The Instrumentalist

Articles June 2016

Stop Sax Squeaks


If young saxophonists are squeaking, here is where to check for problems.



    Squeaking is an all-too-common problem with some young saxophonists, and it can prove frustrating. There are several root causes, but they are all easily solved.
    The first and most common culprit is the reed. If it is too soft or worn out it can close up under normal air or embouchure pressure, resulting in mistakes. While a 2 or 2.5 strength reed is entirely appropriate for a beginner, as soon as some modicum of embouchure strength is achieved, saxophonists should be moved to a strength 3 and should never move beyond a 3.5. Young saxophonists should perform on high-quality French-cut style reeds and should avoid thin-tipped American cut reeds until they acquire a separate jazz mouthpiece, for which those reeds are appropriate.
    Dried out or warped reeds can also cause squeaks. Both of these will make it difficult for students to control the reed adequately. If a cane reed is used, an appropriate storage system that keeps the reed from completely drying out should be used. This will reduce the risk of warping. A high-quality synthetic reed can also be used, eliminating the potential for warping. 
    Another equipment concern is the mouthpiece. All students should perform on mouthpieces of moderate tip opening and lay. An extreme mouthpiece will result in many problems, including squeaking. 
    Keys accidentally opening can also cause squeaks. On the saxophone, the various side keys are often the culprit. This can be prevented by ensuring that students are playing the saxophone at an appropriate angle, without the saxophone tilting too far to either side while standing or sitting. The main keys should be more or less lined up vertically with the embouchure.
    A final problem that could produce squeaking is incorrect embouchure placement on the mouthpiece. This often happens when switching to a new setup or a different member of the saxophone family. Numerous tips and techniques have been developed through the years to help guide students on embouchure placement, but many of them involve several complicated steps. The below method seems to be the simplest way of determining embouchure placement.
    First the student should take in a small amount of mouthpiece. Regardless of the saxophone size, a written G#5 should be played at a beautiful fortissimo dynamic. This should be repeated, gradually taking in a tiny sliver more mouthpiece each time. 
    Eventually, the student will find the position at which the roundest, fullest tone is produced (at this point the lower lip will be at the point at which the reed meets the mouthpiece). If they go beyond that point by taking in more mouthpiece, the tone will harshen and the student will begin to squeak. Once the tone breaks down, the young saxophonist should return to the position on the mouthpiece that yielded the best tone with a full sound. The exercise should be repeated daily until the placement feels natural. This will help saxophonists be able to play more beautifully with fewer problems.

Andrew J. Allen

Andrew J. Allen

    Andrew J. Allen is assistant professor of saxophone and coordinator of woodwinds, brass, and percussion at Georgia College. He has premiered more than a dozen works for his instrument and has performed throughout the United States, Canada, France, Great Britain, and Croatia. His recordings can be heard on the Equilibrium and Ravello labels. Allen is Conn-Selmer Artist Clinician and a Vandoren and Key Leaves Endorsing Artist.


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