Saxophone low notes

The saxophone’s lowest notes can be notoriously unresponsive. This is partly due to the instrument’s acoustics, particularly its fairly extreme conical bore. (For technical details, see for example Acoustics of Musical Instruments by Chaigne and Kergomard, section The oboe and bassoon, whose bores are conical but not to such an extreme, have this problem to a lesser extent, and the tips that follow apply to those instruments as well.

For the best chance at successful low notes you need:

  • A well-adjusted, high-quality instrument. Even a small leak anywhere on the saxophone makes the lowest notes more difficult. And the best-designed and most meticulously-made instruments help to minimize the difficulties of the low range.
  • A good mouthpiece and reed combination. This may involve tradeoffs: a mouthpiece/reed combination that really improves the low register may, for example, make the highest notes more difficult. Since mouthpieces and reeds vary in so many ways it’s hard to make reliable generalizations, but often I find that a wider tip opening with a softer reed tend to favor the low register more (and the high register less).
  • Good, stable fundamentals of saxophone technique. Breath support, voicing, articulation, and embouchure (let’s include jaw position in embouchure here) should be properly set, and shouldn’t change for the low register. If you find that you need to increase breath support, lower your voicing, change your embouchure or tonguing, or open your jaw to make the low notes succeed, then you should probably already be doing those things, in every register. Don’t make the low notes even harder by creating a moving target.

To expand on that last point a little, if you find that your low notes need a little extra help, then a small alteration to your voicing is the right way to provide it. But know the tradeoffs: lowering your voicing as you approach the low register affects pitch and tone, besides creating instability in your tone production technique. Manage these concerns by aiming for the smallest possible change.

Practice smart. No shortcuts!

Quick flute switches and embouchure problems for woodwind doublers

photo, Sheri

Lots of woodwind doubler horror stories have to do with quick switches to flute or piccolo. (“Twenty minutes of hard-driving R&B tenor saxophone, then two bars to switch to flute and enter pianissimo in the third octave…”) Doublers in this situation often beat themselves up about perceived deficiencies in their flute embouchures, and commit to even more hours of Trevor Wye, but never quite seem to solve the problem.

While daily work on the flute embouchure is crucial, as is a good warmup, I think often the real problem is the reed embouchures. If playing clarinet, saxophone, or double reeds is leaving your embouchure too tired, tense, or numb to play the flute at your best, then consider improving your reed playing. Adjust your tone production to be less tense, adjust your setup to be freer-blowing, and adjust your mindset to be focused on efficiency rather than muscular effort. Keep up the flute lessons, but touch base with good reed teachers, too.

Please stop telling your clarinet students to tighten their embouchures

“Tighten your embouchure” is bad advice for young clarinetists.

That goes for young saxophonists, too, and really for any young woodwind players. But young clarinetists hear it often because their pitch is flat and their tone lacks focus. “Tighten your embouchure” gets thrown around as a fix-all, except it doesn’t fix all. It doesn’t fix anything. Unless your students are actually leaking air around the mouthpiece from utter slack-jawedness. In that case, they should tighten, but only a little.

The real issue isn’t embouchure, it’s voicing. Good clarinet playing requires a high voicing. (The opposite of almost every other instrument in the beginning band.) That’s why your clarinet section is flat and tubby-sounding. Tell them to blow ice-cold air, which fixes the voicing problem. Train them to back it up with powerful breath support. Let them relax their embouchures—not tight, just airtight. And enjoy the clear, full, ringing, and in-tune sounds!

photo, Melody Joy Kramer
photo, Melody Joy Kramer

The double reeds and “uneven” embouchures

Oboists trained in the “American school” of oboe playing, like myself, tend to hold the instrument at around a 45° angle from the body. Oboists in many other parts of the world hold the instrument at a higher angle, a few degrees closer to horizontal. This is one factor (of several) that accounts for the difference in tone between American oboists (often described as having a “darker” sound) and, say, some European oboists (having a “brighter” sound).

The reason the angle is important is because it affects the embouchure. Holding the oboe in a genuinely horizontal position situates the lips on the reed’s blades in an even way:

This allows the reed to vibrate in a balanced, efficient way, with lots of vibrance and color. But holding the instrument at an angle makes the lips contact the blades of the reed in an uneven way:


Note that the upper lip is nearer the reed’s tip, and the lower lip is a few millimeters nearer the thread. This uneven contact reduces the reed’s efficiency, muting some of the overtones for a sound that is less colorful but also less strident—in other words, characteristic of the American oboe sound.

A bassoon’s bocal brings the reed to the bassoonist’s mouth at a nearly horizontal angle, and a poorly-formed embouchure will create roughly equal contact with the upper and lower lips, causing a buzzy sound. But the bassoonist’s “overbite” technique makes the contact uneven, darkening and containing the sound (as well as improving response). This is actually upside down compared to the oboe, since the lower lip is nearer the reed’s tip and the upper lip is nearer the first wire.

poorly-formed bassoon embouchure
well-formed bassoon embouchure

Well-formed oboe and bassoon embouchures require attention to angle and overbite (respectively) to produce the best sounds with the least effort.

Woodwind dynamics and the embouchure

There’s a lot of confusion about how different dynamic levels are produced on woodwind instruments. How do you think it’s done?

If you said something like “use more or less air,” you are on the right track, kind of. But how do you put more or less air into the instrument?

If you said something like “blow harder or softer,” you are asking for trouble. Adjusting volume by increasing and decreasing breath support causes all kinds of nasty problems, especially sluggish response, unfocused tone, and saggy pitch at softer dynamic levels.


