Learn the truth about mouthpieces and intonation.
There are two types of “experts” on how to improve as a saxophonist.
The first type declares that ALL problems are solved only by practicing. In other words, the problem is “always you”.
The second type considers that there are more than a few things external to the player that may be impacting the player and the issue.
Put me firmly in the second group, and I’d add that “practice doesn’t make perfect”. PERFECT practice makes perfect.
This article is about just how much the facing on a saxophone mouthpiece can either “promote” good intonation or, conversely, “work against” good intonation.
This has nothing to do with tone, just intonation. Let’s begin.
Regardless of anything else concerning a sax mouthpiece, two things are of critical importance: a flat table and a correct facing. “Flat table” is self-explanatory but what do I mean by “correct facing”? Is there only one “correct facing”? No. Are all facings equal? No. Does having an incorrect facing cause issues? Yes. What kind of issue? Good question.
Here is a list. Be advised that the facing is sometimes not the only place some of these issues arise but it is quite often the most common place.
- Big resistance.
- Complete or almost complete ‘shutting down” of sound
- Sharp top end
- Flat bottom end
- Both of the above ( quite often found together)
- Or the reverse (flat top end, sharp bottom end)
- Inability to hold one long tone in tune without extremely wobbling pitch.
So, here’s a quick analogy. If you have ever watched competitive divers at work, you’ll will notice that they spend a bit of time making certain that the diving board is adjusted to the right position, the one they have come to depend upon for their timing. It is the correct length for their weight, their approach, their performance. If the board is too long, it is slower and more flaccid. If it is too short, it is abrupt and faster. The diver needs the correct length for that board, otherwise….. trouble.
Think of your reed as the diving board. It bends and vibrates and it needs to have the best length for you. That length could be different for somebody else that plays with a different embouchure and air flow than you.
But, even more important is this: the above analogy assumes that the “facing”, whether correct for you or not, is still a good, crisp, balanced facing. The fact is, though, that is rarely the case with saxophone mouthpieces.
Add to that the fact that the tables are almost never flat.
Then, this is what the diver has to work with:
- The length of the diving board is longer on one side than the other, sometimes by a lot.
- The “back end” of the diving board is not firmly attached to the base.
Good luck with that scenario.
One side of the board responds slowly while the other responds quickly. The back end of the board moves, changing all the time, so nothing is fixed and dependable.
This is exactly what happens on almost all saxophone mouthpieces that have not been checked and corrected. Below is the number of major mouthpiece makers who dependably insure both table and facing correctness:
That’s it. Not one of the major makers. I see maybe 1000 new mouthpieces a year and I can remember one Otto Link that was right. That’s it.
So, most student musicians, especially beginning players, start off on the worst possible footing: trying to play a mouthpiece that is a recipe for frustration and poor intonation.
Part 2, coming soon, will speak to the specifics of facing issues.