Saxophone/embouchure

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QUESTION: When I am playing saxophone, I get a squawk when I play low notes or go from high to low notes.  How do I adjust the embouchure to avoid the squawk?

Thanks, Joel

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ANSWER: Joel,

I appreciate you giving me an opportunity to answer your question about adjusting your embouchure when playing low notes or going from high to low notes to avoid the squawking tone on your saxophone.

First of all, if this were me playing one of my horns, I would be compelled to check for an air-leak around one of the key pads near the notes being played. It is quite possible that a leak is the main culprit in this situation. Having to compensate by adjusting ones embouchure to keep from squeaking would only move further away from the natural playability of that particular saxophone.

Having said that, let me reassure you that the upper register notes near the octave break do need a little embouchure adjustment but it shouldnít need the extreme change as one might expect to use when playing altissimo. It would be a combination of embouchure and a more open throat that I use to play altissimo as well as knowing the relative pitch I am trying to reach.

Letís try an alternative method to see if you pads may or may not be leaking. If you do not have a leak light to run through your saxophone (as I am guessing that you do not have) letís try something different. Make a glass of water and take it with you along with a towel and your saxophone to an area at home that you will not mind getting the floor wet. I always do this outside on my patio. Play an upper octave G with as smooth a tone as you can muster. Then take a glass of drinking water and fill your mouth holding it in your mouth as not to swallow. Clasp your saxophone with all keys closed as if you were playing a low Bb. Do not press the octave key! Then slowly blow the water into your saxophone through the mouthpiece allowing the water to flow onto pads and create a really good seal from the tone holes onto the pads. Do this with the entire glass of water. Once you have emptied the entire glass of water through your saxophone, play the same upper register G that you played before making a mess. You should have a resounding tone with a few gurgles while the water continues to drain down. You can tip your bell and allow the water to flow freely out of your saxophone while you continue to play on. This would be a great time to play the entire range of your saxophone to see if there are any warbles or squeaks. I generally do this before playing a gig as to have my horn ready to play.

Now back to the question of embouchure. The saxophone should be played with as relaxed an embouchure as possible to reduce fatigue. You will have to practice your embouchure to find what works the best in the upper and lower register. My embouchure is slightly tighter in the upper register than it is in the lower register. One really fun way to sort through the various embouchure methods that you can use is to play a low Bb and make as many adjustments as you can. Note them all along the way as to what changes in your tone that each adjustment makes. You will also find that you can play several harmonic top-tones while doing this. These are similar to the alternate fingerings for playing altissimo.

You are going to find that along the way of rigorous practicing and the applying your own findings will be the best method of selecting an embouchure to use for various notes while playing. I can tell you that there are variances with mouthpieces and reed combinations that you will have to go through as well as when playing different brands and models of saxophones.

I appreciate you asking your question and look forward to your reply should you have any further questions or comments.

Thanks,
Gwen Shroyer
Shroyer Musical Instruments
Cool Reed Pipes Saxophones

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for your information.  I also have a tenor sax. A couple problems I have is (1) how to hold it and (2) where to put (or how to use) my thumb.  I've been told to put the sax to one side, but that seems uncomfortable, so I put it in front of me (as I do an alto sax).  When I do, it puts a lot of stress on my thumb. I know I should tighten the strap and let the strap control it, but if I tighten the strap too much, I can't get the mouthpiece into my mouth. (It's over my head). Maybe I need to experiment more with the strap.  But it sure can hurt my thumb because the instrument is so heavy.  Joel

Answer
Joel,

Playing tenor sax either to ones side or in front is a personal preference. I always play directly in front while seated or standing. The most important thing for me is mouthpiece placement. Playing to the side has interfered with that for me. As to your question about the thumb hook, I find the exact same thing as you. After playing for a while, my thumb has an impression from the thumb hook and is rather sore. I move my thumb so that the hook reside on a different location after playing for a while. I have even gone so far as to completely hold the sax with my palm at times. You will need to come up with a solution that works for your playing and make adjustments as you go. Experiment is the key word you used and I suggest you do a lot of that.

Thanks,
Gwen Shroyer
Shroyer Musical Instruments
Cool Reed Pipes Saxophones

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Gwen Shroyer

Expertise

I am interested in networking with other saxophone players of all levels of experience and answering questions about varied techniques and methods of training, specific brands and models made, mouthpieces, reeds, and various other questions about performance.

Experience

I have been playing sax since 1977 where as a student of the clarinet I wanted to play the instrument of my Jazz heroes. I studied under Berklee College of Music renowned Jazz theorist Andrew Jaffe and I have a degree in Music Business from Berklee. I have traveled and performed in several countries mostly in Europe and North America. As an instructor, I have taught students from beginning through college/professional performance ability. I previously owned The Horn Doctor, a band instrument repair shop. Since 1998, I have been playing alto and tenor sax with the Dexter Thomas Band which is an 11-piece horn-band playing hits from the 60's, 70's and 80's. I play saxophone in the worship and praise band at my local church as well.

Publications
Chattanooga Times Free Press Cleveland Daily Banner Bradley News

Education/Credentials
Berklee College of Music, Boston Massachusetts - Bachelors Degree, Music Business/Management Tomlinson College, Cleveland Tennessee - Associates Degree, Music Education/Mass Communications

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