An Inside Look into the Joe Allard Approach of Saxophone Playing!

Gary Jones on Sax on the Web posted this up for all to see.  He happily gave me permission to post it up here also.  Gary studied with a graduate student years ago that was  one of Joe Allard’s best students at that time.

Joe Allard (December 31, 1910 – May 3, 1991), a native of Lowell, MA,was a famous saxophone and clarinet  professor at Juilliard, The New England Conservatory and The Manhattan School of Music.  Some of his most famous students were: Michael Brecker, Eddie Daniels, Bob Berg, Dave Liebman, Paul Winter, Steve Grossman, Kenneth Radnofsky, Bill Pierce  and many many others.

I found reading this both fascinating and enlightening.  Many of the tips on reeds I had never heard before. I love how relaxed it all feels when you’re reading it.  The more relaxed and natural everything is the better.  Thanks so much to Gary Jones for writing this out and making it available to the saxophone community!

Lesson 1

first thing is to do this exercise for a week with just a reed. no mouthpiece no horn.

holding the end of the reed in your hand, place the reed on your lower lip like you are going to play it. just let it rest there. relax your mouth totally. no tension in you lip at all.
your lip is straight across and slightly turned over the top of your lower teeth.
no downward tension on the reed, it just lays there. the only tension is the weight of the reed.
reeds aren’t very heavy.
your lower lip goes right aginst your teeth with your lip as an uninvolved cushion between reed and teeth.
mouth sort of open like you have an invisible mouthpiece in there.
now practice blowing over the reed like that. just like you are playing the reed on an invisible mouthpiece.
you just use your lungs to push air but don’t involve any of the muscles in your mouth or face.
when you blow over the reed your lip and mouth don’t respond in any way.
the most important thing is that your lower lip doesn’t respond by curving around the sides of the reed in any way.
no clamping down on the mouthpiece, there isn’t any mouthpiece there to clamp down on.
your bottom lip is completely relaxed like you are asleep.
practice blowing like that.
this is what it should feel like to blow the saxophone.
keep a reed in you pocket and do it alot.
the other thing from the first lesson was breathing exercises.
we were in an urban environment where we walked alot but you could just as easily do this  sitting down.
when you are walking breath in through your nose for 5 steps. hold your breath for 5 steps. breath out through your mouth for 5 steps.
eventually work your way up to 20 steps in, 20 steps hold, 20 steps out. eventually you might like to do some empty counts after the exhale and before the next inhalatin.
as the air goes out you can restrict and controll the flow like a flute embouchure. the exhalation is an even steady long tone.
if you practice this while stationary just pace your breathing by counting like a walking pace.
this is to develop good breathing but also for relaxation both mental and physical.
You can’t play music if your head is full of mental chatter.
later for added layers of concentration you can count repetitions. you could for instance do 3 groups of 12 different 20 count cycles or whatever like that.
this would corespond to the multiple layers of concentration needed to keep track of complex jazz forms.
one of the things we are trying to do is union of mind and body. you hear or think a sound and it comes out of the horn.
just like speaking. the breathing exercises are yoga exercises. yoga means union.
eventually the head space the breathing exercise puts you in starts to become a mental state you learn and can use when you play.
In keeping with this theme there was a hatha yoga pose to practice that first lesson.
much to my suprise i was instructed to get on my back on the floor in the practice studio and do the sivananda  yoga posture Setubandasana  “the bridge” or “bridge-building pose”. (bridge the gap between body and mind)

Its basically about opening up and stretching your lower abdomen.
concentrate on how you are breathing when you do this.
learn to breath in deeply by drawing your diaphram down.
only at the end of your inhalation is there a need to expand the chest.
its important to do the exercises but also to understand the reason why you are doing them.
at the end of this lesson George told me to get the book “top tones for saxophone” by Sigurd Rascher
and to get a single bevel reed knife.

