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.
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.
Here are two free online resources you can check out to get some ideas for exercises:
- An excerpt from Eugene Rousseau’s book: Practical Hints on Playing the Alto Saxophone
- The nifty video below, with sheet music which can be downloaded here. [Sorry(!), but this web page has disappeared since the original publication of this article]