The Best Saxophone Embouchure: Where’s that Bottom Lip?

I just completed a new saxophone video lesson entitled “The Best Embouchure for Tone, Intonation and Endurance Lesson” in which I teach my approach to the saxophone playing embouchure and playing the saxophone.  While working on the sax lesson, I thought it would be a cool idea to search the internet for good photos of famous sax player’s embouchures.  The photos I found are below.

The Best Embouchure for Tone, Intonation and Endurance Lesson Only 9.99

The word embouchure means “the way in which a player applies the mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument”. There are probably as many variations of embouchures as there are saxophone players in the world.  Each a little different, each a bit unique.  The goal of my lesson and this article is to see what commonalities we can find.  In my video lesson I am teaching my opinion and approach to embouchure based off of what I have learned and noticed through my many years of playing the saxophone.  Here is the description of the lesson:

In this new video lesson, The Best Embouchure for Tone, Intonation and Endurance Lesson, I give you the inside scoop on my approach to the saxophone embouchure.  I talk about my journey with different embouchures and when I realized that there was a better way to play my sax in regards to the embouchure.  I teach you how this type of embouchure effects your tone, intonation, sub-tone and endurance.  I show you first hand how to do it and talk about how to practice this type of embouchure.  Lastly, I will be posting a blog article with photos of great players like Dexter, Coltrane, Brecker, as well as many others doing what I believe is exactly what I am teaching in this video.(37 Minute Video Lesson)

*The teachings in this video on playing the saxophone are based on my experience.  They are based on my opinions that have been formed over many years of playing and teaching the saxophone. I understand that others might approach embouchure, tonguing, voicing and playing the saxophone in a different way entirely and that is ok.  This lesson is based off of the approach that I have found to be the best for me and hopefully it will benefit you as well.    Steve 

Dexter Gordon Embouchure-Lady Bird Video

The photo above is taken from the iconic Dexter Gordon video on Youtube of Dexter playing on Lady Bird.  This is my “go to” video when I am teaching a sax student about the embouchure.  Notice the bottom lip and the downward tilt of the head.  Watch the video and you will see the effortless movement of Dexter’s lower jaw as he sub-tones.  All these topics are talked about and illustrated in my lesson also.  You can see a sample of the video lesson here when clicking on the lesson sample tab.

John Coltrane Embouchure

John Coltrane!  Notice bottom lip and slight downward tilt of the head.

Another John Coltrane Embouchure

Johnny Griffin Embouchure

Johnny Griffin!  Not as much of a downward tilt of the head but notice the bottom lip and bottom jaw retracted in what looks like a sub-tone position.

Benny Golson Embouchure

Benny Golson with a similar bottom lip. So far the four great tenor players above all have bunched up chins!  I don’t know about you, but I was taught by a few sax teachers not to bunch up my chin but to point it down and try to make it flat.  Interesting!

Coleman Hawkins Embouchure

Coleman Hawkins with a similar bottom lip and bunched up chin.  If you would like more info on this approach to playing check out my 37 minute video lesson below where I talk about it in depth as well as it’s effect on tone, intonation, sub-tone and endurance.

The Best Embouchure for Tone, Intonation and Endurance Lesson Only 9.99

Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins Embouchures

Two Tenor giants! Coleman Hawkins along side Sonny Rollins!  Wow!  Notice Sonny’s bottom lip rolled out.

Gene Ammons Embouchure

The incomparable Gene Ammons with a rollout of the bottom lip.  Where is your bottom lip when looking in a mirror while playing?

Young Michael Brecker Embouchure

The amazing Michael Brecker with a slight rollout and a bunched up chin. Michael has a thinner bottom lip than other guys but you can still see it slightly rolled out……..

Middle Aged Michael Brecker Embouchure

….and again……slight rollout and bunched chin……… Question:  How much pressure does it look like Brecker is putting on that reed in this photo?

Michael Brecker Embouchure in Full Sub-tone

….and again in full sub-tone.  Not the best photo but look at that bottom lip!

Max Ionata Embouchure

One of my favorite tenor players, Max Ionata!  Slight downward tilt of head and rolled out bottom lip……. If these help get a tone like Max’s tone.  Then they are certainly worth trying out!  Don’t worry about the mouthpiece yet, try experimenting with what they do first…..

Bob Mintzer Embouchure

Another of my favorite tenor players…. Bob Mintzer…….. downward tilt and rolled out.  Bottom jaw looks pulled back.

Chris Potter Embouchure

…..let’s not forget Chris Potter……..see the bottom lip and bunched chin muscles.

Young Joshua Redman Embouchure

Young Joshua Redman with downward tilt of the head and rolled out lower lip.

Middle Aged Joshua Redman Embouchure

same with middle aged Joshua Redman…..

