10 ways to strengthen your embouchure right now!

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  1. You don’t need a “strong” embouchure, you need a relaxed embouchure.
  2. Embouchure “strength” is a myth. Stop biting and pinching.
  3. Your embouchure is made up of little facial muscles, which are good at subtle, expressive movements, like for facial expressions and language (or for nuanced variations in woodwind dynamics and tone color). They aren’t good at feats of strength or endurance.
  4. Your abdominal muscles, on the other hand, are very good at strength and endurance. You use them all day long and they probably never feel tired unless you are doing sit-ups or something. Instead of straining with your embouchure, let breath support do the work.
  5. You should probably check on your voicing, too. I mean, you could bite your clarinet up to pitch instead, but it’s painful and causes lots of other problems.
  6. You know that thing where you play a reed instrument and you get a blister or callus from your teeth on your lower lip? Good news, you don’t need a dental appliance or some kind of tape. You just need to relax your embouchure. Try it! Now you can practice for hours without fatigue or blood, and sound better doing it.
  7. Ever try to play in one of the upper registers of the flute, and get an undertone or some dirtiness/growliness in your attacks? The key to clear, beautiful transitions into the upper register is a relaxed and flexible embouchure.
  8. We can argue about whether your jaw is part of your embouchure. Nah, never mind, I have better things to do. But in any case it should be open, creating space for the soft tissues of your lip and facial muscles to make the aperture. Go ahead and unclench. By the way, opening up your jaw is what people really mean when they tell clarinetists (mostly) to do weird things with their chins.
  9. I know, somebody taught you in your formative years about the vital importance of a brutishly muscular embouchure. Take a deep, cleansing breath. Everything is going to be fine.
  10. Go practice.

Woodwind doubling and saxophone problems

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It’s very common for woodwind doublers to be saxophonists first, and approach the other woodwinds later, often because of the demands of flute/clarinet doubling in jazz big band music. So advice for woodwind doublers is often really advice for saxophonists playing secondary instruments. But when players of other woodwind instruments pick up the saxophone, there are some challenges that need to be addressed as well.

Tone production problems (pitch, tone, response). Assuming good breath support is in place (the same as with any other woodwind), these problems are probably caused by some combination of embouchure and voicing issues.

As with the other reed instruments, your embouchure should be airtight but not tight—just enough to close around the mouthpiece and reed, with your top teeth on the mouthpiece and your bottom lip in a neutral position (not rolled in or out). A tight embouchure constricts tone and reduces dynamic range.

The mouthpiece should angle up to your embouchure a little, but not at nearly as steep an angle as the clarinet or the oboe. Too steep an angle contributes to an uncharacteristic, slightly clarinet-like tone.

Use the paper trick to ensure you are taking in the right amount of mouthpiece. Taking in too much mouthpiece creates a wild, honky tone, and to little causes a stuffy, labored tone.

Voicing is tricky to get right on the saxophones. Flutists and double reed players are used to playing with a voicing essentially as low as it can go, and clarinetists use an embouchure essentially as high as it can go. Saxophonists need to hit a target somewhere in between. Daily mouthpiece pitch exercises are the best way to train this. Using a too-high voicing causes the thin, pinched sound and poor low-register response that expose you as a doubler coming from the clarinet. A too-low voicing causes a tubby tone, unstable pitch, and unresponsive high notes.

Fingering problems. The saxophone’s fingering system is in some ways the simplest and most intuitive of the modern woodwinds, but it has its share of problems. “Side” and “palm” keys are among them—they are awkward and imprecise to use, and take a great deal of practice to develop fluency. Similarly, movement between the pinky-finger keys using rollers, especially on the left hand, is problematic and requires diligent training. Scales and arpeggios, practiced though the instrument’s full standard range, are essential. Fluency in the saxophone’s middle register is comparatively easy, but the lowest notes (left-hand pinky) and highest notes (palm keys, especially left hand) are a real test of saxophone skill.