So what method is left to adjust the volume of air entering the instrument, and the corresponding loudness or softness (weirdly, also called “volume”)? Surprise, it’s your embouchure. Take a look in the mirror at your flute aperture, or look at the opening in your oboe or bassoon reed, or the opening between the tip of your clarinet or saxophone reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. By manipulating the size of this opening, you can control the volume of air passing into the instrument, while keeping your breath support powerful and steady.

The opening isn’t large to begin with, so bear in mind that the adjustments needed are incredibly small. But your lip muscles are well-suited to very small, subtle, expressive movements—certainly more so than your larger breath support muscles.

If you are an advanced player, you are probably doing this already, maybe without realizing it. But if you are struggling with dynamics-related problems, like unstable pitch during crescendos and diminuendos, or the inability to maintain tone at pianissimo, you might want to reexamine your technique.

Try this: play a note in a comfortable range at an easy mezzo-forte, with powerful breath support. Without letting up on the breath support, apply just the slightest squeeze with your embouchure. (For me, the sensation is that my lips don’t really even move, they just firm up a little.) Gradually increase the squeeze—don’t forget to keep the support strong—and see what happens.

Try it again, this time starting with the lips squeezing, and see what happens as you allow the embouchure to become more and more relaxed. This maxes out when the reed is almost completely free to vibrate at its widest amplitude, or when the flute aperture gets too large to maintain focus in the tone. (At this point you may be able to get more volume by straining harder with your breath support muscles, but notice what happens to your pitch and/or tone!)

Like so much of woodwind playing, the real key here is breath support. If you remember to keep it steady, then creating dynamic changes from the embouchure is really quite intuitive and produces much better results.

Incidentally, this is why recorders, pennywhistles, and other “fipple” flutes really have only one dynamic level; the opening can’t be manipulated effectively because it is rigid. Blowing harder or softer does change the volume but at unacceptable cost to intonation. (This is probably a major reason the transverse flute essentially replaced the recorder in Western music—it could play with dynamic contrast.)

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.

Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.

The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.

I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.

photo, APMus
photo, APMus

I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.

I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.

I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.

Saxophonists are spoiled by the instrument’s relatively small “standard” range and relatively simplistic fingering scheme. But I think a reasonable argument could be made that the clarinet’s system of alternate “pinky” fingerings is tidier and more flexible than the saxophone’s clunky rollers. Break out the Klosé book and learn to do it right. Continue reading “Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling”

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. Continue reading “Clarinet/saxophone doubling and “loose” and “tight” embouchures”

Changing octaves on the flute: a survey of published opinions

On the flute, there are several notes that have identical fingerings: each note from bottom-line E through third-space C-sharp has exactly the same fingering as the note an octave higher. Obviously, some factor other than fingerings must account for the octaves, but flutists as a group seem to be unclear on what it is.

I got curious and dug through some pedagogical sources to see what flutists have published about it. I have compiled my findings into a chart:

To achieve the upper octaves on the flute

I have started from the baseline of the lowest octave’s tone production methods, and framed the authors’ ideas in terms of what has to be done to move into higher octaves. And I’ve grouped the answers together as best I can, hopefully with reasonable accuracy as to the authors’ intended meanings. For example, “move jaw” and “move jaw forward” obviously overlap, but I separated them to try to maintain the authors’ original levels of specificity. And “jaw” and “chin” may really be the same thing for most flute-playing purposes, but I’ve separated in them in a case where the author seemed to see them as distinct.

Some of the authors address the issue specifically and in detail, while others just mention something in passing, so the chart does not necessarily represent their complete and definitive views. I have provided a bibliography with page numbers so you can read the authors’ words in context, and I highly recommend doing this if you’re interested in the topic. I’ve color-coded things so you can see at a glance which ideas are most popular, though I don’t think this is an issue to be settled by popular vote.

There are some surprising outliers. Most authors who mentioned the size of the aperture indicated that it should get smaller in the upper octaves, but a couple insisted that it should not change. Several authors indicated that the distance from the aperture to the blowing edge decreases for upper registers, but one said it actually increases. There’s significant disagreement on whether blowing harder is part of achieving the higher octaves.

I think some of the differences of opinion shown in the chart may be due to flutists actually doing the same things but describing them differently. It’s also possible that the techniques listed can be combined in different ways to create different tone production “recipes” that produce similar results.

I’m interested in continuing to expand this in the future. If you can point me toward a published source, then send it along (I’m not really interested in anecdotes or private opinions), or let me know if you think I have misread or misinterpreted someone’s views (especially if you’re the author!). Continue reading “Changing octaves on the flute: a survey of published opinions”

Larry Krantz on not doubling

If you’re not familiar with the Larry Krantz Flute Pages, you need to surf right on over and spend a few hours. Mr. Krantz has been building a major hub for web-connected flutists since back before many of us knew about the Internet. His site is a positively huge repository of flute-related wisdom, including contributed content by the likes of Trevor Wye, John Wion, and Robert Dick.

Mr. Krantz was a doubler in years past, apparently quite accomplished on flute, clarinet, and saxophone, and at least a dabbler in oboe. Nearly twenty years ago, however, he decided to give up doubling to focus on his flute playing.

Mr. Krantz discusses his decision at some length here, in excerpts from discussions on the FLUTE mailing list. While he speaks fondly of his years as a doubler, and points out many of the benefits of doubling, his ultimate conclusion was that doubling was not for him. The primary reason he gives for this decision is that, in his admittedly well-qualified opinion, it simply isn’t possible to maintain a truly fine embouchure on multiple instruments. Continue reading “Larry Krantz on not doubling”