As soon as I began playing, Stephan Kammerer listed all of the tone problems I had faced since high school. Then he showed me the C# Test.
To recap, the upper octave was always a weakness for me. Even on a NY Otto Link 7*, I would bite to keep the pitch up. I developed a particular strength for playing low notes as a result and my ear would hang out in the lower octave during solos, which didn't help my case. On one occasion, the Jazz History class booked a rhythm section to accompany our class as we performed the semester's transcription project. I had chosen the iconic Blue Bossa by Dexter Gordon, a classic in the tenor world. When I listened back to a recording of my performance, I cringed at the strained upper octave and squirmed with every A. The tone was all over the place. The lower octave and upper octave might as well have been on two separate saxophones.
Fast forward to my trip to New York in January. By now, I was fairly comfortable with playing, overcoming a lot of pitch problems and working on projection and evenness of sound. The Otto Link Florida No USA was my main piece and yet, I was still frustrated with it. It seemed that every mouthpiece always had something that mine didn't, whether it was Chase Baird's Otto Link DR by James Bunte, my Selmer Soloist by James Bunte, Ted Klums, original Slants, etc. and I was determined to find out what it was. My resolution to try as many mouthpieces as possible led me to Stephan Kammerer of SK Mouthpieces in the Bronx.
As he was working on a project, I pulled out my Otto Link and began playing the Autumn Trees etude I had been memorizing. Before I could finish the chorus, he told me I was biting up high and my low end was like a tank. His analysis was spot on! He took the mouthpiece and measured it with two dozen gauges, pointing out that it had likely suffered a small hit to the tip and the facing was opening very quickly from the break. This would allow the longer part of the reed to vibrate well but inhibited the reed's ability to vibrate fast enough, hence good lows and weak highs. This is where he introduced me to his C♯ Test (see below for a complete run through).
My honky C♯ was at least a half step lower than open C♯. This meant that every time I played in the upper register, I compensated a half-step by biting the pitch up. A few swipes of sandpaper was all he needed to solve it. I couldn't believe the new found freedom that I had! It was a relief to hear that these problems weren't entirely my fault. Mike Livingston at KB Sax later summed it up perfectly: "Good technique is as much a clean setup." I found what had been missing in this mouthpiece and great in many others.
As for the NY Otto Links, SK made this diagram showing their inherent flaws that were the cause of similar issues. At any rate, after an afternoon with master refacer Stephan Kammerer, I left with pages of notes and a new mouthpiece test.
The wave in the table, exaggerated here, may be caused by the grinding wheel. This prevents proper sealing and messes with the foundational area of the facing.
Here's the C♯ Test:
1. With your mouthpiece and reed properly assembled, find the "break" (where the reed and table meet- circled in red).
2. If needed, use a piece of paper to feel the break and mark with pencil (or pen on a bad reed!).
3. Assemble your horn, ensuring the mouthpiece is in your usual tuning position.
4. Play open C♯ with your normal embouchure, paying attention to the pitch and ensuring that you are not biting.
5. Position your top teeth as far up on the beak as you can, confirming the bottom lip is beyond the break. Compare this pitch to the open C♯. They should match. This will sound honky like a duck! Be sure to use proper air support.
6. If they match, you are good to go. Octaves will play in tune, you won't be forced to bite, and you can work on continuing to develop good abdominal support. Perfect for quickly telling if a mouthpiece is a keeper.
6a. If the second pitch is lower, there can be a few causes. The first cause is a habit of biting the C♯ up to pitch. This can result from the mouthpiece being too far out, a big opening/hard reed that you are pinching closed or general weakness of the embouchure and diaphragm. Solution: Tune your instrument and practice diaphragm and embouchure building exercises (I will be releasing some soon). The second cause is the mouthpiece facing itself bottoming out too soon, which will cause the whole upper octave to play flat, forcing you to constantly bite in the upper register. This will lead to uneven sounding registers, difficulty switching registers and weak altissimo. Solution: Reach out to a reputable mouthpiece refacer, such as Stephan Kammerer.
For video demonstrations, head on over to Sax Spy on Instagram!
With the octaves now lining up and my tone consistent across registers, I love playing John Coltrane's intro on I'm Old Fashioned from Blue Train. Give it a shot!
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