Mark Turner Embouchure

Mark Turner.  Sax sits a bit higher but that bottom lip is most certainly rolled out a bit. Mark Turner always seems to have perfect posture!

Jerry Bergonzi Embouchure

The amazing Jerry Bergonzi.  No slight tilt of the head for Jerry in this photo but you can see some of the red of the bottom lip.

Charlie Parker Embouchure

Let’s get some alto players in here. Charlie Parker…….. No downward tilt for Bird but I see plenty of bottom lip!

Cannonball Adderley Embouchure

Cannonball Adderley………

Another Cannonball Adderley Embouchure

Phil Woods Embouchure

One of my idols when I was a young alto sax player in high school, Phil Woods!  You can see his bottom lip and bunched up chin……..

Paul Desmond Embouchure

I was curious about Paul Desmond as he has such a different and unique sound.  But even with Paul Desmond you can see a  downward tilt of the head and the bottom lip rolled out slightly.  His chin does look a bit pointed here in this photo though.

Kenny G Embouchure

Finally, To close the discussion once and for all, the incredibly “smooth” Kenny G. You can see the slight roll of his bottom lip in the photo above.  In my lesson below, I talk about the importance of thinking of the embouchure gripping the mouthpiece from the sides and not from top to bottom.  Kenny G might not subscribe to this teaching of mine though because he always looks like he is smiling when playing in this photo and many others I have seen with the corners of his mouth pulled back.  That’s ok though, he is Kenny G and what do his fans want to see?  Of course, Kenny smiling at them while playing the most loving melodies and lines dripping with smoothness and emotion.  It would make any heart melt at the very thought. (Except you hardhearted smooth jazz haters of course……)

That is it!  If you want to find out more about what I teach students in regard to embouchure, tone and intonation check out the 38 minute video lesson below.   Thanks for tuning in as we all talk about interesting saxophone topics.  See you next time……..   Steve

The Best Embouchure for Tone, Intonation and Endurance Lesson

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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 Neffmusic.com.

Comments

  1. Avatar Mike Eipper says

    Wow! So cool to see all the pictures back to back. Thanks for all your hard work! Embouchure is such a complex topic to discuss…so many nuances. In my years of teaching there have been some universals. IMHO In every picture it seems that corner strength is evident. Until corner strength is achieved, bottom lip flexibility is very difficult. The funny thing is, all the amazing verities of tone color need for jazz is not possible with out the flexibility in the bottom lip. Also, when corner strength is not there the embouchure becomes very tight and the reed doesn’t vibrate. I read some where that Coltrane used to practice mouth exercises when not practicing to build up his corner strength. The tu ee exercise. Just some thoughts. Thanks again man for your great blog!!

    Regards
    Mike

  2. Ok, I’m in for $10. I have a feeling that, yet one more time, I’m going to learn that long tones are the way forward. It looks like all those embouchures of the pros work because they have the muscles to not need to bite.

  3. Avatar Michael Caldwell says

    I’ve changed a bit during the years. I’m much more relaxed with overall pressure. The thing I see many players doing is moving their jaw in and out as they go from high to low pitch. At a masterclass I asked Chris Potter if that was a technique someone taught him and he said not really. He said he does know he does it, but doesn’t remember being told to do it by a teacher. It’s a question I asked about on a sax newsgroup and really didn’t get a good response about why people do it. I do it for sub tone, but not very much for the rest of my playing and I still get a lot of compliments on my tone. Some of the greats move their jaw in and out drastically. Can you tell me what this is supposed to accomplish?

  4. I move my jaw in and out quite a bit. I talk about it in the video lesson quite a bit. The angle the mouthpiece enters the mouth and the angle of the bottom teeth in relation to the lip and reed all play a part in that movement. I don’t remember being taught that either but I do do it all the time. It is tied to the coloring and shape of the tone in my mind. Steve

  5. Ok, I’m in for $10. I have a feeling that, yet one more time, I’m going to learn that long tones are the way forward. It looks like all those embouchures of the pros work because they have the muscles to not need to bite.

    Thanks for supporting my work David. I appreciate it. As I talk about in the lesson, the muscles around the embouchure are vital to supporting the embouchure and taking off pressure from the teeth supporting the bottom lip. Without those muscles engaged you just have a bottom lip on top of the bottom teeth or leaning against the bottom teeth while being pressed into the teeth. Doesn’t feel great……. Steve

  6. Wow! So cool to see all the pictures back to back. Thanks for all your hard work! Embouchure is such a complex topic to discuss…so many nuances. In my years of teaching there have been some universals. IMHO In every picture it seems that corner strength is evident. Until corner strength is achieved, bottom lip flexibility is very difficult. The funny thing is, all the amazing verities of tone color need for jazz is not possible with out the flexibility in the bottom lip. Also, when corner strength is not there the embouchure becomes very tight and the reed doesn’t vibrate. I read some where that Coltrane used to practice mouth exercises when not practicing to build up his corner strength. The tu ee exercise. Just some thoughts. Thanks again man for your great blog!!

