(Note: It is always imperative that you know that your horn is in good adjustment and, most importantly, that your soprano mouthpiece is correctly set up. Failure and trouble are inevitable if either is amiss)
Part 2 / BLOWING AND PLAYING SOPRANO SAX ARE NOT THE SAME THING
The soprano saxophone has a much smaller bore and internal volume than an alto or tenor saxophone. That means it is physically easier to control and easier to play than either alto or tenor sax. However, there is another truth about soprano saxophone: it is much easier to overwhelm the horn with an excessive volume of air.
Overblowing soprano saxophone is a major source of issues for many players, especially those new to soprano sax.
Overblowing can cause issues with tone, with intonation and with response. And, depending on the mouthpiece involved, it doesn’t take gross overblowing to cause them. These things can manifest with only very slight overblowing.
So, obviously, this post is about delivering the air on soprano. There are only a few parts to this important topic:
- How forcefully you blow
- Your connection to your mouthpiece
The first is relatively easy to judge. But remember, the internal volume of the soprano is far smaller than an alto or tenor. Less is more on soprano, in a way. But even that is not exactly the whole story. And the reason for that is # 2, your connection to your mouthpiece.
What does that mean?
Well, it means a number of things.
- It means your embouchure, and all its aspects.
- It means how much or how little mouthpiece you take in your mouth.
- It means your facility with your oral cavity.
Fact: there are as many embouchures as there are players.
We might like to think that there is a standard way to connect to the saxophone, but the reality is that there are infinite versions of that standard way, and I am not speaking about how we position our lower lip. Look, we are all built differently and our different physical attributes make a difference. A bit larger, a bit smaller, a bit firmer, a bit softer, a bit wider, a bit narrower, a bit higher, a bit lower, a bit less pressure, a bit more pressure, and on and on.
So, right away, we are, to a degree, on our own. We need to recognize that and make adjustments that give us more of what we want or less of what we don’t want.
The Little Muscles That Do The Work
On soprano, it is very easy to identify the facial muscles that are most critical to a good connection to the mouthpiece, to a connection that provides the most control while avoiding things that fight against us. Here is how to identify them:
Try to make the smallest possible smile that you can make. If you try it, you will feel two very small muscles on the sides of your upper lip begin to pull upward. Those are the muscles that will lead to success on soprano saxophone. They are small and easily tired until they are developed. But they develop very quickly if trained correctly.
Note: these are tiny muscles, and easily damaged. As you develop them, be careful to stop when you feel they are tired. If you do not, you can inflame them. So, go slowly at first. Take breaks to let the muscles recover. It won’t be long before they are ready to work long and hard for you.
Taking More or Less Mouthpiece
Now, we get into an important area and it is important to know that there is not one answer for everybody. But, taking more or less mouthpiece has a major effect on the sound and response of your soprano, for better or worse. And “better or worse” is very personal to each player.
Take a look at photos of the saxophonists you really admire. Look carefully to see how much mouthpiece they take into their mouths. Sometimes it is difficult to tell but often it is apparent. Don’t look at the lower lip; rather, look to see where they are positioned on top of the mouthpiece, on the beak. That is a more accurate indication.
I think you will be surprised to see how many take a lot less mouthpiece than you may have thought, and how some take such a small amount that it seems rather remarkable. But, not all take very little mouthpiece; a few take a lot.
So, the question is: why?
What is gained or lost, if anything, by the amount of mouthpiece we take in our mouths?
Common sense tells us that taking less mouthpiece requires a smaller embouchure , and taking more mouthpiece requires a larger embouchure.
Common sense also tells us that a larger embouchure causes the oral cavity to also be enlarged to a degree, and a smaller embouchure causes the opposite to occur to some degree. Try it for yourself. Do not be concerned about any other impacts you notice in sound or response. That is a separate discussion. Just be aware of the changes in your oral cavity and the size of your embouchure.
So, all three ( embouchure size, amount of mouthpiece, and oral cavity size and shape) are interconnected.
Before we proceed to the next section, I need to caution again: if your mouthpiece is not set up correctly ( table, facing, chamber), your ability to access all of the possibilities we will be considering will be constrained and, likely, seriously impeded.
Advice is often given to developing players to “take more mouthpiece”. Why? Because taking more mouthpiece and reed into the mouth does 2 things: it opens up the oral cavity immediately, and it can also obscure some of the issues caused by poorly set up mouthpieces, which is a ubiquitous situation.
But taking more mouthpiece makes it much more difficult to narrow the oral cavity for soprano playing. It also puts the reed/mouthpiece into a configuration that is much harder to modify for tone, timbre and response. In effect, it sets up a “blowing” situation as opposed to a “playing” situation; a default sound rather than a personal, malleable sound. It also can set up a player for a lot of frustration and failure.
Coming soon: The Possibilities