Reed Clinic - Tuning

John Robert Brown

Wind players can be forgiven for being reluctant to try the instrument of a fellow musician. Most of us now avoid playing someone else's saxophone or clarinet without first giving the thing a thorough cleaning and disinfecting. Now, we all know enough about health and infection to be unwilling to face the hygiene hazards of blowing the saxophone or clarinet belonging to a colleague.

However couth and kempt that comrade seems to be, however exhaustive his or her maintenance routine, regardless of how clean and polished the appearance of mouthpiece and instrument, don't blow anyone else's instrument. Once, a couple of decades ago, we were merely concerned about catching a cold or a sore throat. Now we know more about health-threatening possibilities. Whether it's Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), commonly known as atypical pneumonia, from Hong Kong, or bad old Hepatitis, a multitude of nasty diseases can be contracted in this way. However well you think you know the colleague whose instrument you are borrowing, the only safe strategy is to clean and disinfect. Apply any household disinfectant that is effective against saliva-borne bugs.

From the point of view of the amount of knowledge and information gained from playing another person's instrument, this reluctance to share is regrettable. What better guide to a beginner than to offer them a blow on your saxophone? The impression gained of the reed strength, bite (the amount you take in your mouth) and mouthpiece characteristics used by an experienced player-you-is perfect. Let me put it another way. Wouldn't you find it instructive to play - just for a couple of minutes - on the saxophone/reed/mouthpiece set-up of Michael Brecker, James Carter, Victor Goines or David Sanborn?

An example is worth a thousand words, they say. Wasn't it George Bernard Shaw who observed that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place?

Knowing this, I developed a strategy to use when teaching harmony 'two in a bed', that is, giving harmony tutorials to two students at a time. First I would explain a particular concept carefully, let's say the use of the secondary dominant. Then, when both students assured me that they understood the nature and function of a secondary dominant, and would recognise one anywhere, I would ask one of the students to explain it to the other. Listening to the student's exposition on secondary dominants, I would immediately know whether communication had taken place, whether I'd actually taught anyone anything!

Sometimes, words are not enough certainly not always adequate to explain what's happening inside one's mouth or mouthpiece. But let someone blow your saxophone, and you know you've communicated. If they can feel the sort of resistance and projection that you choose, they can achieve that for themselves so much more quickly. Actions do speak louder than words.

In the days before we were so concerned about hygiene, I remember a particular occasion when I swapped clarinets with a colleague. We had been discussing the use of a short barrel on the clarinet. At the time the most popular clarinet, particularly with orchestral players, was the Boosey and Hawkes 1010 model. Among those of us playing in theatre orchestras (and required to double extensively), some players had the notion that the 1010 played flat, and needed a short tuning barrel. I disagreed. In fact, on my 1010 I had to play with a full-length barrel, pulled out by about 2mm, to be at concert pitch. This frequently caused comment.

One night, curiosity took hold. My section colleague, Joe, always used a very short barrel on his 1010. That night he asked to swap clarinets with me for a few numbers. What we both discovered was a surprise. Playing Joe's clarinet, I still needed to have the barrel pulled out by about 2mm to get down to concert pitch. And Joe still required his short barrel to get up to concert pitch when playing my clarinet. That is, the tuning characteristics remained with the player. It wasn't a problem with the clarinet itself. Using the same clarinet and mouthpiece, one musician played relatively sharp, the other relatively flat. It seemed that naturally my pitch was higher and Joe's was lower. At the time, we didn't devote much energy to finding out why this was so. We put it down, slightly wrongly, to embouchure or reeds.
We first noticed this phenomenon on the clarinet. Because there is only a small amount of adjustment available, it's difficult to adjust for great flatness because the barrel can only be pushed in for a very short distance. Thus, a specially made short barrel is needed. Also, when pulled out, the gap between barrel and clarinet body is highly visible. By contrast, the neck corks on saxophones vary. It isn't possible to make at-a-glance comparisons between saxophones in the same way. But later I realised that the saxophone is affected similarly.

The explanation lies in the different physical characteristics of the musicians, their morphology. When playing a saxophone or clarinet, all of our oral cavities are involved. They resonate, as they do when we speak or sing. If you've ever suspected that there is a connection between a reed player's speech quality and his instrumental tone, you are right. Yes, the late Jack Brymer's beautiful clarinet tone and his resonant speaking voice were related, because of his morphology, though of course the role of his clarinet reed was taken by his vocal chords when speaking or singing.

