone in a way that exercises just about every muscle necessary to form a great sound is the practicing of overtones. But there is something else we can do before we even put the entire instrument together.

And what is that, you may ask?

Of course, I’m talking about playing on nothing more than the mouthpiece and a reed.

The Adventure Begins

I won’t lie to you. Playing on the mouthpiece alone makes a seriously obnoxious sound, so you’ll want to find a place to practice this away from the ears of neighbors – not to mention ducks in heat. (Do ducks even go into heat?)

At any rate, in my experience, proper mouthpiece-only practice involves a lot of air and volume to do it right, so find a place that you can blow a mighty wind through the ‘piece without invoking an eviction notice.

The first thing to practice would be to simply hold out a a single note. When you’re first learning to do this, the note you start on can make a difference. Here’s what saxophonist and clinician Paul R. Coats recommends:

For alto sax, have the student match the concert A, 880 Hz that you play on the piano or keyboard (this is the A one octave and a sixth above middle C). For the Bb soprano clarinet, match the concert B one step above the A, 880 Hz. For the tenor sax, match the G one step below the A, 880 Hz. For baritone sax, match concert Eb. For soprano sax, match Db two octaves and a half step above middle C on the piano.

From there, you can practice simple things such as octave jumps, scales, scales in thirds, simple melodies, improvising, and eventually work up to playing anything you’d normally play on your saxophone.

Making it Happen

Here are a few things you can do to boost your mouthpiece chops:

  • Go for absolutely no movement of the lower jaw while moving between notes.
  • Experiment with the position of your tongue to change pitches. If you think of the changes in tongue position as being similar to what you do when whistling, it’ll probably be easier.
  • Movin’ those muscles in the throat is another necessary part of mouthpiece practice. Practice singing a major scale without the mouthpiece, and notice the changes in your throat that occur with each note. Now make these same changes in the throat while actually blowing into the mouthpiece.
  • As I mentioned before, you’re going to need a good amount of air to get this working right, so be sure to really support from the diaphragm when practicing.
  • Make sure you have the right amount of mouthpiece in your mouth. A good general rule is to put your thumb where the reed separates from the table of the mouthpiece, and put the mouthpiece into your mouth up to the position of the thumb. As you go down in pitch, slide the mouthpiece out of your mouth just a tiny bit. On the way up, move the mouthpiece back into your mouth, again, very slightly.
  • Make sure to hear the notes before you play them. Your ear will guide the rest of your body towards the right notes.

Hold it there Tiger

While some of you guys might find all of this easy, many (including myself) will find this quite not-easy, so it’s important to not get discouraged. You probably won’t be playing Glazunov or Giant Steps – or possibly even a proper major scale right off the bat. Basic long tones will get you off to a fine start, and you can gradually build from there.

The Payoff

Practicing on the mouthpiece makes for a great daily warmup to flex those chops before you start in on your normal saxophone practice session. It develops the muscles you need to be in charge of your saxophone tone. Also, since you’re not relying on they saxophone’s keys to change notes, you’re going to end up having to rely on your ear – which is a great thing. On top of all of that, it’s important to learn how to control your pitch without having to rely solely on the lower jaw, so practicing this way almost guarantees that your intonation is going to improve.

Cool thing is that you can take a mouthpiece and reed just about anywhere you go – which is a nice alternative to lugging the horn around anytime you’re away from home and want to get a little practice in.

Get Quackin’

Here are two free online resources you can check out to get some ideas for exercises:

So no more excuses, get that tone in shape and watch that it get bigger, better, and right on the money!

Category: Best of the Blog, Best Saxophone Tips and Techniques

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About the Author

I've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!

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Comments (24)

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  1. I’m a big fan of mouthpiece pitch exercises–I do them frequently, and require them of my saxophone students.

    It’s worth pointing out that there is some disagreement about which pitches are the “right” ones. I like soprano C, alto A, tenor G, and baritone D. I’ve also often heard people recommend F-sharp for tenor. And I’ve heard people recommend a set of pitches for “classical” setups, and a lower set for “jazz.”

    I think these kinds of exercises are especially vital for saxophone. For clarinet, I play at pretty much the upper limit of my voicing, and for flute and double reeds I play at pretty much the lower limit. But the saxophones need to be voiced at specific points in between, and it’s like shooting in the dark if your mouthpiece pitch isn’t carefully habituated.

    • That’s a great point you bring up Bret! It does seem like there’s some difference of opinion with regards to whether or not certain pitches are the “right” ones when playing on the various saxophones, but it makes sense that you practice whatever gets you the best results. These are simply helpful guidelines just to get people in the practice of aiming for a certain notes and then hitting them.

      Thanks!

    • daniel abshire says:

      Hey Mr.Pimenel, I’m a 9th grade student, alto saxophone player and was asking if you knew some other basic fundmental exercises to help boost my playing skills because my countless hours have failed to find a an exercise that helps my exact problem. If you do read this and decide to help please email me at mr.static21@gmail.com , Thanks

  2. Evan Tate says:

    Hey Doron!
    I have a whole series of exercise like these that I got from Joe Allard. I need to rewrite them in a neat fashion. When I”m done I’d like to pass them on to you.

  3. Autumn Towne says:

    I am one of the few that can’t whistle. Is there another analogy or image for positioning the tongue to change the pitch? Thanks.