    Regards
    Mike

    Thanks Mike! Glad you like the site and it can be of help! Steve

  7. This lesson has nothing to do with long tones but is about the physicality of embouchure and what players should try doing to see if these things benefit. The benefit for me was huge so that is why I chose to continue playing like this and teaching these topics.

  8. The single most influential thing any sax teacher ever taught me about making a good sound was to think of my embouchure as a drawstring around the mouthpiece. This was entirely jazz focused, but I bet it could be applied to the classical world as well. I kept doing this all through my studies in college and my teacher (a great jazz and classical player) never once tried to change it – in fact he did something very similar.

    This one small piece of advice completely eliminated my line of thinking that I had to bite down on the reed. These photos and your comments seem to back that up.

    As for the others who have mentioned moving the lower jaw and lip – I do this too, but for me it’s about color, inflection, and sometimes a slight intonation adjustment. I certainly didn’t do this as a beginner (30 years ago…ack!), but it came along over time as I started to find my saxophone voice about the time I was in college.

  9. The downward tilt of the head is a mnemonic for the weight of the head to be lightly resting on the top of the mouthpiece beak (another great reason for a mpc pad). That frees the lower lip to be much more flexible, and then the side-mouth muscles stabilize the mpc in the mouth. The only real pressure applied to the reed is when you move the jaw or roll the lip for various tonal changes.

  10. The downward tilt of the head is a mnemonic for the weight of the head to be lightly resting on the top of the mouthpiece beak (another great reason for a mouthpiece pad). That frees the lower lip to be much more flexible, and then the side-mouth muscles stabilize the mouthpiece in the mouth. The only real pressure applied to the reed is when you move the jaw or roll the lip for various tonal changes.

    Exactly!! I talk about that in the lesson. It frees up the lower jaw even more.

  11. Avatar Bill Bone says

    What, no Sanborn conversation? Of all the embouchures on the planet his has to be one of the most radical – with the signature back head tilt and side saddle lip. His alto tone has to be one of the most emulated in the last 25 years and the gold standard for hard edged funk – and the most difficult to copy physically (and why would you try). But he does maintain the lower lip extension which is probably the key for his signature expressive tone. Interesting article. Thanks Steve,

  12. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Thanks Steve,
    I have a lot of observational spirit and also a certain ear applied to the observation of the mouth movements of famous or less famous musicians: therefore, since I was a beginner, I instinctively “copied” this relaxed (as it seems to me, for example in Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker) mouthpiece embouchure…
    So relaxed that I use the double lip embouchure…
    I hated to put my teeth on the mouthpiece… How can you play if your skull gives you up so much that you don’t hear what you play? And then if you don’t press your teeth the sound increases without being strangled.
    And the pads to stick on the mouthpiece seemed like a foreign body in my mouth…
    In agreement with the article: never pressure on the reed.
    When you play you don’t have to struggle, you have to “breathe”.
    When an article about famous musicians who used, or use, the double lips embouchure, now practically no longer used (they forbid you at the conservatory)?
    I hope I have not written nonsense for my poor knowledge of English.

  13. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    I do not quite agree with what I read about very strong and tense muscles (if I have translated well): it seems to me that, except for Coltrane who seems to “force” and, perhaps, someone else, these muscles are yes strong for exercise, but relax to the max …
    Giuseppe.

  14. Giuseppe, You should really get the video lesson I made on this subject. I think it is a mistake to go as loose as possible and I talk about that in the lesson. I was taught by some great sax teachers who taught me to have a firm embouchure with pressure from the sides coming in. In all these photos you see a lot of facial muscles engaged and the chin bunched up. I think these guys are also using a firm embouchure although I can’t prove that. Once your embouchure is set and solid then you can experiment with loosening it up a bit and see if you like the results.

    The other problem with the “loose as possible” embouchure is that you lose some control of the reed. When you have a firm embouchure (not biting or tight) the slightest adjustment or manipulation by the bottom lip or jaw affects the reed immediately. Not so much with a loose embouchure. Watch the lesson if you want more details. Steve

  15. What, no Sanborn conversation? Of all the embouchures on the planet his has to be one of the most radical – with the signature back head tilt and side saddle lip. His alto tone has to be one of the most emulated in the last 25 years and the gold standard for hard edged funk – and the most difficult to copy physically (and why would you try). But he does maintain the lower lip extension which is probably the key for his signature expressive tone. Interesting article. Thanks Steve

    Sanborn is going to be dealt with in another article. I already have the photos lined up………

  16. I do not quite agree with what I read about very strong and tense muscles (if I have translated well): it seems to me that, except for Coltrane who seems to “force” and, perhaps, someone else, these muscles are yes strong for exercise, but relax to the max …
    Giuseppe.

