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Saxophone Mouthpiece Basics
stop your wandering in the mouthpiece wilderness
Background: John is a developing player who came to the saxophone later in life. He is interested in classic jazz, especially the music of Lester Young. Since Lester played a Brilhart Ebolin on his 10M later in his career, Bear loaned John two numbered vintage Brilhart Ebolin mouthpieces from his personal collection to try on the pre war 10M that John recently purchased from CS. These were a standard Ebolin 5 and an Ebolin Special. John enjoyed playing the Ebolin Special, so the discussion has turned to helping John find one he can buy for himself.

Q.  There’s a bunch of Brilhart Ebolin mouthpieces on Ebay.  Do you happen to know which facing Lester Young used?  Do you happen to know how open the Special is?  Ebolin 5? It’s confusing to me.  I think I do better with a more closed mouthpiece and harder reed, rather than the opposite. John…

A. Take care not to confuse the implications of tip opening and overall chamber configuration. Tip opening — the most commonly disclosed element of a mouthpiece’s facing — has little to do with the sound a mouthpiece produces. Sound determination is governed by chamber characteristics (the elements of which are chamber size & shape, baffle design & height, throat size & shape). Facing (the elements of which are facing length, curve profile & ultimate tip opening) affects your response characteristics, plus has volume & projection potential implications. As an example of these totally separate functions, think of the volume and treble/bass knobs on your stereo. You can’t change the nature of your stereo’s sound by twisting the volume knob, and no matter how loud you make the music the sound characteristics really don’t change.

So it’s irrelevant what tip opening The Prez (an affectionate nickname given to Lester Young by his peers, standing for ‘President of the Tenor Saxophone’) played. I’m sure he played whatever facing that produced the response characteristics he liked. Lester may even have played more than one facing, depending on the venue he was working. His sound was not determined by the facing he chose. That inimitable Prez tenor sound was determined by the chamber configuration of his mouthpiece and by the influence of his own pipes on the combination of horn & mouthpiece. Our differing pipes – the unique configuration of each individual’s oral facilities – is why one mouthpiece or saxophone works for one player and not for another. OK, the influence of human perception enters the picture, too, but that really doesn’t affect sound qualities – just the way we individually perceive them.

Constants apply to a certain mouthpiece design — in terms of its sound potential — that are applicable regardless of the tastes and perception of individual listeners or players. You may personally prefer jazz over rap or show tunes, but your preferences have absolutely no influence over the sounds that comprise the actual music. Likewise, the sound you have in your head drives you to seek a certain sound from your sax as you play, but does not change the sound potential of either your mouthpiece or your saxophone. This sound model we all carry in our minds does, however, influence what we will ACCEPT as our saxophone, and as our mouthpiece.

When you say ‘do better’ I believe you are thinking in terms of response characteristics of your saxophone/mpc combination, where response is defined as the ease with which an instrument sounds every note, regardless of volume, articulation, and whether in passing or initiating play. Response will be an issue for you until you are fully competent as a saxophonist. Keep in mind that there are combinations of mouthpiece tip opening and reed strength that produce identical response characteristics on a given chamber design. An example might be a 3 reed on a Brilhart 5 facing (indicates only tip opening, which in this case is 0.080”) plays exactly the same for you as a Brilhart 3 facing (0.074”) using a 3½ reed. These exact pairings are presented as an approximate example of this pairing phenomenon. It’s the relationship of tip opening/reed strength vis-à-vis your saxophone’s response characteristics that’s important.

I think that in your state as a developing player you should concentrate on a mouthpiece/reed combination that provides the response characteristics that make you comfortable. The exact sound you are getting is a secondary concern until you are comfortable with your own saxual performance. To that extent, I probably misjudged where you are in your saxual development. It was probably an error on my part to even suggest that you try those two Brilhart mouthpieces. You have my apology if I unnecessarily complicated your life. 

