The Path to Your Biggest Saxophone Sound Ever

Sonny RollinsIf you’ve ever studied sound engineering, one of the first thing you learn is about signal flow. You see, in a recording studio you’ve got gobs of equipment that the sound passes through before making it to it’s final destination, which, in the “old days” was a tape machine, and these days, is a hard drive.

As that sound passes through compression units, a mixing board input, effects boxes, etcetera, the goal is for that sound to be as loud as possible before exceeding the amount of energy that the current piece of gear can handle, thereby causing distortion. If you can get that sound going as loud as possible into the compressor, and then as loud as possible into the effects box, the mixing board input, and so on and so forth, you’ll end up with a pure and powerful sound which carries with it very little background noise.

At this point, some of you might be asking – “so what in the name of Coleman Hawkins does this have to do with the saxophone?” Well, I’d like to suggest that we all have our own internal signal flow when it comes to moving air through the instrument.

Starting at the Lungs

When it comes to breathing, some of us think in terms of filling up our stomach with air and pushing it back out with the stomach as well. Obviously, the only place we can draw air into is the lungs, and those are located above the belly, towards the back of the upper torso. So when we take a deep breath, we’re actually expanding the inside of our ribcage and allowing the air to naturally rush into the lungs.

From there, we release up from the diaphragm (notice I said “release” as opposed to “squeeze”) while letting the rib cage naturally sink downwards, pushing the air out with the simple force of gravity while our head releases upwards from the spine.

Onwards and Upwards Through the Throat

The next step on our air stream’s journey is the throat. We’ve all heard time and time about playing with “an open throat” – but here’s the thing, folks. The throat is not a muscle, and therefore cannot open or close. All we can do here is get our tongue out of the way.

To explain…many, and I’ll even go so far as to say most of us, have been taught to think of making the “AH” sound while we play, Well, think about it – when we’re saying “AH”, the tongue is laying down towards the very bottom of the mouth. And that, my friends, serves to block our precious flow of air (why do you think that the act of gagging sounds more like “AH” than any other vowel sound?).

Instead, we should think of the “EE sound” while we play. This will allow the tongue to life upwards a bit and make way for that smooth but solid block of air we’ve released from your lungs.

Next Stop, Inside the Mouth

Now that we’ve got the tongue lifted a bit to make that “EE” sound, there’s another benefit we enjoy. Since the tongue is raised up in the mouth a bit, it’s freeing up the space directly in front of the throat, while blocking off some of the air going into the mouthpiece.

Blocking off air? Isn’t that a bad thing?

No, it’s actually a good thing. The analogy that many people use is that of the thumb on the garden hose.

Most of us can remember being little kids and goofing off with a garden hose.  You know, we turn the hose on until we’ve got a nice stream of water coming out, and then, what do we do? Why of course, we cover half, or even a bit more than half of the nozzle with our thumb so that the water comes flying out of the hose moving twice as far and twice as fast, leaving our unlucky friends or siblings unexpectedly soaked.

Just like partially blocking off the hose’s nozzle makes the flow of water more powerful, partially blocking off the exit out of our mouth with the tongue makes the stream of air more powerful as well.

Moving into the Mouthpiece and Rockin’ that Reed

Now that we’ve maxxed-out the air moving through the mouth, we can look at what happens to the air as it leaves us and comes rushing into the mouthpiece.

Since it’s up to the vibration of the reed to get actual sound coming out of our instrument, the most important thing we have to look at is how we get the maximum amount of vibration out of that reed. In my experience (as well as the experience of many of the world’s greatest players and teachers), we must make sure that the reed rests above the fleshiest part of our lower lip.

Many classical saxophone players opt for the approach of having the bottom lip tucked in over the teeth. And that’s a legitimate approach which works very well when looking to produce a sound in the vein of classical saxophone. It’s also popular among many great jazz saxophonists. But from the standpoint of getting our reed vibrating to the max, I suggest keeping that lower lip rolled out a bit so that it makes contact with the reed using the part of the lip that’s the softest and least constricting. I’d also recommend keeping the pressure on the top of the mouthpiece as minimal as possible. The point is, we want to make sure that the reed is left free to vibrate as fully as possible while at the same time, clamping down just enough so that the mouthpiece stays in place.

For more information on this type of embouchure, I suggest you seek out the teachings of the legendary saxophone teacher, Joe Allard.

As far as the mouthpiece goes, we want to make sure that the facing of the mouthpiece is a good match for the strength of the reed we’re using. The general rule of thumb is that the more open (or bigger) our facing is, the lower the strength our reed should be. Inversely, if we’re playing a mouthpiece with a facing that’s lower on the spectrum, then the harder our reed should be. I suggest a middle-of-the-road approach where we’re playing on a mouthpiece of medium facing and a reed of medium strength.

If you’re confused about all this talk of mouthpiece facings and what constitutes “an open facing”, take a look at this page on the Woodwind Brasswind site.

Final Destination, The Saxophone

Of course, no two saxophones are exactly alike, but regardless of the brand, model, or quality of your horn, it’s important that it be in good working condition. Specifically, that means making sure that our horn is not leaking air, since leaks break up your airflow as it travels through the sax.

Beyond the Bell

For those of us who are new to travelling this “path of least resistance,” if we’ve applied all of the techniques and principles described in this article, we should find ourselves sounding bigger and better than ever. So here’s to all of us relaxing and letting that air flow easy, breezy…and powerful!

Photo by Bengt Nyman