The core purpose of the Saxophone Mouthpiece is to allow a thin wooden sliver, known as a reed, to vibrate in a controlled way. The reed is attached by a ligature, which is a small clamp made of metal, leather, plastic, or glass.
Some ligatures are made of interchangeable parts, such as the Vandoren Optimum with it’s changeable contact plates to vary the kind of pressure holding the reed onto the saxophone.
A saxophonist plays the saxophone by gently placing his mouth around the tip of the saxophone mouthpiece with the reed attached by a ligature. When the saxophonist blows across the reed through the mouthpiece, the reed vibrates hundreds of times, allowing bursts of air through the body of the saxophone to produce sound at the frequency of the reed’s vibration.
The way that a player wraps his mouth around the reed and mouthpiece to produce sound is known as the embouchure. When playing a saxophone, adjusting the placement of one’s lips and jawwill determine the control asserted on the reed. Many saxophonistsrecommend keeping a loose embouchure when possible, both for clarity and to keep muscle fatigue at a minimum.
Also, the placement of the reed on the Saxophone mouthpiece is crucial to producing any tone at all. A moist reed that is aligned well with both the side rails and the rail tip (as shown in the following diagram) will work best. Various timbre qualities of one’s sound can be modified by allowing the reed to cover more or less of the window.
Master the Mouthpiece
There are many kinds of exercises that can be useful in developing good embouchure control, tone, and dynamic ability, but we will discuss one that is considered incredibly important by many professional saxophonists: long tones. This exercise is best done without vibrato if you are a novice, but feel free to add vibrato later as you become more comfortable. Long tones can be done slowly through scales, or even note-by-note through a solo you are learning:
- Breathe in slowly, then breathe out slowly. Be sure all muscles are rested in your shoulders, face, and neck.
- Begin by playing the first note at forte, playing as long as your breath holds out. Do your best to keep the dynamic level as even as possible.
- Play this same note again at forte, but slowly decrease the dynamic to pianissimo. Try to do this as slowly as possible for as long as possible.
- Again, play this same note, but at pianissimo. This time, bring it to fortissimo. Don’t overblow! Retain control without straining your embouchure.
- Lastly, try to play the same note as a sforzando with a long, gradual crescendo back to the beginning dynamic.
- Proceed to the next note.
This exercise is best done over the entire range of the saxophone, so don’t skimp on the low Bb or high F if you can help it! If you find yourself having difficulty, try using a metronome while doing this step. Use a slow tempo to mark how many beats the long tone lasts to give yourself a goal length of time. Eventually, you will not need this assistance as you become more comfortable with your lung capacity. Good luck, and happy mouthpiece hunting!
The first diagram’s mouthpiece terminology is based on the vernacular used in “The Devil’s Horn” by Michael Segell.