As for specifics on the Ebolin mouthpieces you may encounter on eBay, the standard Ebolin and the Ebolin Special have different chamber configurations. That means they produce different sounds. You may also note that the Special does not have a facing or tip opening designation like the standard Ebolin. That means the vintage Special came in only one facing. I’ve not measured the tip on my Special, but it plays like a tenor mouthpiece with a tip opening in the 0.080” to 0.090” range (about a Selmer D/E or Link 5/6). Tips in this range are typically quite easy blowing with a reed in the 2½ to 3½ strength range. It’s certainly possible that what you liked about the Special I sent you was its easy response. My mistake may have been assuming that you liked its sound. As I said, I’m not at all sure you are at that point in your development where you can effectively pursue sound quality, but if you want to experiment (won’t hurt as long as you understand what you are really doing) with an eBay Brilhart similar to the one of mine that you liked, be sure that it is; 1) the Ebolin ‘Special’ designation, and 2) a numbered vintage model. There are current Brilhart Ebolin Special models that aren’t the same as the vintage ‘pieces. These new Brilharts are flash molded plastic. They sell new for under $30. Don’t overpay for the wrong thing. Many eBay sellers may not know enough about what they’re selling to properly describe it.

I seem to be constantly writing you these epistles. Forgive me if I am telling you things you already know. I like to err on the side of full disclosure, especially when I am delivering after-the-sale support to a valued client… :-)

Additional Comments
The main point Bear is trying to convey to John is first things first: Get to the point where your saxophone comfortably carries out your every command before you worry about how you sound. The analogy is that oft quoted line when a receiver drops a pass that obviously should have been caught, “He tried to run with the ball before he caught it.” Certain basic steps necessarily precede the more complex (and rewarding) ones.

Bear often receives messages that ask if an individual should play a certain mouthpiece, or if a certain mouthpiece will work on a certain saxophone. These questions are quite revealing of these individual’s understanding of their saxophone — especially of their mouthpiece and its relationship to their sound and response. Bear has a standard answer for these simplistic mouthpiece questions. It goes like this:

“Mouthpiece choice is a very personal thing. My best advice to you is to learn as much as possible about mouthpiece design theory so you will understand what makes one mouthpiece different from another. Once you truly understand mouthpiece theory you will be able to look over a mouthpiece and predict how it will sound when played. At that point you will have a fair chance of deciding for yourself the characteristics of the mouthpiece that will meet your musical performance goals.”

Given a set of characteristics you want in a mouthpiece you will be able to work backwards to find the ones that potentially meet your sound and response requirements. Until you understand mouthpiece design theory you are destined to wander in the wilderness, knowing that one mouthpiece plays & sounds different on your saxophone, but not having a clue as to why. Fortunately, I do not have to author a tutorial on mouthpiece theory here. This has already been done for us by Theo Wanne on his wonderful website. I view the ‘mouthpiece university’ section of Theo’s site as required reading for every aspiring saxophonist. Theo has taken his time, knowledge & energy to tell us about topics such as the classic vintage saxophone mouthpieces, mouthpiece design theory, and the play set ups used by many of the world’s great saxophonists.

The three sections on mouthpiece design theory (chamber, baffle & facing) explodes a saxophone mouthpiece into its different areas, explaining in detail how each area influences your sound & response characteristics, plus how manipulations in a specific area are accomplished in order to put a designer’s goals for a particular mouthpiece into solid form. In the mouthpiece museum area you can see crisp, detailed photos of the most significant vintage saxophone mouthpieces, and read Theo’s excellent narratives disclosing their history and design peculiarities. By learning the play set ups used by noted saxophonists you can start to see how mouthpiece design theory plays out in an actual musical performance.

Armed with all this knowledge we can take a reference sound (say The Prez with his 10M and Brilhart Ebolin), look the specific mouthpiece over and read about why it is both unique and significant, then — grounded in your understanding of the design theory behind this classic mouthpiece — make a determination about how this particular mouthpiece might change the sound we are presently getting from our own play set up. It’s this ‘point of reference’ that’s important to you as a saxophonist. You are no longer lost in the mouthpiece wilderness, are you? You know where you are, plus how to get closer to where you want to be. What’s more important (to Bear, at least), you won’t be writing to him asking if you should be playing a Selmer C* or a Dukoff SPC 9 on your Yamaha 23. About the only folks happier for you than ole Bear will be the one’s that have to listen to you play.

