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I am a beginner, two years plus in, on Alto. I’ve read a lot about tongue position with the saxophone - the great Joe Allard and his acolytes, forward coning and the like - which immediately resonated with me, although neither of the two teachers I’ve had so far seemed to place much emphasis on this key technical area. Indeed, my first teacher had to check where his tongue was when playing when asked about it. After much practice - half an hour to an hour 5-6 days per week, I’ve started to see some rewards in terms of intonation and tone where the back of my tongue is located up against my upper molars. For example, in moving from low F to A my intonation is pretty accurate, and the A is less harsh, more tuneful than it was for the first eighteen months, depending on how tired my embochure is:). Frustratingly, however, I find it difficult to find that position at the beginning of my practice and even more frustratingly, I find that my tongue moves out of that arguably optimum position all the time, with resulting loss of intonation - mostly flat - and tunefulness. Has anyone else experienced this issue? Is tongue position that important, and is there a point where the tongue finds its optimum place within one’s set up? N.B. I recognise that even with great players the tongue moves around a bit, but that is with intent rather than in my case, a lack of control. Cheers.
 

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Yes, tongue position is very important. There are some exercises you can do to help strengthen the muscles and build control. Overtone work and pitch bending are two great ways to approach this.

Here are some things I learned from Eugene Rousseau. https://youtu.be/81ejKz8z5Qc
Additionally, grab a copy of Donald Sinta’s Book, Voicing: An Approach to the Saxophone’s Third Octave.
 

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Is there really a "arguably optimum position" for all notes, tone quality, types of music?

I found I started to get a grip on this through starting on overtones / altisimo.
To do those you have, I guess, to pick out the higher partials using your whole self - from lips to diaphragm. Once one gets that, it can be applied through the whole range.
When I started, I was contorting my tongue so much I almost got cramp! Obviously practice, trial and error etc. makes it easier. But I did feel that this was the bootcamp for tone control.

Jazz is All made some really good comments on this here:
https://forum.saxontheweb.net/showthread.php?280698-Hitting-high-D-note
 

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Frustratingly, however, I find it difficult to find that position at the beginning of my practice and even more frustratingly, I find that my tongue moves out of that arguably optimum position all the time, with resulting loss of intonation - mostly flat - and tunefulness. Has anyone else experienced this issue? Is tongue position that important, and is there a point where the tongue finds its optimum place within one’s set up? N.B. I recognise that even with great players the tongue moves around a bit, but that is with intent rather than in my case, a lack of control. Cheers.
I may be going against the tide here, but I think your instructors are correct. You don't need to go through all kinds of contortions, trying to place your tongue in a specific position. Most of what happens in your mouth (tongue, throat, etc) is on a subconscious level, which is why your teacher had to check his tongue position. It's fine to experiment, especially if your tongue is somehow getting in the way of the reed, etc, but don't get carried away to the point of distraction.

The real key in working out intonation and tone quality issues is to use your ear and continually work toward getting the sound you want by listening to what you are hearing. Your tongue will take care of itself in the process.

Having said that, I just picked up the horn and tried to pay attention to what my tongue was doing as I played. Except when tonguing a note, my tongue is pulled back and slightly up, with the sides of the tongue very lightly touching my molars. Basically, it just gets out of the way, except when tonguing a note. I never have to think about it all.
 

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Grafton alto | Martin Comm III tenor
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I never have to think about it all.
Nor me.

I think a lot of the time teachers try to find things to teach. Often it works because people like to be taught. Kind of a placebo, "ooh, I had a great lesson today and learned the right shape for my tongue..."

My philosophy when I was a teacher was to get rid of students as quickly as possible, because that was my benchmark of success - teach them to be good enough that they don't need me, and they can teach themselves. Get them to the point where they can actually work this stuff out and become players without someone analysing every minutiae of tongue position and vowel shape or whatever.

Having said that, there are some great teachers who get great results with this stuff - whether it's tongue position or whatever, but I'm sad to say there are some teachers who just rely on regurgitating something that can work for some students, but not all. The best teachers quickly work out the psychology involved and treat each student as an individual. Some work well with the technical minutiae, others just need a lightbulb.