Style problems. For doublers approaching the flute, clarinet, or double reeds, a solid classical/orchestral approach to the instrument will cover most musical demands. Not so with the saxophone, which is often used in jazz or popular styles. To play these styles convincingly requires meticulous attention to tone, inflection, articulation, vibrato, and other subtleties. Doublers learning the saxophone would be wise to consider taking lessons both from “classical” and jazz teachers, and to do a great deal of listening and study of many styles of music.

Effective improvisation in various musical styles is a lifetime pursuit, and essential for serious saxophone gigging. Find a good teacher.

Jazz and classical setups. For saxophonists, playing in different styles sometimes requires different equipment. It’s common to have a classical mouthpiece and at least one jazz/pop mouthpiece, plus reeds to suit each. A classical mouthpiece often doesn’t have the volume, brightness, or punchy articulation needed for jazz or rock, and a jazz mouthpiece may not have the warm/dark tone, pitch stability, and subtle/soft dynamics for classical music.

Jaw vibrato. Jaw vibrato is a technique unique to the saxophone among the other woodwinds. (Clarinetists most often don’t use vibrato, and flutists and double reed players use a breath-pulse vibrato sometimes mislabeled as “diaphragm” vibrato.) Mastery of this skill takes good instruction and lots of practice. The saxophone vibrato needs to be fast, narrow, subtle, and fairly constant for most classical applications. Jazz players traditionally tend toward a slower, wider, terminal vibrato.

The saxophone is a valuable and rewarding double, and opens up many gigs that aren’t available to players of just the “orchestral” woodwinds. Give it serious study on its own terms and with an excellent teacher. Practice well!

The right clarinet or saxophone reed strength “for you”

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How do you pick the clarinet or saxophone reed that is the right strength “for you?” You mostly don’t, really.

It’s important that the reed be a good match to the mouthpiece. In most cases the primary consideration is the mouthpiece’s facing curve and resultant tip opening. Generally, a shorter curve and/or wider opening require a softer reed, that can flex enough to meet the mouthpiece while vibrating. A longer curve and/or narrower opening need a stiffer reed, which will have enough guts to spring back after flexing to the mouthpiece.

This means that the “right” strength for a player using a particular mouthpiece will be pretty close to the “right” reed for anyone else using that mouthpiece.

Some players and teachers object to this, insisting that the “strength” of the embouchure needs to be accounted for. But the embouchure shouldn’t employ much “strength”—it should close just airtight (but not tight) around the mouthpiece and reed. If you are using your embouchure to muscle the reed around, then you might think you need a stiffer reed, but what you really need is a more open, relaxed embouchure. (If you feel like you will lose control by relaxing your embouchure, make up for it with powerful breath support.)

So, assuming a reed reasonably well-matched to the mouthpiece, and a correctly-formed embouchure, the only thing left to consider is personal preference for how much resistance is in the setup. A slightly more resistant setup is good for things like soft, gentle articulations and stable pitch and tone. A slightly less resistant setup favors crisp, immediate articulations and some pitch and tone flexibility. I find this acceptable range of reed stiffnesses to be small enough that I can usually find some softer and some stiffer specimens within a box of reeds that are nominally the same strength.

Some mouthpiece and reed makers publish information about which reeds match to which mouthpieces. If you find yourself straying far from these recommendations, take a closer look at your embouchure and your stability/flexibility priorities.

Woodwind doubling and clarinet problems

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Here are a few of the common problems woodwind doublers have with the clarinet:

Flabby/saggy/tubby/airy tone and flat pitch. This is a dead giveaway for a self-“taught” clarinet doubler. The clarinet’s voicing is quite high, higher than any of the other woodwinds, and beginning clarinetists sometimes struggle for years to make that proper voicing a consistent habit. Once it settles in, pitch problems mostly evaporate, tone becomes clear and ringing, and notes respond beautifully and easily in every register. If you’re thinking about buying a shorter barrel because your “clarinet” is so flat all the time, don’t. Work on your voicing instead. Voicing is the #1 crucial technique for successful clarinet doubling, and will solve most of your problems.