Most good players end up with more than one mouthpiece for each type saxophone (alto, tenor, etc.) they play. The reason is basic: Different fundamental mouthpiece designs are better suited to certain musical performance applications. While very good players can manipulate sound somewhat by their player inputs, it is much better to have different mouthpieces so you get the EXACT sound your performance requires — without having to work so darned hard at it. Then too, there are situations where your chances of making a particular mouthpiece fit your musical performance requirements are just NOT worth the risk. In our Dukoff SPC 9 vs. Selmer C* query that was posed by the developing saxophonist mentioned above, the prospects of them winning the director’s favor while preparing for a Christmas pageant of traditional hymns & carols using the big Duke are dual: slim & none. Not only will the sound of this radical Duke peel paint, the noise level of that extreme #9 tip opening will make all the trumpet players jealous. The obvious choice for concert band is something more along the lines of an S80 C*. Now if our young Turk is playing at the holiday hop dance with his group, The SKA Zombies, that Dukoff Super Power Chamber might be just the ticket. Or maybe the gig is that Nelson Riddle Festival with the school’s Class AAA jazz band (sponsored by the local chapter of Sinatra Anonymous), where a silky, sophisticated Selmer metal Jazz E will make it easy to either match the lead alto in chordal background or swing out above the fray when the tenor solo on ‘Orange Colored Sky’ comes around. Some food for thought about how we might match our mouthpiece selection to varying musical performance requirements, eh?

Armed with the knowledge that there is stuff about your saxophone’s mouthpiece that you may not know, you now have a fair chance of one day finding that special saxophone sound you’ve been carrying inside your head. Just keep in mind that thought about our differing perceptions: We just don’t all hear the same thing when a record is played…or when we play our own saxophones. I think we all have a vivid memory upon first hearing our own voices played back as a recording. “Is that really me?” Well, you will probably have an even more severe reaction to hearing yourself play your saxophone. So record your practice sessions regularly, listen to yourself play, and make adjustments. Chances are that you will find things in recordings of your play sessions that will encourage you, and undoubtedly, some that you will want to change. If you really have guts, try recording BOTH how you look while playing and your sound, using a camcorder. Many camcorders have extremely high quality sound capabilities — capabilities approaching CD quality, in fact. While the sight of oneself in action is even more humbling than the experience of hearing one’s voice — or one’s saxophone — surviving humbling experiences provide the building blocks of personal development. 

Good players record themselves regularly because they know that the physical feedback their saxophones are constantly inputting to their brain interferes with their perception of the sounds they are creating. The physical feedback we receive as we move around the keyboard of our saxophones and manipulate our chops to get the notes out in different parts of the instrument’s range relate more to response issues than to sound issues. This is especially true when a saxophone may not be in its absolute top playing condition — which unfortunately, is most instruments you pick up. In fact, what we are likely to evaluate when test playing different saxophones is their relative playing condition — not the nuances that distinguish, say, a Conn 10M from a Selmer Mark VI. It’s just too easy to confuse the physical feedback we get from a saxophone with the sound it is producing for us. Hence the need for recording ourselves in order to eliminate these confusing effects of our brain trying to sort out simultaneous inputs from our different senses. Anytime we play saxophone we are most likely experiencing a minimum of three sensual inputs, and possibly all five. Recording our work allows us to isolate the one sensual input that really matters — how we sound.

The better the player, the more chance they have of sorting out all these sensual inputs. Developing players, though, need first to comprehend that their instrument is providing these multiple sensory feedbacks. That’s why it was important to counsel John on the differences between sound & response, AND on the sources that are responsible for each of these totally separate saxual manifestations. The insight of knowing that there are things we do not know is the first step toward enlightenment. So know how you sound independent of any other sensual inputs. Stan Getz once said that no one really knew how hard he was working when he played those smooth & soothing sounds from his Bossa Nova albums. You see, Stan used a #5 strength reed in order to achieve that serene & austere quality in his solo recordings. The poor guy was huffing & puffing constantly just to keep a steady tone flowing. Who knew?

