There are many things that can go wrong with the muscles around your mouth (embouchure), if you are a saxophone player. I will never forget one particular time in the early 1990s when I gave a lesson to a student who carried so much tension in his jaw that his top front teeth had dug deep slots in his hard rubber mouthpiece – so deep that they almost broke through to the inside! When he put his teeth on the mouthpiece, he couldn’t move it at all in his mouth, like it was welded to his teeth! And I can only imagine the nerve damage done to his lower lip and jaw muscles. Believe me, you don’t want to end up like this. A good embouchure means less wasted energy, reduced neck and jaw tension, less psychosomatic tension in the rest of one’s body and, most importantly, a longer musical career thanks to less wear and tear on your joints, vertebrae, and tendons. And, a perfect embouchure will give you a gorgeous tone.
So, to begin with, let’s not forget the first rule of the embouchure for the saxophone: it should be a circle or formed like an “O.” By making sure that your embouchure is round, we can then begin building the muscles to be strong in this position, all around the embouchure ring.
Next, the most vital embouchure-related exercise is the ability to play a one-octave major scale on the mouthpiece alone, hitting the various pitches accurately along the way. I like starting on A, especially on my tenor mouthpiece, but most people I have met usually use A natural as their starter. After practicing that for a few minutes, I also play a few diatonic melodies within the range of an octave to make sure my embouchure is nice and warmed up before trying a few chromatic phrases and diatonic triads within the octave as well, both ascending and descending. Not only does this build flexibility and strength in your embouchure, but trains your ear as well, which is important if you are ever required to alter your embouchure away from the standard position to perform certain aural effects.
Another strength builder is developing the ability to play multiphonics clearly and evenly without losing the upper and lower harmonics. “Multiphonics” are the harmonic creation of two or three tones at once on a single-note instrument. Most often, they are used to create a kind of white noise effect in free jazz, but if practiced and played with sensitivity they can be quite beautiful in their raw immediacy. Be forewarned, they sound scratchy and scream-y when you first begin to try them. Once you learn to hold them steady with a consistent air stream, you will hear what they are capable of as complex expressive devices. The multiphonics shown above* are two of the nicer sounding ones a person can choose. The top one should come out sounding like a bit like a diesel engine idling, while the lower one should come out sounding like a low pitched electric razor. It takes a bit of practice playing multiphonics, as you have to direct the air through the mouthpiece at a specific speed, and at a slightly different angle from a normal note. These are micro-adjustments, and eventually your mouth and mind will naturally work out the right position.
For more multiphonics, see the chart at the end of this post. I have given each of them various, whimsical names based on how they sound to me, and also as a way of categorizing/memorizing them. Feel free to call them what you want…
Another really good embouchure builder is one first handed down to me by saxophonist Bill Mc Henry that his teacher the legendary saxophonist Dewey Redman handed down to him. You take a deep breath, and play the lowest note (B) really loud (but controlled) on your saxophone until your air runs out. Then you do the same thing with the next note a semitone up until you reach the highest F on your horn. Then you go down the horn doing the same thing. Then you repeat the entire process playing as quietly as possible. This should take about a half-hour, and will give you a controlled embouchure like no other.
One rather effective embouchure builder from the world of classical saxophone is to make an exaggerated kissy face (“duck-lips”) for three seconds, followed by pulling your embouchure as far back as you can into a highly exaggerated smile, and repeating the process for a few minutes. You can practice this anywhere, and I have found it a good way to get my face warmed up and ready to play if I don’t have time to actually spend 20 minutes warming up before a show. It looks rather silly, but when your tone is significantly more lush and full than everyone else around you, everyone else will be asking you to teach them the technique!
Another, more strenuous exercise is holding the eraser end of a pencil in your lips and making the tip of the pencil wave up and down. This one will really make your embouchure sore if you do it long enough, so don’t over do it. In fact, be careful to not overdo any of your saxophone practicing which could give yourself neck or jaw muscle problems from readjustment tension or over-practicing.
A brief (safe) mix of these techniques every day will eventually give you a lush, gorgeous saxophone sound… so have fun, be patient, and good luck!