When we first start playing a wind instrument like the clarinet or the saxophone, we begin learning basic tunes and technique as soon as we can get a sound from the instrument. This initial sound, however, can be thin and squeaky, and usually doesn’t match up to the sound we hear from more experienced players. How often have you felt demotivated because of wobbly notes or an involuntary screech? Good tone is so important on any instrument, not only because it indicates good technical habits but also because it makes playing so much more enjoyable and rewarding. To help you improve the quality of sound on your wind instrument, here are some useful exercises that I often use with my students (with audio examples).
This may seem obvious and boring, but it’s so often forgotten about, and so easy to correct once you’re aware of it. Keep a straight back and relaxed shoulders, while planting your feet firmly hip-width apart on the floor (either standing or seated). Resist the temptation to cross your legs or hunch up! If you find that you revert to slouching, try repositioning your music stand (if you’re using one) so that the music falls directly in your eyeline. It’s usually better to sit a little forwards in your chair too, rather than lean back into it. Keep your head upright (not tilted forwards or in any other direction), and make sure that your shoulders stay down even when you inhale (the breath should cause your abdomen to inflate, not your chest and shoulders to rise). It’s amazing how much of a difference this can make!
Also known as long tones, holding long notes is a classic warm up that you’ve probably already heard wind players sing the praises of. Below I’ve listed some variations and their benefits, so that you can switch up your routine and avoid boredom.
Classic long notes are just as they sound – you pick a note, take a good deep breath, and hold it for as long as you can while maintaining a consistent tone. Aim for a smooth and even exhalation, making your sound as full and rich as possible. You can even time your long notes with a stopwatch to track your progress as your stamina builds.
Use this exercise as an opportunity to check in with yourself and to trouble-shoot:
If your sound is wobbly in volume, it may mean that your exhalation is uneven and you’re letting out air in bursts rather than in a controlled manner. Try the note again, aiming to let out your breath at a consistent rate – it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so you don’t want to let it all out at the start of the note!
If your sound is wobbly in pitch, it could mean that your jaw, tongue or internal mouth shape is moving around while you play. Try again, aiming to keep this area steady and relaxed.
If your note cuts out completely and abruptly, it could indicate too much jaw or lip tension if you play a reed instrument. It could also be a sign that your tongue is getting in the way of the reed. To remedy this, ease any tightness in your jaw or lips by relaxing those muscles, and make sure your tongue is not sitting too close to the reed once you’ve articulated the beginning of the note. Tightness seems to be a common problem with new players. I usually tell my students who are experiencing this issue to imagine a mother cat picking up her kitten in her mouth – she’s firm enough to keep the kitten in place, but doesn’t clamp so tightly as to hurt it. Don’t bite your kitten!
If your sound is very airy and wispy, it could be that you are letting some air escape around the mouthpiece. Try to notice where the air is escaping from (it’s probably coming from the sides of your mouth), and form a gentle seal by closing in those corners of your lips around the instrument (again, avoid clamping vertically with your jaw or lips). When you try the note again it should sound fuller, as all the air you’re expelling will be going into the instrument.
If your sound is reedy and thin, or unstable above the register break, it could be a sign that your internal mouth shape is not ideal for the note you’re trying to play. Common issues are not allowing your mouth to form a large enough chamber, causing a dull sound, and not raising your soft palate enough for higher notes. In a lot of ways, playing a wind instrument is similar to the mechanisms of singing; if you have a closed throat and don’t create enough space in your mouth, the sound will lack vibrancy and lustre. Just like in singing, vowel shapes are really important. You might have heard about wind players forming their mouths into different vowel shapes as they play in different parts of their range, as these shifts bring out different harmonics in the sound. Generally speaking, tall vowel shapes are usually better for lower notes (e.g. ‘aw’ as in ‘ball’ or ‘ah’ as in ‘father’), and narrower vowels are better for higher notes (e.g. ‘ee’ as in ‘heel’). Obviously, everyone’s mouth is slightly different, and it’s hard to describe these sensations in a part of your body that you cannot see, so some trial-and-error experimentation is required – this is another thing that long notes are great for.
Crescendo and Diminuendo
This is a variation on classic long tones that help develop your dynamic range (the contrast between your loud and soft playing) as well as breath control and tone quality. Start a note as softly as you possibly can, and crescendo (gradually increase volume) over the duration of the long note so that it finishes as loud as you can play. As you crescendo, be sure to maintain your pitch (don’t get sharper as you get louder), and increase the volume with a controlled gradation.
The opposite of this is to begin at your loudest extreme and diminuendo (gradually decrease volume), again with as much control as possible. Surprisingly, most people find this more difficult than a crescendo as it involves keeping your note stable as you get softer towards the end of your exhalation. Here, try to taper the note out to nothing at the end – this is something that reed instruments such as the clarinet can do brilliantly. Once you have mastered these two options, you can combine them: start soft, crescendo to the middle of the note then diminuendo towards the end; start loud, get softer towards the halfway point, then grow back to the end; crescendo for three counts, diminuendo for three counts, then repeat until you run out of air. These exercises are so good for breath control and lead to more expressive playing in the long run.
