“Help! I’m a trumpet instructor trying to teach the saxophone!”

You’ve been teaching Band for a while, and can’t seem to figure out why your saxophone students continually squeak when they articulate.

 Why is it so difficult for my saxophone students to play a “D” on Alto or a “G” on tenor cleanly?

 You also notice that your saxophone students play so loud and can’t control their lower register, and you don’t know what to tell them to control their tone.

 

For music teachers who are primarily Brass instrumentalists, teaching woodwinds can be a daunting task.

The most important thing to remember is this:

Woodwind and Brass(wind) instruments are Wind instruments; they follow the same principles of breath support and articulation.

If we approach teaching saxophonists with those same principles, we will find that the differences are not as drastic as we initially thought.

Here are some tips to give your saxophone students a good foundation to produce a nice tone throughout the range of the saxophone.

Saxophone Embouchure

There are 2 schools of thought on this.

The first is a method that is taught to many beginning saxophone players. Aspiring music educators have also been taught this concept during methods class in college. It follows the teachings in the famous book, The Art of Saxophone Playing, by Larry Teal.

Key points:

  • The muscles of the embouchure are drawn into the mouthpiece like a drawstring.
  • Pressure is exerted on the mouthpiece and reed in a circular, or rounded fashion.
  • The student rolls the bottom lip in quite a bit over the teeth.

The second school of thought comes from Joe Allard, who was a well-regarded clarinetist and teacher. Here, the bottom lip is not rolled in so much: just enough to barely go over the bottom front teeth, and not stretching out the muscles in the chin.

Key points:

  • The jaw comes up like a bar to meet the top lip (think of saying the letter, “X”). The chin is not bunched either.
  • If we visualize the bottom lip coming up flat against the reed, it allows more of the reed to vibrate than drawing in the muscles around the sides of the reed. This allows greater control over the reed throughout the entire range of the instrument.
  • When the bottom lip is tucked or rolled in too much, it stifles the reed and can lead to bunching the chin muscles.

Saxophone and Clarinet Articulation

For Brass players, articulation is simpler because there isn’t a mouthpiece inside our mouth. We can imitate how we naturally say the syllables, “tOO” and “dOO.”

This is a little more challenging for Woodwind musicians, and that is why you often see beginners (especially on clarinet) not articulating for many years.

Key points:

  • On a Woodwind instrument, we can still imitate how we naturally say the above syllables, but we have to aim our tongue at the tip of the reed.
  • Woodwind players do have a little advantage; they can use either the tip or the front part of their tongue to articulate at the tip of the reed. Students should be encouraged to figure out which part of the tongue yields the most efficient articulation for them.

Breathing

For all wind players, breath support is the fuel that supports a great tone. Working in tandem with the embouchure, solid breath support can improve endurance, articulation and range.

Here are some important points to consider:

  • Many teachers tell their students, “breathe from your diaphragm.” This statement creates much confusion for the student, and is technically wrong.
  • The diaphragm is an involuntary muscle; we cannot control it. We can however feel it expanding and contracting when we breathe deeply.
  • Use this simple exercise: have students lie on the floor and just breathe in and out. Have them notice how their stomach rises on inhalation, and gradually lowers on exhalation, while the chest does not collapse. Experiencing breathing through this exercise can help fill up their tone.

Troubleshooting

  1. Students constantly squeak when they articulate.
  • When this happens, it is usually a sign that there is an articulation issue. The student is tonguing on the bottom part of the reed instead of the tip, and/or the student does not get his/her tongue away from the reed quickly enough.
  • Have them notice how they say the syllables, “tOO” and “dOO,” and have them imitate that motion on the tip of the reed.
  1. Students are overshooting certain notes: “D” for Alto Sax and “G” for Tenor Sax.
  • This happens because the student is “biting” too hard up into the reed to get the tone instead of using the embouchure muscles.
  • The Allard method allows for less, if any, biting up into the reed.
  • You know a student is biting when their chin is bunched.
  1. Students are not getting a full tone.
  • This can occur if the student is not filling up with enough air on the inhalation and/or their bottom lip is rolled in too much, stifling the reed.
  • Check their posture; saxophone players have a tendency to bunch or roll their shoulders forward, thus cutting off a full inhalation.
  1. It seems that my students’ reeds do not last long at all. What can help this?
  • Check to make sure that your students are not only rotating their reeds, but also taking them off and wiping them down after each time they play.
  • You can find many good reed storage and rotation systems here.

Conclusion

Teachers can approach the saxophone similarly to a Brass instrument. The same concepts of breathing and articulation apply.

Understanding how the embouchure works for single-reed instruments, imitating how we naturally breathe, and experimenting with different parts of the tongue for articulation can solve many problems for saxophone students.

 

Bio:

Donna Schwartz has been playing trumpet for almost 40 years, and saxophones for more than 25. She has performed on many large stages and theatres in the NY and Los Angeles metro areas.

Donna has taught thousands of Brass and Saxophone students all over the world, with great success. Her website, DonnaSchwartzMusic.com, provides practical tips and solutions for musicians wanting to improve their musical performance.

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