Friday, November 18, 2016

Strident, Harsh, or Stuffy Sound: Breaking the Habit

Saxophone Colossus: A fantastic
example of a resonant full tone.
Recently, I've worked with a few saxophonists, a couple of them being serious gigging college students, who have had similar problems. The common thread has been that their sound wasn't speaking properly. The tone was either too harsh and strident or too stuffy and muted. I've gone through periods where I've struggled with the same thing. Since the problem is pretty ubiquitous, especially with saxophonists who are practicing a lot and really going for it and because it can be a difficult rut to get out of, I wanted to address the problem generally. I hope this article will be a helpful resource for frustrated saxophonists everywhere.

The following are a list of issues that saxophonists experience, which are essentially aftereffects of a similar underlying problem. Not everyone experiences all of these issues, but the first is the most common.
  • Sound is not as clear or as resonant as you'd like.
    • One end of the spectrum: too harsh and strident, possibly distorted or grating.
    • The other end of the spectrum: too stuffy and muted, possibly overly dark and sluggish.
  • Sharp high register.
  • Feeling like your normal reeds are just bad, every reed in the box seems bad. 
  • Response feels sluggish, saxophone doesn't "speak" as easily as before.
  • Difficulty playing overtones.
  • Difficulty keeping your embouchure steady at low volumes.
  • Notes coming out in higher register than intended, even chirping or squeaking.

The Problem
The underlying problem is essentially that your embouchure is taking over. Instead of relying on air speed and pressure created by diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal support, and proper voicing (tongue position and oral cavity shape) to make the reed vibrate, the embouchure tightens to help the reed vibrate more easily. It tightens to such a degree that it changes how the reed vibrates, affecting sound and response.

This can be brought on by a number of different factors. It can be a reaction to practicing altissimo or upper overtones without proper voicing and air support, over-practicing altissimo or overtones, or simply over practicing. In the latter cases, as your abdominal muscles and voicing tires, your embouchure tries to take over. This keeps the pitch from dropping and allows you to continue playing but creates its own set of problems. Another way this increased embouchure pressure can occur is by the mouthpiece being positioned too far out or too far in on the cork. Your ears pick up on the intonation problem, and in reaction, your embouchure tightens or drops to correct the issue, depending on whether the mouthpiece is positioned too far out or too far in. If the change in pitch is subtle enough, it can happen almost immediately without you consciously picking up on the intonation issue. Again, this either adds embouchure pressure or creates a malformed embouchure, resulting in tone and response problems. The most obnoxious part of all this, is that the new embouchure can be habitual, leading to a cycle of less than ideal tone and lots of frustration.

Here is a quick list of potential ways in which the problem gets started:
  • Attempting altissimo or upper overtones without proper voicing and air support.
  • Over-practicing altissimo or overtones.
  • Over-practicing generally.
  • Out-of-tune mouthpiece placement on the cork.
  • Non-diaphragmatic breathing or breathing from the chest and not engaging abdominal muscles.
  • Overly tight or badly shaped approach to embouchure technique.
  • Too resistant of a setup: combination of reeds, mouthpiece, and sax offers too much resistance or back pressure.
  • Playing on reeds that have gotten too hard through warping.

Breaking the Habit
If you've identified that you have this general problem, one of the most important things to do is to take a break from playing. Similar to taking a day off after working out, the rest helps with recovery. It allows your embouchure technique to loosen, letting your air support and voicing take the helm. This is especially applicable to saxophonists who practice a lot and likely fall into the over-practicing category. You need to let your voicing, abdominal, and embouchure muscles all rest. If you can, take a day or two away from the horn. Just do it!

As you approach correcting your technique, the single most important factor will be to listen carefully to your sound while playing. If you hear the harshness, stridency, or stuffiness in your sound, take steps to fix it right away (see below), and if you can't, take a break from playing and come back to the problem fresh. Your ears are the best guide to whether you're playing with good or bad technique. It's all in the sound.

