Small Shift of the Lip, Big Shift in the Sound

A few weeks ago I saw a brief instructional video by monster sax player and educator, George Garzone. In the video, he takes on a plethora of topics, but one thing he said really stood out to me.

George says that the first thing he does when a new student comes to him is have the student “release” the lower lip. since most of them come in playing with the lower lip tucked in over the bottom teeth. George describes this release of the lower lip as “being a religious experience” for the students, as they find that within the span of thirty seconds, their tone becomes radically bigger. And of course it makes sense. Without those rock-hard teeth clamping down on the mouthpiece, the reed is going to vibrate a whole lot more, and more reed vibration equals more sound.

As one of those players who’s always played with the bottom lip in, when I took George’s advice and moved the lip out, I too had the religious experience of hearing my tone sound as big as a truck, and I haven’t been able to bring myself back since.

My first attempts at this type of embouchure involved sticking that bottom lip out as though I was frowning. However, the frowning embouchure soon became a true frown as I noticed a couple of things when playing this way:

  • My chops got completely worn out within a matter of minutes.
  • I had air rushing out of the top of my mouthpiece due to the wearing out of the chops.
  • When playing anywhere towards the top of the saxophone’s register, I found myself squeaking like a middle school¬†clarinetist in their first week of band practice.

So clearly this was not going to be a simple matter of moving the lip and voila! – all my problems are solved. No, this was and still is going to be a bit of a project.

Through a bit of research, I’ve learned a few key considerations:

  • The lower lip should not necessarily be sticking all the way out as much as it should simply serve as a support for the mouthpiece. Ideally, the lower lip is pressing against straight up against the lower teeth. Saxman and teacher¬†Pete Thomas describes: “...if you think of the lip in profile, it is more or less pointing straight up, like the letter I. The pressure on the reed causes it to become a T.”
  • Sticking that lower lip all the way out can feel unnatural and a bit contorted. At the end of the day, we have to find a way to play where our embouchure feels natural. Jerry Bergonzi¬†refers¬†to this approach as the “no embouchure embouchure,” saying that this embouchure is what we were born with and is the most natural way to play.
  • As I mentioned to earlier, because we no longer have the stiffness of the lower teeth supporting the mouthpiece, we will be flexing unfamiliar muscles to keep the sound going, so don’t be shocked if you find you chops getting tired more than usual.
  • Since the lower lip is going to remain a bit looser, we can’t be counting on it as much for keeping us in tune. Instead, we will need to experiment with using the¬†tongue, throat, and shape of the oral cavity to control our intonation, so this will be a process in and of itself. Practicing on the mouthpiece without that sax should be of great help in wrangling that pitch without the benefit of the lower lip.

Flex those Muscles

Another Pete Thomas tidbit that I’d like to share is the following exercise which can be done without the saxophone:

“Open your mouth, press down on your lower lip (not curled over the teeth but keep it fairly firm) with a finger and say “yah yah yah”. You will find it’s possible to move your finger by doing that.”

This is a great way to isolate those lower lip muscles and get yourself in shape for this new tone-tripling lip position.

Embouchures in Action

(Click photos for a larger view.)

A Time and Place for Everything

Although playing with the bottom lip out can increase the size of your sound, in certain instances, it may not be the best choice. For example if you are playing classical music, then the sound that’s required for that style is generally achieved by playing with the bottom lip in.

And since there are no rules in music, you may find that you like the sound you get with the lip in better than with the lip out. In fact, the master himself,¬†John Coltrane played with the lower lip and the upper lip both tucked in. At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal taste.

So tell us, where goes that lip when you play?