What exactly are the most important parts of producing a good saxophone sound? Scott Turpen, Professor of Saxophone at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY says that “when trying to improve a student’s tone it all begins with mouthpiece pitch.” Teaching this starts with building the proper embouchure, forming an “ewww” shape to the lips where the bottom lip is slightly rolled over the teeth and the top teeth rest on the mouthpiece. In regard to bottom lip position Turpen “wants to see just a little bit of the pink of the lip.“ As a visual aid to the formation of the facial muscles Turpen describes the mouthpiece within the embouchure as the hub of a wagon wheel. “The muscles in the facial mask form the spokes and they are all gently pushing in toward the center of that wheel.”
Once the embouchure is in place he has the student blow the mouthpiece without the neck attached. If the muscles of the face are set correctly then the mouthpiece alone should sound a C for the soprano saxophone, A for alto, G for tenor, and D for baritone. Once the pitch is stable without the instrument he monitors intonation with the instrument as well, pointing out that “if a student is unable to produce the lowest or highest notes they may not be producing the correct mouthpiece pitch. If they can maintain that mouthpiece pitch throughout the range then many intonation problems will be solved.”
Turpen teaches that “once the basic tone is achieved having some sense of the oral cavity is also important. The tongue should generally be low and slightly to the back of the mouth. The tongue is not going to stay locked in place all throughout the instrument’s range. As you go lower in the saxophone range the tongue goes lower, whereas when you go higher the tongue will need to arch slightly. An “OH” shaped position for lower notes versus an “EE” position for the higher ones.” To help develop this concept he recommends that the student “play broken scales in the form of long tones ascending then returning to low Bflat and overtones. Low tones are often more challenging on the saxophone and developing oral cavity flexibility allows a student to play all notes with a good tone and in tune.”
Turpen continues by saying that, “once their mouthpiece pitch is established I will have students play scales on the mouthpiece by changing their tongue position. Once the correct mouthpiece pitch is established the facial mask does not move, and any change in pitch can be accomplished by moving their tongue from OH to EE.”
“Obviously, proper air support is also critical to producing a good tone. I use a large and warm air stream that is supported with the abdominal muscles.” On the topic of gear, “look for a mouthpiece and reed combination that takes air easily and blows freely.” In this regard, Turpen closes by pointing out that when all of the other parts of this equation are in place, “even a quality student mouthpiece can produce a good solid tone.”
This article originally was printed in the Brass Woodwinds Workshop section of the October 2015 issue of Teaching Music. It is reposted here by the original author with permission from NAfME. And reprint or use requests should be forwarded to the National Association for Music Education.