Clarinet/saxophone doubling and “loose” and “tight” embouchures

I have been watching with dismay some recent online message board conversations about clarinetists picking up the saxophone and saxophonists picking up the clarinet. I am of course a big supporter of doubling, but much of the discussion seems to center around embouchure, and the language used is not only misleading but also vaguely pejorative. Clarinetists seem to regard the saxophone embouchure as “loose,” a term I think most saxophonists would take exception to, and saxophonists consider the clarinet embouchure to be “tight,” a concept I would expect clarinetists to shy away from.

Photo, Adrian Midgley
Photo, Adrian Midgley

I am not aware of any difference in looseness/tightness between the embouchures of the two instrument families, and can’t think of a reason why there should be one. In both cases, the embouchure—the lips and surrounding facial muscles—need to be “tight” enough to form a non-leaking seal around the mouthpiece and reed, and “loose” enough to allow the reed to vibrate at the desired amplitude (volume). The most common looseness/tightness problem I see in teaching both instruments is excessive tightness, often used in an attempt to compensate for pitch stability problems caused by poor breath support, and resulting in sluggish response, restricted dynamic range, and stuffy tone.

The differences in the saxophone and clarinet embouchures are fairly minor and are mostly dictated by the size and angle of the mouthpiece (closer to vertical for clarinets—even large ones—and closer to horizontal for saxophones). The much more significant but frequently ignored issue is that of voicing. The clarinets, unique among the modern wind instruments, require a very high voicing, as though blowing cold air or pronouncing the long “E” vowel. The saxophones require a somewhat lower voicing, though not as low as flute and the double reeds, and with some variance depending on the size of the saxophone; this is closer to blowing warmish air and pronouncing the vowel in “word.”

The best way to solidify saxophone voicing is through mouthpiece pitch exercises. Pete Thomas has a nice article on mouthpiece pitch; I like his choices of pitches for soprano through baritone. I do think he sometimes says “embouchure” in the article when he is describing voicing, but he correctly emphasizes “tongue position,” which is what voicing is from an anatomical perspective. For the clarinet, I find mouthpiece pitch to be a less useful tool. A saxophonist hitting the right mouthpiece pitch is like a bowler picking up a single-pin spare, but a clarinetist’s all-the-way-to-one-extreme voicing is more like rolling the ball straight down the gutter—relatively easy in terms of aim.

A too-low voicing on clarinet produces the flat, tubby sound that is, unfortunately, the calling-card of the saxophonist who is a casual doubler. (Some insist that their “instrument” requires an unusually short barrel or a special mouthpiece in order to play up to pitch.) A too-high voicing, and a mouthpiece teetering on the very end of the cork, contributes to the pinched, thin tone and low-note difficulties that reveal the clarinetist sitting in the saxophone section.

Embouchure is important, but not the biggest issue in clarinet/saxophone doubling. Get a good teacher on each instrument, keep your breath support firm and your voicing accurate, and pay your dues in the practice room!


7 responses to “Clarinet/saxophone doubling and “loose” and “tight” embouchures”

  1. Thanks for writing this. I was just talking to another player about the importance of playing long tones on the flute a daily practice to strengthen your embouchure, which is just one of many benefits to this exercise. Simply put, the key to playing an instrument is producing a nice tone, first and foremost. Cheers!

  2. Geoff Allen Avatar
    Geoff Allen

    Good stuff!

    Looking back at my own experience with learning clarinet (as an adult saxophonist), I remember 2 main things: despairing of ever playing without squeaking, and wondering if I could buy a shorter barrel to get the darn thing in tune.

    Time with the instrument helped me conquer both problems. I’d be a lousy clarinet teacher, though, because I don’t really know what I do to cross the break, or how I got my intonation up. I just do it.

    So the only thing I really have to add to this is “Head to the woodshed.” :-)

  3. Steven Hugley Avatar
    Steven Hugley

    Thank you for writing this article. I was just talking to the other band directors on staff the other day about the difference between saxophone and clarinet embouchure. I was telling them that the biggest difference was what you did with the inside of your mouth not the outside muscles. Could not agree more. But actually doing it can be a little more difficult.

  4. Ann Satterfield Avatar
    Ann Satterfield

    Great to see my experience verified by others. My explanation, the outside of the embouchure looks the same; the inside is different. I was very fortunate that both my saxophone teachers (adult when added sax) are competent clarinet players and able to explain what changes and what does not.

    Clarinet mouthpiece alone is not as useful as saxophone mouthpiece pitch, but mouthpiece and barrell (f#) is good check. I used this when teaching young beginners and now when coaching sax adding clarinet.

    I saw a band director who used sax mouthpiece with the neck to check his band students. I haven’t remebered/checked what those pitches would be.

    Agree with other commenters that Time and Consistent practice make reliable.

  5. Andrea McKerlie Avatar
    Andrea McKerlie

    This is a great comparison. With flute as my primary instrument, that basically explains why I am always flat on the clarinet! I have had lessons on the clarinet and am becoming more fluid with voicing and crossing the break, but right now I am trying to learn the saxophone on my own while I wait to move to a new town and then start looking for teachers. Knowing that the voicing is going to be somewhere in the middle of flute and clarinet helps a lot and gives me some context for when I really dig in on this new instrument.

  6. Hi there. I am mostly a clarinet player in an amateur military style band. However, on occasion, when we are short of trumpet players, I play alto sax. Unfortunately, I find changing from clarinet to alto and back again rather difficult and was wondering, is there an alto mouthpiece I should try that would feel like my Vandoren B40 clarinet mouthpiece? Maybe an alto piece with a short lay that would still have a fairly easy response? Any advice would be appreciated.

    1. You might find this post enlightening. Good luck!

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