What You’re Doing Wrong on the Saxophone

Updated on June 11, 2018
Alyssa Hartman profile image

Alyssa is an avid saxophonist with years of experience playing and writing about the instrument.

Embouchure Pain

If you are reading this, you’ve probably figured out that playing an instrument isn’t always easy. Hopefully this article can make it a slightly less irritating experience when you come to encounter such problems, if you haven’t already.

Many people quit the saxophone because of the pain they experience on their inner lip. A lot of times, having a busted inner lip (from your teeth being pushed on it the whole time you are playing) makes it hard to play your instrument at all—much less in a proficient manner. What the people who choose to quit don’t realize, is the many simple solutions there are to this problem.

Some may choose to protect the flesh of their inner lip with a mouth-guard or a denture pad. Now, personally, I found such strategies only served to make it virtually impossible to play a single note. Some may find different results, though, which is why I’m listing this particular solution here. That’s far from the only way to rid yourself of the horrendous pain that comes from a busted lip whose pain is being further provoked as you play.

Different Embouchure Setups

There are different embouchure setups. The reasoning behind the hurting lip is pretty straightforward. Teeth digging into your lip, sounds painful. The quickest solution would be to adjust your tuning to a different hold on the mouthpiece, perhaps, not pulling your lip all the way in and alternating that placement.

Playing on a consistent basis also makes one less prone to mouth pain. No matter how gross it sounds, your lip will develop a type of calluce over time and you’ll be able to play without that nagging pain. It’s just like if you hadn't done a push-up, plank hold, or pull up in years, and chose to do fifty of each in one day. Would someone even be alive after that? It’s the same with your instrument. If you don’t play it for months on end and then practice for seven hours straight on a random day. That was an exaggerated version of a typical scenario, although I think I elucidated the topic well enough.

Most people find it hard to make time to practice consistently, and that is what causes them to never pick up their instrument again after a while. Consistency is probably just as important with this last solution, but not directly. The last solution consists of playing with your lip out.

I freaked out when I found out about the alternative embouchure, to put things into perspective. Having been taught throughout my whole saxophone career that you had to keep your lip tucked in, that was hard to take in. I immediately did some research on the strategy and found that it can actually improve your tone and technique. It just takes a lot of strengthening of the embouchure muscles.

This switch is far from something that can be done immediately. One should probably start by trying out the lip-out technique for just a few minutes at most, and making that number larger every few days. When you can finally play in such a manner, without causing jaw pains and tension, make the switch. I won’t say to never look back, as depending on the style of music you primarily play, tucking your lip in would work much better for the specific tone you need to execute.


Something else that can tend to present a challenge in the world of saxophones, would have to be reeds. They chip, they grow mold, they can’t be used again if you played while ill unless you want to get sick again, keeping them wet and at a playable state is always a struggle.

That’s why synthetic reeds were invented.

Many synthetic reeds tend to be lousy when it comes to maintaining good tone, but there are some really nice ones out there. All you do is tighten the ligature around it and then you can blow the whole neighborhood’s ears off, easy as that.

These reeds are washable, and last for six months to a year in most cases. You usually only need that one reed stored in your case opposed to a whole box. I’m a firm believer in synthetic reeds, but I also understand that wooden ones have a lot of things going for them.

The rich tone they tend to exude is hard to find with synthetic reeds. Though the reed I use, is pretty satisfactory. I would recommend the Légère reeds to any instrumentalist, as they provide that tone balance missing from most synthetic reeds.

Wooden reeds are classic, they work well, although if you use them, you might want to have at least three stored for backup should one decide to be a pain in the neck and chip.

Instrumental Maintenance

The absolute worst thing about playing a saxophone is the glitchy keys. When the register key isn’t working, C# just won’t play no matter what alternate fingering you use, are two of the most common occurrences when it comes to instrument buffers.

If you look at the neck of your saxophone, you see the loop of metal that is what pushes on the lever to move the register key and allow you to play on the upper octave. If you press down on your octave key, look to see if it is pushing on the little straight lever that triggers the key. If it doesn’t move, you should probably turn your neck to one of the sides a little to fix it. I would say to try and bend it for more convenience, but that’s better left for the professionals.

