Is it OK to Puff your Cheeks While Playing?
As many of you know, I’m currently working on an e-book with accompanying audio lessons. One of my interviewees for the project is Bill Plake, whose insights into the physiological aspects of making music are seemingly endless. Among the many topics upon which I was enlightened by the good Mr. Plake was the puffing of the cheeks while playing.
Do as I Say , Not as They Do
On the one hand, we’ve heard many of our teachers telling us that cheek-puffing was a big no-no. Or at the very least, you probably never had any teacher tell you, “hey, let’s get those cheeks puffed out a bit more!” On the other hand, we’ve seen some of the jazz history’s greatest players including Stan Getz, Zoot Simms, and Johnny Griffin puffin’ looking like they were trying to give Dizzy Gillespie a run for his money.
Here’s the thing…
Let’s say you’re playing loud and you’ve got a bunch of air that needs to go through the mouthpiece quickly. You’re going to end up with a bit of a “traffic jam” of air as it fills up the mouthpiece faster than it can pass through it. So you have two choices at that point:
- Tighten the corners of your mouth to keep some of that air at bay
- Let that extra air go into your cheeks while it waits to pass through the mouthpiece
The first option is a very popular one. Heck, I’ve done it myself for years. Crescendo had always equaled a tightening of the embouchure.
Does it work? Of course it does. But it also has the side effect that you almost always get when you put excessive pressure down with your jaw. That side effect being less vibration of the reed. And less vibration of the reed means less sound coming out of the horn.
Now if you choose not to clamp down your jaw when belting out at fortissimo, then that air is going to have to go somewhere, and somewhere is your rosy little cheeks. Of course, everything in moderation. There should be at least enough pressure from the embouchure to keep the cheeks from puffing up like a giant hot air balloon. But the the question we have to ask here is this:
Is there anything about playing with the cheeks puffed out a bit that does more harm to your sound than the harm caused by clamping down on the mouthpiece and adding additional tension into the mix?
A lot of you out there may disagree, but it is both Bill’s and my opinion that the answer is no. It’s more important to keep that lower lip loose enough to let the reed vibrate as fully as possible. So if you find yourself puffing up a bit when the going gets loud, then don’t sweat it. Just keep that air flowing freely while the saxophone teachers of the world cringe.
So how about you – too puff or not to puff?
Photo by Piano Piano
November 14, 2011 @ 8:35 am
Generally I’d say no, puffing cheeks isn’t a good idea. At least you have to start off teaching students that, because typically they’re trying to put too much air into the horn and end up honking. Once a good tonal concept and embouchure strength and flexibility are established, it’s not a terrible thing if it happens on occasion, though. I know I tend to puff my checks when playing rock/funk bari lines, but it’s never intentional. I also went to school with a guy who plays with a tight, directed puff all the time (as opposed to a Dizzy Gillespie like puff). He has a masters in music and plays lead alto with the west point jazz ensemble, certainly not a light weight.
November 14, 2011 @ 10:46 am
I don’t have any reason to believe that cheek-puffing, in and of itself, affects how I sound. However, I do find that it affects the shape of my embouchure. Many of the tone-production problems I see in my students (okay, and in myself sometimes, too) have to do with an embouchure that is moving unnecessarily. Allowing the cheeks to puff means allowing the embouchure to move around, too.
I agree that tightening the embouchure for forte dynamics is a mistake, and, if anything, the embouchure should become a little more permissive at louder dynamics. But if there’s so much air backed up that my cheeks are forced to puff out, then I may not be using a suitable mouthpiece/reed setup.
You’ve picked a few examples of some prominent players who sounded great with puffed cheeks, but I think the list of players who have sounded great without puffed cheeks is many, many times longer. (Not that that’s solid evidence one way or the other.)
One more nit to pick: if I’m understanding correctly, you are referring to jaw pressure and lower-lip “tightness” interchangeably here–I find these to be separate issues.