Now that I’ve got your attention about mouthpiece characteristics — and about sorting the wheat from the chaff — let’s look at a little applied saxophone mouthpiece design theory. Tip opening is among the most insignificant of the many specs that go into a mouthpiece design. I really don’t know how that one little tired detail has gotten to be so prominent in the minds of so many saxophonists. As related to John in my direct response to his question, there is this set of reed strength/tip opening parings for any particular mouthpiece design that yield substantially identical response characteristics when played by players of like skill, on identical saxophones (though there may be tonal nuances and other performance considerations that could cause one player to prefer pairing ‘A’ over pairing ‘B’). Point: Whatever significance you assign to tip opening as a factor in the performance of your saxophone can be diluted by a factor of two or three merely by manipulating reed strength. That’s barely significant at all, IMO…

Let’s use those two Brilhart Ebolin mouthpieces that John tried as a discussion example (feel free to refer to the information in Theo Wanne’s Mouthpiece Museum section at any time). The difference between the Ebolin Special and a ‘plain’ Ebolin is in the chamber & baffle. The Special has a slightly smaller chamber (accomplished by straighter sidewalls), and a noticeable rollover baffle (raised & rolled area in the ‘roof’ of the chamber, as the roof nears the tip). Rollover baffles are like tiny air foils. Their work is done by increasing the velocity of your vibrating air column near the tip of your mouthpiece. Other types of baffles change velocity at other points in your air column. Since a saxophone is merely a machine designed to manipulate a vibrating column of air, these minute variations in how the air column is changed by your mouthpiece result in dramatic differences in the sound your instrument emits.

Note how tip opening doesn’t really enter into a detailed discussion of how your saxophone sounds? Tip opening is one determinant of response characteristics (your saxophone’s set up and playing condition being the other two). I suppose since tip opening is the one determinant of response a player can most readily control – and since response is a keen issue to every novice player – it is only natural that one thinks of tip opening in their early stages of saxual development. Of course it could also be that tip opening is the only piece of design information disclosed on most saxophone mouthpieces and their packaging. The reason is very simple: The only difference between a Link 5* Super Tone Master tenor sax mouthpiece and a 7*  is the opening at the very tip. The chamber size & shape, baffle type & height, throat size & shape, the starting point of the facing cut on the lay — even the general profile of the facing curve leading to the mouthpiece tip — are exactly the same.

What is different is that the 5* ends with a tip opening of 0.085″, while the 7* ends with a tip opening of 0.105″. That means your sound potential from either of these two mouthpieces is identical, though you can expect slightly different response characteristics, given the same strength reed on the saxophone. Take a look at this tenor tip chart for an illustration. The mouthpieces for a given manufacturer & model will be identical in every way except for the final tip opening and a slight change in the facing curve required to make a smooth transition from the beginning lay cut to the desired tip opening. Facing length is a far more significant design detail than is final tip opening. Ditto just about any mouthpiece design criteria that you select. As mentioned before, tip opening is only one design element of your mouthpiece’s facing — the other two key elements being the facing length, and the overall curve of the cut that makes up the profile pattern. Either of these other two facing components can influence your mouthpiece’s response as much — or more — as can the final tip opening.

So why do we gravitate to tip opening as descriptive of a particular mouthpiece — at least until we get the clue about all the other mouthpiece design points? Well, one reason is that’s all we are usually told. The other is that when we are struggling to play at all, something that makes it easier for us to play all the notes — whenever & at whatever volume levels we need to — seems like a life preserver in roaring seas. It’s more a crutch, though, when you really finally DO get a clue, isn’t it? Of course both crutches and life preservers are meant for short term reliance. We jettison them when they have lost their usefulness. So when players come talking to me about tip openings after they have reached a certain minimum saxual proficiency I cannot help but envision a rather silly mental image — them clinging to their life preserver long after they have reached the safety of dry land. “Look at old John – he musta’ been shipwrecked once…still carrying around that old life preserver.” I suppose that comes from being a Jeff Foxworthy fan (Bear is a congenital redneck, and proud of it) cuz I just wanna say, “Here’s your sign…”

One mouthpiece maker that has had their labeling right (OK, better) for a long time is Berg Larsen. Maybe it’s the British knack for detail, but Berg’s mouthpieces are marked with tip opening, facing length, and relative chamber size. That’s a good start at understanding what the mouthpiece is all about. At the least these markings indicating multiple design points don’t lull players into thinking that a single design element is divinely endowed. As an example, a Berg tenor piece that is marked 100-M-2 has a 0.100″ tip opening, a chamber that is of relative size 2 on a four point scale (where zero is smallest & 3 is largest), and a medium facing length. Note how the tip opening is sensibly shown as an absolute measurement, too.