It may also be worth checking your mouthpiece angle—it should be quite steep compared to saxophone or double reed instruments. Keep your head up straight and eyes forward, and aim in the ballpark of keeping the clarinet around 30° from vertical. You can also use the paper trick to make sure you’re taking in the right amount of mouthpiece.

Reeds can be a contributing factor, too. Often (but not always) saxophonists lean toward a slightly more open mouthpiece and softer reed, while clarinetists lean toward a little more closed mouthpiece and stiffer reed. The strength you prefer on a typical saxophone mouthpiece may not be right strength for a typical clarinet mouthpiece.

Constricted tone. Bafflingly, there’s a common pedagogical idea that clarinetists should tighten their embouchures to fix various problems. This is nonsense. Keep your jaw open to make space for the reed to vibrate, and let your lips (not your jaw/teeth) close around the mouthpiece, not tight but just airtight. Notes will respond more readily, with a fuller, prettier tone, and you can throw away the tape or paper or dental appliance you have been using to cushion your lower lip from your teeth.

Squeaks. 95% of the time this is an issue of fingers failing to properly cover toneholes. (And 95% of the time, struggling clarinet doublers blame it on something having vaguely to do with embouchure, reeds, or the clarinet somehow just being a squeaky instrument.) Use the large, fleshy pads of your fingers (not the tippy-tips) to cover the holes. Sometimes a quick check in the mirror can reveal that your fingers aren’t where you think they are.

Fingering awkwardness. The clarinet’s fingering system and unique overtone series provide tremendous advantages: an expansive range, clean and precise technique, and lots of useful alternate fingerings. (It’s superior to the saxophone’s “easier” system with awkward palm keys and relatively few alternates. Fight me.)

But if you’re coming from another instrument, you might find the 12th between the lower and clarion registers confounding. That’s because you’re still thinking about the fingerings. Practice your scales, arpeggios, and études until your fingers move on autopilot, like they already do on your primary instrument. It can be done.

The clarinet’s dreaded “break” as a technique concern is mostly a myth. Keep your support, voicing, and embouchure well-formed and stable, and just move your fingers. Your left index finger should rock or tilt between its tonehole and the A key, not hop (losing contact with the instrument) or slide (dragging along the key). Work toward a tiny, efficient, relaxed movement.

The clarinet’s clever system of redundant pinky keys enables lightning-fast technique in virtually any key, but it takes real effort to learn to use them well. Remember that for those pinky-finger notes there aren’t really “standard” vs. “alternate” fingerings—you need to know them all well enough to use interchangeably. And if you have beginner habits like using both pinkies for third-line B, you will need to learn to use a single pinky in many cases for the most efficient and flexible approach.

Ledger line catastrophes. Because of the clarinet’s broad tessitura, clarinetists have to be fluent in ledger lines above the staff (maybe more than you’re used to if you’re an oboist) and below the staff (more than you’re used to on any treble-clef woodwind). Hit the Baermann or Kroepsh books for thorough workouts spanning the clarinet’s range.

Remember the best money you can spend on your clarinet playing isn’t another mouthpiece or barrel or book—it’s some lessons with an excellent teacher. Learn the instrument on its own terms, and, whatever you do, try not to sound like a doubler.

Focus on fundamentals, not localized fixes

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As I’ve discussed here previously, when trying to solve woodwind-playing problems there’s a useful distinction between problem-specific solutions and simply shoring up fundamental technique.

Here are some examples of problem-specific solutions:

  • Second-octave G-sharp tends to crack on saxophone, especially tenor? When you get to that note, blow warmer air (in other words, use a lower voicing).
  • Low notes on oboe respond sluggishly? Try dropping your jaw a bit as you descend into that register.
  • Flute pitch sagging at softer dynamics? Increase your breath support as you decrescendo.

Notice that all of these suggestions give you a sort of localized task to perform—make some change to your tone-production technique whenever you play a certain note. This is an exhausting way to play: trying to remember and execute a handful of directives for each note that goes by; discovering that a constantly-changing tone-production technique makes tone, pitch, and response unstable; adding another layer of fixes to try to counteract the instability. It can quickly become too much to process, and higher-order things like musical expression get sacrificed.

