On Tone Control and Playing in Tune

Written by noted woodwind artist & teacher Signe Crawford for the “Keys to Music” collection of jazz etudes.

Think of tone as your material for creating music.
If you can create a good tone, good pitches will follow.
If you can create a good pitch, a good tone will follow.

POSTURE: Sit up straight. Scoot forward in your chair, so your back is not resting on the back of the chair. If your legs are strong, it helps to use your “sit-down” muscles to help support the rest of your body. If you’re standing, make sure to keep a little spring in your legs, and do not lock your knees. Keep your head erect. Hold your clarinet at about a 45 degree angle, or bring your sax straight into your mouth. Flute players, bring the flute to your lips without reaching your head forward to meet the flute.

EMBOUCHURE: (mouth muscle and lip position, pronounced “ahm-bu-shure”) Reed players: cover bottom teeth with your lower lip. Rest the reed on your lower lip. Do not press. Firmly place top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece. Place upper lip on the top of the mouthpiece. Tighten the corner mouth muscles. Shape your lips so there is equal pressure all around the mouthpiece; top, bottom, and sides. (Think of a drawstring, or the shape, “ooo”.) Separate top and bottom teeth a little. Most people need to push the jaw forward a little. If you have a normal bite, push the lower teeth forward so that if you closed your mouth, your top and bottom teeth would meet. Take a big breath and blow a controlled stream of air. To determine how much pressure to put on the reed, experiment with more or less pressure until you find the amount that works best. To determine how far up or down on the reed to place your lip, experiment with reed placement until you find the “sweet spot”. (If it vibrates, there’s a “sweet spot”.)

A flute player usually needs more individual guidance than reed players to get comfortable with his/her embouchure. But a basic outline goes like this: Draw the corners back gently but firmly. Don’t “smile”. Instead think of a “disgusted” look. Keep the corners in place while forming the “oooo” shape with the front of the lips. To find the correct placement of the lips on the embouchure plate of the flute, center the embouchure hole directly in the middle of your lips, and have the line created between your top and bottom lip centered. Then roll the flute down. Blow while you’re rolling, and when the tone comes out, you’ve found your position. Experiment a little with moving the jaw forward.

BREATH SUPPORT: In order to produce good tone and pitches, air pressure must make it all the way through the horn. When you inhale, do not raise your shoulders. Think from the waist. Expand every part of your trunk: bottom, top, and sides, to make room for a lot of air. Make it an outward movement, not an upward movement. This should feel physically good. When exhaling through your horn, push from below your tummy button. Musicians do this with good control, slowly, but forcefully. Create air pressure. The instrument is formed into a certain shape to create a certain sound. If the air doesn’t make it all the way through, the instrument doesn’t produce the sound it was designed to make.

APPLYING THE BASICS: Once you’ve studied proper posture, embouchure, and breath support, it’s time to use the tuner. Flute players can correct for pitches by rolling the embouchure plate in or out. When you roll in, (blowing down into the flute more directly), the pitch goes down. Rolling out makes the pitch go up. To reach the upper register notes, shape your lips into more of an “ooo” position and push your head joint forward slightly.  Keep a soft volume going to assure that you have re-shaped the embouchure.  Don’t reach the upper notes by simply over-blowing.  Work on long tones at different volumes, maintaining good pitch. Get to know which notes are naturally sharp or flat.

Reed players: with low C for clarinet, and G for saxes, blow naturally, and correct for pitch by adjusting either the barrel or the neck joint. Manipulate your pitches by tightening and loosening your embouchure. Go nuts. Have no fear. You’re experimenting. Notice that as you tighten, your pitches go up, and the sound gets thinner. As you loosen, the pitch drops, and the tone starts to sag. Now go for the lowest possible pitch you can produce, and try to make it sound as good as possible for as long as possible. If the note starts to bottom out, revive it with more support. Do this with notes in different ranges of your instrument. Discover how much “room” there is for pitch and volume variations on all parts of your instrument. Then find notes on your instrument that are naturally flat or sharp and try to manipulate them into pitch. Hold the tone at pitch. If you’re playing with others, and you hear the need to correct for pitch (sound waves colliding at a rapid pace), try loosening or tightening your embouchure. If the sound waves get longer, you’re moving the right way. If they get quicker, go the other way. And for more embouchure development, try playing on low C for clarinet, and low G for saxes as follows: with the register key off, tighten your lip and try to push the note up to the next register. Then, for both instruments, play high G (using the register key). With your embouchure only, try to drop to the low register (low C for clarinets, and low G for saxes). This will sound bad, but try to make it sound as good as possible, and keep the tone (if you can call it that) as even as possible. Work at different volumes.

2 thoughts on “On Tone Control and Playing in Tune

  1. Great advice! I will think more about posture. I play long tones (eight beats at 60 on the metronome) for quite a while at the beginning of practice, using a chronometer to help hold the pitch. I also spend a long time working on low Bb, lowest on the sax, playing long tones and trying to get the overtones (middle Bb, upper F, upper Bb, and high D) while fingering low Bb. I agree that great sound is critical, and your breathing advice is right on target. Many thanks!


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