|Coltrane's frowing embouchure|
The frown is my embouchure of choice.
Embouchure problems come in many forms, and two of the most common are too tight and too loose. Symptoms of an overly loose embouchure include:
- Exaggerated inflections, sounds immature and uncontrolled
- Out of tune (often flat) and out of control sound
- Unsupported sounding, difficult to maintain an even tone
Symptoms of an overly tight embouchure include:
- Strained, tense sounding
- Can sound very edgy depending on lip position
- Inflections and vibrato don't sound clear or effortless (sound strained)
- Smaller sound
Chris Potter Sound Comparison
So that we have a clear idea of what I'm talking about check out the following clip of Chris Potter. Listen to how lipid and clear his sound is starting around 2:20. All his inflections sound very easy and his sound overall comes off as effortless (Not that he's not working! He just doesn't let it show.).
Now check out Potter blowing on a different album. Listen to his solo starting around 3:50. This time you can hear many of the symptoms of the overly tight embouchure. The tone doesn't sound as effortless or as beautiful as the first example.
My point is just to illustrate the difference and to show that an overly tight embouchure can get the best of us (wrong reed, exhausted chops, etc.).
The root of the problem is that a too tight embouchure is doing the job that your air support and tongue position should be doing (If you are wondering what I am talking about with tongue position you should read this post, here, which gives a number of voicing exercises in preparation for altissimo.) Other causes can include a too thick reed strength or chop fatigue. Even if you do have good breath support and tongue position an overly tight embouchure can be a pain to correct. Often your lip muscles won't respond nicely to your conscious command to chill out and relax. Once they are in the habit of being too tight they need more than conscious thought to convince them to relax. They need to feel that the work they are doing (keeping things in tune) will be carried out without them.
Your first job is to make sure you are doing overtones or other voicing exercises and playing with good air support. If you are doing these things than you are practicing good saxophone intonation habits and are ready to loosen up your embouchure.
This is a simple and painless process. Push your mouthpiece further in on your cork than normal. Now play along with an in tune sustained pitch like a tuner note. Keep a straight tone, good tongue position, and solid air support. At first you should be a little sharp (as long as you normally play in tune). Hold out the pitch evenly (no vibrato) and let yourself match the pitch. Don't slacken your air support or lower your tongue position. Let your lips gradually relax into your new intonation set point. Once you feel like your playing in tune experiment and see if your sound is more relaxed, easy to inflect, etc. It definitely should be. If not try pushing the mouthpiece in a little further and repeat the process.
After you feel like you've sufficiently loosened your embouchure play for a while and reintroduce the sustained reference pitch whenever you feel those overly tight embouchure symptoms creeping back in. This will reconfirm to your embouchure that it can remain sufficiently loose as your intonation will become sharp when they are too tight.
Doing this I'm able to maintain a sufficiently loose embouchure even with a reed that is a little too hard or out of whack. The basic function here is letting your lips relax by pushing in the mouthpiece and then giving yourself a reference point. Revisit this exercise any time you need and you should be able to maintain a sufficiently relaxed embouchure.