Unless you know that Link used a ’7′ to indicate a tenor tip opening of 0.100″ you can get lost trying to make sense of a tip opening designation that is part of a series of arbitrarily assigned numbers or letters. And what about those funny marks like an asterisk (*) that some mouthpiece makers use? Well, that means a tip halfway between two arbitrary designations (which alone may be news to many of our readers). But what is the USUAL interval between arbitrary designations, you say? Good question. If you’re talking Link labeling the primary increment is 0.010″ (ten one-thousandths), so your half measure is only a 0.005″ increment over that represented by the arbitrary number that precedes the asterisk. Did you get all that? Good, cuz the 0.010″ increment is only if we are talking about Link tenor sax mouthpieces. Sopranos, altos, etc. have a different base increment between arbitrary designations. That means you have to know a different incremental divider for each type Link mouthpiece before you can begin to know what tip opening you are considering.

In fairness, there is value in knowing that a 7 in a Link tenor ‘piece and a 7 in a Link alto ‘piece should have the same relative response characteristics. The problem we encounter as soon as that ‘benefit’ gets uttered is that there is no standard that relates these various arbitrary scales from one mouthpiece manufacturer’s product to those of another. While it is true that many mouthpiece manufacturers have adopted the Link system, either in whole or in part (meaning some may use the tenor convention but NOT the alto or soprano), others have not. You need a program to know what’s going on with any certainty, hence the need for mouthpiece ‘facing’ charts (which really only deal with one of our three facing elements: tip opening). It would be much simpler if everyone just used a real measurement for tip openings, yes? There would be the metric argument, for sure, but that’s easy enough to convert (and the format would give it away, even if not spelled out). Any ole Bear can tell that a 0.100″, is 100, is 2.5mm, is 2.5. What no one can comprehend is a number like ’7′, or a letter like ‘D’, left dangling in a vacuum. Can we just talk, mouthpiece guys? What does a ‘C’ mean in a series that has no ‘A’ and ends with ‘H’? What about C* in that same series? C**? Life is tough enough without this insanity. How ’bout some standardization in the mouthpiece industry?

Like I told John, I don’t know what tip opening The Prez blew. What’s more: I don’t care. He blew the tip that he felt most comfortable with. He chose the mouthpiece he played not because it came in a certain tip, but because it had a certain chamber configuration (size, shape, baffling, throat style) that produced the sound he heard in his head. John liked playing my Ebolin Special, but was unimpressed by the ‘plain’ Ebolin. That’s perfectly fine. Moreover, it I is perfectly understandable. These two mouthpieces have different chamber configurations. The Special came closer to the sound John has in his head than did the ‘plain’ Ebolin. It wasn’t because the two mouthpieces had different tip openings. 

If the main implication of changes in tip opening involves saxual response — aka the minimum/maximum volume levels at which you can sound any/every note — why does that matter? For one thing, different venues and different styles in musical performance require different volume levels. If you play chorales during worship (or practice in an apartment setting) you want to make minimum noise. To do that (gain control & enhanced response) you can reduce either reed strength or tip opening (or both, if you are in a drastic circumstance). Of the two variables, the one that is easiest & least costly to manipulate is reed strength (duh).

On the other hand, if you are swinging out in a club doing R&B numbers against trumpets & electric guitars, or playing with a large group in a large room (or even outdoors), you want your sax to play as loud as it can. Where volume is the controlling variable response doesn’t enter much into your thinking. That’s cuz you are going to be huffing & puffing all your instrument’s response issues away (there’s a lesson here that we will come back to) anyhow. In this example you can increase either reed strength or tip opening (or both) in order to meet your musical performance requirements (being heard). So, where do most pro players fall along the continuum of musical performance requirements between mouse-quiet and flat-out? If you said more toward the louder end of that spectrum you would be right, of course.

Then it is perfectly logical that pro players choose more open mouthpiece tips than your average developing player or accomplished hobbyist. Repeat after me, “Players choose certain tip openings because of the noise level they need to make. They choose an overall mouthpiece design because of the sound they want to make.” That’s why every mouthpiece manufacturer makes their various mouthpiece models in a range of tip openings. Armed with the knowledge that by adjusting our reed strength up or down we can manipulate our response/noise outputs somewhat, then tip openings become even less meaningful. Are we hammering away at the salient point enough to bore you yet?

