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Suggested Reading

1. Rehearsal Rooms

Struggling to improve the acoustics in your band room? Check out how the Medan Band did it.

2. Concerned about playing swing music properly?

Check out my guidelines

3. Ear training exercises for bands

Unlike piano players, ear training is essential for wind band performers. But how many band directors bother to give their bands suitable exercises?

4. Intonation problems

While tuning is simple act of adjusting a length of tubing on a wind instrument (often by reference to a single note), intonation is an ongoing process in which a player strives to match the pitch of others in the ensemble during performance. 

5. “Blowing” a wind instrument

A common misconception among wind players is to believe that the air moves through the instrument in order to produce the sound. This is simply not true. 

6. Conducting – suggestions for home practice

The best way for a conductor to improve is in front of a live ensemble. The unfortunate reality, however, is that this is not always possible. Aspiring conductors therefore have little choice but to find other ways of honing their skills.

 

Embouchures

Introduction
Single Reeds

Double Reeds
Air Reeds (flute) 


Introduction

There are three basic embouchures among the woodwinds, corresponding with the three sound generators employed.  They are: the single reed embouchure, the double reed embouchure and the flute or “air reed” embouchure.  This is not to say, of course, that there are no significant differences within these categories.  The embouchures of clarinet and saxophone players, for example, differ in a number of ways.  Still, the fact that instruments within each group use similar methods of sound production results in enough similarities to justify joint treatment.


Single Reeds

Clarinet players have at least two basic embouchure variants from which to choose. The so-called “single embouchure”, which is similar to that of the saxophone, involves placing the upper teeth directly on the mouthpiece. This can produce a rather thin tone, but it does lead to more flexibility, particularly in the upper register.  The alternative for the clarinetist is the “double” or French embouchure.  Preferred by many professionals, this involves placing the upper lip over the teeth.  Because this lip placement causes the mouth to be more open, it tends to produce a fuller tone.  In both cases, the mouthpiece itself is positioned in the center of the mouth. The upper teeth should not bite into the mouthpiece or push down on it. The bottom lip usually curves back over the teeth to provide a cushion for the embouchure. 

A certain amount of experimentation is involved.  
A smile-type embouchure produces a thin tone and is therefore to be avoided.  Instead, the corners of the lips are held together to produce a firm grip.  Both the clarinet and saxophone embouchures also involve a certain amount of experimentation before the player can determine just how much of the mouthpiece should be taken into the mouth in order to produce a good tone.   Too much mouthpiece will result in a “squawky” sound, while not enough will produce a thin, weak tone. 

One useful check for proper mouthpiece placement and lip tension is to have the student play octaves on the instrument.  If both octaves respond with only the octave key being manipulated, then the embouchure is at least close to being correct.  If only the upper octave sounds, however, then the embouchure is too tight or there is not enough mouthpiece in the mouth.  Similarly, if only the lower octave sounds, then the embouchure is probably too loose or there is too much mouthpiece in the mouth.

The control principles on single reed embouchures are very similar.  Loud dynamics and higher pitches involve increasing jaw pressure, while softer passages and lower pitches involve doing the opposite.  Unlike the double reeds, saxophone and clarinet mouthpieces are not moved in and out when playing in the extreme ranges. 

Saxophone and clarinet embouchures are different.
There are some important differences between clarinet and saxophone embouchures, however, even when both use the “single embouchure”. In the case of the saxophone, the pressure is upward, with the mouthpiece pushing against the upper teeth by the right thumb on the thumb rest.  On a well-developed clarinet embouchure, on the other hand, the lower lip takes most of the support.  Because of the greater angle of the soprano and alto clarinet mouthpiece as it enters the mouth, many authorities argue that clarinet playing requires more pressure.  Some also believe that more of the mouthpiece should also be taken into the mouth in the case of the clarinet than in the case of the saxophone. The difference, if any, is probably minor. Most saxophonists place their top teeth directly on top of the mouthpiece, roughly one quarter to one third of teh way up the slope from the tip.

Partly because they typically use larger mouthpieces, jazz and rock saxophonists also tend to turn the lower lip outwards slightly.  This broadens the sound by enabling the reed to vibrate more freely in the mouth.  More of the lower lip also comes into contact with the reed.  The approach, which seems particularly suited to the tenor saxophone, has even come to be accepted among some classical players.

Many authorities suggest the student begin with the mouthpiece alone.
Most beginners find it fairly easy to produce their first sounds on single reed instruments. As in the case of other woodwind instruments, many authorities recommend that students begin by using the mouthpiece alone.  This enables the student to concentrate on the sound without worrying about the fingering.  Have the student open the mouth as if to say ah and place the mouthpiece in the mouth using the embouchure described above.  Sometimes it is helpful to have the student think of forming the syllable oh or vo when blowing air through the instrument.  Once he or she is able to produce a sound in this manner, the syllable may be changed to tu or du in order to engage the tongue.  

 

Double Reeds

The oboe and bassoon embouchures are very similar.  In both cases, the instrument is played with the upper and the lower lips pulled back over the teeth to form a cushion for the reed.  The more lip cushion available, the easier it is to obtain a full, dark sound.  More of the red, lower lip should be rolled in than the upper lip, particularly on a bassoon. The mouth assumes a pucker rather than a stretched position and the tongue remains at the bottom of the mouth.  Since the lips need to be flexible in the center to allow the reed to vibrate, strength needs to be developed at the sides.   Equal pressure should also be applied to both the upper and lower sides of the reed.  This implies that player with an extreme overbite or underbite may experience problems. 
 
