Three Tips To Improve The Tone Of Your Clarinet And Saxophone Students

Mike Lawson • • October 7, 2016

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Every year, we encounter some students who have difficulty getting a characteristic tone on their clarinet or saxophone. We hear squeaks and squawks, notes that sound dull or don’t speak at all, and much more.

This is especially true for beginning band teachers, who have to diagnose a whole series of problems as quickly as possible in order to keep their students engaged with performing, as well as retaining their interest in continuing in the upcoming years.

In this article, I want to address three main concepts that contribute to achieving a great tone on a woodwind instrument.


Before we can even address setting up the embouchure, it’s important to grasp the concept of breathing for wind instrumentalists.

Many instructors make the mistake of talking about diaphragmatic breathing to a beginner student; this big word only serves to confuse them.

While it is important to understand the function of the diaphragm in breathing, it’s best to have the student experience activities that activate the breathing muscles so that they have a foundation or basis they can later expand upon.

It is also important to note that the diaphragm is an involuntary membrane that sits at the bottom of the chest cavity. We cannot control it, but we can develop the surrounding muscles, such as the intercostal muscles that expand and contract the ribs, and the back muscles, to improve breathing technique. Students can place their hands on their ribs and back muscles to kinesthetically feel the muscles that need to be engaged for breathing.

A better way to explain breathing to your students, and build awareness of the proper muscles that are used in breathing is to use analogies to nature, or to everyday activities students are familiar with or can visualize.

Some examples/analogies that illustrate deep breathing are:

• Take a breath like someone is about to dunk your head under water

• Take a breath like you are about to blow out trick candles on a birthday cake

• Take a breath so that you can move a piece of paper (with your air only) that is 10 feet away

• Notice how a baby breathes when he/she is sleeping. You see the stomach area rising and falling.

*It’s important to note that the teacher should watch the student as they take these deep breaths and ensure that students do not raise their shoulders.

Some examples of Preliminary Exercises to Develop the Breathing Muscles of Wind Instrumentalists are:

• Lie flat on the floor on your back. Breathe normally and notice that your shoulders and chest don’t move, but your abdomen/stomach area does. Inhale for one count, hold for 4 counts, and slowly exhale for 4 counts. Be mindful to fill up the lower abdomen area first, then the chest area.

• Walking: Walk at a normal pace. Inhale, filling up from the bottom first, for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts (also referred to as Box Breath- ing). Progress to inhaling over 3 counts and exhaling for 5; inhaling for 2, exhaling for 6; and finally inhaling for 1 and exhaling for 7.

• Sit-ups/Leg Lifts: Lie flat on the floor. Hands behind the neck with elbows pointed outward. Legs are raised with knees bent at a 90 degree angle. Using the abdomen muscles and NOT pushing from the hands behind the neck, lift the torso up 45 degrees, hold for 1 second, slowly go back down but not touching the floor. Do 10-15 repetitions, 2-3 sets.

• Lie flat on the floor. Hands can be placed palms-down behind the small of the back for support. Lift both legs up 45 degrees, hold for 1 second, bring legs back down but not touching the floor. Do 10- 15 repetitions, 2-3 sets.

As part of collaboration with other subject area teachers, you can coordinate with the physical education teachers in your school on a joint fitness project to help your band students breathe better.


For beginners, and even middle school students, a review of the basic embouchure is necessary to improve tone and intonation.

There are two approaches to embouchure for saxophones and clarinets: the embouchure wheel, as described in The Art of Saxophone by Larry Teal, and the method taught by Joe Allard.

Larry Teal describes the embouchure as rounded, drawing in at the corners like a wheel. Support from all the surrounding muscles of the mouth, cheeks and chin work in concert to provide a relaxed, yet controlled setting.

The other school of thought (Allard Method) involves having the bottom lip come up flat like a bar against the reed (think of saying the letter “F” or “V”). The top teeth rest on the mouthpiece and the corners just seal off the air from escaping. There is much less bottom lip curl with this approach, and as a result, there is less stifling of the tone.

The author ascribes to the latter approach; it is more natural, gets a fuller sound, and allows more of the reed to vibrate. It is also easier to teach to your students and less painful on the bottom lip. Just have them say “F” or “V”, notice what it looks and feels like, and then imitate that feeling as they produce sound.

Basic exercises to strengthen the embouchure: (also good for brass players) “Oooo-Eeeee” (This exercise is described in Larry Teal’s book.)

The goal is to work the corner and cheek muscles; the student will feel a burn in those areas after a few repetitions.

To get the maximum effect from this exercise, be sure to keep the lip corners against the teeth for both positions and the movements in-between.

Set your lips as if you are saying “Oooo” in an extreme lip position, keeping your mouth corners against the teeth. Hold for 3 seconds.

Slowly, over the course of ten seconds, move the lip position to an “Eeeee” position, remembering to keep the lip corners against the teeth.

Hold the “Eeeee” position for three seconds. That is one repetition.

Start with three repetitions/ twice a day. Add more repetitions and more times per day as the embouchure muscles get stronger.

“Mmmmm” exercise

This exercise strengthens the lower lip muscles, and reinforces the feeling of the lip coming up flat against the reed.

Form the lips as if saying “Mmmmm” (no vocal cords).

Notice how the chin doesn’t bunch up. (Have students look in a mirror to observe their chin.)

Hold for 30 seconds. (This is a great exercise to keep students quiet!)

Repeat this three or more times per day.


Articulation is usually more of an issue for woodwind musicians, particularly saxophone and clarinet students.

Some students find it difficult to articulate because it’s uncomfortable to touch the tip of the reed; it stings at first. It’s important to let students know that the “stinging” feeling goes away very quickly.