    I would disagree with this. In every photo you see muscles engaged and working around the embouchure. The muscles are what should be supporting 90% of the bottom lip for me. Even when I sub-tone the muscles are engaged and supporting that lip. I think even more so, actually!

  17. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Hey Steve, Charlie Parker also sometimes took the mouthpiece to the side, demonstrating the low pressure on it; a little is also seen in the Charlie Parker photo of this review!
    Thanks, very interesting review!
    Giuseppe.

  18. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Yes Steve, I explained myself wrongly: I meant to say that the pressure on the reed and on the mouthpiece seems relaxed to me; I agree that automatically a lot of facial muscles are engaged and the chin bunched up to have a firm embouchure with pressure “from the sides” coming in. I know that it is necessary using a firm embouchure.
    I would like to buy the book but I don’t use credit cards: is it found in bookstores in other countries?

  19. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Steve write: “I would disagree with this. In every photo you see muscles engaged and working around the embouchure. The muscles are what should be supporting 90% of the bottom lip for me. Even when I sub-tone the muscles are engaged and supporting that lip. I think even more so, actually!”…
    I agree, the muscles “from the sides” are what should be supporting 90% of the bottom lip, even in sub-tones (I have no problems in sound and specially in sub-tones); I hope I have explained!
    Giuseppe.

  20. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Steve, we didn’t understand each other since I meant that the lower lip was (relatively) relaxed and you understood the lateral facial muscles that support it! It is clear that they are under stress, when you stop playing sometimes you feel them asleep for lactic acid!
    Giuseppe.

  21. Giuseppe, it’s not a book but a video lesson where I teach my approach to embouchure and all that it entails. It is in English though, but you seem to do pretty well when writing so I think you would be ok watching it.

  22. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    I will try to order your video lesson in the library of the Villaggio Olimpico Auditorium of Roma (Auditorium Parco della Musica), some meters from my home; possible they order the video lesson on line for me!
    Thanks,
    Giuseppe.

  23. Avatar Walter George says

    Steve,
    Thank you for this blog, your video lesson, and post on SOTW, which drew a lot of interesting comments including about the bottom lip being sort of a sling for the reed. In these discussions, there does not seem to have been mentioned the idea of doing the mini smile and then putting the mpc in the mouth. This makes sense because the smile then sl tenses/stretches the lower lip and supports it from side to side. You see this indentation on the sides of the mouth in many of the pictures you list suggesting this is what is happening.

  24. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Anyway, Steve,
    I didn’t want to argue with you, as it often seems; honestly I admire you a lot and I also consider you a kind, correct and nice person, but I would just like to say that, without taking anything away from what I have already explained and clarified, each mouth is different: my lower jaw, for example, is more protruding than it should, while others have the upper dental arch too protruding…
    My sax teacher, assertor of the classic embouchure, asked me not to say that I study with him for my double lip embouchure which I refuse to abandon; it is enough that I once a time make a slightly out of tune note which is automatically the fault of the double lip that does not give control ….; however, to my answer, namely that also his other students who use the classic embouchure make notes out of tune, he had to admit that it is true…
    It is also true that, among all his other students, that I have known doing the workshops, the best sound is mine…
    Every now and then he comes up to me and bangs me on the neck of the sax to show that I don’t hold my mouthpiece tight enough to have complete control … it is clear that, seeing a knock arriving on my mouth, I release the muscles to avoid the trauma: somehow even those who (there are famous musicians, one nicknamed “the sound”, who used this double lip embouchure) use this technique has its own intuitive mechanics and that perhaps can not explain, which somehow works well; better, for me, than the one with the teeth on the mouthpiece which, for a certain time, I tried with dissatisfaction and bad results.
    I read something about Joe Allard but I didn’t understand very well … but it seems to me he said that everyone is a different case to which to apply his theories; but I may have misunderstood.
    I also read that Coltrane, at some advanced point in his career, seems to have switched to double lip embouchure for his severe pain in his teeth.
    But I can say that I have often listened in small jazz clubs, in Rome, since the 70s, live, the famous American clarinetist, saxophonist and pianist, Tony Scott https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Scott_(musicista),
    winner in America of an award as first American clarinetist, who played with Parker and Billy Holiday and who, then, traveled the world dying in Italy.
    In a documentary film dedicated to him and broadcast on an Italian national RAI network, I learned that, to someone who asked him how he managed to have that unique and powerful sound, he answered by opening his mouth: he had only one, single tooth, in the center of the upper dental arch…
    A friend of mine, in the 90s, participated in a Michael Brecker sax seminar in Italy: he told me that Brecker said that both methods, classic and double lip, were fine: with the first there was more control over the sound, with the second the sound was more beautiful…
    If a musician gets along well with a method and then manages in some way, that even he cannot explain because instinctive, to control the sound equally, and, probably, perhaps best, why should he suffer to change?
    Giuseppe.

