Saturday, July 5, 2014

Leaning Out Your Embouchure: The Chris Potter Effect

I am super excited to share an embouchure concept that I've recently pinned down. The reason for my excitement, is that this technique consistently does the following: it improves the presence, punch, and harmonics present in the sound, it facilitates altissimo (makes it easier) and improves its tone, and lastly it helps avoid the tendency of becoming sharp in the upper register. I've included sound clips to prove the point at the bottom of the article so please check those out.

I've noticed that Chris Potter, particularly in recent years, has really mastered the clarity of sound and punch I'm talking about, both in his normal register and altissimo register. For that reason, and not because I have any idea about how he conceptualizes embouchure, I'm calling this particular tweak the Chris Potter effect.

Basic Embouchure Formation
Before we get into the newest technique, here is a brief review of how to approach a basic embouchure formation. The lips obviously seal around the mouthpiece and provide enough pressure on the reed to act as a fulcrum of sorts that start the reed vibrating. Embouchure pressure also serves the purpose of securing both the mouthpiece and your bottom lip position while playing. However, how much embouchure pressure and where we apply that pressure can make a big difference in the sound.

The muscles that should take the majority of the workload are at the side of your mouth or corners of your lips. Some players make the mistake of applying upward pressure at the sides of their mouth (a smiling motion), and others make the mistake of letting their corners come in towards the center (a puckering motion). Both of these motions cause your bottom lip to interfere with the reed's vibration in different ways, and you can hear it in the sound. Joe Allard taught that the bottom lip should remain flat, matching the shape of the reed. In order to do this, the corners of the mouth need to apply some downward pressure to stop the lip from coming in towards the center or upwards at the corners. A flat bottom lip is ideal in keeping the reed tension free and in it's natural shape, which will result in a clearer and louder sound. A last potential problem is the chin bunching upward applying pressure on the reed. Some players tend to do this as they move towards the upper register. Long overtones are one of the best remedies for this as they teach you to rely on proper voicing as opposed to embouchure pressure to support the pitch.

One other fairly important embouchure concept for those who are trying to get a powerful sound with some edge, typical of jazz or pop saxophone, is to make sure that your bottom lip isn't tucked too far in over your front bottom teeth, which can sometimes be a natural tendency to help provide support. Having your lip in a more rolled out position applies pressure to the reed less directly, so it requires good air support and voicing technique to support the sound. Experiment with various lip position to find the ideal amount of lip in or out for yourself. You want to find the position that gives you a big sound, but don't go so far that you lose control of it.

Leaning Out
On to the actual subject of the article, leaning out your bottom lip. I want to be clear that I do not mean rolling out your bottom lip. I've already addressed that above. What I'm talking about is a technique you  apply after you have found the ideal placement for your bottom lip. Placing your bottom lip firmly enough on the reed so that it doesn't shift, lean your bottom lip outward. The bottom lip shouldn't slide against the reed, but instead you should feel a shift in pressure. Often times saxophonist play applying a considerable amount of pressure with the upper part of the bottom lip against the reed. I'm suggesting that you create the opposite effect by consciously leaning your lip outwards as if your were trying to roll it out more (though jaw pressure keeps it from actually sliding). The motion is similar to an exaggerated frown where the top part of your bottom lip begins to turn down. In this scenario the pressure of the lip against the reed becomes centered lower on the lip, and I believe the pressure becomes more spread across the lip allowing the reed to vibrate a bit more uniformly.

While you can feel the difference in pressure in your embouchure the improvements to tone and intonation are the most telling. One big difference you will notice is that the harmonics in your tone will increase. This makes for a richer sounding tone and a more powerful one. By more powerful I mean it has more punch, carries better, and is simply louder. Your sound also becomes less grainy, and instead it gains definition and clarity. Because the upper part of the lip can sometimes be responsible for pushing up on the reed and decreasing the volume of air in the mouthpiece, by not doing so you avoid some of the danger of becoming sharp in the upper register. Overall, you will find your intonation more uniform. It's typical for players to use more and more pressure with the top part of their lip the higher they go, so as you go into the altissimo register, most players are engaging the top part of their lip against the reed. By fighting this tendency you will hear a clearer timbre in your altissimo register, and it will become more similar to the timbre of the normal register of the saxophone instead of the less appealing biting timbre that the altissimo register sometimes takes on. You will also be able to play higher.

This technique makes you rely on voicing technique rather than embouchure pressure, so you may find that you need to develop your ability to focus your air using your vocal tract to gain the full benefits of this change in embouchure. Practicing overtones is one of the best ways to do this.

Sound Clips
As always, the proof is in the playing.

The following is an example of alternating between leaning my lip out and leaning it up towards the reed throughout a long tone. I start out leaning the lip out. Then as I transition to the lip leaning in you hear the the muted timbre and sharper intonation. I clear that up by leaning my lip out again. I then repeat the cycle more subtly than before.
Long tone alternating.mp3

This is me noodling in the normal register of the horn while leaning my lip out.
Lean Lip Out Noodling.mp3
In contrast, here is me noodling without leaning my lip out.
Lean Lip In Noodling.mp3

This is a one and a half octave D major scale in the altissimo register with my lip leaning out.
Altissimo Lean Lip Out.mp3
This is the same scale without leaning my lip out.
Altissimo Lean Lip In.mp3

I took a couple of pics to illustrate the technique. It's subtle, but you can visually see the difference.

I'm leaning my lip out here.
Here I've got my lip leaning up towards the reed. Bad idea!


  1. How would you compare a Chris Potter to a Michael Brecker embouchure. Brecker seems to take in a lot of mouthpiece. His upper lip seems flat and uniform while his lower lip seems almost pursed out a bit.

    See this video:

    1. Hey Zel, I think one important difference is that Brecker sounds like he didn't lower the corners of his mouth as much as the center of his lip. That let him get a full sound but maintain the smoothness you hear in his sound.

  2. Has this link been modified at all? You sound absolutely killer.

    1. Thanks! I'm trying to remember how I recorded these. It sounds like I added some reverb, but that would be all I did.