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Tenor Saxophone Lessons

Tenor Sax Lesson 1 - Putting it all together

Tenor Sax Lesson 2 - How to Blow the Tenor Sax

Tenor Sax Lesson 3 - Fingering for the Tenor Saxophone
(Virtual Tenor Sax to Play!)

Lesson 2 - How to Blow your Tenor Saxophone

Lesson 1 covers everything you need to play your sax; the sax body, neck, mouthpiece, ligature, reed and neck strap. I then explained how it all goes together.

For lesson 2, I want to cover blowing on the sax. How do you get a sound on your new Tenor Saxophone? Where does your mouth go on the Tenor Sax mouthpiece and what do you change to get a better sound when it sounds like a honk or all squeaks?

Tenor Sax Mouthpiece, Reeds and Ligature

First thing we should look at is the noise maker - mouthpiece / reed / ligature.

The mouthpiece you will want to start with is probably the one that came with the sax. These mouthpieces are usually made for beginners, made of plastic which blows very easy, and they will have a pretty small tip opening, the opening from the tip of the mouthpiece to the tip of the reed, for easy lip pressure when shaping your mouth around the mouthpiece. Tip openings of 4 are small and come with most new saxes.

Lets get the noise maker together and make some noise.

The first thing you need is a reed. The reed is a very fragile little wood looking thing and needs to be handled with care because chipped and split reeds will blow hard and squeak. Most beginners will start on a #2 reed. The number indicates the strength of the reed, higher number, harder reed.

The reed needs to be soaked, wet when put on the mouthpiece so start sucking on the reed as you start looking for the mouthpiece and ligature. Once the reed is wet, after a minute or two, and the tip is a flat line, not curved like a snake; you can put the reed on the mouthpiece once it is wet and straight.

I hold the mouthpiece in my right hand, put the reed on with the left and then hold the reed in place with my right thumb. Then, carefully put the ligature on over the tip of the reed, onto the mouthpiece. Different ligature designs will leave the screws on top or bottom. The key is to get it all in place. It needs to go on the mouthpiece far enough to clear the shaved part of the reed (seen in Images below). Most mouthpieces will have a natural spot where they are a round tube on the last half and the ligature should go there.

See Image below - Lig. is past the shaved top and is placed right where the shiny wood cane part starts. Some mouthpieces even have a mark to place the Lig. on. The Ligature will also hit the middle of the tube section of the mouthpiece - see mouthpiece left side Image below.

These little guys are hard to get put on right. You have to get the reed straight, from left to right, and get the reed to the tip of the mouthpiece. Right to left is pretty easy, but how far kids put the reed on the mouthpiece seems to be a constant problem.

The further up the mouthpiece the reed goes, the harder the reed will get. If the reed ends up too far down the mouthpiece, it will be softer. The problem is; if the placement makes your good reed to hard, the low notes will be harder to get out and upper notes might just squeak. If the reed is softer all of a sudden, then the notes can pinch off and high notes won't come out.

You can be having a hard practice time or band practice just because you where sloppy when you put your reed on. To improve, you need things to be the same from day to day or you'll never know what the problem is, and how can you solve a problem that you don't even know about?

Once the reed is in place, you tighten it snug to the mouthpiece. Not as hard as possible, but firm enough to be able to adjust your mouthpiece on the sax neck and not have the lig. and reed fall off.

Here are the pictures since a picture is like a thousand words and I type too slow.

Mouthpiece is set up right and on the sax neck?

Tenor Saxophone Mouthpiece, Ligature and Reed Images

Sax to Body Position

Put that neck on your sax and adjust it to you. Sit up straight but comfortable. The sax neck and mouthpiece should go to you. You should not look like a special Olympics wheelchair racer. I see normal looking kids look like crash test victims when the put a sax to their face. Just sit normal, and then put the sax on. The neck strap, neck and mouthpiece all adjust to you. If in doubt, ask a friend if you look stupid but beware, they will probably say yes either way.


Your bottom lip covers your bottom teeth. The bottom lip acts as a cushion and the reed will rest on the bottom lip. Your top teeth will touch the top of the mouthpiece and your lips seal around the rest. You will actually be biting your bottom lip and this accounts for much of the reasons for short practice sessions at first. You don't bite it very hard, but will bite the lip and the face muscles will support the lip from damage, but as you muscles get tired, you will bite more and it will hurt.

A good reason for Private Lessons when starting, is to deal with all of these little issues. Each thing here effects the other and many have given up on Saxophone before even starting.

How hard do you bite?
How much or little mouthpiece goes in your mouth?
How does this effect the sound?

To big a mouthpiece tip opening or too hard a reed will make for a very hard bite to get any sound. Not very fun at all and your face muscles and lip will be yelling at you.

The ideal is a medium everything. Medium reed, mouthpiece tip opening and a medium bite in the middle of the mouthpiece and all the notes come out with a good sound. Since I am not sitting there listening to you right now, I am going to list some problems and show the things you can change to fix that problem. This should show you which things effect which part and how. It's very personal to each different person and to the interaction of the equipment you have, all working together.

Sax Sound Solutions

The sound is like a loud honk when I blow.

The quick fix is less mouthpiece and bite harder, blow softer.
Other things to try…
Check reed placement for the left to right placement and move the reed down a little.
Ligature might be at the very bottom end of the Mouthpiece and should be starting at the shiny part of the reed.
Too big a bite - too much mouthpiece in your mouth. Take a little bit less mouthpiece and blow again.
Firm up your bite and face muscles.
All of these adjustments are very slight and will effect the sound and feel a bunch.

I Can't get my low notes.

Too hard a reed.
Reed to far toward the tip of the mouthpiece or ligature to far down the butt of the reed.
Mouthpiece could be too open for you.
Open up and blow thru the sax more.
Mechanical problems - Sax Pads are leaking or octave key is open.

Can't get any high notes.

To soft a reed. Move it toward the mouthpiece tip.
To small a tip opening on the mouthpiece.
To little mouthpiece in mouth.
Not blowing hard enough. The sax is big and you have to fill it up with air.
Reed needs to be moved up more and lig down.
Mechanical problems- Octave key needs adjustment, maybe both are open or neither. Sticky pads could stay closed making notes unplayable too.

Too soft when everyone else is playing.

Probably just need to open up more and blow. Fill the sax up with air.
A little more mouthpiece and lots more air.
Pad leaks take sound away too.
Practicing to quiet. Sax is a loud instrument and you have to blow to get good sound so practice that way too.

Do see what I'm talking about. These things all are related and there are a couple of things you can try to fix any one sound, note or tone issue.

The bottom line is to blow. Use a lot of air. Make sure everything is set up right and you have a good reed and a working Sax. When in doubt. Have the Sax checked out by a repair man and a few private lessons can help a bunch!

Good luck and keep trying, you'll get it!

Greg Vail

Tenor Saxophone Lessons

Tenor Sax Lesson 1 - Putting it all together

Tenor Lesson 2 - How to Blow the Tenor Sax

Tenor Sax Lesson 3 - Fingering the Tenor Saxophone (Virtual Tenor to Play!)

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