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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Jazz Embouchure?

(This article was originally published in Saxophone Today, July/August 2015.)

Someone recently asked me about the differences in embouchure for producing a good tone in classical and jazz styles.  The question of a “jazz embouchure” comes up with some frequency and is well worth discussion.  Dave Liebman’s excellent book “Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound” addresses a wide array of issues surrounding tone production, much of which is based upon the teachings of the legendary Joe Allard.  Many of the great New York jazz players, including Lieb, studied with Allard.  A similar situation occurred in Boston with Joe Viola, and Larry Teal’s students included Detroit legends like Joe Henderson and Yusef Lateef.  In all of these cases, nobody was studying a “jazz embouchure,” or any other kind of embouchure, for that matter.  Allard, Viola, and Teal were masters of good saxophone technique, transcendent of style.  A good embouchure is a good embouchure:  say “tooo,” purse your lips as if whistling, and rest your top teeth on the mouthpiece.  Period.

Before everyone goes nuts, keep calm and give me a couple of minutes to explain my position.  There are obviousdifferences between the stereotypical jazz saxophone tone and a more classical sound, but these are mostly generated in ways that have little to do with the embouchure.  I can’t imagine that a reader of this publication would need a detailed description of the differences in sound across styles, so let’s assume that we can all tell the difference between Cannonball Adderley and Claude Delangle, or Sonny Rollins and Jim Houlik, etc.  We acknowledge that there are clear differences, but what techniques are used to create these stereotypical sounds?


Firstly, jazz musicians typically must play much louder than classical musicians.  For the most part, jazz saxophonists are competing with amplified instruments and drums.  In contrast, classical saxophonists tend to play in acoustic settings are they frequently working to play more softly.  (A single saxophone is about as loud as a full section of strings, for example.)  As a result of the demands of their respective environments, most classical saxophonists will choose a mouthpiece with a smaller tip opening and a short facing curve.  Good choices would be the ubiquitous Selmer C*, Vandoren Optimum, or something similar.  These mouthpieces are responsive, easy to center, and have a lovely, smooth sound from pianissimo to a reasonable fortissimo.  These mouthpieces mate well with medium-hard reeds with a French filed cut, like the Vandoren “blue box,” usually a number 3 or 3.5.  The size of the chamber of the mouthpiece is less important, as this has more to do with certain qualities of sound that are more subtle.  There are also physical reasons to use large chamber sizes, like the Rascher school that uses older Buescher horns that play best with the large chamber.  Acoustics aside, I find that tip opening and facing length are much more important to the characteristic sound of the mouthpiece than chamber shape/size.

Compared to classical saxophonists, jazz musicians need more flexibility to obtain a great sound at significantly louder volumes, which are only possible with larger tip openings.  It might also be desirable to use a longer facing curve.  A typical alto choice might be a Meyer 6, and tenor players often go for the Otto Link 7*.  In both cases, the amount of reed that actually moves against the mouthpiece is longer than on a classical mouthpiece, and the reed travels a great distance, at least when compared to a Selmer C*, for example.  This is why a softer reed will usually work better on a jazz setup, and a long facing will prefer a non-filed “American” cut reed, like the Vandoren V16 or ZZ.  When I was a youngster, I spent some time on an Otto Link 9* with LaVoz medium-softs.  That ridiculously huge mouthpiece would be totally unplayable with Vandoren blue box, by the way!

Some musicians argue that certain models of saxophone are better for certain styles, but I tend to disagree.  I have played horns as widely varied as new Julius Keilwerths and Rampones and classic old vintage Selmers and Kings, and I have never found a horn that seemed to favor one way of playing.  (I have played some older horns that were not as classical-friendly as modern horns, but only because their keywork was more difficult to navigate.)  If a saxophone plays easily with a good sound and reasonable intonation, it should work for any style, as long as the mouthpiece/reed are well matched to the particular horn and the musical situation.


Appropriate equipment is important, but no amount of money spent on fancy gear can substitute for proper voicing.  Voicing, in simple terms, is the playing position of the tongue and oral cavity, which changes with different pitches, contrasting dynamics, and varying tone colors.  The larynx appears to play a part in this as well.