Lesson 2

ok, so now that we have the proper embouchure it’s time to put the reed on a mouthpiece.
First we have to prepare the reed.
this is going to be hard to describe so i made pictures and you should ask questions.
the purpose of this is to get the reed to seal properly.
Soak a new reed in a glass or bowl of fresh water for 15 minutes and then lay it out on a mantle or table somewhere upside down to dry.
after it dries lay it upside down on your left index finger. It might help to wet your finger so the reed will stick.
hold the reed knife in your right hand and put it on the reed near the bottom. put your left thumb behind the knife blade for support.
with a counter clockwise twist of you right wrist and with you thumb for guidance and support for the blade, work the table of the reed until it is flat.
your thumb and index finger work together to control the pressure on the reed. you have to keep the knife pressure even left to right and the motion is scraping not cutting.
this takes some practice.

you want to flatten about the first two inches of the reed (tenor reed). the most important part is about half way up where the mouthpiece table ends and the mouthpiece window begins.
you want the whole area of the reed on the mouthpiece table to be flat and not warped or curved.
you  know the reed is  flat when the material comes off the reed evenly all the way across.
material will come off only the high points at first.
after you get the reed flat get a clean piece of high quality paper and put it on a perfectly clean flat hard surface.
place the reed on the paper flat side down. put the tips of your  first 3 fingers along the center back of the reed.
rub the reed counter clockwise in a circle 100 times to polish and seal the flat side of the reed.

now rub you finger or thumb along the top, cut  side of the reed  from the vamp to the tip to seal the top. rub allot like 100 times.
you are trying to seal off all the open pores on the top.
this will seal the reed and make it into a solid object. a freshly cut piece of cane like all plant stems is a series of tubes.
these tubes conduct air and water so an unsealed reed can’t seal on the mouthpiece properly.
at the end of your playing session you can check the seal on the flat side of the reed.
take the reed off of the mouthpiece carefully and look at the reed and mouthpiece.
The reed should have a sharp line where the area above the mouthpiece window is wet and the fibers might be swollen.
below that, the area of the reed on the mouthpiece table should be perfectly dry. the table of the mouthpiece should be perfectly dry.

you can if you want also shape the tip of the reed to fit the mouthpiece tip exactly. this will help the seal as the reed vibrates.
line the reed up to the tip but below it so you can see what it needs. take the reed off the mouthpiece and hold a piece of very fine wet or dry sandpaper in your left hand.
you can get a little stiffness out of the sand paper if you need to by making a little bit of a curve with it as you hold it in the air. don’t put the sandpaper against something just hold it out in the air.
now rub the tip of the reed against the sandpaper side to side (in a line edge to edge). don’t put any stress on the reed tip. shape the reed tip to match the mouthpiece tip.

When you put the reed on the mouthpiece line it up so a little sliver of the mouthpiece tip rail is showing above the reed.
In the actual  lessons we started with vandoren #5 reeds and cut them down to proper strength but that’s too extensive to describe here and i was never good enough at it to fully understand what was going on.

Lesson 3
OK now that we have a reed on the mouthpiece lets play.
for this week play only the mouthpiece without the horn.
before you put the mouthpiece in your mouth.
close your mouth and relax as much as possible.
feel how your tongue is against the roof of your mouth and the sides of your tongue are against your upper teeth.
now open your mouth a little and let your tongue fall down so it cuts your mouth cavity in half.
spread your tongue out so it covers your upper teeth on both sides at least partly and seals against you teeth.
this does not apply to the front teeth, the tip of your tongue pulls back a little and will direct the air in between the reed and mouthpiece tip.
also your tongue is positioned perfectly for tonguing.
hold your hand up to your mouth and blow against it to feel how the air travels above your tongue.
the air travels faster because you have reduced your mouth volume by half.
don’t put tension in you tongue when you do this. you can do it and still be perfectly relaxed.
now put the mouthpiece in your mouth and remember the feel from the first week of playing with only the reed.
the upper teeth rest directly on the mouthpiece without any biting or pressure.
when you play air should be leaking out of the corners of you mouth because your lower lip is straight across and not curving up the sides of the reed.
eventually some of your upper lip might come down and fill the gap and stop the leaking but the leaking is not a concern.
use the leaking as a sign you are doing it correctly.
the reason why this is a good thing is if your lip touches the side of the reed it would kill the free vibrations of the reed.
your lower lip acts only as a fulcrum point for the reed to vibrate from. your lip shouldn’t dampen the reeds free vibrations in any way.

