Tag Archives: Montreal

Don’t Hate, Rotate!

Opening my reed case used to be an emotional roller coaster. Not the fun type of roller coaster, but the type where eating a chili-dog two minutes before was a bad idea. I hated feeling that I had no control over how the reed I selected would play. Would it sing or be stuffy? Would soft notes speak or run and hide?

Learning to break in reeds properly was the first step off of this anxiety inducing ride. Then I upgraded to a humidity controlling case. Finally, I focused on how I cycle through reeds. I’d like to offer three simple practices that have made a big difference in the life and performance of my reeds and hopefully can be helpful to you too!



Labeling reeds is a simple method for keeping track of their age and condition. I’ve been using this system for a long time and felt pretty smug when David Shifrin (one of the the world’s top clarinet players and music educators) recommended this exact method in a master class. Every time you start a new reed, record the date in pencil at the base of the back of the reed. The reed in the picture below was started April 24. If you start more than one reed on the same day, add letters. For example, if I began breaking-in additional reeds on April 24, they would have been labeled “4/24B”, “4/24C”, and so on. Dating your reeds (how romantic) will help you keep track of when a reed is broken-in as well as micro- and macro-rotation (described in the sections below). Additionally, if a reed is particularly firm I will write a “+” and if it is particularly soft a “-”. I refrain from doing this until after a reed is fully broken-in because so much can change during that process.


Reed started on 4/24



While you’re probably thinking this section describes hula-ing with a very small hoop…Micro-rotation addresses reed use choices during a single playing session. The main idea here is to play more reeds for shorter periods. I like to switch reeds every 30 minutes during a practice session and during breaks in an ensemble rehearsal. By limiting time on each reed, it becomes easier to avoid water-logging and maintain ideal reed humidity. This prevents good reeds from wearing out too quickly and extends the life of reeds in general.

Pairing labeling with micro-rotation makes it easier to remember characteristics of different reeds. For instance, I might think, “I’ll start my warm up on 4/22(-) because I know it’s a softer reed,” or “5/2b will be great for the recording session tomorrow because it plays with an open, singing tone.” By playing more reeds for shorter periods each day, it becomes easier to remember the qualities (good or bad) of each reed, to be more attuned to subtle differences between reeds and in the same reed over time, and to make reeds last longer. Woo!



While micro-rotation deals with day-to-day reed selection, macro-rotation looks at the entire lifecycle of a reed: from out of the box to into the trash can. The number of reeds in rotation at a time and how long each reed lasts will vary based on performance needs and practicing habits. I have found that eight reeds (per instrument) works well and conveniently is how many reeds my favorite case holds. Playing an average of three hours a day, most reeds last about six weeks. However, the performance of the reed varies over that lifetime.

Reeds can potentially progress through five stages:

  1. Newbie: All reeds start by being broken-in. I usually have 1 or 2 new reeds in my case.
  2. Playable: These are reeds that can be used for practice and rehearsals with confidence. Typically 2 or 3 of my reeds are in this category.
  3. All-Star: These are the best reeds in the case. They can very confidently be used to perform. If you have any upcoming performances, shoot for having 3 of these ready to go!
  4. Exiting: Over time, reeds stop playing as effectively. Reeds in this category are still Playable, but will soon be replaced with Newbies. Often a reed or two in my case will be at this phase.
  5. Trash: At some point, all reeds must die. Some reeds were doomed out of the box and others play fantastically for months, but as soon as it’s clear that a reed is causing stress and eating up precious practice time, it’s time to make way for some new cane.

The key point of rotation is between Newbies and Exiting/Trash. With eight reeds, I find one becomes Trash every week or two. At that point a Newbie enters. What I’m trying to say is… Regularly replace Trash reeds with Newbies.

The one problem I occasionally run into is having too many good reeds. While this is only a dream for most wind players (and is certainly a high quality problem to have), it presents the risk of having multiple reeds become Trash simultaneously. The key here is to be proactive and always have a few All-Star reeds. Keeping a high standard and being fastidious in deciding which reeds will stay in the rotation will ensure a case full of helpful reeds, rather than a case full of fear.



  1. Label each reed with the date it was first used. Add a “+” or “-” to indicate extremes in firmness.
  2. Develop a habit of micro-rotation by switching reeds every 30 minutes or so.
  3. Consistently start new reeds as old reeds expire.
  4. Strive to have at least three performance-ready reeds available at all times.


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Blanket Fort Concert

DF will be putting on a concert in a giant Blanket Fort on February 20! We love finding fun new ways to share what we do. When the inspiration struck to do a show in a giant blanket fort, a wave of pillowy nostalgia came crashing over us. Blanket forts are a hallmark of childhood joy, something we’re hoping to recreate for our audience on a wintery evening.

Be a part of making this awesome event happen by joining our Indiegogo!


Chops of Steel and a Tone of Gold, Part 2

In Part 1, I outlined six awesome chop busters to play with a fully assembled horn.  Check it out here.  Part 2 offers even more embouchure boosting fun by using no instrument at all, just the mouthpiece, and finally the mouthpiece and neck joint.

No horn:

Even when you’re away from the horn, you can still be strengthening, or at least attempting to maintain, your embouchure.  These can be done anytime, anywhere!

1. The Pen of Doom

Place the back end of a pencil or pen between your lips.  Now, using just your lips, hold the writing utensil straight out.  Keep holding.  You’ll quickly begin to feel lactic acid build up in all the places it would during an extended playing session.