Check out this YouTube clip of the famous x-ray video of Ray Wheeler playing clarinet.

Whether you realize it or not, you are always voicing when playing the saxophone; you might not be properly voicing, or voicing optimally, but the soft tissues inside your body are moving in reaction to the powerful resonances of the saxophone.  Additionally, you may be making disadvantageous adjustments due to bad habits or poor technique.

In my personal experience, I have found two important relationships that are always on my mind.  The first involves frequency matching, relating to the resonance and impedance of a given note.  In essence, low notes have strong resonance and low impedance, while high notes are the inverse.  This means that low notes don’t require a lot of fussing with oral position, but they do require a ton of air.  Low notes are assisted by a more open position, with the tongue low in the mouth and the throat open, as if singing very low notes.  By contrast, high notes require very precise positioning of the tongue and larynx, because the internal resonance of the saxophone gets weaker as the pitches ascend, thusly requiring more skill from the player.  This is the reason that most any amateur can manage to honk out the low notes, but the altissimo register remains elusive to those that lack the skill to properly voice for those finicky high notes.

The second relationship had to do with keeping the sound centered, or balanced.  This connects to the relationship between the air speed/pressure, and the oral position.  A faster, more pressurized airstream will generally produce a sound that is louder and brighter.  (For our purposes, a bright sound is one that prominently features high overtones.)  A higher tongue position will act like a spoiler, speeding up the air as it passes through the “squeezed” space between the tongue and the roof of the mouth.  The same technique is used inside of certain jazz mouthpieces, where the baffle is raised between the tip and the throat of the mouthpiece, again to pressurize the air and to force it move faster.  When performing in a jazz setting where a fairly loud and brilliant tone is required, the player will be pushing a highly pressurized stream of air, which will apply resistance against the tongue with quite a bit of force.  This means that the tongue must not only be in an elevated position, but it must also be held in place with a good amount of strength, to overcome the pressure of the airstream.  Many young players are unable to keep the voicing in position when they play full tilt, causing the sound to spread, and possibly to blow flat.  Classical players must also use strength to hold the voicing apparatus in place, but the extreme volume and colors involved in jazz (and rock) require an exaggerated voicing to keep the sound from losing center, becoming harsh or shrill.  This also explains why a baffled mouthpiece can be useful, but it cannot substitute for a skilled and adaptive performer.

I know many, very fine saxophonists that disagree on how we accomplish certain musical results, and what we think we are doing is arguably at least as important as what we are actually doing . . . maybe even more important, if it helps us to achieve the desired results.  No matter, there is plenty of good science on how the saxophone works.

Follow this link to an excellent primer on the physics of the saxophone:

Subtone:  Keep It Loose

Although mostly associated with jazz, saxophonists of any style will at least occasionally use subtone.  To get that breathy sound, the embouchure must be loose enough to allow the bottom lip to roll out a little more than normal.  The lip spreads out and has a dampening effect on the reed, taking out some of the high harmonics.  The tone becomes very smooth and airy.  If you overdo it, there will be too much air in the sound, causing the tone to be uncentered and “windy.”  Classical saxophonists might use a little bit of subtone to take the edge off the sound.  I find that I can easily add subtone by opening my jaw and drawing my chin inward, away from the mouthpiece.  Coleman Hawkins and Cannonball Adderley used subtone to great effect, but I also hear some of that looseness in Marcel Mule’s classical recordings.  Most every student that I encounter uses too much jaw pressure, which has a deleterious effect on the vibration of the reed.  Whether playing classical or jazz style, keep it loose, provide lots of air, and support with the muscles around the embouchure - not with the biting pressure of the jaw.

I hope that these explanations are helpful.  In summary, I have prepared a little YouTube video to demonstrate some of the concepts mentioned in this article.  If you have questions, please feel free to use the comments section under the video.  Practice well!


In addition to the original article, here is a video of an oscilloscope and frequency analyzer, showing subtone versus full tone, pushing the tone into even-order distortion, and a multiphonic oscillation.

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