PPT mouthpieces

Saxophones A Broad Look at Beginners' Issues

When you buy, borrow or hire your first saxophone without any experience to speak of it typically throws up a few challenges over the coming months.

High ranking on the list are squeaks or the inability to produce certain notes. It's probably much less common to be lucky enough to have avoided these genuine issues than needing to overcome them.
This in turn throws open many questions about why its happening and then discussions on the variety of ways people are struggling.
At this stage the forum gets lots of posts about these problems and old ground is covered on many occasions.
The enthusiastic but frustrated learner typically questions some of the following:-
  • The sax,
  • The mouthpiece,
  • The embouchure,
  • The reed strength.

Some times there will be a fault but for others it's simply that the player must learn to control whats going on.
As a player adds more notes to his or her early repertoire hurdles will be encountered. Perseverance, trust in the equipment / advice and encouragement are sometimes all thats required. No one said it was going to be easy right?
If your particular battle produces inconsistent results, some which are pleasing and some which eat you up inside, it probably means you are not too far away from consistently good results. You may have to tweak your set up but it's unlikely there is anything majorly wrong.

An experienced player will overcome a lot of things that a beginner is not equipped to deal with, so handing them your set up and hearing no issues does not mean its all OK for you. With experience it is possible to blow a horn top to bottom even if it leaks.

To progress through your latest hurdle you must try realise your own limitations in proportion to the problem.
With that in mind, remember nothing beats correct preparation and disciplined practise.
Touching on the basics of this first, you need the best support you can get. Starting with a full breath and good diaphragm control, you'll have the start of a good air stream. So leads to the embouchure, the reed, the mouthpiece e.t.c.
Regarding disciplined practise, bottom Bb to High F# is not going to pop out easily during early learning so you need to limber up mentally and physically before expecting to achieve the next step or even play the same thing that was near perfect last time you played.
Pete Thomas's main site offers plenty of advice on each individual subject and being far more qualified on the subjects than I, it's not my aim to cover them.

So now you are as prepared as you can be, you know you have done all you can and you know where your own ability fits in to the challenge but you haven't yet overcome it and you still think there could be something wrong.

Read on…………

The reed.

Reeds die at some point for inexplicable reasons so you may want to change it for piece of mind but it's fair to say that normally a reed shows signs of deterioration for some time.
A miss shaped reed at, or fairly close to the tip when dry is usually OK when moistened.
If it is miss shaped at the table its a different matter and will be unpredictable at least so change it.
So be sure the reed is moist, I find wetting each side for a couple of seconds then playing for a few minutes usually constitutes that its ready to be judged.
Stick with a reed strength that 'blows in' to a comfortable blow within a few sessions.

Reed shuts off

If the reed shuts off and stops the note being produced you have a few options.
It could be that your embouchure is to tight, the reed is too soft or the mouthpiece tip opening is too small. Or a combination of these things.
Strength 1.5 or 2 are recommended the world over for beginners.
Now suppose you have developed a problem recently with a 1.5 reed and you are happy with the standard tip opening on your mouthpiece. Its surely worth going to a number 2 because we are not experimenting in extreme ranges of mouthpiece tips and reed strengths here.
If your mouthpiece is a small tip opening this will compound shut off when a reed is too soft needless to say an extra squeeze from a tight embouchure is really going to be the last straw.

I blow hard but only get a short harsh note
If there is nothing else wrong with the placement of the reed or a problem with the sax (like you left a duster in the bore) then the reed is much too hard.
Try softer reeds!

The Embouchure

The correct embouchure doesn't really exist otherwise Stan Getz was right and Archie Shepp was wrong or vice versa.
Every one blows differently. How much of the mouthpiece you take in is up to you but avoiding the extremes is again the most solid advice.
That said there does seem to be a standard instruction that you can work from at the start and you will adapt in one way or another over the years.
Your lower lip should curl over your bottom teeth cushioning the reed. The tip of the mouthpiece should be in your mouth far enough to allow your tongue to be able tap the reed in to a closed position with support from you lips.
Too loose and you will leak air from the sides of your mouth and possibly fail to produce some notes.
Too tight and you will be likely to thin out the tone, reduce control of your sound and tire very quickly. Biting the mouthpiece is not a necessity to produce a rocky bright sound or otherwise I promise!
keep it comfortable and see how flexible it allows you to be. In the years to come it will allow for a split second adjustment to express your notes, correct your pitch or stop you from fluffing a note completely.

