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Learning The Saxophone As A Clarinettist

One of my clarinet students recently started saxophone lessons as well and it reminded me of the difficulties one can (perhaps) notice when swapping between the two musical instruments. I'd like to describe and try to explain these issues in this blog.

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I started playing the clarinet at the age of eight. It was four years later that I picked up the saxophone and in that time I had managed to progress to about grade five standard on the clarinet and was making my way through James Rae's 40 Modern Studies For Solo Clarinet and had already started looking at some jazz standards.

I still remember the first time I picked up the saxophone and blew a note. It was an old tenor with an uncomfortable sling (no padding) and was very, very heavy. It took a lot of puff to get a note out and the bottom ones were practically impossible to produce, while the top ones sounded out of tune.

For the first two months, I was still using James Rae's 40 Modern Studies For Solo Clarinet on the saxophone and just ignoring the bits that went below a bottom Bb (which happened a lot). Then, when Dad realised I was having to skip a lot of the music, he bought me James Rae's 12 Modern Etudes For Solo Saxophone.

I later went on to do grade eight on both instruments, which by this point had been upgraded to professional models (I still remember the examiner saying my tenor playing had a lovely tone), and headed off to university.


At Lancaster University, I did a lot of performing, had saxophone lessons, and practiced a lot. Never, throughout the whole year, was a negative comment made on how I played the saxophone. This changed when I moved to the University of Huddersfield a year later.

My saxophone teacher at Huddersfield spotted my technique instantly. 'Why do you have barely any mouthpiece in your mouth?'.... 'Why is your bottom lip curved under the mouthpiece?'... 'Why are you holding the saxophone up and out in front of you?'. Let's work through these questions in more detail:


When you compare the clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces (especially tenor), you can see the difference in size. I had been taught, on clarinet, not to put too much mouthpiece in my mouth as I was told this caused instability and flatness. While this is true, having less mouthpiece in also adds more differences, the most important being: that it slightly quietens and brightens the sound, making it polite and ideal for classical playing.

When the same is applied to the saxophone, the volume change is huge. By putting a small amount of mouthpiece in your mouth, you have instantly reduced your ability to create contrast in your dynamics. If you need to project in a huge venue, you'll find it very difficult to do. Instead, we should be putting more mouthpiece in our mouth, which increases the volume we can produce.


On the clarinet, the correct embouchure to use involves curving your bottom lip so that it covers your teeth, thus creating a cushion between your teeth and the reed. By doing this, you reduce the risk of any squeaks and can create vibrato more easily.

On saxophone, while this technique works (as is evident by my not noticing I didn't need to do it for a good eight years), it isn't the most common embouchure position. Instead, you should be creating an 'oh' shape with your mouth. This again adds more volume to your sound and adds depth and sonority too.

I'll admit, to this day, I don't actually do the full 'oh' but I also don't do the curved clarinet embouchure either; my position is somewhere in between. I still prefer a bit of a cushion between my teeth and the reed so my mouth shape is more of an 'oo'. As I put the mouthpiece in my mouth, a little bit of the bottom lip covers the teeth. The risk with that though, is that if you're not confident with tone, you run the risk of biting and pinching your lip (ouch!).

This can also happen with the clarinet embouchure. If you're not comfortable with those high notes, you can accidentally start biting through your lower lip; something I did when practicing for my grade eight on clarinet (it was agony!).


This is a bit of an embarrassing one, since I'm sure most people figure this out quite quickly when learning the saxophone; I was just a bit stupid.

When learning the clarinet, I had been taught to lift the instrument so that it was at a 40-degree angle minimum. I see so many clarinettists playing their instrument with it as close to their body as possible. The problem with this is that it reduces the flexibility the reed has since, with the instrument being so close to you, your lip is pressing on the reed more than it needs to. This will reduce the effectiveness of vibrato, your overall volume, your projection, and could flatten your tone.

So, with my 40-degree angle, I had assumed the sax also needed a similar treatment, even though the mouthpiece is already going into your mouth at a completely different angle. This resulted in a sharpening of my tone, occasional squeaking, and painful wrists (since they were making that sling practically redundant).


If you're also learning the saxophone as a clarinettist, don't forget that if the saxophone was straightened out, it is a longer instrument and requires more puff (John Harle has his own custom 'straight' alto saxophone and it's so long it needs a pin stand (just like a cello or double bass) at the bell). Those low notes, therefore, need a lot more support, especially considering the air needs to be pushed around a couple of bends. Because of this, I find I'm using my diaphragm a lot more with my saxophone than I do with my clarinet.

Remember to have patience with yourself. As someone who had been playing clarinet for four years before picking up the saxophone, I was already quite proficient. When learning a new musical instrument, especially one of the same family (woodwind), we expect it to be easy and when it isn't we get frustrated. Don't. It's still a new instrument and needs to be treated as one so cut yourself a little slack and just enjoy the learning process.

Let me know if you've noticed any issues you had when changing musical instruments.


If you are looking for clarinet lessons or a saxophone teacher near you, I offer face-to-face music lessons in Wells, UK and online music lessons to anyone worldwide. Feel free to get in touch!


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