‘If you like an instrument that sings, play the saxophone. At its best it’s like a human voice.’ Stan Getz.
When you play any instrument, the most important thing is the sound that you make. There are many important qualities that make up that sound including pitch, dexterity and tempo for instance, but for a wind (or brass) instrument, the player’s embouchure is the most fundamental facet of the instrument’s voice, ‘embouchure’ being the manner in which the player uses their mouth on the mouthpiece to alter the sound.
The saxophone has two styles of embouchure: classical and jazz.
The classical player will restrict the vibration of the reed by biting harder and folding the bottom lip over the teeth, in a similar way to playing the clarinet.
The jazz player does the reverse – using the fleshiest part of the lip to cushion the reed, allowing it to vibrate as much as possible.
Both techniques must have the top teeth resting on the mouthpiece, as curling your top lip over the top teeth in a double embouchure will cause discomfort in the long term. Although John Coltrane did this – it’s not recommended!
How far the mouthpiece is taken into the mouth is also important. If the lip goes too far beyond the point where the reed touches the mouthpiece, it generally makes a coarse, uncontrollable sound. If only using the tip of the mouthpiece, you’ll produce a small, bitten sound. So, finding the right position is crucial in producing a good sound.
There are other embouchure variables to consider too, such as the shape of the throat and tongue position in the different octaves. By opening the throat, the slower flow of air will help when producing lower notes. For higher pitches, close the throat and push the air through faster. The physiognomy of every player’s mouth is different, so tongue position needs to be determined by regular practice, however, the faster the air travels over the reed, the clearer the sound.
Lastly, breath control using your diaphragm has a huge effect on the sound, because you have a large amount of warmed air sitting around in the lower part of the lungs. If you learn to use your diaphragm to push this air out (we don’t use it most of the time when breathing normally), your breath control will improve. I compare that feeling to defrosting a car window or blowing a candle out while eating a hot potato!
It takes time to strengthen the muscles in and around your mouth and to learn how to control the reed – there is no short cut to developing your embouchure.
See some more about what I’ve been describing in these videos below on how to get a good sound on the saxophone.