The single lip embouchure
Some of my musical friends kept talking about the importance of the embouchure when playing the sax but it is like so many things in life from having your own kids to tooth ache – no description in the world is going to come close to the reality. I was taught by my teacher what I have since come to know as the classical single lip embouchure. This is where you put your top teeth straight on to the top of the mouthpiece. Then wrap your bottom lip over the bottom teeth to make a cushion and bring that up to the bottom of the reed to make the seal.
The most important thing to remember is that the reed must be allowed to fully vibrate at all times – this means you need to make sure your top teeth and bottom lip ( curled over the bottom teeth) are both clear of the front part of the reed that is free to move. But if you swallow too much of that mouthpiece you won’t be able to play the higher notes very well or at all. For anyone interested in a more scientific process for finding this sweet spot, the best approach I found during my research was to slide a piece of paper between the reed and the mouthpiece till it stops moving, then mark the reed where the paper stops. This is where your top teeth and bottom lips should be.
Another and a harder thing to achieve for me was applying the right amount of pressure from the bottom lip to make a good seal without, again, restricting the movement of that reed. This is where my embouchure troubles began. I suspect like most beginners to the saxophone, I was less concerned with the perfect embouchure and more interested in getting through my exercises. I was having enough trouble with plenty of other ‘issues’ like going from a C to a D without sounding like I’d switched instruments, a reed that was soaking wet after 2 minutes of playing, a sore bottom thumb from holding up the sax (I’ve solved this one since – post to follow.) and of course running out of air before the end of the bar. All this meant I was clinging onto that mouthpiece like my life depended on it and with all the expected consequences. A very painful sound and an even more painful bottom lip, where I’d been biting it with my bottom teeth against the reed – ouch! So what were my options?
The double lip embouchure – hide those teeth
This is where in addition to curling your bottom lip over the bottom teeth, you also curl the top lip over the top teeth. So you look like someone whose’s forgotten to put in their false teeth and don’t want you to see their gums. The result is both top and bottom teeth are cushioned by lips. The theory is with this arrangement, it would be very painful to bite against the top lip hence you don’t bite and the reed is free to move and the sound is sweet…I can confirm that for me this method just left me with both lips shredded. But don’t let me put you off, I hear it worked like a dream for that John Coltrane bloke.
The no embouchure embouchure
This is pretty much as it’s written on the tin. You basically put the mouthpiece in your mouth without any premeditated lip manipulation. The thing goes in and you put your lips comfortably over it like it was a big straw. I kind of found myself automatically defaulting to this when I started to go down the register to the dreaded L O W Bb. It started with me increasingly having to loosen my bottom lip to hit that low note until it finally popped out and out came the sound with it. It is worth noting that I’d been playing for about 4 months at this point and may be it would’t have worked as well without those months of strain and pain.
There’s clearly a of benefit to this as there’s no better way to give plenty of space for the reed. But I find it much harder to play the higher notes like this. From my travels online the most convincing explanation and the reason I’m keen to persevere comes from Jerry Bergonzi.
So where am I at with all this? I still basically use a single lip embouchure but am happy to let it slide out for the low notes and tuck under and tighten up for the higher register. My bottom lip doesn’t hurt so much now. The most important thing I’ve learnt is that if you just keep playing, your mouth, lips and teeth all seem to take care of themselves and find the best position to get the job done. But what is getting the job done? Right now it’s getting all the low notes and the high notes out in time to get through my exercises and short pieces. But soon I know I’m going to want that alto to sound like a saxophone – I will then need to continue to evolve my embouchure and the best way to do that is to keep playing and experimenting