Ergonomics - Posture
Your head should remain in its natural position, balanced above your shoulders, neither forward nor back, not raised or lowered to accommodate the mouthpiece. Stand in front of a mirror as you bring the mouthpiece up to your mouth and check to see if your head moves at all. Adjust your neck strap accordingly. As is mentioned in other sections, there is no need to look like either Sanborn or Dexter.
How much mouthpiece?
Your lower lip should act as the fulcrum in the lever created between the reed and the mouthpiece. An easy way to quickly find a good starting point for how much mouthpiece to take in to the mouth is as follows: Place your right thumb on the side of the mouthpiece at the point where the reed and mouthpiece last are touching, then insert the mouthpiece (into your mouth, I hope) to the point where your thumb nail touches your lips.
Many saxophonists seem to base their assumptions regarding the angle of the mouthpiece as it enters the mouth on old photos of John Coltrane, resulting in an angle that is too low, leading to pitch and response problems. Try this simple exercise; with a reed on the mouthpiece, blow into the mouthpiece trying a variety of angles, low to high. Which angle provides the most volume and allows the most air to enter the mouthpiece? I believe this angle will be a bit higher than our Coltrane devotees. Also, this will facilitate the natural head position described earlier.
Joe Allard spoke of a “natural bite.” This means you don’t need to compensate for your natural over, or under-bite. Check carefully in front of a mirror as you slowly insert the mouthpiece into your mouth and begin to play. There should be little or no movement of the jaw in a forward or backward direction. Many students will follow this procedure diligently with the jaw in a relaxed, natural position right up to the last second, but then change back to their older position as they begin to play. Watch yourself closely and objectively.
Hand Position for all Woodwinds
Thanks in most part to Theobald Boehm, the flute, clarinet, and saxophone have very similar fingering mechanisms. There’s another opportunity for a rant here, along the lines of the saxophone mechanism can vary greatly between manufacturers, in part because the saxophone has no defining, unified pedagogy (see The Saxophone Without Darwin). Even taking this into account, hand position is remarkably similar between these three woodwinds.
Start by making your left hand into a fist. Open it slightly and you are very close to good hand position for clarinet, or soprano sax. Open it a little more and that’s pretty much what you want to see for alto saxophone. Rotate your hand to face you, and you have a general starting point for flute. Thumb position in the left hand is more vertical for clarinet, and moves toward a one, or two o’clock position for saxophone. At all times the fingers are gently curved inward, never bent backward, or excessively flat. If your fingers are flat, extended beyond the pearls of the keys, or are bent backward at your fingertips, you are wasting energy and creating tension. Be aware and observant to the details of your technique.
For the right hand, begin with the idea that you’re going to pick up an object similar to a TV remote control – an example my older, male students seem to grasp all too quickly. Your hand is again gently curved inward, with the thumb generally lining up between the index and middle fingers. This alignment of the thumb is why many clarinetists have their thumb rests moved higher up on the instrument by about three quarters of an inch. How many clarinetists have you seen with indentations, and other evidence of clarinet trauma on their right hand thumbs? We feel pain for a reason – if something hurts, don’t do it. Move the thumb rest. Often I see students who approach the saxophone with their right arm too high, causing the thumb to twist down. Watch how your hand approaches the instrument, looking for a smooth, natural position. Now, about that thumb rest on your alto or tenor…
What does the thumb rest do? Sure, you need one for soprano, but what does it do for the other saxes? The alto and tenor saxophones should rest against your body, not thrust forward by your right thumb – sorry if this ruins your best smooth jazzer pose. Try to find a playing position where you can play an open C#, using only the index finger of your left hand to hold the instrument in place. This will establish a natural, balanced instrument position. I removed the thumb rests from my alto and tenor many years ago, and as soon as I find a big enough tool, it’s coming off the bari.
Many musicians study the Alexander Technique in an effort to achieve a relaxed and efficient performance posture. The Alexander Technique is the result of the work of a Shakespearean actor, F. M. Alexander who, after experiencing vocal problems while performing, began to research issues of posture and muscle tension. It’s a great idea to take some lessons in the Alexander technique, but you can make excellent progress on your own if you just pay close attention to your body and your balance.
Start by standing without your instrument in a relaxed and natural position with your feet shoulder width apart. Do you feel balanced? Take a physical inventory starting with your head. Is it balanced above your neck and shoulders? Move your head forward and back, then side to side. Can you find a position that requires minimal muscle tension to hold your nicely balanced head in place? Now move down from there, taking a tension inventory and searching for an optimal balance point for your head, head and neck, head, neck and shoulders, torso, hips, knees, and ankles, all the way down to the soles of your feet. All this should be done in front of a mirror – or two.
Now pick up your instrument, feeling its weight and how it affects your balance. If you’re holding your alto sax, and it’s in your right hand, it will pull you slightly to the right. Adjust your balance accordingly. Now attach the instrument to your neck strap, feeling the pull on your neck. Does it help to lean back slightly against this pull? Perhaps - for tenor – you may want to move your right foot forward to brace your self against the weight of the instrument. Poor Dave Koz, having to go through life leaning forward, with his knees and ankles pressed together in his crowd pleasing, but ergonomically disastrous stance.