Saturday, July 5, 2014

Leaning Out Your Embouchure: The Chris Potter Effect

I am super excited to share an embouchure concept that I've recently pinned down. The reason for my excitement, is that this technique consistently does the following: it improves the presence, punch, and harmonics present in the sound, it facilitates altissimo (makes it easier) and improves its tone, and lastly it helps avoid the tendency of becoming sharp in the upper register. I've included sound clips to prove the point at the bottom of the article so please check those out.

I've noticed that Chris Potter, particularly in recent years, has really mastered the clarity of sound and punch I'm talking about, both in his normal register and altissimo register. For that reason, and not because I have any idea about how he conceptualizes embouchure, I'm calling this particular tweak the Chris Potter effect.

Basic Embouchure Formation
Before we get into the newest technique, here is a brief review of how to approach a basic embouchure formation. The lips obviously seal around the mouthpiece and provide enough pressure on the reed to act as a fulcrum of sorts that start the reed vibrating. Embouchure pressure also serves the purpose of securing both the mouthpiece and your bottom lip position while playing. However, how much embouchure pressure and where we apply that pressure can make a big difference in the sound.

The muscles that should take the majority of the workload are at the side of your mouth or corners of your lips. Some players make the mistake of applying upward pressure at the sides of their mouth (a smiling motion), and others make the mistake of letting their corners come in towards the center (a puckering motion). Both of these motions cause your bottom lip to interfere with the reed's vibration in different ways, and you can hear it in the sound. Joe Allard taught that the bottom lip should remain flat, matching the shape of the reed. In order to do this, the corners of the mouth need to apply some downward pressure to stop the lip from coming in towards the center or upwards at the corners. A flat bottom lip is ideal in keeping the reed tension free and in it's natural shape, which will result in a clearer and louder sound. A last potential problem is the chin bunching upward applying pressure on the reed. Some players tend to do this as they move towards the upper register. Long overtones are one of the best remedies for this as they teach you to rely on proper voicing as opposed to embouchure pressure to support the pitch.

One other fairly important embouchure concept for those who are trying to get a powerful sound with some edge, typical of jazz or pop saxophone, is to make sure that your bottom lip isn't tucked too far in over your front bottom teeth, which can sometimes be a natural tendency to help provide support. Having your lip in a more rolled out position applies pressure to the reed less directly, so it requires good air support and voicing technique to support the sound. Experiment with various lip position to find the ideal amount of lip in or out for yourself. You want to find the position that gives you a big sound, but don't go so far that you lose control of it.

Leaning Out
On to the actual subject of the article, leaning out your bottom lip. I want to be clear that I do not mean rolling out your bottom lip. I've already addressed that above. What I'm talking about is a technique you  apply after you have found the ideal placement for your bottom lip. Placing your bottom lip firmly enough on the reed so that it doesn't shift, lean your bottom lip outward. The bottom lip shouldn't slide against the reed, but instead you should feel a shift in pressure. Often times saxophonist play applying a considerable amount of pressure with the upper part of the bottom lip against the reed. I'm suggesting that you create the opposite effect by consciously leaning your lip outwards as if your were trying to roll it out more (though jaw pressure keeps it from actually sliding). The motion is similar to an exaggerated frown where the top part of your bottom lip begins to turn down. In this scenario the pressure of the lip against the reed becomes centered lower on the lip, and I believe the pressure becomes more spread across the lip allowing the reed to vibrate a bit more uniformly.

While you can feel the difference in pressure in your embouchure the improvements to tone and intonation are the most telling. One big difference you will notice is that the harmonics in your tone will increase. This makes for a richer sounding tone and a more powerful one. By more powerful I mean it has more punch, carries better, and is simply louder. Your sound also becomes less grainy, and instead it gains definition and clarity. Because the upper part of the lip can sometimes be responsible for pushing up on the reed and decreasing the volume of air in the mouthpiece, by not doing so you avoid some of the danger of becoming sharp in the upper register. Overall, you will find your intonation more uniform. It's typical for players to use more and more pressure with the top part of their lip the higher they go, so as you go into the altissimo register, most players are engaging the top part of their lip against the reed. By fighting this tendency you will hear a clearer timbre in your altissimo register, and it will become more similar to the timbre of the normal register of the saxophone instead of the less appealing biting timbre that the altissimo register sometimes takes on. You will also be able to play higher.

