Lots of well-intended advice about “taking more mouthpiece” seems to pop up all the time on various saxophone blogs and discussions, but rarely try taking LESS mouthpiece on soprano sax, and I think this is a very overlooked and important subject. Considering all the problems that are encountered by players who are prone to taking the “more” advice, I’d say we’re overdue for a “correction”, maybe.
And I say it because I’ve lived it and continue to live it every day as a player.
First, why all the “take more mouthpiece” advice? What does it actually do for a player?
Well, when you put MORE mouthpiece into your mouth, it immediately opens up the oral cavity by a significant amount. While that may be a good match on tenor or alto, where the chamber/horn bore is most often bigger than the increase in the oral cavity size, the same thing is not often true on soprano. The oral cavity size increase usually is significantly bigger than the chamber/horn bore. I believe that relationship creates certain problems for most players, with at least one notable exception, which I’ll mention later.
But there is a “mechanical” change that also occurs when a player takes more piece in his/her mouth: there is a loss of interaction with the reed/facing, and that means a loss of nuanced control. It also means, all too often, that real problems with the mouthpiece itself (facing and chamber) are “masked” because they are “bypassed” by the player. The loss of control may be completely unnoticeable because of the mouthpiece issues and the “more mouthpiece” actually creates a more dependable response. Most players will never realize what they’ve given up because they never actually experienced it in the first place. For students and beginners, it sets them on a path that ultimately can be very limiting. This is especially true on soprano and, I believe, contributes to the myth that the soprano is a beast.
How are these mouthpiece issues “bypassed” by taking more mouthpiece? Well, if the facing is really poor (which is quite common on mass produced mouthpieces), taking more mouthpiece removes a certain degree of player control of the reed, which in turn lets the reed keep more distance from the facing curve itself. More distance means less interaction. The good side: it’s a workaround for problem facings. The bad side: the player loses important contact with the source of the sound. That ultimately limits what can be achieved in terms of tone and articulation, as the lower lip exerts a lot of control over tone and timbre. Less control means a more “default” sound that is rather unvarying and fixed. There’s nothing wrong with that if it is what you want. But it certainly can limit a player’s ability to “speak” on the horn. And, trying to affect tone and timbre from a less than ideal position on a problematic mouthpiece facing can then introduce all kinds of troublesome “workarounds” that can make playing both troubling and not too enjoyable. Again, I believe this is one source of the “beast” myth about soprano saxophone.
Now, about that “notable exception”: there is a style of saxophone playing that is characterized by extreme overblowing, often at maximum air input and at maximum volume. Taking more mouthpiece is almost a given if this is the approach taken, and some notable players continue to play in this way. Taking LESS mouthpiece would demand MORE strength, effort and control from the player that has this approach. So, likely this article doesn’t apply for most of those players, I am thinking.
LESS IS MORE
On soprano, I’ve noticed that “less” is often “more”. Here is what happens when a player takes a little less mouthpiece into his/her mouth.
- The oral cavity gets smaller
- The lower lip has more interaction with the vibrating portion of the reed
Less mouthpiece puts more stress on the small muscles that really control to embouchure. To feel this, try this:
Try to make the smallest possible smile you can make. If you really focus on that effort, you will feel the tiny muscles on either side of your upper lip “pulling” slightly upward. Those are the muscles that have a huge effect on soprano playing and, because they are so small, they get fatigued quickly. Taking less mouthpiece will tire you out quickly, but it does not take long to develop real strength and stamina in those muscles. It happens quickly.
But less mouthpiece also creates a very different air column: more focused and more nearly matched to the size of the chamber/bore of the soprano. That similarity is the source of a huge amount of nuance in all things: tone, intonation, timbre, dynamics, articulation. It creates what I think of as a “continuum” from deep inside the player to the bell of the horn.
For me, that is the same as a singer like Sarah Vaughan or Victoria de los Angeles. At least, that is the feeling I get.
When I speak about taking less mouthpiece, I am speaking about very small change, especially at first. It doesn’t take much of a change to feel and hear the difference. Of course, the sound almost certainly gets small immediately, but that is regained in short order. Volume is often reduced but, again, it returns quickly as we adapt to the new approach. The tone can immediately suffer, too, as we must adapt to a new interaction with the reed. But, again, it does not take long to hear the new tone appearing, almost always richer by far.
I would mention this, also: look at photos of many of the great players. Notice just how “close to the tip” they actually are when playing. Look carefully. Sometimes it can be hard to see because of facial hair or because of the large, fleshy lips that many famous players have had. It takes a little imagination to discover just how much or how little mouthpiece they are actually taking in their mouth.
Then try it yourself over a reasonable period of time. Discover what it can do for you. You’ll be glad you did.
Remember, your mouthpiece needs to be correct: flat table, balanced facing curve. A problematic mouthpiece will make it very hard to take less mouthpiece and it can lead to frustration. If you want to know if your piece is right, you can find out at no charge at Sopranoplanet.
It’s your sound and your music. Take control of it as soon as you can. You’ll be glad you did.