  25. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    I know that Stan Getz, ” The sound”, of which, I read, Coltrane said that everyone of us would like to play like Stan Getz, switched from double lip to classic embouchure, but the recordings I like are the first, like ’50 and ’51: Yvette, Wild Wood, Melody Express, Penny, Potter’s Luck, Split Kick, Rubberneck, Mosquito Knees, Sweety Pie, Ershey Bar, Tootsie Roll, For Stompers Only.
    I must also say that the sound that he had developed some time before dying, using a Meyer long shank #7, but I don’t think for the mouthpiece, I liked it a lot and it was much more “hard” than his usual style.
    Giuseppe

  26. Avatar Walter George says

    That’s a good point – one needs to explore what embouchure works best for you, as we are all different. There may not be one size that fits all. From this history lesson of sorts, we learn even the great players have used different embouchures at times.
    Forgot to mention that the reason my music teacher gave for doing the mini smile was to take pressure off the sides of the reed which could dampen its sound.
    So there are many different aspects to this embouchure story.

  27. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Walter,
    I thank you for your solidarity and patience in reading what I have written; I think that in general, what is taught in conservatories and what Steve explains, are interesting and important notions that, in the 99% of cases, are needed and work well. However, each person is different, and the general approach must be considered specifically for the person in question; in fact I, for some time, tried the classic mouthpiece embouchure, but then I chose the double lip embouchure. If nobody made their own choices, perhaps there would be slower progress; we would still play dixieland … perhaps such personal choices also involve technical errors for some, perhaps for me: everyone tries, then takes on his responsibilities and consequences.
    If I remember correctly, I could be wrong, even Waine Shorter used double lip.
    It may be that, if my first sax teacher had forced me to use the embouchure now considered classic, I would find this technique comfortable; or it may be that I would have changed the instrument, not bearing it.
    Then, the double lip does not mean that the upper teeth are not resting on the mouthpiece, but only that they rest on it with a layer, more or less high, of the inner skin layer of the upper lip…
    I think, however, but I may be wrong, that this is the same technique that clarinetists and many saxophonists used before the music conservatories began to ban it for saxophonists.
    Watch this video in full screen: towards the end, after the battery solo, at about 4:00 minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZ5eGEest0g
    Charlie Parker holds the mouthpiece to the side of his mouth, which seems to hang like a cigarette… Do you seem to notice that the lips are under strain? I say the lips, not the lateral facial muscles.
    If this can comfort you, Charlie Parker doesn’t “smile” while he plays; the tips of his lips are pointing downwards; like those of many other famous, and not famous, saxophonists.
    I hope I have not been a “bad teacher” and, in any case, I affirm that what Steve expounds is right and exact and necessary for the majority of saxophonists.
    Giuseppe.

  28. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Hei Steve, I went to the books (and record) shop: the clerk told me that the shop only buys from the “distributor”, who does not distribute the product in question; could not have ordered it on the internet as the stationer of a village of only 2000 people, San Quirico D’Orcia, where I have a small second home, does for school books? I also told him that there was no problem with the cost and shipping costs…
    We see that the crisis in Italy does not exist, as they say…

  29. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Hi Walter,
    excuse me, sorry, I didn’t notice “the reason” to smile before playing, or “to take pressure off the sides of the reed, pressure which could dampen its sound” because one of my first teachers told me to do, and keep, the smile “while” I played, I think to tighten the mouthpiece tightly, so for a different reason…
    It seems to me a good idea to remove pressure from the reed so as not to dampen its sound; I will try too.
    A greeting,
    Giuseppe.

  30. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    To be honest, I don’t even remember, thinking about it (it’s a certain time that for personal problems I don’t play), how my mouth rests on the mouthpiece: I just play …
    I don’t remember if the upper lip really rests the teeth on the mouthpiece on a small piece of skin on the inside of the lip or, simply, it is the upper lip, and perhaps also the lower lip, both without rests the teeth on the mouthpiece, but only the lips, that tighten it; or if I change position from time to time …
    I’m only sure that, since my lower jaw and relative lower dental arch protrudes more than the upper one, the lower lip, very thick and fleshy, is at such an advanced point that it cannot dampen the reed …
    I really don’t remember … and I hope that Steve, reading this, won’t collapse by fainting on the floor …

  31. Hi, Steve. I have been working through some changes in my embouchure based on your lesson. I found that two of your suggestions have been really helpful. One is getting my teeth out from under my lower lip, and the other is lowering the mouthpiece a bit. I feel as though my sound is a lot fuller, particularly with notes in the lower register, and my intonation overall is more consistently in tune. The one drawback for me, however, is that I have been having more trouble getting out the palm key notes, especially the high F sharp, when I don’t use my teeth to support my lip. Maybe my new embouchure is just not strong enough yet to produce those notes consistently. I am wondering if you use a firmer embouchure for the high notes.