November 14, 2011 @ 7:15 pm
Being that I was mentioned in this article, I feel compelled to respond. First, I agree with the concerns that both Dave and Bret have about this issue. This (as with many other choices we make about our conscious physical habits regarding playing the saxophone) is an issue of cause and effect, and unintended consequences. If, as Dave notes, his beginning students puff their cheeks out, it is most likely the effect of not having the optimal balance of muscular energy between the jaw, lips and soft palate with respect to the resistance the mouthpiece and reed are providing. So for most beginners, puffing the checks is the net result of a collapsed embouchure. That’s when we hear that uncontrolled, “honking” sound.
On the other hand, if a saxophonist is consciously trying to “hold” the checks in, this often leads to (but doesn’t necessarily have to) the jaw over tightening, which (besides causing fatigue) interferes with tonal flexibility and intonation (probably articulation as well). It all depends on how the saxophonists is responding to his own thinking about playing.
Most of the saxophonists who come to me for lessons already play very well (music school students and pros). They take lessons from me because their habits of muscular tension are making it difficult to play their instruments (pain, fatigue and possible injury). I’ve never asked any of these students to puff their cheeks when they play. But I have noticed with many that have excessive neck and jaw tension, that when they learn to let go of some of that tension, the muscles in their cheeks become more elastic in quality (strong, but flexible and responsive). This can result in the cheeks moving more than they did previously. When this happens, I’ve never encountered a case where the sound got worse (or intonation or response of attack, for that matter). Did the “cheek puffing” make them sound better? Of course not. What made them sound and play better was a change in the balance of muscular effort: not so much stiffness in the jaw, a “firm but cushioned” embouchure, a more responsive soft palate and tongue. If you watch closely enough to many of the great saxophonists who don’t “puff” their cheeks, you might see that the cheeks aren’t being held tightly, and thus move slightly with changes in air velocity and pressure.
When it comes to emulating the physical habits of great instrumentalists, we always need to look at this cause and effect relationship. If we look at Stan Getz, who has one of the most distinctive and lovely tenor saxophone sounds, we could conclude that he gets that beautiful sound from puffing his cheeks, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think he gets that sound because of his imagination and tonal conception, which is supported by his ability to balance these various muscular energies in relation to his instrument.
And finally to completely agree with Bret once again: “One more nit to pick: if I’m understanding correctly, you are referring to jaw pressure and lower-lip “tightness” interchangeably here–I find these to be separate issues.” Separate indeed,in that the pressure and tension of the lips is not the same as the pressure and tension of the jaw, and the two need to be used independently, yet in an integrated way (again, the balance of muscular energies in relation to the instrument to produce sound).
And as Bret also states, watching the physical gestures of other players is not solid evidence. It’s anecdotal at best. We always have to ask this question when watching other players: Is that person playing well because of what he (or she?) is doing, or despite what he (or she) is doing? We can only approach this by understanding how things work in nature (specifically, physics and anatomy/physiology), and by noticing our own habits in response to our thinking.
As always, Doron, another great topic to bring forth to generate ideas and discussion. Thanks!
November 14, 2011 @ 10:01 pm
Wow guys, as usual, amazing responses!
Bret, you bring up a good point about me possibly needing a less open mouthpiece. I really do like a bit of resistance, so I often do have to put a lot of air into the mouthpiece and I can’t imagine that there would be zero backlog of air. That said, I will take this into consideration when shopping for my next mouthpiece.
I also find that when I clamp down with the bottom lip, added tension in my jaw seems to ensue as well, so that’s why I mentioned the two issues interchangeably.
If course, blindly copying the physical position and movement of another saxophone player is counterproductive. But I do think it is interesting to point out that it’s certainly within the realm of possibility to play well while puffing the cheeks.
Thanks so much all of you, I always learn so much for the comments here!
November 15, 2011 @ 4:52 am
I didn’t say less open. In fact, doesn’t it make sense that a more open mouthpiece would reduce backpressure? As always, there are many factors to balance when choosing equipment.
November 15, 2011 @ 9:33 am
Actually, I did indeed mean to say *more* open as you suggest. Long day yesterday…
But yes, many factors to consider with new equipment, and the ability of the mouthpiece to handle large amounts of fast moving air seems like one of the important factors in choosing a mouthpiece.
