What Playing on the Mouthpiece Alone Can Tell You About Your Pitch

Saxophone IntonationFor most of us, playing on the mouthpiece alone results in a horrible noise much resembling what I’d imagine a duck in heat sounds like upon encountering a potential partner. But believe it or not, that horrid noise holds the truth of your current state of intonation.

So here’s the deal – take the mouthpiece, with the reed attached (of course), and blow through it, loud and clear as you would if you were practicing your long tones. Depending on the horn you’re playing, here are the notes that blowing naturally through the mouthpiece should automatically produce as outlined by Dr. Brian R. Utley:

  • Soprano saxophone: concert C3
  • Alto saxophone: concert A2
  • Tenor saxophone: concert G2
  • Baritone saxophone: concert D2

The Goal

The goal, of course, is to play these notes in tune and take note of your embouchure, the shape of your oral cavity, and the throat (more about that in a second). The shape of the oral cavity can be altered by the position of the soft palate (ie: the soft tissue at back of the roof of your mouth) and the tongue. Dr. Utley suggests that the position of the tongue can affect your pitch, with a tongue positioned too high resulting in sharpness, and a tongue too low producing flatness. If you’re playing the target note in tune, then it means that the embouchure, oral cavity, and throat are set for optimum intonation as well as tonal quality .

Using the Throat

Perhaps most key to the control over the pitch is the position of the throat. One common exercise is to put your hand around the front of your throat, sing a note, and then jump up an octave. Feel how the position of your throat changes? Well, same goes for when you’re playing the sax. The position of your throat should change in the same way for each note you play.

This, of course, takes a lot of practice since the movement of the throat becomes much more subtle when we’re moving in between half and whole notes – not to mention when we’re tuning. Practicing overtones and mouthpiece exercises are great ways to develop the skill of controlling your pitch without lipping up or down.

A Matter of Opinion

Now, not everyone agrees that the list above represents the notes that are supposed to come out when the mouthpiece is played alone. In fact, some teachers feel that any note within a small range of the notes above will do. For classical saxophone, the range is about one half-step above or below the list of aforementioned target notes. However, for jazz saxophone, the range of notes is quite a bit wider, since we’re generally dealing with a looser embouchure and the target pitch could be a bit lower than with the classical approach. For more info on the range of target pitches to go for, check out this interesting little PDF file.

Don’t Psych Yourself Out

Assuming that you’re using a tuner to check up on the pitch of these notes, make sure to start the note without looking at your tuner. Otherwise, you might find yourself immediately making adjustments, thereby only reinforcing the feeling of making quick adjustments. What we’re really looking for here is where the pitch actually lies when we’re playing as we would normally play. So go ahead and hit that note without thinking about your pitch, and then check to see where your pitch actually ends up sitting.

So There You Have It

Instead of wandering around the vast expanse of embouchure, inner mouth, and throat possibilities, you now have the tools to guide yourself towards your optimum tonal capabilities. So you have no excuse, get out there and start doing some serious quackin’ – so that your horn can do some serious singin’!

Photo by markhillary