Beginning oboe players tend to put too much reed in the mouth.
Squeezing the reed with the embouchure raises the pitch and tends to make the sound thinner.  Tone quality is influenced by the distance of the lips from the tip of the reed.  Playing too close to the tip tends to produce a dark stuffy sound and makes the instrument less responsive, while playing with too much reed in the mouth can produce a strident sound which is also apt to be sharp.  Even so, higher register playing usually demands that the reed is placed further inside the mouth, while the lower register works best with the reed moved out slightly. A common fault fault among beginning oboe and bassoon players is to put too much reed in the mouth.
 
Apart from requiring different embouchures for different ranges, double reed instruments differ from single reed ones in that it is necessary to make the embouchure firmer during a diminuendo and relax it when playing a crescendo.  This is exactly the opposite of that required of clarinet players. 
 
Beginners should think of forming the syllable ohm.
Get your students to produce their first sounds on the oboe or bassoon by using just the reed.  For this purpose, the reed must be wet.  Soak it in water for a few minutes, then eliminate the excess water by placing the cork end (oboe) or thread end (bassoon) into the mouth and blowing out the water droplets.  Once a good “crow” has been achieved, attach the reed to the instrument.  When blowing through the oboe, have the beginner think of forming the syllable ohm before moving on to syllables such as tu or du.  In the case of the bassoon, vo is probably a more helpful syllable.  It should also be followed by attempts to engage the tongue by using syllables such as tu and du.
 
 

Air Reed (flute)

Edge tones are the result of curls or eddies in the airstream.
The flute produces sound by splitting the airstream as it flows over an embouchure hole.  This makes it an “air reed” instrument similar in principle to the recorder, flue organ and the whistle. Part of the airstream passes over the embouchure plate and part enters the instrument, producing an oscillation in the air column that is defined by the internal bore of the flute.  The faster this splitting occurs, the higher the resulting pitch.  Many believe that “edge tones” form part of the flute tone generator.  Edge tones are the result of eddies or curls in the airstream that form as the air jet breaks up. Research carried out by acoustician Arthur Benade, however, suggests that although the flute meets all the acoustical definitions of an edge tone system, the frequencies generated at the blowing pressures used by flutists are so high as to make them inaudible.

The basic elements of a flute embouchure are as follows: (1) corners of the mouth stretched back and turned down rather than in the smiling position, and (2) the lower lip is drawn back just enough to permit the upper lip to protrude over it slightly.   (3) The inner edge of the embouchure hole usually rests where the red of the lower lip meets the facial skin, with the lower lip covering about one quarter of the embouchure hole.  The exact position of the lower lip, however, will vary depending on whether the player has thick or thin lips.
 
A good deal of experimentation is usually required before the beginning student is able to find the correct spot. If the upper lip is too far forward, the airstream will be directed straight down.  If upper lip is even with the lower one, on the other hand, the airstream will exit the lips horizontally as if one was blowing out a candle.  
 
the size of the lip aperture is important.
Different registers require different adjustments to this basic embouchure setting.  The upper register, for example, requires the player to direct the air towards the outer edge of the embouchure hole and cover more of it with the lower lip.  In the lower register, more air is directed into the flute instead.  The size of the lip aperture is also important.  Low register work demands a fairly wide aperture, while a small aperture is required in the upper register.  In any event, the aperture should be oval-shaped rather than rounded.  This is because the latter shape tends to produce a coarse, breathy sound.  Players who produce such breathy, unfocussed tones can sometimes find it helpful to play in front of a mirror while trying to achieve a more oval-shaped aperture. 
 
Intonation, articulation and dynamic range are also affected by the extent to which the lower lip covers the embouchure hole.  In general, the more the hole is covered, the thinner the tone, the more limited the dynamic range and the less responsive the flute becomes.  Under such conditions, the instrument also tends to play flat.  Moving the flute too high on the lower lip so that less of the embouchure hole is covered, on the other hand, can make the instrument play sharp.
 
Alter the direction and shape of the airstream by moving the jaw in and out.
Controlling the direction of the airstream can be accomplished through the use of small movements of the head or rolling the flute in or out.   However, as Edwin Putnick argues, both of these methods tend to change the relative amount embouchure hole covered by the lip in the opposite way to what is actually needed, thus altering or even stopping the tone.  A far better way to control pitch, range and intensity during performance, he argues, is to alter the direction and shape of the airstream by moving the jaw in and out.
 
Some embouchure problems on the flute can be traced to a misdirected airstream resulting from an imbalance in the thickness of the upper and lower lips.  Such problems, however, can usually be corrected by changing the relative tension of the lips. 
 
Learning to play by blowing across a narrow necked bottle is not necessarily a good idea.
Producing an initial sound on a flute can be a very frustrating experience for beginners.  Traditionally, teachers have asked beginning students to practice blowing across a narrow necked bottle.  The student blows across the neck until he can produce whistle tones and finally a true tone.  This approach has fallen out of favour, however. since it tends to result in a very hollow sound. Instead, encourage the student to create his or her first sounds by using only the flute head joint. The idea here is to eliminate all concern about fingering until the basic embouchure has been formed.
 
Some authorities suggest that the beginner blow air as if to vocalize the syllable pee, while others ask students to imagine that they are spitting out rice, one grain at a time.  While the latter is probably more useful (it helps to keep the aperture small and the corners of the mouth firm) it may also encourage students to adopt the habit of tonguing between the teeth.

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