  32. Mike, the answer to this is actually easy. Steve has another lesson on the altissimo, where he talks about the ‘nasal’ approach to getting the high register. I teach this as contracting the soft palate. When your head weight is born by the top of the mpc, the lower lip is looser (and the teeth don’t force themselves into the lower lip to stabilize the mpc). So with the fuller sound, you now need to increase the air speed for the higher register. It’s NOT a muscle-bound thing; it’s actually subtle (which is why we practice the overtone series). Try thinking the word Exxx (or for some folk, Hissss); you will feel it in the upper portion of your mouth cavity. The embouchure does not need to get ‘firmer’.

  33. Hi, Steve. I have been working through some changes in my embouchure based on your lesson. I found that two of your suggestions have been really helpful. One is getting my teeth out from under my lower lip, and the other is lowering the mouthpiece a bit. I feel as though my sound is a lot fuller, particularly with notes in the lower register, and my intonation overall is more consistently in tune. The one drawback for me, however, is that I have been having more trouble getting out the palm key notes, especially the high F sharp, when I don’t use my teeth to support my lip. Maybe my new embouchure is just not strong enough yet to produce those notes consistently. I am wondering if you use a firmer embouchure for the high notes.

    Mike, That is not unusual at first. It’s very important that you think about that bottom lip in relation to the bottom teeth like I teach in the lesson when I am holding my hands up as if one hand is the teeth and one hand the bottom lip. You should be using your teeth as a support for the bottom lip as it leans on the teeth. I do exert more firmness for the high palm notes and altissimo but it is not just the teeth but a mix of the surrounding muscles and the teeth being there underneath to support the lip. When I go into that upper range my bottom jaw comes forward a little bit to increase the support. I wouldn’t call it biting but just think of it as increasing the support under the lip. You use the words “When I don’t use my teeth to support my lip”. I want to make sure you are not rolling your bottom lip out so far that is divorced from the bottom teeth. That is not correct. I just want to make sure you are not doing that. Steve

  34. Mike and Noah, I should clarify one thing after reading Noah’s comment just now. I can play altissimo with pressure from the lower teeth and without any pressure. Again, I don’t consider this biting but more a subtle added support. The difference in sound and tone is large between these for me. Many times when I go for a “Brecker” type wailing altissimo lick in a solo, I want the added brightness and edge the bottom teeth support give me. Without the added bottom teeth support, I get a more refined less bright and less wailing tone to those notes.

  35. Avatar Joe Bastianpillai says

    Hi Steve
    Great review of the various styles. Did not see a pic of Stan Getz. It seems from pics of Stan that he rolls his power lip over his teeth. I’ve been doing this for the past 4 years. This is due to clarinet lesson some 50 years ago. I am having difficulty rolling my bottom lip out. My teacher sees no issues with this and says that my tone is good.

  36. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Hi Steve,
    With some adjustment, is your method useable also for saxophonists who use double lip or non embouchure embouchure?
    Thank for a reply,
    Giuseppe.

  37. Hi Steve,
    With some adjustment, is your method useable also for saxophonists who use double lip or non embouchure embouchure?
    Thank for a reply,
    Giuseppe.

    Hi Giuseppe, I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that question as I have never used a double lip embouchure besides trying it out here and there for a few seconds throughout the years. I could never get it to work for me as there wasn’t enough embouchure pressure up high to keep the notes from going extremely flat. I could have tried pushing my mouthpiece in a lot more but as I remember, I didn’t want to try that experiment as I didn’t want to squash down my cork further. Steve

  38. Hi Steve
    Great review of the various styles. Did not see a pic of Stan Getz. It seems from pics of Stan that he rolls his power lip over his teeth. I’ve been doing this for the past 4 years. This is due to clarinet lesson some 50 years ago. I am having difficulty rolling my bottom lip out. My teacher sees no issues with this and says that my tone is good.