ok now here is the real good stuff.
practice singing  a note or an interval or series of notes.
think about how you body automatically adjusts itself to make the different notes when you are singing.
this is the same mechanism you are going to use to play the different notes on the mouthpiece.
never change your mouth position in any way and keep your mouth perfectly relaxed and use the way you sing with you vocal cords to
practice on the mouthpiece. play scales, play songs, whatever.
what you need to do is imagine each note fully before you play it.
take the mouthpiece out of you mouth and sing what you want to play.
then imagine the same sounds as they are going to come out of the mouthpiece reed combination.
then play what you imagined on the mouthpiece.
when you are playing one note and you want to change to another note develop a mental image of the new note before you try to play it.
the mental image should include pitch, tone, and volume.

now you get to play the horn.
stand up straight and imagine that you are hanging from a string that is attached to the top of your head and and to the ceiling.
then use the neckstrap to bring the horn to your mouth. find just the proper adjustment for the neckstrap.
you will be surprised how much proper posture effects tone, just like when you are talking.
don’t hold your head too high or too low. image you are relaxed and speaking to someone in a direct and honest way.
that’s how it should feel when you play, like you are standing and talking.
now when you put your hands on the horn curve your fingers and put the tips of you fingers directly on the pearls.
don’t hold your fingers flat like you see so many players do.
the tips of your fingers should never lift off of the keys accept when you need to use side keys or whatever.
To get a feel for this and train yourself about the way it feels you can put a little piece of double sided tape on the pearls so your fingers stick to the keys.
think about the amount of energy that goes into pushing down the keys. never squeeze hard on the keys only push them closed
only with the smallest amount of energy needed to overcome the springs and make the key go down.
sing a note and squeeze something or push hard on a flat surface with just one finger and you can hear the tone of your voice change.
never lift your fingers, you never have to actively lift your fingers just withdraw the energy used to overcome the spring and let the key springs raise you fingers up
as the keys open by themselves, get a feel for this because it’s a very powerful concept.
you don’t lift your fingers you just stop pushing down and the springs raise your fingers for you.

Now on to the book “Top Tones for Saxophone” by Sigurd Rascher.
The main goal of this book is tone and intonation development, the secondary goal is extended range into the 3rd and even 4th octave of the horn.
you have to work on these exercises some every day and the progress will most likely be rather slow at first.
the first set of exercises on pg 6 are long tone exercises. They are all important and well documented in the book.
outside of the instructions was the lesson to do the long tones soft to loud to soft.
this is the most important for developing intonation. you should do this some each day.
when you get to the loud part in the middle of the long tone really let the tone open up and get huge but not blasting.
The main idea here is pitch. you might want to use a tuner. The pitch as you crescendo and decrescendo needs to stay perfectly steady.
skip the exercises on pg 7 about uniformity of tone, because we don’t agree with the use of pressure on the reed as presented in the exercise.
then the page 8 and 9 exercises on tone imagination and ear training are very important and should be done some each day.
for instance you can do one line on page 9 very carefully each day and the next day start on the next line in a continual rotation.
Now comes the all important overtone exercises pg 12 – 18. again just take a section each day to work on.
when you do the overtone exercises it is very important not to adjust your embouchure in any way.
you play the overtone exercises perfectly smooth with no breaks between notes and no articulation and no adjustments to your jaw or lips.
If you use cheats like tonguing or embouchure movement then you are defeating the purpose.
the point is to develop the vocal way of controlling the tones like you practiced on the mouthpiece.
don’t worry about how these turn out at first just try honestly to do them and let it go.
The end result will be you can easily present the overtone within the tone of the low note and then take away the lower tone and isolate the overtone smoothly just like you are singing.
It will also be possible in the end to do the exercises as multiphonics simply adding the higher notes to the lower ones and keeping the lower notes going or taking away the lower notes as you like..
the purpose in doing this is to be able to control tone  color like you can with your voice.
tone color on the saxophone is a matter of adding or bringing out certain partials in the sound and lowering or decreasing others at will.
eventually this will be accomplished by simply imagining the tone you are going for.
its important to never play a note on the saxophone without first imagining the note in every aspect, tone, pitch and volume first.
It is this very act of imagining the note that will bring your body on board with the mechanisms to produce the tone.
eventually this will lead to the mind body connection we talked about earlier where you simply have to imagine music and your body will automatically create the music for you
without you having to think about it. the saxophone will eventually become just an extension of your body and therefore an extension of you mind.
just like the long tones the instruction, different from the book, was to also do the long tones with all manner of crescendos and decrescendos.
you will find over time it is easier for instance to crescendo into a downward overtone movement and decrescendo into an upward overtone interval.
you should also practice doing the opposite changing notes downward and the very softest point in a decrescendo and changing notes upward and the very apex of a crescendo.
these crescendo decrescendo exercises added to the overtone exercises will really help turbocharge the chop building aspect of the overtone exercises.
one more point is that the overtone exercises in the book only use the low note fingerings because all notes on the saxophone are extensions of these few lower fingerings.
there is never any need to do overtones on higher fingerings. it would be possible to play any music using only the few low note fingering say up to about D.
It might even be a fun exercise to try to play some music using overtones and only the low note fingerings.