A teacher shows you the door, it's up to you, the student, to walk though it...
 

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Nor me.

I think a lot of the time teachers try to find things to teach. Often it works because people like to be taught. Kind of a placebo, "ooh, I had a great lesson today and learned the right shape for my tongue..."

My philosophy when I was a teacher was to get rid of students as quickly as possible, because that was my benchmark of success - teach them to be good enough that they don't need me, and they can teach themselves. Get them to the point where they can actually work this stuff out and become players without someone analysing every minutiae of tongue position and vowel shape or whatever.

Having said that, there are some great teachers who get great results with this stuff - whether it's tongue position or whatever, but I'm sad to say there are some teachers who just rely on regurgitating something that can work for some students, but not all. The best teachers quickly work out the psychology involved and treat each student as an individual. Some work well with the technical minutiae, others just need a lightbulb.

A teacher shows you the door, it's up to you, the student, to walk though it...
I consider that it's impossible for someone to truly teach another person a craft, which is what playing an instrument is. What teachers are good for is to show you where you go wrong, correct obvious faults, show you specific technique matters like fingerings, and guide you on what and how to practice in order that you can properly internalize the tiny movements and subtle things that are required. But you yourself in the practice room have to actually try these things over and over to be able to do it.

So, if you ask most experienced sax players how they make this or that kind of sound, if they are really being truthful, most would say that they make their embouchure/airstream/etc. feel like it feels when that sound comes out - as they discovered through hours in the shed.

If moving your tongue one way or another makes certain things work better, then do that, but internalize it through extensive practice. After all, when you make a specific sound speaking in your native language, you don't analyze what you are doing to make that sound. You just make the sound.
 

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I consider that it's impossible for someone to truly teach another person a craft, which is what playing an instrument is. What teachers are good for is to show you where you go wrong, correct obvious faults, show you specific technique matters like fingerings, and guide you on what and how to practice in order that you can properly internalize the tiny movements and subtle things that are required. But you yourself in the practice room have to actually try these things over and over to be able to do it.

So, if you ask most experienced sax players how they make this or that kind of sound, if they are really being truthful, most would say that they make their embouchure/airstream/etc. feel like it feels when that sound comes out - as they discovered through hours in the shed.

If moving your tongue one way or another makes certain things work better, then do that, but internalize it through extensive practice. After all, when you make a specific sound speaking in your native language, you don't analyze what you are doing to make that sound. You just make the sound.
I agree with the analogy to an extent and the part about internalizing through extensive practice is spot-on.

However, I think that teaching technique is in essence teaching the craft. Also, there is a proper way and improper ways to make the sounds when speaking. Public speakers and newscasters do go through training on how to speak properly (breathing, support, and yes, tongue position, etc.). Everyone can talk, make sounds and/or speak words without thinking, but I believe majority do it incorrectly (hence creating issues like nodes in the vocal chords, hoarse voices on a regular basis, speaking voice too shrill, too soft, etc.) and would benefit from analyzing the way they speak initially and learning to do it correctly. I've taken extensive voice lessons myself (mostly for singing), but I've found that the principles translate very well to public speaking as well (which I have to do quite a bit as part of my job).

More on point, my teacher was huge on tongue position and it's one of the areas we worked on regularly. I have found that tongue position does tremendously impact intonation as well as the "focus" of the sound, particularly when considered in conjunction with keeping the lips (particularly the lower lip) very loose, the throat open and the airstream constantly being pushed up by the muscles supporting the diaphragm. At the start when I wasn't paying attention to my tongue position, the sound I was producing was too spread and honky and usually flat (previously I would typically be sharp from biting/pressing too hard with the lower lip). When I trained myself to keep the tongue back and up, my sound improved significantly. Now I don't have to think about it at all (well, maybe sometimes I still do), but I had to be very conscious and deliberate at the start.
 