Others feel that their tongue is too big and therefore can’t maneuver to reach the tip of the reed. I advise my students to use either the tip or the front of their tongue to touch the tip of the reed. Many students find success with articulation when using the front of their tongue.

Here’s a process I use to teach articulation at all levels. It helps advanced students tongue lighter, and beginner and intermediate students to place their tongue correctly:

Without the instrument and just using the voice, the teacher chants a rhythm pattern in duple meter (two small beats for every big beat in 2/4 or 4/4), and the students echo back. E.g. For connected style articulation, use the syllable, “Du”, and repeat after me: Du-Du Du; Du-Du Du. (Create at least three examples.)

For separated style of articulation, use the syllable, “Tu”, etc. The teacher chants a rhythm pattern in triple meter (three small beats for every big beat in 6/8 or 12/8): Tu-Tu-Tu Tu; Tu-Tu-Tu Tu. (Again, create at least three examples.)

Without the instrument, and not using the vocal chords, repeat the same process, but imitating how one would articulate into the instrument. (I call it air sounds.) Make sure the students notice how easy it is to articulate, how light their tongue feels in their mouth, etc.

On the mouthpiece/neck or barrel: same process as #3, using air sounds on a number of rhythm patterns in duple and triple meters. This is where it is crucial for the student to determine what part of the tongue to use, imitate the lightness they had before, and notice how quickly the tongue moves in the mouth.

On the instrument – same process. The students will have a better understanding of articulation and will experience more success. Remind the students to do this process as part of their warm-up for a few weeks to reinforce proper articulation. By using this process, students have been able to understand how to articulate right from the beginning of their studies and get a clearer tone.

Solutions for Some Common Problems

“My students are constantly getting squeaking sounds on their clarinets and saxophones.”

This is probably the most common problem for beginners. For beginner clarinetists, it usually occurs when the student is not fully covering the holes. The fingers need to be flattened; look for the imprint of a double-hole in the middle of the pads of the fingers.

But for others, it’s an articulation issue…

Ask your students this question, “Where is your tongue touching on the reed?” Some students don’t touch the tip; instead they slap the bottom of the reed and also leave their tongue touching that spot.

Another cause of this problem is usually over-looked by instructors. When the student articulates, they do not move their tongue far enough away from the reed.

Here’s a simple solution: follow the process outlined above to help the student practice articulation without the pressure of trying to get a sound. Once they understand where to place the tongue, and to imitate the entire motion of how they say “Tu” or “Du”, the squeaking goes away.

“I can’t figure out why my saxophone students overshoot certain notes.”

It is really common for alto saxophone students to have problems playing D5 (4th line D) and tenor saxophone students to play G5 (G above the staff ) cleanly.

The students usually wind up playing the harmonic pitch just above the note, or for the tenor saxes, get a scratchy, split tone on the G.

This is due to the students biting to get the note and collapsing their chin muscles.

A quick solution is to have these students first sing the pitch for the problem note. Have them notice what goes on inside their mouth with their tongue position, throat, and oral cavity. Have them sing the pitch through the instrument, again noticing the oral cavity. The last step is to play the pitch, matching the feeling they had when singing.

Students can check their own lip position by saying the letter “F” or “V”. Next, look in a mirror to check their chin position and see how their bottom lip is even across the entire lip. Have them practice the problem note in front of the mirror to check their lip and chin position. After a week or so, they will internalize how their lip and chin feel, and will be able to produce the note cleanly.

**The problem could also be a mechanical one; the instrument may have pad leaks or the neck is bent so that the octave key mechanism is flush against it (making it rise on D5 when it should stay down).

“My students go through a ton of reeds.”

Beginner woodwind musicians will invariably go through their first box of reeds very quickly because they are developing the coordination skills to assemble the reed and instrument.

For more experienced players, it is a question of how well they are taking care of the reed, how safely they are storing them, and if they are rotating their reeds regularly. (Reeds will last longer and the reed strength will be maintained longer if reeds are rotated.)

Living in a dry climate, I have noticed how my reeds don’t respond well, and squeak often if they are not thoroughly wet. I have taken to storing my reeds in a waterproof case (made by Witz) partially filled with original Listerine. This keeps them instantly playable (like synthetic reeds) and germ-free.

A solution that’s less bulky and messy is the Reed Juvinate reed holder ( for all woodwinds. There is a triangular- shaped sponge that you soak in original Listerine for 10 minutes once a month (or more if desired). This sponge keeps the reeds humid enough to provide a quick response, helps them last longer and keeps them germ-free.

(You can listen to an interview with John Mackey from Reed Juvinate and myself here at for more information.)

Some band directors have purchased these reed holders in bulk because it has saved them lots of budget money purchasing boxes of reeds for students. Reeds are stored safely in non-destructible cylindrical containers that contain a magnet to store the containers against a music stand.

Reeds stored wet last longer because they do not go through the constant changes of dry-wet, which wear out the cane fibers.


Breathing, embouchure formation and articulation are three main factors affecting a characteristic tone in woodwind musicians.

Taking deep, relaxed breaths, articulating with a precise, relaxed tongue and forming the embouchure in a way that allows the reed to vibrate fully will immediately improve your students’ sound, and improve the overall sound of each section in your band.

Less squeaks and resistance will make your students’ musical experience more enjoyable, and will help retain their interest in continuing performing throughout high school.

Donna Schwartz is a musician/educator/ speaker and radio show host, formerly from NY and now residing in the Los Angeles metro area. She has taught in public schools for over 14 years, and private students for over 27 years on Saxophones and Brass instruments. Donna’s blog, at blog, features articles containing practical tips and solutions for music performance- related issues.

Visit to get access to a free video series created especially for SBO subscribers that demonstrates the breathing exercises, articulation process, and embouchure exercises detailed in this article.


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