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Hello there!

I am a novice player (6 months) on the alto sax. Over the past 3 weeks I have picked up a nasty habit of tightening my jaw when playing higher notes (E2 and above). Once this happens I can't relax until I let go of the mouthpiece completely, and I bite into my lower lip - so much so that the lip gets too sore too keep playing.

I have tried consciously to keep my lower jaw loose but then the reed doesn't vibrate at all. Using weaker reeds seem to alleviate the problem for 20-30 minutes - then I get tense and bite again. I have moved from 2.5 -> 2.0 -> 1.5 reeds and it just doesn't seem right, not to mention the horrible tones I get using 1.5 ones.

I have asked my teacher about this and he suggested keeping the lips curled in, tight but relaxed. Easier said than done.

All this suggests my embrochure is weak and the lips muscles need training, but I can't understand why this didn't happen when I first started playing the sax. I have been actively trying to fix this but nothing seemed to work! This is very frustrating and any advice would be appreciated.
 

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As a matter of fact - yes. Initially it was 30 minutes/day but I have been doing an hour daily since September. Many books and teachers suggest 30 minutes of quality practice daily (divided into 5 minute groups of scales, arpeggios, melodic study, pieces etc) but with my butter fingers I really need more time to get to grips with the work.

I am in my thirties and really wished I have discovered the sax much, much earlier.
 

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Bite less from top to bottom and instead try pressing in more from the corners of your mouth. Try using your tounge to make the air stream move quicker. It hard to describe how to do this but it involves sort of lifting it a tad towards the top of the mouth. Giving air a tighter stream is the effect. I think I tend to tighten my throat and push air from deep down as i can imagine in my abdomen.
 

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I'm a late starter and used to bite too hard too. Always made teeth marks on the mouthpiece. Got over it by doing like playitfunky says.
 

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One good exercise (IMVHO ;) ) is to try employing "double lip" embouchure to get the feeling of what sort of pressure is needed on the reed and around the mouthpiece and the correct "supported" feeling in the bottom lip.. This has been discussed here quite a bit and you should find info with a search. Some disagree strongly with the idea of ever using double lip but you will probably find their alternative suggestions for dealing with biting in the same threads. Good luck!
 

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Are you blowing correctly from your diaphragm? If you're not, more air stream support will help you sort it out. Much has been written on the subject. I do have an article about diaphragm support on my website. It may help you sort it out.

If it's any consololation, I used to bite like crazy, years ago when I started playing. Learning how to blow the instrument properly in a relaxed fashion cured the problem.
 

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Giroro said:
Over the past 3 weeks I have picked up a nasty habit of tightening my jaw when playing higher notes (E2 and above).

Using weaker reeds seem to alleviate the problem for 20-30 minutes - then I get tense and bite again.

All this suggests my embrochure is weak and the lips muscles need training, but I can't understand why this didn't happen when I first started playing the sax. I have been actively trying to fix this but nothing seemed to work! This is very frustrating and any advice would be appreciated.
I would like to suggest an experiment. Setup your horn like you usually do and warm up.

Without changing your mouthpiece placement on the cork, play a low Bb into a tuner, and slowly slur chromatically up the scale without changing your embouchure and watch the tuner.

If the highest notes on the horn come out flat, your playing may benefit by pushing your mouthpiece in on the cork.

When I did this experiment on my alto, I ended up pushing my mouthpiece in 1/4" further, which covered about 75% of the cork. By changing the mouthpiece position, I was able to play my high notes in tune without biting, and with very little adjustment to my embouchure.

"Mouthpiece Placement, Tuning and Tone" by Stephen Duke is what taught me about this and other concepts that may be of interest you.

To develop embouchure endurance efficiently, experience has taught me the following. When I have an extended practice session with plenty of breaks, my embouchure endurance develops very nicely. If I practice without breaks until I tire, my embouchure endurance develops very slowly.

I sometimes like to take a day or two off after an extended session. This gives the muscles time to recover and/or develop.
 

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The lesson learned from the Duke article is exactly what my sax teacher did with me when I first returned to the sax after my 20-odd year "break". When I picked the sax up again, I was playing with the mouthpiece way out on the neck. My teacher "deconstructed" my emboucher and re-constructed it so that 1. the mouthpiece was further IN on the neck, and 2. my jaw was much less constricted, more relaxed, and I found I could play much longer.

That being said, the high notes will require you to "bite in" somewhat to sound, and I accomplish that by moving my lower jaw forward on the reed.
 

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It's worth tuning slightly sharp, then relax a bit. This is also good for staying in tune when using vibrato.

And I also think it's worth trying the double lip embouchure, maybe just for a while.
 

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NotPortlyNJ said:
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That being said, the high notes will require you to "bite in" somewhat to sound, and I accomplish that by moving my lower jaw forward on the reed.
Tightening the surrounding muscles and correcting the oral cavity and air stream/speed to accomplish, yes. Biting, absolutely not.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
Just a quick thank you to all the advice given. So many things to think about! This is early days yet, and I haven't been able to play much because the lip is still sore. Hopefully things will get better.

Either that, or a shiny new Yani alto will appear on ebay during Xmas :)
 

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For me, my teacher had emphasized on making an exaggerated "ooh" sound,then rolling in my bottom lip, though keeping the same position of my cheek muscles. You know you've got it right if the corners of your mouth point up, or are in the middle, though do the exercise again if the corners drop.

While your tone may be lacking when you do this exercise, continue playing like this for a few weeks. It should help your embouchere.
 

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One thing you need to remember is that your jaw is stronger than the muscles surrounding your lips. If you have increased your playing time, it will take awhile to build the right muscles up to that level, and when your lips get tired it is natural to compensate by tightening up the jaw and bighting more. If this is the case, then you need to approach it like you would any physical training. Play for shorter periods, but more often. Stop playing when your lips start hitting the point where you feel yourself biting down, take a short break and start again when you can relax your jaw/mouth. Put the focus on the muscles on the sides of your mouth as much as the top and bottom so you are using all the muscles properly to support your embrochure.
 

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An easy way to eliminate the "bite" is to "lip" a note slightly flat by lowering the chin and jaw. Then keeping the teeth open and apart, tighten the mouth around the mouthpiece to bring the note back up to pitch.

It is the pushing up of the jaw and chin that causes the lower teeth to bite into the bottom lip. Players do this all the time to compensate for poor muscle tone and strength in the muscles around the mouth. When playing the sax, the proper sensation is that the chin and jaw are pulling down and away from the reed, not pushing up against it.

My objection to the "double lip" advice is that by pressing down slightly with the top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece and pushing forward with the right hand thumb in the thumb hook the sensation of the jaw pulling down and away from the reed is more easily achieved.

John
 
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