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”