    Hi Joe, If you are happy with your sound and your teacher is as well there is no reason to change. Sometimes I have students who roll their bottom lip over their teeth that try the more forward bottom lip and don’t like the result. These are usually students that like a darker more mellow tone. This is totally fine. I just ask as a teacher for students to try experimenting with it and then to decide what they like for themselves. Obviously, Stan Getz is doing something different that gives him a more unique and individual sound and tone. He is Stan Getz and you can’t argue with that! I have some photos of him I was going to include in another blog post about the embouchure “outliers”. I’m collecting photos now…….. Thanks! Steve

  39. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Steve,
    I don’t “remember” what happens when I play, I am not sure if, when I say “double lip” if I always, when I play, have my teeth, and how much, on the skin of the lower and upper lips!
    Certainly my teacher says to me that my embouchure is too loose, because I had the bottom lip rolled out!
    Perhaps I begin playing with the skin of the lips more or less on the teeth but, probably, when I am playing, my lips are the bottom rolled out, and the upper as if to say, between “suspended” and slightly placed on the mouthpiece without resting the teeth … I know it may seem strange …
    Perhaps I don’t realize but, what is sure, is that my upper notes are full and I play without effort.
    In a period I practiced me, for years, till the D out of the extension of the instrument, to facilitate the others upper notes, with the Korg Auto chromatic tuner AT-12, on almost four octaves; now I have forgotten all the positions and I get to the B out of the extension of the sax without no effort. I practice myself to do this in long tones, from low notes to high and the other way around, on classic and subtones notes in all the, and over, the extension… Also I practice the overtones… and all this controlled in tone with the tuner.
    No effort, if I use 0.081 tip opening.
    Perhaps, inadvertently, I use the method you illustrate or something similar? I’m not asking you, I’m asking me …
    As long as I studied, before stopping for two years, every two weeks I played without stop from 16 to 22 o clock: till 18 lesson; then five other guys came and we did workshops directed by the teacher; six hours and my lips were never tired… Only the nerves in my collarbones gave me severe pain!
    I really don’t realize because you have high notes flats! I never push on mouthpiece on high notes, and in lower notes, but they are in tone and perfect! No flat high notes, no effort on high notes… really!
    Don’t think mine is vain glory or boasting or that I don’t know how to evaluate myself objectively …
    Or I’m crazy and I don’t know!
    Perhaps I must analyze better what happens while I play…
    For some time I went to study with an important Italian jazz saxophonist, who acted as an interpreter during Michael Brecker’s seminars in Italy, and he told me that I had no problems in sound but suggest for me to try the one lip embouchure.
    I tried for some time to play in a classic way, one lip, but the sound was coarse, harsh and shrill, and my skull vibrated so much that it took away the pleasure of playing.
    I am sorry to pose you, nine times to ten, questions you can not reply!
    You are a nice guy in every way,
    thanks,
    Giuseppe.

  40. Avatar Giuseppe C. says

    Hi Steve,
    If I can joke, I read that you are preparing a blog post about the embouchure “outliers”.
    If you want, I’ll send you a photo of me: more unusual than that …
    In effect I think I play double lips, but my teacher “catches” me in foul for the opposite reason, with the bottom lip rolled out, and not on the teeth. And he disagrees; but he doesn’t agree with the double lip either!

  41. Hey Steve, Great comparisons! I had the priviledge of studying with Joe Viola briefly back in the late 60s and I remember he actually took a surgical glove and felt my bottom lip and let me do the same with his. It was very instructive. The concept of using the bottom lip as a cushion and to to keep it “soft like a pillow” never left me. I tell all my students not to bunch their chin, but that’s more for strengthening the proper muscles. It seems to me the most critical factor is using lots of air and abdominal pressure and letting that create and support the tone. Main function of your embouchure is not to get in the way…

  42. Lee, that’s a good summary. I have found that the Saxlab sax strap really helps in instructing students to fill the diaphragm, as the weight rest of the strap is right below the sternum. The correct breathing actually lifts the weight of the horn. Secondly, I believe that the head/skull lights rests on the top of the mouthpiece with the weight being born by the upper teeth. This allows the lower lip to be formed properly for the kind of sound the player wants (bright/dark).

  43. Good morning Mr. Lee,
    I’m very interested in what you write

    “… felt my bottom lip and let me do the same with his. It was very instructive. The concept of using the bottom lip as a cushion and to to keep it “soft like a pillow” never left me. I tell all my students not to bunch their chin, but that’s more for strengthening the proper muscles. It seems to me the most critical factor is using lots of air and abdominal pressure and letting that create and support the tone. Main function of your embouchure is not to get in the way…”.
    Even my first sax teacher, in the 70’s, touched my lower lip, very fleshy, and said it was suitable for sax, without further explanation.
    From what I read about the teaching of Mr. Viola, and also from what you teaches, I seem to understand that many things coincide with my way of playing, especially regarding the
    “bottom lip soft like a pillow” and
    “using lots of air and abdominal pressure and letting that create and support the tone. Main function of your mouth is not to get in the way.”

