Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Oral Cavity Manipulation

On the subject of oral cavity manipulation, there is often the misunderstanding that this process involves literally “opening” and “closing” the throat. When in fact, the position of the tongue is the contributing factor to obtaining oral cavity flexibility. Classical saxophonist Kyle Horch also agrees that it is essential to have an open throat, but argues that this may not be the most useful way to conceptualize the process.
He writes:

 Musicians often speak of the necessity of having an open throat.  For most of the course of the trachea this is no problem; our lives depend on an open trachea and it is actually quite impossible to close it.  The danger area is at the top of the throat, where the trachea opens into the back of the oral cavity.  Here, it is possible to have a sensation of ‘closing’ the throat.  To avoid this, some players try to imagine the throat as being as open as when yawning.  Personally, I try to have my throat feel as open and relaxed during blowing as it was during the inhalation of the previous breath.  In my experience, however, the real culprit in most internal bottlenecks is actually the tongue, which can easily arch either backwards out over the throat opening, or up toward the roof of the mouth. The syllable method is a useful tool in creating practice models.  The tongue position used in saying vowel sounds such as AH and OO allows an unobstructed airflow, as opposed to EE or IH, for example, which cause the tongue to rise, narrowing the flow and changing the character of the vocal tone from an open, relaxed quality to a more restricted, intense quality.  (Horch 1998, 78).

Using the “syllable method” as a tool for tongue placement memorization is an effective technique often utilized by many players. Jazz saxophonist Dave Liebman also talks about this process in great detail, discussing how using phonetic syllables are instrumental in regulating the air stream velocity. He writes:

Imagine that the mouth cavity is like a cave with air entering at one end (from the throat passage) and exiting at the other end into the mouthpiece.  The position of the hump portion of the tongue is crucial because of its effect upon air resistance, which in turn influences the final velocity of the air stream.  Much like any body of disturbance in the middle of our imagined cave, we have to consider what the best position would be for the desired result.  .  .  .  The optimum position for this “disturbing” body or tongue hump is somewhere in the middle of the oral cavity, allowing the air stream to go above, below and around it (Liebman 1994, 23)

It is apparent from the writings of Horce and Liebman that learning to control the various air stream velocities are significant in helping to gain control of the oral cavity process. The following table presents syllables devised by Horce (highlighted in yellow), and myself that may be used to achieve three (3) levels of air stream velocities. Each of the syllables when sounded creates frequent vibrations in the throat that range from relaxed to tense, also noted in the table. The appropriate air velocity needed all depends on what the performer is attempting to accomplished.  

Low Velocity
(Very Relaxed)

Medium Velocity
High Velocity

Table I: Syllables used to achieve varying levels of air stream velocities and tension in the throat

When attempting to incorporate the syllables in Table I, you must also take into consideration the different variables that may affect the effectiveness of the syllables: (1) the register in which they’re played, (2) the volume at which they’re played, and (3) the instrument, mouthpiece, and reed combination that’s used to play them.

The following oral cavity manipulation exercise in Figure 2:1 was designed to help with pitch flexibility and aural acuity. The D note, which is the first note in each measure, is the only pitch that is actually fingered. Incorporating the “syllable method, ”all notes, from Db down to G natural, are played by lowering the pitch using the “TAW “ sound. As noted in Figure 2:1, the ‘TAW” is used to lower the pitch down to the desired note, and the “EE” is used to raise the pitch back to the original note--which in this case is the D note.

Figure 2:1 Oral cavity exercise using the syllable method

Figure 2:1 may also be practiced, beginning and ending with the following pitches:

(1)  F3– C3
(2)  E3 – B3
(3)  Eb3 – Bb3
(4)  D3 – A3
(5)  Db3 – Ab2
(6)  C3—G2

If after you become comfortable with the aforementioned exercises you decide to extend them, play to the lower register of the instrument, you may find it difficult to play the exercise in its entirety. However, in the extreme lower register of the instrument, such as D1 – Bb1, it is important to note that any noticeable differences in the pitch being lowered will still prove beneficial in utilizing the oral cavity manipulation process. Furthermore, it has been my experience that producing these syllables in any register will sharpen the player’s aural acuity, as well as their sense of tongue position memorization. It is suggested that the notes in the exercises in Figure 2:1 are check by against the same notes using conventional fingerings and/or a chromatic tuner.