Tip: For added challenge place as little of the pen in your lips as possible and pull the corners of your mouth back

2. Lion Face(RAWR!)/Lemon Face(Ooh!)

This one shares a name with an old theater warm up.  However, instead of preparing you to make weird faces on stage, the idea again is to build up lactic acid, and in turn better embouchure endurance.

Start by making a wide, toothy smile (Lion Face).  Then tightly pucker your lips together (Lemon Face).  Now alternate quickly, going for a full range of motion.

Mouthpiece only:

Using just the mouthpiece, aim for a full, clear tone.

1. Sirens

Slur from the highest pitch to the lowest pitch you can play on your mouthpiece by tightening and loosening your jaw.  This should be done both slowly for control and quickly for dexterity.

2. Long Tones

Using a tuner, play and hold individual pitches working your way down and then up chromatically.  Aim to extend both how low and high you can play on your mouthpiece.  Joe Allard could play two octaves on his mouthpiece alone!

Mouthpiece + Neck Joint:

1. Around the World

Play a well-supported long tone and listen for a full, round sound.  Adjust your embouchure and throat until you achieve the best sound you can.  Now, place the mouthpiece in one corner of your mouth and try and recreate that tone quality.  Repeat in the other corner.  Now flip the entire mouthpiece and neck joint upside down and repeat the exercise again in the center, left, and right.

Tip: You will need to uses a double lip embouchure when the mouthpiece is upside down to avoid your teeth being on the reed!

2. Long Tones

Similar to with just the mouthpiece, the idea is to relax your jaw to produce pitches descending as far as you can chromatically.

Try these at the start of each practice session.  They don’t take much time and are great for building your chops!

If you have your own exercises for working on tone and embouchure I’d love to hear about them in the comment section.

Chops of Steel and a Tone of Gold, Part 1

While my first few posts were on completely different topics, I’m finally going to delve into the essence of this blog (and my life): Saxophone.  As a warm-up, I’ll talk about some warm ups!

Before the audience hears the blistering runs or beautiful melody that you play, they hear your tone.  Often this is what will stick in their minds the longest as well.  Therefore, a huge part of my practicing is focused on developing my tone and embouchure strength and I’ve acquired an arsenal of exercises for doing this from different teachers.  In this post I will walk you through six techniques to add to your warm up routine that will enrich and solidify your tone.

1. Long Tones

If done properly and daily, long tones are the holy grail of exercises. Whenever I take time off from doing long tones, I notice a huge difference when I start doing them again and wonder why I stopped in the first place!

Things to focus on:

  • Tone/Tone Color
  • Presence and strength of overtones
  • Intonation
  • Dynamics
  • Air support

Tip: Choosing one of these a week and rotating can be very helpful.  For example if you’re focusing on air support, sustain each note for as long as possible with an even, controlled sound.

Ways to practice long tones:

  • Mix up the order you play the notes.  Use the entire chromatic range of the horn and play every note, but vary the order with different patterns (i.e. Circle of fourths/fifth, thirds, whole tone, chromatic, ect.)
  • Dynamic Swells: Play both piano, up to forte, back to piano and vice versa.
  • Terraced Dynamics: Attack and hold the note at a set dynamic. Start with pp and work incrementally to ff.
  • With and without a tuner.  With a tuner to confirm intonation accuracy and without to force reliance on your ear.

2. Overtones

This is a category that requires more depth than this post would allow and to be completely honest is not an area of playing where I feel well versed enough to provide my own explanations and examples.  Suffice it to say that overtones will add unparalleled strength and centering to your tone.  I recommend Sigurd Rascher’s canonical Top Tones for Saxophones a starting point.

3. Wherefore art thou octave key?

A)Begin on a middle C# and slowly ascend chromatically without the octave key.  Try to avoid pinching your jaw, but rather rely on manipulating your throat. (This is also a good way to begin learning overtones.)

B)Now, finger a C# with the octave key, but by opening your throat and dropping your jaw, sound the middle C# an octave below.  Continue to depress the octave key and descend chromatically.  (Note: This won’t sound pretty, but it is an excellent way to build flexibility and strength.)

4.Iron Jaw

Play a middle D.  Now finger the D# a half step up, but continue to sound a D by dropping your jaw.  Next finger E, but again sound D.  Repeat this same exercise by fingering and sounding a D# and then fingering a semitone and a tone above but continuing to play an in tune D#.  Continue this pattern as high as you can chromatically.  Practice the changes in fingerings both tongued and slurred.

Tip: If you find starting the exercise on D too difficult at first, begin on F#.

5. Double Lip

While I have met a couple of saxophone players (including Walter Smith III) who use double lip embouchures, there is no benefit to switching to this style embouchure.  However, it can be a handy way to practice adding warmth to your upper register.  Curl your lips over your top and bottom teeth instead of just the bottom and play long tones from high B upward.  You will be forced to control your sound and intonation incredibly carefully.

6. Beaver

This last one is a bit silly, but it will help you to identify the effect your upper lip can play in minute adjustments of tone.  Play a note in the middle range of your horn and, while playing, lift your upper lip to reveal your top teeth (like a beaver!).  After doing this a few times, when playing normally you will instantly be aware of whether or not there is unnecessary tension in your upper lip.

There you have it.  Six chop busting, tone enhancing workouts.  Consider numbers 1 and 2 to be essentials in your daily routine if you don’t already.  Try out the rest and let me know what you think!  Each one only takes a few concentrated minutes to perform properly and can make a huge difference.  Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll discuss similar exercises that can be done without even assembling your entire horn!