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You may be right about there not being an optimum tongue position, but I am getting better tone and intonation results when I’m able to establish and retain my tongue in the position I outlined above. It is the absence of a solid base - tongue position, embouchere et al - that makes practise frustrating, but then again that is probably one of the main reasons to practise:) Cheers
 

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Good points, thanks. That said, my tongue isn’t stable and is getting in the way or conversely, it isn’t taking care of itself, yet. It has become a point of distraction too, to some extent. I suspect sometimes that I simply haven’t played enough to know what feels,right and to be aware of what I am doing so it is repeatable, in a good way. Thanks for your response.
 

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I won’t say you are lucky then because no doubt your technique is the result of a lot of hard work. However, I’m not there yet.
 

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I am a beginner, two years plus in, on Alto. I’ve read a lot about tongue position with the saxophone - the great Joe Allard and his acolytes, forward coning and the like - which immediately resonated with me, although neither of the two teachers I’ve had so far seemed to place much emphasis on this key technical area. Indeed, my first teacher had to check where his tongue was when playing when asked about it. After much practice - half an hour to an hour 5-6 days per week, I’ve started to see some rewards in terms of intonation and tone where the back of my tongue is located up against my upper molars. For example, in moving from low F to A my intonation is pretty accurate, and the A is less harsh, more tuneful than it was for the first eighteen months, depending on how tired my embochure is:). Frustratingly, however, I find it difficult to find that position at the beginning of my practice and even more frustratingly, I find that my tongue moves out of that arguably optimum position all the time, with resulting loss of intonation - mostly flat - and tunefulness. Has anyone else experienced this issue? Is tongue position that important, and is there a point where the tongue finds its optimum place within one’s set up? N.B. I recognise that even with great players the tongue moves around a bit, but that is with intent rather than in my case, a lack of control. Cheers.
A lot of different opinions about tongue position on the forum. I was just listening today to the Bob Sheppard seminar on My Music Masterclass https://www.mymusicmasterclass.com/premiumvideos/saxophone-masterclass-bob-sheppard-2/ - you have to pay for it but well worth it. Listen to Bob's dissertation on tongue position and I'm sure you'll come to the conclusion that - not only is it important - it is absolutely critical to just about every aspect of your playing. The tongue position controls the air speed. The low notes on the horn require reduced air speed and the upper notes require faster air speed, commensurate with the pitch. Controlling the air speed is the only way to be able to play the full range of the horn without pinching off the embrasure and choking off your sound. I'm certainly no authority, but I'll take Bob's word for it!
 

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Nobody is saying it isn't important. Just that you really can't analyze it out the nth degree. Or maybe you can but it won't do much good until you get well beyond thinking about where your tongue is positioned. The same thing is true for air speed, embouchure, voicing, and other largely subconscious things. You can certainly make some general points (loose embouchure, fill the horn with air, and various tonguing techniques), but ultimately you figure it out by using your ear, working on various exercises, and practicing. Did I mention using your ear? That's the key imo. But then I'm not a music teacher, so I could be off base.
 

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Nobody is saying it isn't important. Just that you really can't analyze it out the nth degree. Or maybe you can but it won't do much good until you get well beyond thinking about where your tongue is positioned. The same thing is true for air speed, embouchure, voicing, and other largely subconscious things. You can certainly make some general points (loose embouchure, fill the horn with air, and various tonguing techniques), but ultimately you figure it out by using your ear, working on various exercises, and practicing. Did I mention using your ear? That's the key imo. But then I'm not a music teacher, so I could be off base.
Isn't repetition using the correct technique (or rather, a correct technique) the way to get to the point where you don't think about it anymore and yet still do it correctly? It seems to me that (and based on my own experience) you have to think about and analyze all of the various points that make up the technique at the onset and keep repeating and repeating and repeating (all the while being mindful of what you're doing vis-a-vis what you're supposed to be doing) until you've done it enough times that it becomes habit/a subconscious thing. Then once you've got the fundamentals down so that you don't have to think about them anymore (except maybe to remind yourself every once in awhile if you notice yourself developing bad habits) you can start exploring other nuances/advanced techniques.

I know I had to constantly think about my tongue position when I first learned the new technique from my teacher, but now I've been able to train the applicable muscles to just do what they're supposed to automatically.
 
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