    • Hello Autumn,

      Thanks for your question! You don’t actually have to be able to whistle to do this. In fact, I myself can’t whistle. Unfortunately, there is no way (that I know of, at least) to describe the exact adjustments one must make in the inner mouth. I would start by experimenting with different placements of the tongue in relationship to the soft palate. You might also think of it in terms of vowel sounds such as “eee” or “eww.” Remember, this is not easy stuff and will definitely take some practice, so it’s important to be patient with yourself here. But the rewards will be great if you persevere!

      I hope that helps,

      Doron

    • I list a few alternative analogies here: http://bretpimentel.com/what-is-voicing/

      One of my favorites is the idea of warm vs. cold air. I hope that helps.

  4. Evan Tate says:

    As far as tongue position goes, I have my students just say the letter “A”. This puts the tongue in a raise position in your mouth. You can then compare that to saxying “Ahhh” pr the word “Law”. Notice your tongue position with those words. Try the words “Low”, “Lord”, “Lee”, etc.

    If you can’t whistle this may be an alternative.

    • What you’re proposing sounds great Evan. In the end, I think it just comes down to hearing the notes loud and clear in your mind and then letting the body find its way towards getting the notes to come out of the mouthpiece, and the tools you’re offering help to facilitate that.

  5. Miranda says:

    I’m a huge fan of the mouthpiece exercises! I enjoy the effort it takes to get into that lower range of the mouthpiece, and I’ve heard from saxophone professors at the local university that it is tremendously beneficial in tone development. I’ve been trying it for about a week and already am seeing HUGE changes in my tone quality. I suggest that everyone should try this method of practicing. :)

    • That’s great to hear, Miranda! I know that these exercises are anything but easy, but I think that just making an effort to develop the skills necessary to do the exercises will bring big-time results in a very short period of time. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Gary says:

    I learned to change my tongue position buy leaning to bend note on the harmonica. Like the blues harmonica players. I think its worth a try. I took a few days to get it done however.

    • Never thought of it that way, I’ll have to give that a try. I’ve also heard it described as being similar to whistling, where moving your tongue is the means by which different pitches are achieved.

  7. Mike says:

    Just a point of clarification…there’s no such thing as warm air vs. cold air. Your body temperature is 98.6 degrees F, plus or minus. The air you blow into the horn is at body temperature. You can’t make it “colder” or “warmer”. The only thing that’s warm or cold is that air temperature relative to the OAT (outside or ambient air temperature) in the space you’re playing in.

    • Heya Mike, I’m not sure I’m on the same page here. I can clearly purse my lips and blow a stream of air that’s about at room temperature, and then go and make a deep “hah” breathing sound like Darth Vader and the air will be noticeably warmer. Are you talking about the temperature of the air *before* it leaves the body?

    • Di says:

      From Physics we know that pressure of air affects its temperature, so dropping your jaw makes 98.6 degree air but closing the mouth and blowing increases the speed of the air and lowers the temperature. Just clarifying.

  8. Miranda says:

    I agree with Doron. When I’m ‘warming’ my saxophone up, I’m dropping my jaw and pushing slow, warm air into it. When I’m playing normally, I have fast, cold air.

  9. Heath Watts says:

    There is a great product available called the Mouthpiece Silencer (MS). The MS diminishes that loudness of the mouthpiece by several decibels, making mouthpiece exercises more palatable to those around you and safer for your ears. The MS is available for soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, and for clarinet. I practice the chromatic scale, various arpeggios and scales, and intervals for just five minutes per day and I’ve noticed an improvement in my tone quality and useable range on my soprano saxophone. One caveat about using the MS is that it will reduce the range of notes that are playable for mouthpiece exercises. Without the MS, my range is an octave and a fifth, but with the MS, my range reduces to an octave (sometimes an octave and a major second). However, the diminished strain on my ears and the ability to practice my mouthpiece without offending those around me during my practice makes using the MS, even with its effect on the playable note range, worthwhile. I do not work for the company that makes the MS and I do not receive compensation from them.

    • Hello Heath,

      So funny you mention it, but I actually picked up one of these silencers at NAMM this past weekend and will be reviewing it on the site. I have yet to try one, but I’ve wanted to for some time to come.

      Really looking forward to checking it out, and thanks for sharing that!

      Doron

  10. Marcal says:

    I am new in this sax world ,never played one before, just bought a mouth piece and a reed drove one hour back home blowing this mouth piece almost got dizzy while driving , today my second day playing with it I get all this tones that u guys talked about , probably learnt something just practicing with lip rolling in and out different pitches kind exciting to play a few notes but I will spend more time on this mouth piece before buying and decide about alto or tenor ,any comments will be very appreciated

  11. Kedgi says:

    OMG. I’m trying to play with just the mouthpiece….and I’m a flautist! Lol. So, when I’m trying to go up, I can’t seem to get the higher notes of a scale starting on concert a (alto) and the lower register on the mouthpiece is very hard to get too……I guess its just practice, but am I applying too much pressure going up the scale? If I adjust it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. Any further suggestions? I know its going to help strengthen my chops and intonation, I can tell that already.

    • Hello Kedgi, I would try to avoid using lip or jaw pressure to move between notes. Instead, I would focus on imagining that you’re SINGING the notes that you’re trying to play – how would your throat be if you were trying to sing those notes. I’d try singing those notes, and putting your hand over your throat, and notice how the outside of your throat feels. Then try playing the note, making sure that your throat is in the same position.

      You could also try lifting your tongue very slightly as you move up the range of the horn, and dropping it very slightly as you move down.

      I hope all of that helps!

      Doron

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