Almost all of us know the feeling. It’s been a long practice or rehearsal session, and the inside of our lower lip is so sore that we can barely go on playing, thanks to our flesh-piercing lower teeth. (Ouch! Sounds painful when I put it that way, no?)
This article was my response to an email sent by a newsletter subscriber who was having a problem with this very issue. Although he was the one asking the question, he actually had two great solutions that I thought I’d share with you along with my own suggestions.
I would say my main problem is my mouth getting sore where my lower teeth hit my mouth. I guess I’m biting. Putting a piece of paper over my lower teeth helps. Using a softer setup also helps. Any suggestions?
San Antonio TX
So in my attempt to help Rich as well as anyone else with this problem, here are some things to try:
1) Stop rolling your lower lip in all the way over your bottom teeth.
Although espoused by many classical saxophone teachers and resources including Larry Teal’s classic book, The Art of Saxophone Playing the technique of rolling your lower lip all the way over your bottom teeth may not be the best choice for you. Many say that rolling the lip all the way in results in a darker and possibly smaller sound, and that’s been my experience as well. Due to the darker tone color which results from this embouchure, it’s quite popular among classical sax players.
But for jazz folks such as myself, I prefer the approach taught by the great Joe Allard (among many other legendary saxophone teachers). In this approach, the lower lip isn’t rolled in so much, but instead, the emphasis is on contacting the reed using the fleshiest part of the lower lip. The main reason to play with the lip in a more outwards position is the fact that the fleshier part of the lower lip allows the reed to vibrate more, and because the reed is vibrating more, the sound produced is noticeably larger.
If you look a close ups of many of the great jazz saxophonists such as Michael Brecker, Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, and many, many more, you’ll notice that the lower lip is positioned outwards instead of inwards.
So there you have it – two birds, one stone. A bigger sound, and a happy lower inner lip.
More on this topic here.
2) Check to see if you’re pinching the mouthpiece.
For many sax players, it’s a natural tendency to clamp down on the mouthpiece – especially when playing notes in the horn’s upper register, or playing at a loud volume. Get in the habit of using your, as Joe Allard refers to it, “inner embouchure” when changing pitch or volume. (Practicing on the mouthpiece alone is a great way to develop your inner embouchure, by the way ).
Besides cutting off your sound and negatively impacting your intonation, pinching down can make for some serious pressure from the sharp edges of the lower teeth.
3) Make sure that your setup isn’t too resistant.
This suggestion goes hand-in-hand with suggestion #2. If your reed is too hard or your mouthpiece too open – or if both of these issues are happening simultaneously, you’re going to be quite tempted to pinch down on the mouthpiece. And naturally, those lower teeth could begin to cut into the inside of your lower lip.
4) Use an athletic mouth guard.
The bottom half of a standard plastic mouth guard such as the one used by football players and boxers can work wonders. Simply bring some water to a boil, drop the mouth guard in for 30 seconds, put the guard in cold water for a second, and then place it over your lower teeth, biting down so that the guard forms to fit you as closely as possible. One downside of this technique is the jolting sensation of plastic pulled fresh out of boiling water and melded to your lower teeth.
IMPORTANT: The directions I’ve given are obviously not very detailed. Before fitting your mouth guard, please read an article such as this one for more details.
5) Cushion the lower teeth using a denture pad.
Not an intuitive choice for those of us lucky enough to still have all of our original teeth in place, denture pads such as the one made by EZO can do a great job in shielding the lip from the lower teeth. Make sure to change denture pads regularly or else they get icky icky yuck yuck.
6) Make dental wax your friend.
This is one of the most popular solutions, especially for the junior high kids out there with the fresh set of braces. You can find some over here.
7) Grab some rolling papers, man.
Used mainly by free spirits looking to get an unfiltered rush of nicotine as well as by certain “cats” looking to partake in a “jazz cigarette” – a small sheet of cigarette paper folded over the lower lip has been known to spare many a saxophonist the Sore Lip Blues.
Zipping the Lip
So hopefully I’ve given some helpful suggestions for those suffering through this painful nasty problem.