Oral cavity manipulation is often the key focus of players when attempting to perform notes and sounds that go beyond the original scope of the instrument, also known as extended techniques. It is importnat to note that this should be the focus even when attempting to play notes that are “normal.” Saxophonist and educator Michael Hester also agrees with this assessment. In his article “Saxophone Altissimo” Yamaha Educator Series, he states:

It is unfortunate that saxophonists are not faced with oral cavity flexibility early in their musical development. Performers on brass instruments and the flute deal with this day one. Squeaks played by young saxophonist are simply valid notes that they did not have the control to avoid. It would be very easy for a teacher to place a wall between the student and future attempts at the highest notes by treating such an event as a terrible mistake…It is best to explain that a squeak is a real note, demonstrate it for him or her and then ask the student to try and produce that note again (Hester 2).

It is evident that oral cavity manipulation plays an important role in helping saxophonists understand the inner workings of sound control, particularly as it pertains to performing extended techniques such as multi-phonics, microtone production, and the altissimo register. However, these procedures only represent one half of the extended-technique puzzle. The other half is having an understanding of the fingerings used once air has been blown through the instruments to produce these sounds—which, by the way, is the topic of the next discussion.


 (1998): 78.
(1994): 23.


  1. Hi Sam - great article on a topic that I think should be at the centre of all saxophone (and woodwind) playing!

    The only thing I'm not sure about is Table 1. My thinking was that the EE tongue shape, by creating a smaller aperture that the same volume of air travels through actually creates higher velocity air stream. Thoughts?

  2. Hi AG - Thanks for reading my article. My thinking by creating a smaller aperture with the EE tongue shape, is that there's less air coming through the oral cavity--sort of like covering the whole of a vent with your hand. Which in turn, causes the air to be released at a greater velocity when the vent in uncovered (similar to the TAW tongue shape) mainly from the pressure build up. But I understand what you're saying too. For example, if water was spurting out of a hose and you then covered half of the opening, the water would, consequently, spurt out at a higher velocity. But you might be right. I'll think about it. And thanks for bringing it to my attention. And I'm curious to hear what you think too.

  3. Nice post Sam - lots of great info here.
    Keep it up.

  4. Hi Sam,

    I read your article with interest. I'm currently collecting information for my master thesis which deals with air velocity as an education tool and an aid in musical interpretation.
    I'm a classical saxophonist (but not exclusively), and I learnt most recently from a teacher that the position of the back end of the tongue should not be altered in order to have a certain (as mentioned quite great) air velocity flowing through the oral cavity. It also helps dealing with some intonation issues by lowering notes. Of course, altering the whole tongue position can be a nice tool to change the timbre.

    Speaking about timbre: Don't you think that by altering the air velocity (or air pression, I've been told that physically, there is no difference) you can change the timbre?
    I know I'm going a little bit off topic, but reading your blog has got me interested in your and the commentator's opinion...



  5. Hi Sam, Sorry that I'm just discovering your comment. The focus of my article was dealing with changes in the air stream velocities as a way of helping the player perform extended techniques: multi-phonics, altissimo, etc. And I do agree with your teacher that when playing "normal notes" you should minimize the altering of the back end of the tongue. However, having a command of the various air stream velocities does give the player timbre and pitch options when their playing situation requires them to think and perform outside of the norm. Thanks again for your comment.

  6. I watched Eugene Rousseau demonstrate this same exercise you recorded here back in the early 80's. It is indeed a great way to develop flexibility and help control not to mention open up your sound in the upper register and all registers. great way to help learn how to "voice" the cavity for altissimo and split tones.


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