Favorite blog posts, May 2015

Good stuff from the woodwind blogs in May:

Clarinet and saxophone embouchures and the “chin”

The chin is much-discussed in clarinet pedagogy. Keith Stein suggests a “stretching” of the chin, making it feel “long and pointed” and “rather hard.” David Pino, a student of Stein’s, echoes this. Jane Ellsworth describes a chin that is “drawn downward” (while the jaw provides a “controlled” “upward pressure.” Michele Gingras advocates a “flat” chin. Bil Jackson indicates that the chin “flattens naturally” when the lip configuration and voicing are correct. Tom Ridenour explains that the chin should be “down and flat” and that this happens “virtually automatically” as a result of proper voicing.

The chin gets somewhat less attention in saxophone teaching, but some pedagogical examples can be found. Larry Teal indicates that the “chin muscles” should support the lower lip (as the jaw drops downward), and Timothy McAllister agrees. Tracy Heavner recommends that the chin muscles be “held flat against the chin” with a sensation of those muscles “pushing … down and away from the body.” Brian Utley advocates a “firm but relaxed [chin] position.”

Most of these sources seem to generally agree that the “chin” (or something) must be flattened or stretched or firmed in some way. Let’s look more closely at exactly what is being described, and how it does or doesn’t differ from the clarinet to the saxophone.

“Chin” is probably not a specific enough term for our purposes. Is it a bony structure? a muscular one? The pedagogical literature is rather unclear and contradictory about exactly how the “chin” moves, and even whether it is actively engaged or whether its movement is a result of some other thing moving.

Additionally, there is a common misconception in single-reed teaching that the lower lip forms a “cushion,” without which the teeth would contact the reed. This creates an embouchure that is formed by pressure from the jaw, with the lips serving passively as a gasket, and the lower lip taking quite a bit of abuse from the lower teeth.

A better way to form the embouchure is to bring the jaw (and teeth, and chin) down, away from the reed, and allow the muscles of the lips to form the embouchure. This moves the effort from the larger, stronger jaw muscles to the smaller but more supple muscles of the lips (of the citations above, Teal’s describes this the most clearly). For early beginners (or those who have played for many years with unnecessary jaw pressure and the resulting shredded lower lip) it may be necessary to gradually develop a little endurance in those muscles.

Taking this approach, it becomes clear that the pointing/stretching/whatever, which is actually mostly jaw movement, must be more extreme for the clarinet than for the saxophone, to accommodate the clarinet’s steeper angle.

Left: clarinet jaw position (more open). Right: saxophone jaw position (less open).
Left: clarinet jaw position (more open). Right: saxophone jaw position (less open). Note that the lower teeth clear the reed; the lip will rise to meet the reed and form a muscle-based (rather than jaw/teeth-based) embouchure.

However, the chin area does have muscles, too, and these play an additional role. The lower lip has an acoustical damping effect on the reed, which plays a role in response, tone quality, and volume. Pulling the muscles around the chin downward around its bony structure (this is independent of jaw movement!) firms the lip slightly, reducing the damping. Allowing the muscles to relax softens the lip, increasing the damping. To take an oversimplified view of one aspect of this, we could say generally that the smaller clarinet requires a slightly firmer lip (and thus less damping) to accommodate its higher frequencies (pitches), while the larger saxophone needs less firmness (more damping) to accommodate its lower ones. Note that firmness of the lower lip should not be confused with overall embouchure “tightness.”

Understanding better the anatomical and acoustical aspects of the “chin” (and, of course, the skeletal and muscular systems that combine there) lead to clearer, more accurate teaching and better single reed playing.

Subdivision, long notes, and slowing the tempo

As my students get better at reading more complicated rhythms, often it is the “easy” notes that emerge as the ones still lacking in precision: the longer note values and the rests. It’s not uncommon for my university students to play intricate sixteenth-note rhythms with accuracy and confidence, but play whole notes that are too short by a significant fraction.

Try this: use your thumb and index finger to indicate a distance of about an inch (or, if you live in a country with saner units of measure, do a centimeter). How sure are you of your estimate? Now try one foot (or maybe 30 centimeters), then one yard (or one meter). How sure are you of those estimates? Probably less so. Look into the distance and see if you can guess at a point that is a mile (or kilometer) away. At distances this large, it starts to feel more like just guessing. But if you are reasonably confident of your smaller measurements, you can use them to derive the larger ones: measure out 12 of your guesstimated inches, and you can be more confident that you are in the ballpark of a foot.

Note values are the same way: it’s much easier to place notes that have less “distance” (time) between them. This is why subdividing is key to playing longer notes (or rests) accurately. Don’t start a whole note, wait, and end the note when you suppose enough time has passed; instead, mentally use smaller notes to measure out the longer ones. For example:


Subdivision is also particularly useful for slowing down tempos smoothly and gracefully. When the “large” beats need to get farther apart, it’s not easy to do this gradually and evenly. Smaller beat subdivisions are much easier to manipulate.

Subdivision takes some concentration at first, but can become somewhat automatic with practice. Master this technique for greater precision and control of tempo.

“Next” steps in preparing repertoire

I think many aspiring musicians pass through a phase in their development where they have “learned” fingerings, music reading skills, and other fundamentals at a basic degree of mastery, and turn their attention to developing sufficiently fluent technique (mostly finger technique) to tackle the instrument’s standard literature. Once they acquire that fluency and tackle that repertoire, they will begin to deal with the nuances of interpretation.

Whether this is the best way to do things is a subject for another post (or book), but the reality is that a lot of advancing music students, including many of my university students, are at a point where they are very focused on playing notes in time in tempo, and when they achieve that level with an étude or repertoire piece, sometimes they don’t have a clear idea of what else needs to be done to bring the assignment to a performance level.

Photo, S. Parker
Photo, S. Parker

If you or your students find yourself in that holding pattern, here are just a few ideas of what to “add” to your technical preparation:

  • Are you following all the composer’s marked articulations? dynamics? tempo changes?
  • In the places between the dynamic markings, are you giving the phrases appropriate shaping?
  • Is each note in tune? Does each note have a characteristic, pleasing, and consistent tone? Does each note respond precisely when and how you intend it to?
  • Have you familiarized yourself with all of the composer’s textual indications, and translated them if necessary? Are you making them audible?
  • Are you using vibrato (if applicable) in a purposeful and expressive way?
  • Are you taking a purposeful approach to performance practice? For example, are you using historically-informed approaches to ornamentation, dynamics, tempo, articulation, etc.? Or, alternatively, have you made a conscious and well-informed decision to break from these?
  • Have you studied live performances and recordings of this work by the finest musicians, compared their interpretations, and made careful choices about which ideas to incorporate or adapt into your own performance?
  • Have you thoroughly studied the full score, and do you understand how your part fits into the whole?
  • Do you have opinions about the formal structure, and are you using those to shape your overall interpretation?

Those are just a few, but probably enough to keep most of us busy for a lifetime of study. Feel free to add some more in the comments.