Sometimes these localized fixes are necessary, usually as a workaround to some flaw or compromise in the equipment’s design or manufacture. But much more often the “fix” should be an improvement to fundamental technique:

  • If lowering your voicing helps the cracking G-sharp on tenor, what would happen if you used that lower voicing on every note?
  • If taking some jaw pressure off the oboe reed helps the low notes speak, what would happen if you didn’t add that pressure back in the higher registers?
  • If increasing breath support helps buoy up softer notes, would it hurt the louder ones?

My guess is that by making these fixes part of your fundamental technique, instead of applying them here and there like bandages, you would discover:

  • a richer, more in-tune tenor saxophone tone
  • clearer, more immediate oboe articulation, with less fatigue/pain
  • flute playing improved in virtually every aspect

Examine your problem-specific fixes carefully, and try making them your default approaches rather than special-occasion ones.

When dealing with problem spots in your music, it’s okay to remind yourself of relevant and helpful fundamental techniques, but the ultimate goal should be to remove as much as possible of the mental overhead and physical gymnastics from your playing. Develop good basic technique that lets the instrument more or less play itself, so you can focus on the creative aspects.

What are registers?

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“Registers” are a tricky concept in woodwind playing. Here’s how they work.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say I am playing a flute with a C footjoint. If I finger a low C, that closes all the instrument’s toneholes and produces a C4:

Make your own woodwind fingering diagrams: fingering.bretpimentel.com

As I work my way up the chromatic scale, I gradually open more and more of the flute’s holes. When I reach C-sharp 5, I run out of holes to open. (Using standard fingerings, that is.) To continue upward, the fingerings sort of restart—I close a bunch of toneholes again, fingering D5 in almost the same way I played D4. By the time I get to E5 I am using fingerings identical to the ones from an octave lower.

I can play higher notes using the same fingerings I used for lower ones because I have moved into a higher register, which in this case is an octave above the lower register. On flute, I do this by changing something about my tone production; on reed instruments I get extra help from octave/register/”whisper” keys.

If I continue my scale up to C-sharp 6, I run out of toneholes again, and move up to the third register, which is a fifth higher than the second. To play D6, I use a fingering that looks similar to G5, but sounds a fifth higher.

So, for typical flute playing situations, we can consider the second register to begin at D5, and the third to begin at D6.

But this doesn’t paint a complete picture in terms of the instrument’s acoustical properties. When the fingerings “start over” at D5, that’s not really starting over—I have left out the low C and C-sharp fingerings. And it turns out I can in fact play C5 and C-sharp 5 using those fingerings. The reason that flutists typically don’t is that the “standard” fingerings (with most of the toneholes opened) happen to work better for most situations, with regard to pitch, tone, and/or response. Likewise, when I reach C-sharp 5 and C-sharp 6, I haven’t completely run out of toneholes to open. If I open everything I have left (both trill keys, plus maybe the G-sharp key) I can get up to about D-sharp in either octave. But I usually don’t do that unless I have a special reason, because the standard fingerings are more usable.

And starting the third register on D6 with an adapted “G” fingering raises this question again, but with an even larger gap. What about third-register notes using the fingerings from “low C” up to “F-sharp?” The answer is that those fingerings work, too (producing G up to C-sharp, an octave plus a fifth above the corresponding low-register fingerings). But, again, they aren’t as useful because of their pitch, tone, and response characteristics.

So from an acoustical standpoint the first and second registers overlap in the C5-D-sharp 5 range, and the second and third overlap in the G5-D-sharp 6 range.

When there’s overlap, there are fingering options available. The “standard” fingerings are the ones that have been chosen over the centuries by flutists as the ones best suited to most situations, but the others (sometimes called “overtone” fingerings or “harmonic” fingerings) can be used to good musical effect at times.

The flute and most of the reed instruments follow the same pattern of registers: the second register is an octave above the first, and the third is a fifth above that. Additional registers above those are also used sometimes, spaced with increasingly small intervals. This series of intervals is a naturally-occurring phenomenon known as the harmonic series.