That is to say, our mouths act like a resonator. Just like the body of the saxophone or clarinet, they contain a series of displacement and compression nodes and antinodes. The node is the narrow part of the wave (at the mouthpiece tip, for example), the antinode where the wave is wide enough to touch the side of the bore. You've seen those diagrams of curved lines drawn inside the bore of the instrument. Those nodes and antinodes continue into the mouth. That is to say, between your tongue and the roof of your mouth (hard palate at the front, soft palate at the rear) there are displacement antinodes. If a displacement antinode is narrow (low), the pitch is lower. Conversely, if a displacement antinode is wide (high), the pitch is higher.

In other words, if one has a thick tongue and/or a low palate, the displacement antinode is 'squashed', and the pitch is lower. With a thin tongue and/or high palate, the displacement antinode is 'broadened', and the pitch is higher. Observe that singers open their mouths widest when they are singing their highest notes. From this, because I play at a sharper pitch, I can conclude that I must have a thin tongue or a high palate. This means that the antinode is wider, which in turn makes my clarinet (and my saxophone) play sharper than average, all other things being equal.

Therefore you can understand that a dental appliance with a plate against the palate is going to affect one's playing. The volume of the mouth is said to have greater effect between 500 and 2,000 Hz. That is, from an octave above middle C (512Hz, just above concert A) upwards for about two octaves. In saxophone terms, that will have most effect on the working ranges of the alto upper register and throughout the soprano range. With the clarinet, concert A is again your reference pitch. The affected clarinet range is from the second register upwards - ­from the middle of the treble clef, that is.

Geoff Gough, my own teacher, long ago, used to emphasise the benefit of playing with an open throat. He would draw a letter '0' on my music, to illustrate the effect to be sought. That is, one simulates a yawn-with the saxophone in one's mouth, of course. This has the effect of widening the air passage. It certainly changes the tone and projection for the better. Despite what I've written above about the volume of the mouth affecting frequencies above 500Hz, the effect on timbre by using an open throat is noticeable even on the baritone.

Placing an adhesive patch on the mouthpiece has a triple function. It forces the jaws apart, increasing the oral cavity, thus raising the pitch. It also filters the vibrations from the mouthpiece, making the player hear the sound slightly differently. Thirdly, those players with sharp teeth also protect their mouthpiece from damage. This is a real possibility. My first mouthpiece wore to the extent that I could see daylight through the plastic.

Just about any interference with the cross-sectional area of the bore of the airway has an effect on pitch. For vivid proof of this, hang a piece of string down the length of the bore of any reed instrument. The pitch drops. It's an old wrinkle, handy when you encounter a dreadfully flat piano, or need to play on an old, high pitch instrument. Elderly saxophones in junk shops are sometimes seen to be fitted with a metal rod, fixed (brazed or soldered) down the length of the bore, right to the lip of the bell. That was done to a high pitch instrument to lower it. Sometimes the really keen craftsman would taper the rod, to match the tapering bore. Remember that anything that reduces the effective diameter of the bore has a similar effect. This includes that vile yellow gunge that accumulates inside the mouthpiece and the top of the neck if you don't keep the instrument clean. If you are playing all day, particularly if you are eating and drinking as well, the putrid paste builds up rapidly. Apart from matters of common decency, health and hygiene, this limiculous lining actually affects your playing. Clean and polish the inside of the mouthpiece. Make the bore of the crook shine. These relatively narrow airways were designed to be a particular size. They function best when unobstructed. And everything will smell sweeter. Of course, it follows that a dented crook is something to have fixed at the earliest opportunity.

We can't avoid it, but saxophone and clarinet talk always seem to return to the subject of reeds. When discussing tuning, there are some points to remember.

A reed acts as a spring. Like a spring, it has a fatigue life. As it gets older (more used) you'll find that it plays slightly lower in pitch. If, in mid-performance, you change to a softer reed, don't forget to adjust the tuning. Pushing on a little will do the trick.

Never play a reed until it dies completely. In the past in Reed Clinic I've mentioned various ways of postponing the demise of a reed. These include stiffening the reed by clipping back with a reed cutter, or burning it back by clamping the reed between two suitable coins while carefully singeing a tiny sliver of reed from the tip. Washing the reed in Hydrogen Peroxide is a time-proven answer for dramatically cleaning a reed. Don't be alarmed when you see the vigorous production of bubbles as the chemical hits the dirty reed. The Hydrogen Peroxide sold in your neighbourhood pharmacy is suitable for domestic use. However, take advice from the pharmacist. Always read the instructions.

Knowing your set-up, and how it performs, is crucial. To build your self confidence, sit at a good, well-tuned, piano and play all over the saxophone or clarinet, checking your notes for pitch. Only sound the piano note after the reed instrument. Play loud and soft, high and low.

This article first appeared in Crescendo Magazine, May 2003.
Reed Clinic, in Crescendo magazine, was begun by the well-known London saxophone teacher Leslie Evans during the early 1960s. Upon Evans' retirement in the 1990s, John Robert Brown took over the column and wrote regularly for several years.
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