Here are some important aspects of your playing to check when attempting to fix the problem:
  • Are you breathing deeply? When you breath in, you should be building up pressure in your lower abdominal area.
  • Is your mouthpiece placed ideally on your cork? Here is an article that can guide you in experimenting with mouthpiece placement: Intonation and Your Ideal Sound
  • Is your bottom lip tucked too far in? Say the letter V, and where your teeth touch your bottom lip is a good estimate of where your bottom lip should contact the reed. 
  • Are you applying too much vertical pressure with your lips or jaw? Instead, try to use pressure at the corners of the mouth to maintain the seal around the mouthpiece. Your bottom lip should stay relatively flat (see next bullet point).
  • Are the corners of your staying out of the way of the reed? They shouldn't be coming in towards the reed or upwards. Those motions can skew the reed shape and cause havoc.

Overtones with Vibrato
This first exercises is very helpful in promoting good voicing technique while simultaneously loosening your embouchure. Starting on an easy overtone (maybe the first overtone off of low B or C), first play with a straight tone. Once you have a solid sound, add a slow wide vibrato. Listen carefully for tenseness or resistance and fix when needed. You want a clear resonant overtone sound with a fluid easy sounding wide vibrato. The vibrato helps you to maintain good voicing while lowering your lower lip/jaw to drop the pitch. It also helps your embouchure to relax as it needs to be flexible to affect the pitch up and down. Once you have a solid slow vibrato, move to a faster vibrato. Start with your easiest overtones, and then work your way to others, always paying attention to tone quality. If you can’t get a good tone, take a break.

Recalibrate Your Embouchure
The following exercises are all designed to help you play with better embouchure technique. Experiment and use which ever ones work the best for you.
  1. Minimal Pressure Long Tones (adapted from Ben Wendel)
    • Play a long tone with just enough embouchure pressure to make the note sound (very flat).
    • Play the next long tone with a bit more pressure.
    • Repeat until you have found the least amount of embouchure pressure you need to be in tune.
  2. Low Bb with Vibrato.
    • Full tone with wide and fluid slow vibrato, then fast vibrato.
    • Subtone with wide and fluid slow vibrato, then fast vibrato.
  3. Quarter-tone Long Tones (adapted from George Garzone)
    • Start on the pitch B, slur down a quarter tone and hold it as a long tone.
    • Repeat the process starting on Bb.
    • etc.
  4. Old School Subtone
    • Play in the middle and low register with a big fat subtone and vibrato.
    • Maybe play a melody or just improvise.
    • Think Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, etc.
  5. Mouthpiece Slur
    • On just the mouthpiece, slur evenly from the default pitch down to around an octave.
    • It should sound smooth and even.
    • If there are breaks, readjust your embouchure (see above).
Air Support Exercise
Lastly, this exercise is helpful in increasing your abdominal support while playing: Abdominal Pulsing. Don't overdo it though. You can end up tightening your embouchure with this one if you continue after your abdominal muscles are tiring.

Playing with a habitually over-tight or malformed embouchure can be overcome. If you put all the right elements in place you can correct it fairly quickly. I've had students fix the problem in a matter of a few days. Remember, to listen carefully and be aware of your technique. Whatever you do, don't keep playing if the sound is getting worse. Always play with a great sound, and don't put up with anything less!


  1. !Excellent post! If so may add to something I realized that all these problems could actually be the compensation for a horn with a few overlooked problems like: a palm F linkages too tight causing the horn to have a ghost leak. This is a problem that I have noticed on not only my horn but horns that I have played brand new

    1. Thanks. Interesting observation. I'd like to learn more about leaks and how they affect response. Sometimes they make it more difficult to sound certain notes, which feels like increased resistance, and at other times I've noticed they lower the horn's resistance, maybe when they aren't as serious? They're still a bit of an enigma to me.