Now let’s go back to that remark about huffing & puffing away all your saxual response issues. You will recall, too, that I mentioned how most saxophones do not approach their top playing condition. I know that because we have received thousands of saxophones here at CS over the years. Not all of them have been presented to us for repairs, or in a known state of ‘as-is’, either. The first thing that happens to a saxophone that arrives here at CS, after unpacking, is that I personally play test it and check it over on my bench. Over the years I’ve seen just about every level of playing condition possible from our new arrivals. Some are playable and some don’t play at all — even when we were told by an eBay seller that they played great. It would be my guess that the saxophones I’ve examined upon their initial arrival here at CS pretty much represent our general saxophone population. I can count on my fingers the number of these instruments have been dead, solid perfect — playing great & needing not even the slightest adjustment. The most of them came from reputable dealers. Several were new or near-new Yanagisawa products. In all four (4) horns that have been traded by individuals were in absolutely perfect playing condition. These things stick out and grab you such that even an old Bear can remember ‘em… :-)

The natural conclusion is that a lot of the folks out there are laboring to play through varying levels of playing condition maladies. The more open a tip and the harder your reeds, the more likely it is that you will blow through playing condition issues. To wit: I’ve had too many horns in sub-par playing condiiton traded to CS by performing pros that thought they played fine — horns they were performing with just before sending ‘em to me. A factor that triangulates this point is that we routinely get rave comments from the clients who receive the saxophone we sell & restore here at CS. Some of these raves are from names you would know if I were a name dropper (which I’m NOT), but most are from the vast middle of our saxophone community — players from all levels of saxual prowess. Some of the horns we send out are absolute top echelon, classic designs such as Buescher Top Hats, Conn Conquerors or Mark VI Selmers. You expect rave comments about such saxophones, no? But most are from the big middle of saxual pedigrees — good horns, too, but most importantly, in absolute top playing condition. In fact, the one constant among them all is the top playing condition we put ‘em in before they’re packed up to go to their new & loving homes.

The point: Unless you know the playing condition of your saxophone you cannot reliably make any other saxual decision — about the suitability of the instrument, about the sound you want…certainly NOT about the mouthpiece facing or reed strength that best suit your needs. Get your sax into top playing condition and maintain it there. This applies no matter your level of saxual competence. Playing condition is especially important to two distinct groups of our readers — beginners & performing pros — for vastly differing reasons.

Beginners simply MUST have a horn that is known to be in good playing condition if they are to have a fair chance at success in learning to play sax. How else will your child be able to know that the expected result will be there when they do their part in terms of following instruction and diligent practice? Do we not owe this to them as a bare minimum standard in the instruments we provide for their use? Often parents have no musical training or skills (not criticism, just fact), so they are in no position to determine if a sax they acquire for a student is reliable — or if it even plays at all. While school band directors are required to learn the rudiments of every instrument normally encountered in the performing structures they must oversee, most will not be saxophone majors. Those who are saxophone or woodwind specialists may be good players, but not deeply knowledgeable about either instrument mechanics, or the relative merits of brands and models. To expect any real outside help is unrealistic when you are trying to find a saxophone that is suitable for your beginning saxophonist, so seek a source for your child’s instrument that has integrity, selection and the capability to guarantee an instrument will arrive in top playing condition. Reputable web saxophone dealers (and there are several) offer these basic guarantees, along with excellent post-sale service & support. You can look all day for a bargain without finding it, but VALUE always follows quality, product knowledge, fair pricing, integrity and support.