This technique makes you rely on voicing technique rather than embouchure pressure, so you may find that you need to develop your ability to focus your air using your vocal tract to gain the full benefits of this change in embouchure. Practicing overtones is one of the best ways to do this.

Sound Clips
As always, the proof is in the playing.

The following is an example of alternating between leaning my lip out and leaning it up towards the reed throughout a long tone. I start out leaning the lip out. Then as I transition to the lip leaning in you hear the the muted timbre and sharper intonation. I clear that up by leaning my lip out again. I then repeat the cycle more subtly than before.
Long tone alternating.mp3

This is me noodling in the normal register of the horn while leaning my lip out.
Lean Lip Out Noodling.mp3
In contrast, here is me noodling without leaning my lip out.
Lean Lip In Noodling.mp3

This is a one and a half octave D major scale in the altissimo register with my lip leaning out.
Altissimo Lean Lip Out.mp3
This is the same scale without leaning my lip out.
Altissimo Lean Lip In.mp3

EDIT: PICS
I took a couple of pics to illustrate the technique. It's subtle, but you can visually see the difference.

I'm leaning my lip out here.
Here I've got my lip leaning up towards the reed. Bad idea!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Online Workshops: Sound, Overtones, and Altissimo

Currently I'm putting together a number of online workshops for players looking to improve their sound, and for players who would like to improve their ability to play altissimo. They will take place via skype or google hangouts group video chat. They will be free to participate in, and, as the name workshop implies, they welcome you to contribute with your knowledge and experience.

Sound and Overtones Workshop
This workshop will address various techniques and approaches that improve overall sound or tone. Possible topics include embouchure, air support, tongue position, articulation, other voicing techniques, multiphonics, and overtones. If you're interested please email me at benbrittonjazz@gmail.com and include a note about your overall playing experience.

Altissimo Workshop
This workshop will be divided into two sections: one for players just beginning to play altissimo and one for players who have been playing it for a while but would like to fine tune their control and/or sound. If you are interested please email me at benbrittonjazz@gmail.com and tell me where you are in terms of altissimo.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Ben's First Video Blog: Why Should You Practice Overtones?

This is all about the benefits of overtone practice and relying on voicing rather than embouchure. Just in case you weren't convinced...

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Complete Approach to Overtones: Vivid Sound and Extended Range

Hey everyone, I'm happy to share that my latest effort, an in-depth treatment on overtones for saxophone, has finally come to fruition. Its purpose is to help players at all levels improve their ability to play overtones, which in turn improves your tone, your ability to get around the horn, and your ability to play in the altissimo register. The book is designed to help beginners play their first overtones but at the same time improve the ability of players who already have a four octave overtone range (and everyone in between).

Where to Get It
In Print: Amazon and Createspace (if you want to provide the author with the most support, createspace is the most direct route of supporting the print version)

Digital Ebook: Payhip

Look Inside
See excerpts from the book.
See the Table of Contents.

Note on Sound Clips
There are sound clips that accompany one section of the book 'Slurring up the Overtone Series'. This is one of the most difficult sections of the book, and for that reason I've provided sound clips. They can be downloaded here.

Endorsement and Review
"Ben Britton has put together a comprehensive volume explaining the overtone series and how to practice with it. A must-have for serious students of the saxophone." - Charles Pillow, Assistant Professor of Jazz Saxophone, Eastman School of Music

"This is a book that could very well be studied as a high school student, reviewed again at the college level, and re-reviewed throughout a professional playing career." - Bret Pimentel, full review

Benefits of Overtone Practice
From the book's introduction: "One of the most efficient ways to improve saxophone sound or tone is through overtone practice. Just a minute or two of proper overtone practice immediately increases the clarity and richness of tone as well as increases your ability to maintain a great sound while playing technically difficult music. Regularly practicing overtones will lead to consistently achieving those ends and extending your range into the altissimo register. Mastering overtones can result in a near four-octave range with a consistent and beautiful sound throughout."

What 'Complete Approach' Means
There are a number of different exercise types in the book including bugling exercises, slurred ascending overtones, scales, arpeggios, etc. Each exercise type improves a different aspect of your ability to play overtones.

Beginner Friendly
The book is designed so that someone who has never played overtones before will be able to quickly get started. Most of the exercises are progressive, so that they start out with a simple and easy version and then progress to more difficult territory. The book also includes helps and aids for easing into increasingly difficult overtones.

