School is back in session! It may still feel like summer in Texas, but we are in full-swing into another great school year.
Each fall as I start teaching a new group of eager sixth grade beginner saxophonists, I never have a shortage of enthusiasm or excitement. They are always itching to play the WHOLE instrument, having stared at it during the summer and becoming simultaneously fascinated and overwhelmed with the number of buttons, rods, and springs. At the start of their first private lesson, I explain that the whole instrument is awesome and very exciting, but we must first spend time playing only the mouthpiece and neck in order to develop the embouchure.
As much as I am a fan of mouthpiece exercises and include them in my own daily practice, I prefer to start the students off with the mouthpiece and neck for two reasons. For one, it helps the student start to hear what the saxophone will sound like once the body is attached. Secondly, it also helps the student determine the ideal angle at which the mouthpiece enters the mouth, as the bottom of the neck (the part which slides into the body) remains parallel to the floor. Another benefit is the gratitude of parents, siblings, pets, and neighbors enjoying the first few weeks of saxophone practice instead of wondering what small beaked animal is making that noise (until we later practice voicing sirens…)
Regardless of whether a student first plays on the mouthpiece only or the mouthpiece and neck, all teachers will agree that a student’s first sounds are a direct reflection of how they will play with the entire instrument together. In other words, if the sound is flat, sharp, crass, brassy, loud, or otherwise unpleasant on the “small saxophone” (the mouthpiece and/or neck), it will not suddenly become beautiful and resonant once the entire instrument is assembled. Therefore, our time as teachers is well spent working on embouchure.
Forming the embouchure is challenging for young saxophonists. Many place too much emphasis on the bottom teeth, rolling the lip tightly over the bottom teeth to form a hard cushion while pushing the corners of the mouth apart. To combat this, the top teeth should rest on the top of the mouthpiece, which allows the lower lip to act as a cushion for the reed. This cushion differs from the clarinet embouchure, in which the lower lip is tighter and spread more thinly. Instead of the corners of the mouth spreading apart (like the syllable “ee”), the corners come together to create a circle (like the syllable “oo”). The corners touch the sides of the mouthpiece, and the embouchure looks like a wheel, with the chin, upper lip, and mouth corners round.
A trick I learned from a fabulous colleague, D’Addario Performing Artist Jessica Voigt-Page, is a little unconventional but it works wonders. If a student is having trouble forming the embouchure in the shape of a wheel, have the set up the embouchure on the neck cork. First the top teeth are anchored, then lower lip curls gently over the bottom teeth while the chin stays flat, and finally the corners of the mouth form on either side of the neck cork to create a circle. By having students form the embouchure on the cork (which is round, unlike the shape of the mouthpiece), it forces them to seal the corners of the mouth in the ideal “oo” position.
For more information on this, see D'Addario Woodwind's Saxophone Survival Guide! It’s full of teaching strategies, including a section dedicated to embouchure.