Performing pros simply must keep their tools in top condition in order to insure their professional success. The reason we know every sax we ship from CS is in top playing condition is that Bear uses medium chamber test ‘pieces with modest tip openings and medium strength reeds. With such a play set up a saxophone can be made to do anything of which it is capable. The lowest notes must start from no articulation with a whisper. The highest standard notes must speak firmly & freely, in proper tune. Even altissimo notes will be achievable with a modest mouthpiece/reed combination if everything is totally right with a saxophone. Bear’s test routine is mostly quiet sounds, emphasizing starting every note at ppp, using no articulation. Bear has also identified certain exercises & passages that effectively test for common saxual dysfunctions such as octave mechanism synchronization, ill fitting necks, and the coordination of a saxophone’s numerous key action combinations. Every alternate fingering that is possible as part of your saxophone’s mechanical design is set up to respond as it is intended, and is tested to be sure the sound is both true & acceptably in tune. The whole saxophone must all play smoothly and quietly to pass the demanding CS play test routine. Once we know a horn will pass all these tests at minimal volumes, we know that if you hang a huge ‘piece on the end strapped up with a hunk of lumber that it will blow flat out, as well. You can’t approach a play test in the reverse order and accomplish anything worthwhile for your clients. If you want to see what shape your ax is really in try playing every note long & soft. Ripping up & down like Lenny Pickett does on SNL is a lot of fun — takes a lot of talent, too — but it won’t really tell you anything about the playing condition of your ax. Fair warning: Little problems lead to big ones, and big problems lead to embarrassing failures. Find playing condition issues early, and don’t let ‘em grow. Occasionally revisiting those musical circumstances where response is a telling sign is good insurance against an embarrassing failure. When your ax is sharp your work is easier…and a heck of a lot more fun.

Reviewing now: Response and sound are two separate qualities, governed by differing player, instrument and musical application criteria. Response is the ease with which an instrument sounds every note, regardless of volume or articulation, and whether in passing or initiating play. Sound is what you want or need for it to be. Response is a basic requirement for competent saxophone performance. The variables that determine response are player inputs, your instrument’s mouthpiece/reed & mechanical set ups, and your instrument’s playing condition. Player inputs are your personal choice of, and your ability to issue commands to your saxophone in its role as a machine. Your instrument’s mechanical set up is composed of pad & resonator styles, key heights & lifts, plus the adjustment, regulation & coordination of the mechanical aspects of your saxophone’s mechanisms. Playing condition is the efficiency with which pads seal, rest & lift at/to the desired heights, and the degree to which the mechanics of the instrument quietly & effectively execute your play commands. 

Most good players have at least two mouthpieces (often many more) for each of their saxophones. A tenor player who plays in church, with a big band and with a small Rock/R&B group may have a Selmer hard rubber C* (S-80 or Soloist), a metal Selmer Jazz in the F-G-H range and a Dukoff Super Power Chamber in the 8-9-10 range. The mouthpiece chamber configurations of all three of these mouthpieces are drastically different because of different sounds required in different musical applications. The tips are different because of the differing volumes at which this player must function under the circumstances surrounding them in each particular musical application. If this player needed to play a fourth gig, say a jazz quartet blowing standards in a small club environment, they might well have a Brilhart Special in the bag, as well.

Shape always trumps material as a determinant of sound qualities. Always be concerned about the shape of the inside of your mouthpiece and the shape of the inside of your saxophone before you take any other variables into account as regards the sound you expect to make. The inside of your mouth & throat are important as well, since these body facilities are precursor formative factors of the air column that your reed will set into vibration in order to make your saxophone emit sound. Players have know since the beginning that their internal manipulations of the air stream can dramatically affect the qualities of their saxophone’s sound. Learn how to change the shape of your throat & mouth cavity, and how to add various counter-vibrations before the air ever exists your body to achieve exciting & attractive effects in your music. Take the time to develop a true vibrato emanating from your diaphragm (as the greatest singers do) to supplement and support the false vibrato we can produce with our lower jaw. Learn techniques like subtoning, where the reed’s vibration is damped inside your mouth to gain a very earthy & airy quality for your mid & lower ranges. Playing the saxophone is the closest many of us will ever come to fully expressing the myriad emotions and tones of our human voice, as do the great singing talents among us. Learning to play the saxophone at a rewarding level is relatively easy. Mastering it will take up your whole life. It’s a love affair, of sorts — totally irrational and completely consuming. Start the journey with a good foundation. Nothing is more basic to becoming a fundamentally sound saxophonist than a good understanding of mouthpiece theory. Your mouthpiece/reed/ligature set up is the filter through which all your commands must pass in order to reach your saxophone. The more you understand about the functions of that filter, the more effective a saxophonist you will become.

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