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I had asked this question on SaxOnTheWeb a while ago, but I'm still battling with this problem, and it makes certain pieces (like The Beatles' "Come Together") virtually unplayable.

Important information:

  • In case size matters, this is a tenor.
  • I started having this problem after a few years of playing saxophone. It had not been an issue beforehand (except, perhaps, during my first 1-2 lessons on a different horn, but back then it was low G and G# splitting/going up).
  • This happens on all of my mouthpieces.
  • This happens on all my reeds (even more often and pronounced on synthetic).
  • Most of the time, slurs from C and C# are involved (both middle and high) or tonguing a few G's/G#'s in succession.
  • It doesn't appear to be an issue with the horn itself, as the problem didn't go away after (properly conducted) maintenance.
  • I haven't had any major dental or medical work done on the oral cavity, and there haven't been any structural changes from other sources either. The only change I can think of was growing a beard, but it's not like it grows on my lips or inside my mouth.

The only reason I can think of for the problem is a change in embouchure, but I have not been able to qualify it, as it's rather sporadic. Pulling my cheeks in a bit (restricting the width of the airstream inside my mouth) while opening up the throat seems to help most of the time, so does "thinking" of the note before playing it, but I still don't understand why I have to be doing that when everything used to be fine with those 2 notes before.

Having played the instrument without the octave key could be related.

What is going on? Are there any exercises I could do to make sure it never happens? I've been doing everything I can daily, including but not limited to:

  • Playing large jumps (2 or more octaves) slurred.
  • Playing harmonics on the low-end notes and "matching" proper fingerings with them.
  • Playing with and without the octave key.

I'm at my wits' end at this point.

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    "It doesn't appear to be an issue with the horn itself": it would still be worth trying with another one, could be a small leak on the octave system (which is actually not opening the same hole for pitches higher than the G…) – Tom Jan 21 at 11:05
  • @Tom, thank you. I'd considered that, but why does the problem only occur with G and G# and none of the other notes below? And only when slurring in from certain notes (or just tonguing multiple G's/G#'s in succession)? I'll have to think of a way to get my hands on another tenor somehow, which isn't easy these days... – Pyromonk Jan 21 at 11:49
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    There are two octaves holes on a sax: when the octave key is pressed, one is opened for notes lower than G, and the other from G and higher. One of these could be leaking, and not the other one, thus favoring a bit the octave register in some range… Depending on the note you come from, the octave can also favored a bit, so if the effects add up… Anyway, that is just a wild guess… But also check that these valves are properly closing, using a thin cigarette paper for instance… – Tom Jan 21 at 12:17
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    The way I usually do is: open the valve you want to test, slide a cigarette paper between the hole and the pad, close the valve and see if the paper slides freely. You should also check for only part of the pad. If it slides it means that it is not hermetic… That's just a trick, I hope it helps though as these days it is hard to get one hand on another sax :/… – Tom Jan 21 at 12:56
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    Would also maybe worth checking all the pads over the G… That's puzzling me, let us know if you find a reason! – Tom Jan 21 at 13:52
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Assuming your instrument is in good condition, I'm pretty sure it's the embouchure. One important thing to remember is that no matter how you do voicing and tone imagining etc., finally it all comes down to five basic physical aspects which together decide the tone 1. point of contact between lower lip (jaw) and the reed 2. the amount of pressure you're giving to this point 3. how much the lips are used for changing color (more "u" or more "i") 4. the speed of air flow 5. the angle of air flow entering the tip opening, which is controlled by the tongue.

According to the studies you've done, I think your 1. position is too forward and 2. is too strong. A forward jaw position makes the reed to vibrate in higher frequencies more easily, and since you can easily blow the altissimi I guess you're giving too much force on this point, more than your teacher.

I can suggest two ways to deal with it.

  1. If the results on all the other notes are fine, just treat the G2 and G#2 with special care. Every time you meet these guys, draw back a bit your jaw, or just bite less hard, or give more lips instead of bite. Or, since normally on a tenor there's no need for enormous effort on embouchure adjusting especially on a note like G2:

  2. Judging by provided situation, I suspect you might also have intonation deviation on many other notes and a overall too straight forward / sharp tone color. Therefore you can try changing the point of contact a bit backward, playing with more "u" lips instead of "i" biting. Once you can successfully play multiple G2 fast staccato, see how other notes sound using the same embouchure. If you really need a clear study objective, try the extreme opposite exercise of playing without using the octave key: play all the first octave notes but with octave key added (all normal first octave fingering plus octave key) and make them still sound in the 1st octave. Through this exercise you will have to adjust your overall embouchure to allow the reed to vibrate in low frequencies.

Good luck with the studies!

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  • Thank you! 1) Treating G and G# with special care seems to produce more issues. The problem seems to be psychosomatic in part, meaning I occasionally slip up simply because I am "afraid" of these notes (think about them too much). 2) That's weird as well. My upper jaw actually protrudes beyond the lower jaw ("weak chin"). The exercise you recommend (playing the lower octave with the octave key) is one of my daily exercises... Tone is within acceptable range throughout the instrument (with a deviation of no more than 15 cent). – Pyromonk Mar 17 at 9:08
  • What helped me from within your answer was changing to a more "u" kind of embouchure, but I feel that it interferes with opening my throat and my attempts at learning circular breathing (it's kind of impossible to puff out one's cheeks with an "u" lip positioning). And I still don't understand why I'm getting this problem after years of playing the instrument. It doesn't make sense. What could've possibly affected my embouchure to such a degree? – Pyromonk Mar 17 at 9:08
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    You know, everyone's physical aspects are different and unfortunately I can't control your posture in person, I'm thinking that since the "u" trick works, perhaps you have a very thin lower lip? Having a very thin lip is kinda like placing the lower teeth directly on the reed (which makes the reed squeak easily). Anyways, it seems that the better solution for you is to find that sweet spot between "u" and "i" with patience 😅 – Reno Yeh Mar 18 at 10:17
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    Off-topic: checked out your stuff the other day. So good to have you here on music.stackexchange with us! – Pyromonk Mar 19 at 12:38
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    Thanks, my pleasure! – Reno Yeh Mar 20 at 14:29

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