Pulsing Long Note
This variation involves holding a long tone and pulsing your breath to a metronome, so that you are louder on the click and revert back to a soft baseline in between them. This is also brilliant for breath control and expression, and can help develop vibrato for flute players. Start off by setting your metronome to a fairly slow speed, such as 60 beats per minute, and only increase the speed incrementally once you’re confident pulsing at that speed. Pulse for as long as your breath lasts. Eventually you’ll be able to pulse quite quickly, and have control of the speed of the pulsing.
Relieving Jaw Tension
As mentioned earlier, some people are prone to jaw tension when they play, and this can cause all sorts of issues including a thin and strangled sound. You can find lots of examples of common exercises online that help with this (singers and vocal teachers use these kinds of things all the time) – here are three.
Chewing Imaginary Toffee
At the start of your practice, or whenever you notice tension creeping in, take a minute to exaggeratedly chew an imaginary piece of sticky toffee. It may look and feel silly, but it helps loosen up the muscles in your jaw nicely. You can try this with your lips closed or open. Remember to move your jaw side to side as well as up and down in your chewing motion.
This is probably another one to do in private if you’re a bit self-conscious! Open your mouth wide in an exaggerated ‘aah’ shape as if you are at a dentist appointment. Hold this wide position for perhaps ten seconds or so, then let go and relax the muscles in your face. Repeat a couple more times.
Also known as lip trills, these are another loan from the toolkit of singers’ favourite warm ups. You can find lots of demonstrations of this exercise on YouTube, but it basically involves relaxing your face muscles and allowing your lips to vibrate against one another in a long ‘brrrrrrrrrrr’. You can do this with or without voicing a note. If you find this tricky, it can help to moisten your lips slightly and apply a little pressure with your fingers to the middle of your cheeks as you exhale. How long can you make this sound last for? Keep your exhalation steady and your face relaxed for the longest possible trill.
This exercise is great for creating a consistent tone over large interval leaps, and between registers. Starting on a low note (e.g. low G on the clarinet or low D on the saxophone), activate your register key and slur up to this higher note (this would give you D an octave and a fifth higher than low G on the clarinet, or D an octave higher than low D on the saxophone). Then do the same thing but starting a note higher than before, and so on.
Try to keep the transition smooth as you leap up to the higher note. Not only will you need to add the register key, you’ll also need to alter your mouth shape accordingly to accommodate the higher note, and this will become more apparent as you go higher.You can also try going the opposite way (start on the upper register note first then slur down by removing the register key), but you’ll find that this is more difficult as it relies more on your mouth alteration to encourage the note back down into the lower octave again. It may help to tongue both notes first for a while before you try slurring down.
Experimenting With Tone Colours
I mentioned earlier in the trouble-shooting section about how changing the internal shape of your mouth (or vowel shape) can have a big effect on the quality of the sound. This exercise focuses on this.
Pick a note that is comfortable in your current range and play is as normal for a few seconds. Then, try the same note again but consciously alter your inner mouth shape in some way (e.g. drop your jaw a little, or raise your soft palate a little, or allow your tongue to lie flat at the back) and notice what this does to the sound quality. Now make a different alteration and try the same note again.
This exercise’s purpose is to encourage experimentation and awareness that minute changes in your oral posture can have a very noticeable effect on the timbre or colour of the sound. Some mouth shapes encourage a darker sound, some encourage a brighter resonance, some give a more brittle tone and others may make the sound richer and fuller. Having conscious control over all of these options in your palette is really useful and helps give your playing more depth, contrast and interest.
(You may notice that some alterations make your pitch go flat. Take a mental note of this, and see if you can produce a similar tone without lowering the pitch. Knowing how to affect the pitch of a note on purpose is great for controlling your tuning/intonation, and for techniques you may wish to learn in the future such as scoops, embouchure glissandi/slides or pitch vibrato.)
Doing a selection of these exercises regularly can make a considerable difference to the tone you produce, even over a few weeks. All these exercises focus on the body of the sound rather than the articulation (the way you start a note, e.g. different types of tonguing) and are suitable for players of any experience level, although I’ve aimed this largely at newer players.
I’d recommend doing exercises like long notes and kangaroo jumps at the beginning of your practice as warm ups (e.g. you may start with long tones before moving onto your scales or other technical warm ups, if you do them), and using the jaw tension relievers as and when you feel you could benefit from them. Any experimentation exercises are good for when you have a bit of extra time and are feeling exploratory and eager!
If any of these ideas are new to you then hopefully you find them helpful. If you do all of these things already then at least this is a reminder to go and play some long notes!