If your C# note is not coming out even though you are positive you have the right fingerings, it’s probably your saxophone. Look at the picture provided above again, note the circled bit. Yes, the little, minuscule piece of metal that has probably popped out of place if you can’t seem to get a C# out. Fixing it consists of the very complicated process called: pushing it back into position. There’s a little notch that should keep it in place. Then, that problem is forever solved until it decides to pop out again.

I cannot stress in a million lifetimes how important instrument maintenance is. Checkups are recommended at least once a year by a professional, but although that’s nice to do, if you can’t afford it your saxophone will probably survive.

Please note that fungus does not only take the form of mushrooms. There are three primary types, one being mold. Fungi like to grow in dark, wet, warm environments. Sound familiar? It does to me. A saxophone left uncleaned after a practice is a breeding ground for mold. Mold is unsanitary, and harmful to the saxophone.

The tone you spend years developing will start to degenerate if you don’t take care of the instrument. Just a quick swab using a standard cleaning cloth after practicing and you’re good.


Now we have come to the final topic I will be addressing: technique. If you were hoping to find some other type of information, feel free to ask me in the comments, you’ll get an answer by the next day, most probably. Anyways, technique is practically as important as knowing the notes on a saxophone.

If you sound like garbage, nobody will want to listen to you play, which means you won’t be making the school jazz band anytime soon. The key factors I will be mentioning are embouchure, vibrato, tonguing, and air consistency. Also, I’ll put in a little growling tutorial because it’s a great effect for improvised solos.

As previously mentioned, embouchure and tone quality walk hand in hand, as well as the reed you use, though it is less important. First off, don’t puff your cheeks out while playing. It’s a saxophone, not a trumpet. Cheek-puffing creates bad habits. You want a strong embouchure, but not a pinched one. A restricting embouchure causes restricted sound, which makes for a wimpy tone.

Open lipped embouchure gives a nice tone, although it entirely depends on what style of music you play. I find tucked lip to be better for classical pieces, whereas playing lip-out is adequate for jazz, blues, and rock pieces. Both are valid options, just make sure you have control over your saxophone when playing.

Vibrato is vitally important for melodic structure. If you hold out a long note without it, your saxophone will sound more like a robotic effect than a musical instrument. All that vibrato means for us saxophonists, is a slight wavering of the pitch. It sounds good if it’s done at a consistent rate and not too drastically. Just a repeated alternation in your embouchure and you should be able to go from there.

Tonguing, one of the first things we learn when we pick up a saxophone. Although, depending on the song, you might want a softer cut off on the note compared to a harsh type of tonguing we pretty much all first learned. Sometimes it’s better to just completely stop air flow with a soft bit of tonguing compared to what many band instructors might say. If the song is a relaxed one, it’s just going to sound choppy if you put too much definition at the ends of each note.

If you can’t keep your air flow at a constant rate, it seriously takes away from whatever you might be playing. The most crucial things here are knowing when you need to breath, what dynamic you are executing, and what notes take more air to play.

Again, you have to be in control over your instrument, if your air flow isn’t consistent, it will take over in a way. Breath marks are not always written in on sheet music, so you should probably scope out the rest notes in a song so you know how much air you’ll need to intake to play up until that point. When you alternate air strength through your instrument it sounds warbled and messed up.

Dynamics tend to define increase or decrease of air speed through an instrument. Thus causing you to be out of breath much quicker should you be playing a certain dynamic. Note that, and hopefully you won’t run out of air next time you try and hold a note on forte.

High notes tend to take a lot more power to play, again, meaning you will lose your breath much quicker. When playing, it’s important to recognize the fact that you might have to breathe earlier than usual should the note require that extra power.

As promised, I will be discussing a common effect used during improvisation, growling. You can search up many demonstrations of it online, if you are unaware of what it is supposed to sound like. Growling is a very simple technique that goes a long way. All you have to do is hum the same pitch you are playing, at the same time. Of course it takes a lot of perfecting before it’s not ear splitting, although that can come later.

I sincerely hope that this article proves to be beneficial in your instrumental career, whatever it may turn out to be. Again, any further inquiry is welcomed in the comments. Playing an instrument is generally beneficial in many other areas, and is amazingly entertaining if you can do it well.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Alyssa Hartman


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