i think that’s about it. if you follow this basic style you should consider yourself a joe allard school saxophone player.

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Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site


  1. Avatar Gerardo Avila says

    Hi, and thanks for the info.

    What kind of knife blade can I use? where do I get it?

  2. Fascinating reading! I like the idea about using the reed alone to develop a relaxed embouchure. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. No idea…….I’ve never done this. I want to try it though!

  4. I started to try this and was dying with my reed in my mouth and my sax on the stand. It was like a musical withdrawal haha. Yeah, I cracked after 3 days, but I’m sure the master knew what he was talking about. Much of my old teacher followed these exact principles.

  5. Avatar Stefan Delvoye says

    Any idea how I can get in contact with Gary Jones?

  6. Unfortunately I don’t. It’s been years since we communicated over email and I don’t have his address anymore that I can find. Steve

  7. Avatar David Demsey says

    Thanks for this great, and super detailed description – this will be very helpful to a lot of people!

    I studied with Joe Allard, every week for three years while at Juilliard and also some during the summers. Joe truly was a “reed virtuoso.” He’d ask me to bring in my worst reeds, the ones that wouldn’t make a sound – then he’d tell me one Toscanini story after another, while he went to work with that reed knife flying – and turn it into my BEST reed! It was all about first making the two sides even, then he’d take a pencil and color in a parabolic shape on the reed, then carve that away – just enough to take off the pencil. Try the reed, and repeat.

    Regarding his advocacy of no pressure from the teeth, his mantra was always: “Feel the reed with your teeth!” In other words, use only enough push upward against the reed so your teeth can feel that there’s resistance there – no more! He said it to all of us so often that we’d see one another in the corridor and repeat it: “Feel the reed with our teeth, good morning!”

    Joe’s overtones exercises were/are legendary, and he wrote them out for each of us by hand. I later re-did them on Sibelius, and that chart is on Dave Liebman’s website, can be downloaded for free. I appreciate Dave giving me credit for them, but they are straight from Joe:

    These exercises are all about the pre-hearing mindset that you talk about here. The idea is that every note that you play, should have your tongue, throat, etc. in the shape it would be to SING that pitch. Then, your body is totally resonating along with the horn – like you’re a human note! These exercises really help to find that zone.

  8. Avatar David Demsey says

    Someone asked what kind of reed knife Joe used. He used a Bhosys knife – shown for sale from Weiner Music, and you can find them on eBay. I don’t think they’re made any more.

    The Bhosys knives are only beveled in one direction, for left-handed or right-handed people. When I was studying with him, he was angry that they’d sent him a shipment of left-handed knives…I’m left-handed. I had a habit of shoveling his driveway after lessons in the winter and wouldn’t take any money – he gave me one of those knives in about 1979, and it’s still sharp today.

  9. Thanks Dave! These look awesome. I would love to hear more about Joe Allard and the different things you were taught over the 3 years. Steve

  10. I’ve read Stan Getz went to him or knew him. If I remember correctly Stan was having some trouble and Joe tried Stan’s set and could not get the low notes out (I guess the reed was too hard). He talked to Stan about reed adjustment. I’d really be interested in knowing if Stan worked on his reeds a lot or if you was one of those take ’em out of the box and slap ’em on the mouthpiece kinda guys. Given he know JA I’m assuming he worked very hard 5 reeds down.

    I’m finding more and more my sound flexibility is based on the reed that day. I’m learning to take harder reeds and cut them down to get the horn and my sound vibrating more (leaving a stiff reed very thick at the tip for example).

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