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Tone Role of the Player's Physical Make-up in Tone Quality


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Surrey, UK
There is a really interesting article in the latest issue of 'Clarinet & Saxophone' magazine - the journal of the GB Clarinet and Saxophone Society. It is a feature on clarinet and sax mouthpiece maker Dr Ed Pillinger, whose mouthpieces I really enjoy playing.

The section of the article of most interest to me relates to Ed's research into how mouthpiece design affetcs the tone and response of mouthpieces. He investigated the effects of a range of variables such as facing, baffle, chamber, size of throat. In order to test a range of different mouthpieces he built an artificial embouchure that could play consistently.

The article says
Despite many challenges the artificial embouchure worked and produced a surprisingle "beautiful clear tone". Significant differences in tone could be produced simply by moving the artificial lip up or down the reed, altering the pressure of the lip, or altering the air pressure by minute amounts. This ultimately led to Ed reconsidering exactly how players produce a good or uniquely individual tone. "One of the more controversial issues concerned the question of whether or not the vocal tract has any effect on tone production." It may seem difficult to accept and is something of a bete noire to some players, but Ed found that the physical make up of a player did not make any difference to tone quality. Rather, differences were caused by the three variables of air pressure, lip pressure and lip position on the reed. "I am not disputing the fact that good players do have their own distinctive tone, but this is not because of their physical make-up, it is because they have developed a finely tuned feed-back loop where they are constantly adjusting all of the above parameters to achieve good tone and their own individual sound.

No pictures of the artificial embouchure, unfortunately !

I suppose that a player's physical make-up could have an indirect effect on tone, by making it easier or harder for the player to achieve a certain air pressure or lip position, but Ed Pillinger says that all of the variation in tone quality can be explained in terms of those three fundamental variables. Makes sense to me, but what do you think ?

Finally! I never wanted to quote this experiment of his, on saxophone forums before.

When I heard that, my comment was "it is impossible!" and Ed added that few top players went really upset too by his findings.
It is really hard to accept, but when we work on our mouth opening, or other variables, we are actually only altering airstream and lip pressure.

My favourite aspect of Mr Pillinger's attitude, is that he could start a new experiment tomorrow, if a new idea comes to his mind.
I think......
A player tries to fashion a sound they have in their mind, so 'tonal concept' biases the air pressure, lip pressure and position and so on.

So couple this with what is a comfortable and reliable embouchure for the player to maintain and you have their tone quality.
I think this is then adjustable to a degree at least with experienced players so that they can take a different mouthpiece and still sound like themselves (within reason).
Inexperienced players may have their sound more affected by the mouthpiece design they have chosen because their ability to adjust is not as developed.

i'm sure that as the player becomes more and more experienced, any focus on comfort and reliability slips further from consciousness to the sub conscious. Yet its probably their physical make up that has determined what is comfortable for them so it can't really be completely irrelevant.

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