For Advanced Players
Most of the exercises in the text are taken to a reasonable extreme. This means that an advanced player (and I mean any advanced player you can think of) can open up to any section of the book and find an iteration of the exercise being presented that will challenge and help them.

Old and New
When I was a kid, I had the strange experience of playing a long overtone when suddenly it began slowly ascending from overtone to overtone. It topped out in some ridiculously high register, and I was floored. My friend ran into the room and asked me what I had just done, and all I could do was shrug my shoulders.

The experience has always stuck with me, and in the past two years I've explored that possibility among others to see how it could improve my ability to play the saxophone. That exploration has led me to a number of difficult yet helpful exercises. This book includes both the many helpful exercises I've been taught over the years and exercises I've created in trying to discover what is really possible with the saxophone.

For my first book, A Complete Approach to Sound for the Modern Saxophonist, click here.


Friday, May 30, 2014

The Scale Omnibus


I was recently contacted by Francesco Balena, a musician and author. He has created an awesome resource, namely an ebook, The Scale Omnibus, outlining 392 scales. It's pretty insane. It's also well put together and currently free. Check it out: www.saxopedia.com/the-scale-omnibus.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Overtones and the Octave Key

I'm currently finishing up a new book, A Complete Approach to Overtones, Vivid Sound and Extended Range. In that spirit, today's post is on a simple yet significant discovery I made while writing the book, which has to do with how we use the octave key while playing overtones.

In the past, I was in the habit of never using the octave key for overtones. However, at a lesson with woodwind wizard, Charles Pillow, we were messing around with some difficult overtone exercises, and he was instinctively using the octave key. After some investigation I found that the octave key made overtones, in many respects, easier to play. Even more importantly, I found that using the octave key promoted better technique both in terms of embouchure and voicing.

When To Use The Octave Key
You should use the octave key on every overtone you play, with the exception of the first overtone in every series. For example, in overtone series below, you would not use the octave key on the fundamental pitch, low B-flat, or on the first overtone, middle line B-flat. You would use the octave key on the second overtone (top line F) and all higher overtones.



Benefits of Using the Octave Key
The basic mechanic at play here is that the octave key reduces the resistance or back pressure you feel when playing overtones. This allows you to more easily retain good embouchure technique and not over tighten your embouchure, a common pitfall of practicing strenuous techniques. It also allows you to more easily adjust your vocal tract (tongue, vocal chords, etc.) in shaping the now less resistant air column, which, in turn, allows for more control for less effort. This simple use of the octave key will result in much more efficient and beneficial overtone practice.

You may find playing when playing overtones with the octave key it is more difficult to reach or maintain the correct partial. This is most likely because you have become too dependent on embouchure pressure to perform overtones. Though it will seem like backtracking, learning to play overtones with the octave key will improve your sound and technique.

Prove It
A quick experiment will illustrate the principle. Play the second overtone of the B-flat series notated above (the second overtone is top line F while holding the fingering for low B-flat). Hold it out as a long tone without the octave key. 15 seconds should do the trick. Now play some music: scales, a melody, or an improvisation. Pay special attention to the tone quality, especially the clarity and impact of each new note when played under a slur. 

Now, repeat the long overtone, this time holding the octave key. Play some music again, and listen for the tone. You will notice an increased clarity of tone, a slightly lowered resistance, and each slurred note will have more impact or "pop". These are the results of less overall embouchure pressure and better voicing technique.

If you want to, you can now return to the long overtone without the octave key. You will find that just a short amount of overtone practice can calibrate or alter your technique, and you can shift back and forth between the two settings playing long overtones with and without the octave key.

I would suggest using the octave key as described above for all of your overtone practice. I don't believe that it is a better work out to do overtone practice without it, and instead is, simply, the wrong kind of work out. You will find with the octave key, your practice is more efficient and more consistent.

Shameless Plug
My new book, which is completely dedicated to overtones, should be out in about a week or so. It's designed to address overtone playing at all levels, so it has exercises to help beginners play their first overtones, but it also has extremely advanced sections that will benefit players who can already play four octaves worth of overtones. I'll put up an official release post soon...

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

First Year Complete!

I've mentioned on the blog that I'm back in school at Eastman pursuing a DMA in jazz studies. The first year was great, and I've recently uploaded a couple of videos from my end of the year recital. Enjoy (hopefully)!