November 15, 2011 @ 9:23 am
I find it really depends on where I let the cheeks puff, it seems counter productive to my playing to let the full cheeks puff out like Dizzy Gillespie, but if I constrain that puff to the very high-cheekbone area, I find I get better intonation, esp on the bari which is normally a bit sharp. In fact I almost gave this advice to the clarinet last night when he was having trouble matching a long unison passage from being too sharp, but I backed off for fear of speaking blasphemy in front of the music-teachers in the band :)
November 15, 2011 @ 9:43 am
Yeah, I think the point here is not to try and puff the cheeks intentionally, perhaps because we see another great player doing it, but at the very least, to understand why the cheeks are puffing and make adjustments our playing or our equipment as needed. Thanks Gary!
November 15, 2011 @ 1:54 pm
To Puff or not to Puff…lol. I’d like to add the following question. Why do we find ourselves puffing? What are we sacrificing due to the Puff?…Seriously If we paid more attention to our every day breath we would realise just how shallow our breathing is. To all of a sudden expect to turn on the “breathing” engine once were playing is seeing the “problem” backwards.We devote such little time to the different depths that can be acquired in our breath through proper breathing. I have recently decided to focus much more on what i am doing with my breath as i play in hopoes of learning how to breath when I am playing….Just my two cents ..I really dig all the hard work you put into this site,thank you
November 15, 2011 @ 2:28 pm
Zahir, you bring up a great point. I think that the more natural our approach to playing is, the better. All the more reason to make our natural habits (especially in the area of breathing, skeletal alignment, control of throat, etc) that much more healthy.
Thanks so much for the support on the website, I really do hope it helps you in one way or another!
November 15, 2011 @ 3:15 pm
I,ve learned alot and hope to keep learning thanks to your endeavor..Keep up the good work.
November 15, 2011 @ 3:32 pm
Is there any chance that you can continue to expand on this subject? I was wondering how others might feel regarding the following. It seems to me that with all of the harmonic and rhythmic advances Coltrane left us alot of players have maybe sacrificed the (for lack of a better word)inntegrity of each sounding note. I’ll try and clarify, It seems that throughout Coltranes pursuit his aspiration were primarily in connecting to a higher power through his given vehicle.We come accross different holy scriptures that mention the idea of how sound in different shapes and forms is here to announce different parts of any given ideology ie: the sounding trumpets, the beggining of Buddhists ceremony etc. Yet so little of our deverlopment is reared around making sure that each note we play carry with it a singular purpose that is commited to a whole,so that in each purpose no note is ever sacrificed for the sake of completing a “lick”. This is not to denounce playing for playings sake but it seems to me that if this man dedicated so much time to opening up a sonic portal the least we can do is stay true to that ideal before embarking in what is vugarly reffered to as playing with oneself as opposed to playing with some purpose. Tplease tell me what you think and how can this subject, without offending, anyone be expanded. Thanks
November 15, 2011 @ 10:17 pm
Thanks for bringing up such an important point, Zahir. I’m no authority on the realm of the sprit, but in my experience, I find that the more proficiency I have on the horn, the more available I am for the Universe’s inspiration. In fact, I consider whatever proficiency I’ve attained on my instrument is a gift from the universe/God/divine spirit/whatever you want to call it.
Some of the most profound experiences I’ve had in music are those where I saw myself as a channel through which I could be of service to others by uplifting their spirits through the power of music.
However, there have been other times I have found myself playing alone with a Jamey Aebersold play along where I felt incredibly inspired, as though the horn were playing itself. I think it really comes down to being able to let go of all of that stuff we rehearse endlessly in the practice room, and simply let the music flow out without thinking about it.
I hope that helps!
September 9, 2015 @ 5:16 pm
for a beginner clarinet player would it still be okay to puff your cheeks or do you have to be a more experienced and a professional, or can you be a beginner
September 15, 2015 @ 8:27 am
When working on the sound of my tenorsax I notice that I do puf my cheeks at times purpously to check what it does to the changed quality of the sound coming out. Usualy I like it because it enlarges the mouth-cavity and thus making the sound bigger. As Bill said so well (“strong, but flexible and responsive”) also my embouchure stays firm but flexible when I do so.
My point being that in search for ones sound in my humble opinion it is a valid course to take to also delve into ‘puffing of not puffing’.