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”

Balancing voicing and breath support

My oboe students frequently have this problem:

These notes don’t respond well These notes are sharp and thin-sounding

(Okay, sometimes I also have this problem.)

The solution, in most cases, is quite simple.

Step 1: Use the correct voicing. For oboe it should be low and open, like blowing very warm air. This is usually the result:

These notes respond beautifully These notes are flat and tubby-sounding

Step 2: Use powerful abdominal breath support. Voilà:

These notes respond beautifully These notes are in tune and full-sounding

I find that once voicing and breath support are balanced against each other, a good oboe with a good reed is one of the easiest woodwinds to play in tune, and responds easily in all registers.

This is, generally speaking, true of all of the woodwinds: solid breath support plus a stable voicing appropriate to the instrument are the recipe for reliable, in-tune notes from low to high.

Voicing, part II

I wrote earlier this month about voicing.

The topic seems to keep coming up—I ran across one of Tom Ridenour’s fine videos about the subject, and clarinetist Adam Berkowitz wrote about it on his blog today.

Adam uses whistling to explain voicing, which I had mentioned in my article and which I agree works very well. I do differ with his idea that embouchure is part of voicing; in my mind these are two separate aspects of woodwind playing.

Tom’s video predates my own article by a few weeks. He and I both use the analogy of putting one’s thumb over a garden hose to describe the effect of a “higher” voicing on the airstream. I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out where I might have gotten that comparison; perhaps Tom and I each stole it from a common source.

Adam and Tom both conclude, and I agree, that for the clarinet the voicing should be quite high. Tom goes on to explain (starting after the video’s three-minute mark) that the saxophone’s voicing is low, like the vowels “oh” or “ah,” and similar to that of the flute or oboe. I agree that the flute and the oboe each have a very low voicing (as does the bassoon), but I think the saxophone’s is somewhere between there and the extreme high of the clarinet.

This, incidentally, is why I find mouthpiece pitch exercises (stay tuned for a future article) to be so essential on the saxophone—on the other woodwinds, you can (to oversimplify) push the voicing to one extreme or the other, but with the saxophone you have to aim for a particular spot in the middle. I find this to be something like the vowel in “word.”

Instrument Voicing
Flute Low (“oh”)
Oboe Low (“oh”)
Clarinet High (“ee”)
Bassoon Low (“oh”)
Saxophone Middle (“er”)

What is voicing?

I’d like to address the term “voicing,” which I think is often misunderstood. Here’s my best definition:

Voicing refers to the relative size of the oral cavity, which can change depending on the position of the back of the tongue.

There are a number of other terms that are used to describe this same concept in woodwind playing. I don’t take issue with any of these terms individually, and I think that as a teacher it’s useful to have a variety of possible ways to explain this concept. (These terms can become problematic, however, when they are used in opposition to each other: “Open up, and blow cooler air.”)

Here are some examples of ways of describing voicing. I consider the terms in the left column all to be descriptions of the same thing, and those on the right to be likewise equivalent to each other. Continue reading “What is voicing?”