    Could you kindly explain these two concepts to me in more detail, considering that I am Italian and do not understand English very well?
    Thank you in advance.
    Giuseppe.

  44. Hi Giuseppe, I’m not sure how to explain what Lee was saying in easier terms to understand. He is basically saying what I also teach. The bottom lip should be like a pillow for the reed. A pillow is what you put your head on when you sleep on your bed. He is also stating the importance of proper breath and air support from the diaphragm. Steve

  45. Giuseppe: Let your upper teeth rest on the top of the mouthpiece (beak), and let them comfortably support some of the weight of the head/skull. The upper lips ‘relax’ onto the mouthpiece (but remember, they can’t really do that fully until they are also strong). This part is difficult for many, and they clench/grab the mouthpiece. The lower lip will naturally be more of a cushion against the reed because of this. The oooh-eee mouth exercise helps strengthen the muscles around the upper lip and side of the mouth. The best way I have found to learn the breath support is with the Saxlab neck strap, which has a little rest that lays below the sternum. Pressing outward against that makes the diaphragm do the right thing for supporting a full airstream.

  46. Thanks Sonso. As a teacher, the only part of that I would caution against is

    Let your upper teeth rest on the top of the mouthpiece (beak), and let them comfortably support some of the weight of the head/skull.

    I don’t like that description of “letting the teeth on the mouthpiece comfortably support some of the weight of the head”. I play with just enough pressure from my top teeth so that my teeth do not move on a mouthpiece patch. Any more than that is not the best in my mind. I used to let my head rest a bit more on the teeth and mouthpiece but at that time I used to go through a different mouthpiece patch every week. Sometimes they would only last a few days before I bit through them. Now I can put a mouthpiece patch on and not have to change it for years if at all.

    For me it is similar to putting your thumb in your mouth with the flesh side up. If you put your top teeth on the flesh of the thumb with only enough pressure so that the thumb is locked into position and will not slide, this is how I play the sax. If I then put slightly more weight of my head resting on those teeth, I can immediately feel the teeth transfer that weight to the skin of my thumb. That extra weight and force will chew threw a pad and even a mouthpiece like I have done in the past when I was younger.

    In my mind, you want just enough pressure so that the mouthpiece doesn’t move beneath your teeth with a patch on it but no more………

  47. Steve, I agree with your summation, but I find that initial students need to work to that point. It takes a while to allow the lower lip to do its thing, and, of course, each mouthpiece is slightly different in an individual’s mouth. My mouthpiece patches usually last a few months, not years!

  48. Thanks Steve and Sonso:
    As for the pillow/bottom lip, the breath to support the sound and the diaphragm, I think I do this (my teacher puts his hand on my diaphragm and says it’s okay).
    As for the teeth, I rest them on the mouthpiece, I do something different that I can’t “visualize” well: instead of placing the teeth, I rest on a small part of skin covering the upper teeth or between “suspended” and slightly placed on the mouthpiece without resting the teeth; perhaps, not even that and only “the upper lip and its muscles ” effortlessly on the mouthpiece but, perhaps, using the direction and inclination in which” I direct ” the air (a bit like a transverse flute?).
    Better I don’t know how to explain it: the fact is that I don’t clamp the mouthpiece and I don’t do any force on the neck of the sax but the notes come well and effortlessly on the lips …
    Maybe it’s a bit like the difference between riding a horse with the English saddle and tightly locked knees or how to ride “bareback” and only in balance? In “balance” on the inclination and direction of the air flow projected by the diaphragm?
    PS: believe me, I’m not crazy, I just can’t explain what I do to me either.
    Thanks. sincerely,
    Giuseppe.

  49. Yes, that is the idea: you find the balance for making the tone that you want. With the upper lip acting as a slight dampener, my sound isn’t what I want (I prefer a bright, “cutting” tone). Your description would lead to a more classical or ‘pure’ sound (in jazz, think Johnny Hodges, Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz on alto and Ben Webster or Lester Young on tenor). In the end, it’s a “what works for you” thing, but the original posting by Steve is a VERY helpful way to get into the nuances of embouchure, especially in an online, printed version (ie. not in-person).

  50. Yes, Sonso, probably: what works (for me).
    My sound is defined “bluesy” by my teacher and remembers, obviously with great differences to my debt, sometimes to Coltrane’s, sometimes to Dexter Gordon’s, depending on who I am thinking among these musicians. Every now and then to the first Sonny Rollins.
    Not Hodges, Desmond and Konitz.
    I’m sure Steve’s original post is a VERY useful way to get into the nuances of embouchure, and I’d love to know but as I’m unable to shop online, I should find some friends to do it for me.
    Thanks again for the answer,
    Giuseppe.

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