The clarinet is an exception; due to its acoustical characteristics it uses only every other harmonic. This is why the clarinet doesn’t have an “octave” key, it has a “register” key that skips the octave register and goes straight to an octave plus a fifth.

Understanding registers is helpful in navigating between them and in finding alternate fingerings for special situations. Happy practicing!

Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

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There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Does woodwind doubling prevent you from being the “best?”

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My recent post about woodwind doubling has been cited lately on various social media sites to fuel discussions over whether doubling is a good or acceptable pursuit.

Many of those arguing that woodwind doubling is a bad idea raise the issue that the “best” players of such-and-such instrument don’t double, and you can’t be the “best” at such-and-such instrument if you are doubling. If you think that, I could name a dozen prominent doublers who might change your mind, but that’s not really the important point.

As an undergraduate saxophone major, I daydreamed occasionally about being the “best” saxophonist. For me it probably wouldn’t have been a realistic goal, and the pursuit of it wouldn’t have led me to happiness, nor to success as I would have seen it through that lens.

When I made the decision to commit myself to woodwind doubling as a career path instead, I knew that would mean my progress on the saxophone would slow down. But it has been a very worthwhile choice for me: I get to play interesting music in a variety of settings, I get to spend all day at my university teaching job talking about the music and instruments that fascinate me, and I even have an audience of like-minded folks who stop by to read my blog posts. Now it’s hard for me to imagine myself being content to play just saxophone music all day.

Most of us won’t land a top orchestral job or tour the world as a concert soloist. And, believe it or not, not all of us want that anyway. We should be encouraging aspiring musicians to seek out niches that they enjoy and are motivated by.

Very, very few of us will ever be the “best,” so if that is your goal then I wish you luck. But for many of us, myself included, that’s not the goal at all. Mine is to have a successful and enjoyable career doing what I love, and so far, so good.

Does woodwind doubling ruin your embouchure?

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Nope.

We use our embouchure muscles for all kinds of things: facial expressions, speech, eating, kissing. Do any of those things “ruin” your embouchure? Of course not. The embouchure is made up of very flexible, agile muscles that are very capable of carrying out multiple tasks.

When people (almost always non-doublers) express concern about embouchure ruin, most of the time what they seem to be talking about is tension, or sensitivity loss, or buildup of callused tissue, or maybe strengthening the “wrong” muscles. If playing any woodwind instrument is giving you these kinds of problems, you are playing it wrong. Your embouchure for any and every woodwind instrument should be relaxed, balanced, and pain-free. Get some lessons with a qualified teacher, quickly.

Woodwind doubling presents real challenges. No need to invent fictional ones!

Switching between saxophones

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If you are an alto saxophone player and pick up a tenor or baritone for the first time, it’s pretty common to have a thin, weak tone, to be on the sharp side, to struggle with low note response, and to have issues like the top-of-the-staff G and G-sharp squeaking.

If you are a tenor player having your first alto experience, or an alto or tenor player newly picking up soprano, you might find that your tone is tubby, your pitch unstable and tending toward flatness, and your palm key notes unreliable.

There are a couple of key things to check as you make the switch from one saxophone to another:

  1. How much mouthpiece you are taking in. I like this trick as a starting point for finding the correct position: gently insert a piece of paper between the mouthpiece and reed. The point where the paper stops is approximately the place where your lip should contact the reed.
  2. Voicing. The best way to check this on saxophones is by playing a note on the mouthpiece alone. These are the concert pitches you should produce: If you aren’t producing these pitches, adjust by blowing warmer air to lower the pitch, or cooler air to raise it. Don’t adjust by biting or by shifting the mouthpiece in your embouchure. (It takes some practice.)

Getting mouthpiece position and voicing right for each saxophone helps you achieve good tone, pitch, and response no matter which you are playing. If you are actively playing multiple saxophones, check both of these things on each instrument as part of your daily warmup, and then follow up with overtone exercises and full-range scales and arpeggios. On a gig, I find it helpful to be conscious of mouthpiece position and voicing as I put one saxophone down and pick up another.

Happy practicing!