The mouthpiece

I am apprehensive about mentioning this…
Having been victim myself on many occasions, the desire to own an exotic and expensive mouthpiece clouds judgement on what functions you need from it.
The less time you have been playing probably means a mouthpiece will shape your sound more than you do. After all it is an extension to your air stream and embouchure and is the most consistent part of that set up. Thats why you will sound rocky on this one but more mellow on that one. Where as John Coltrane sounded like John Coltrane, the effect is less dramatic if he switches mouthpieces.
This is because an experienced player has developed the way he supports the air through the horn and become consistent. This extra control now over rides the characteristics of the mouthpiece to a certain degree.
It's a good fun journey though, if you keep a foot on the ground and choose to suit your needs with out clouding your judgement.
There probably isn't a more subjective topic than mouthpiece selection so I can only say that you want to get in the middle ground and then stray left or right after much thought.
To close or to open is not going to help is it?
Extremely high or non existent baffle isn't either, you get my drift.
Material? well after years of personal debate as to which, I now say who cares? just find whats comfortable.
My main piece on tenor and alto are reasonably cheap offerings while their more expensive counterparts sit in the 'nice to keep' mouthpiece box I have at home.
Expensive lessons learned..but it was fun so that counts a little. What ever keeps you interested.
Too wider tip opening without good chops to support it and you are in for a rough ride. Too narrow and you could lose power and expression without a fairly hard reed that takes experience to manipulate.
If your tip and rails are good and true without damage theres not much evidence to suspect a standard mouthpiece will give you a problem. You may find another that suits your physical attributes better though.
A word of warning about quality. The are some brands that have been around for years and are regarded as classics. You wouldn't therefore suspect that they have any quality issues but I have found many a dull and uninspiring piece that could do more damage to your enthusiasm and progress that anything else.
Same is true of some newer makes and altered second hand pieces.
Choose wisely and take genuine experience with you if necessary, not the guy who has been playing 6 months longer than you and has amazed you by his progress.

The Sax

The good news is that many new beginners sax's are both affordable and up to the job so hopefully yours is not causing you an expensive issue. Anything intermediate or pro still needs to be in good shape to help you on your way.
There are many brand names out there now that you shouldn't go to far wrong with and the golden rule is probably to see which of those brands are being sold by at least 2 or 3 of the big Woodwind stores.
If yours isn't any of them don't start to worry on the strength of what I have just written.
Compared to 20 years ago they are generally more robust and cost 75% of what I paid back then.
So what makes you suspect the sax?
If you have been through all the things above and are satisfied. Your not trying anything beyond your previous ability but its all suddenly gone wrong by squeaking or shooting up an octave, maybe you do have something out of adjustment.

Most people know if there is a way the sax could have been damaged but its not always the case. So knowing how your sax normally looks by generally staring at its beauty gets you recognising how things should be. Anything bent then becomes recognisable to a fairly untrained eye.
Lets assume that you've given it the once over and everything appears to be in order. It's still possible that a cork, spring, screw or a piece of felt is now kicked out of sight under the sofa. A little harder to spot may be than all damage except a slightly bent key but it will likely give you a consistent symptom. May be accompanied by a metal to metal clunk?
Unfortunately unless you are 100% sure you can fix this yourself a trip to your repair man is best.
That said the Haynes Manual by Stephen Howard is now out there! Just don't get out of your depth.

Now finally!
Lets be sure again that you are not expecting to run before you can walk and that you are putting the right foundations in place.
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Great article, thank you for taking the time to write it! It's encouraging and helps to put things in perspective for a beginner such as myself. I've come to realize that conquering an instrument is not a task, it's a journey, one that demands discipline, patients and perseverance. In my case it's akin to teaching an old dog new tricks. All I have to do is keep reminding myself that this dog can still hunt!

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