SaxHax: Experimenting with the Double Lip Embouchure
I recently attended a recital and masterclass by Jose Franch-Ballester, the great clarinetist and chamber musician. He is, of course, an incredible performer and teacher, but there was one particular concept that I took away from the class that has changed my playing significantly. While working with a student that had a problem with air escaping from his embouchure, Jose suggested that he try playing through a passage using a double lip embouchure because it makes it nearly impossible to leak air. This immediately helped the student fix this issue, however, Jose went on to discuss the technique a bit further. Apparently, the first clarinets were made with the reed placed on top of the mouthpiece, so everyone had no choice but to play with a double lip embouchure. After the class, I did a bit of digging around on my own and found this video of Ricardo Morales discussing the benefits of playing or practicing with a double lip embouchure. While the saxophone is definitely a different instrument, there is no denying the wealth of parallels that there are between the two instruments as single reed cousins.
After these experiences, I had to give it a try on saxophone. My first attempts at playing with this new embouchure were laughable. I sounded like a third grader that could barely make a sound on a middle C. Once a got a little bit more comfortable with using this method, I tried to do some scales and long tone exercises. I found that I had a lot of trouble maintaining the musculature of my embouchure, and even more trouble trying to play in the upper register. Altissimo was totally out of the question. Most people I’ve told about this generally stop at this point, laugh, and say that it doesn’t work for them.
However, it only makes sense that this would not work very well at first since you may have been practicing with a different embouchure for 10+ years! Just like the first time you learned the saxophone, you have to identify and strengthen new muscles that you may have never used before. For me, some of these muscles were ones that I should have been using better all along! After experimenting with double lip embouchure for a few weeks, I’ve seen concrete improvements in several areas for myself and my students.
Increased awareness of tongue position: There is an incredible physical phenomenon that occurs when the upper lip is rolled over the top teeth, even without an instrument. The tongue naturally shifts back and up into the position that it actually needs to be in for playing. When playing and practicing double lip, altissimo, going over the break, articulating in the low register, and large leaps are eventually more successful because the adjustments have to be made solely with tongue position and air direction. I always thought that I was doing this already, but the fact that I could barely play above a C with the octave key told me that I was somehow involving my embouchure in these techniques as well. Now, anytime I have a passage that involves any of the aspects mentioned above, I make sure that I can play it well double lip before practicing it with the stability of the top teeth on the mouthpiece. Generally, if I’m starting to have trouble with a passage again, when I go back to playing double lip, it will show me where I am going wrong.
Strengthening and increased awareness of upper lip musculature: I also previously thought that my upper lip was well-developed and strong. However, when I started practicing double lip, I started getting really sore in my upper lip and corner muscles, almost like when I first started playing. Most people have found that they neglect certain muscles that should be used when making an embouchure. I also started to realize that my upper lip had weird tendencies to move around in random instances (going over the break, when articulating at loud dynamics, etc.). I began to notice this tendency in a lot of my students and colleagues as well. Over the past few weeks, this soreness has been gradually decreasing, but I can still feel that the muscles are not fully developed. This newfound awareness has helped in so many ways!
Greatly reduced chance of biting: This one is a bit more obvious. If there is flesh on both the top and bottom of the mouthpiece, it’s going to really hurt to bite or have too much tension in the embouchure. My younger students find this particularly telling and their sounds generally open up very quickly when they understand what not to do. This is particularly helpful in the altissimo for all players as well. My range has increased from an altissimo F to the Ab above that in the past few weeks!
Increased awareness of finger technique: When practicing double lip, the instrument is less stable, since you are not holding on to the mouthpiece with your top teeth. This means that every move that you make with your body is amplified and can cause a lot of extraneous movement of the instrument. This is why you see the reed slide around a lot in bassoonists mouths when they play technical passages. I find that this allows me to be much more aware of every movement that my fingers make. The result is more nuanced and fluid finger technique!
Better response in low register on baritone and tenor saxophones: I honestly don’t know exactly why this works yet, but it has helped me immensely in passages where I need a clean articulation on a low note at any dynamic. This is the only case where have actually used the technique in performance. I used it extensively on the most recent Kenari recital at the University of Michigan!
At this point, I practice with double lip embouchure about half of the time (especially when working on technical passages). Definitely, don’t do this at first. Just start with five or ten minutes at a time! Nothing should ever hurt. I hope this helps in some way! Message me with any questions!