Is it OK to Puff your Cheeks While Playing?

Puffing your CheeksAs 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:

  1. Tighten the corners of your mouth to keep some of that air at bay
  2. 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