Lessons from Dr. Paul “Doc” Tenney


Equipment-related questions/answers:


My embouchure is not properly developed, and I am having some trouble with breath support. Should I buy your Jazzmaster tenor saxophone mouthpiece?


No, absolutely not. Consider my “Slant Signature” or modern Link Tone Edge.


What is the difference between your Jazzmaster and the standard Otto Link design?


The Jazzmaster’s chamber is intentionally and significantly different in design, concept, and execution from that used on ANY Link Tone Edge mpc and/or ANY of the "Link-like" mpcs offered from all other sources. Any well-developed and discerning player will notice the difference in its resultant tonal and response characteristics.


I have an original “Slant Signature” Tone Edge from the 1960s; can the tip be opened to a larger size?


Most of the area of removal and the amount removed is determined by the original tip opening, facing curve length, and the "target" tip opening and facing curve length. The original facing curve will almost invariably be lengthened, possibly to a significant degree, by this process and how much will depend on the factors noted above, the refacer's "touch point" on the barrel and both the angle and pressure being used while "drawing" the mpc facing. A general "rule of thumb" (actually the index finger!) is that the amount removed from the shank-end of the reed table will be approximately 2.5 to 3 times the desired gain in tip opening. The resultant lengthened facing curve will have to be re-shorted to the desired target length. This may reduce the tip opening gain but, properly done, the side rails/facing curve nearest the tip rail and above the effective baffle area will not require any change at all and can be carefully coordinated with the newly cut curve as it is shortened to the desired length. This is the critical factor in maintaining the original "voice" as nearly as possible! Narrowing the side rails that have been widened by the "biased butt cut" back to appropriate width to match the unaltered side rails nearest the tip and re-radiusing and polishing the mpc "cheeks" will provide a fine "finish" to the work. It should be obvious that this process is very time-consuming and requires a great deal of practice and skill to keep all the involved factors in correct balance and it is definitely a combination of both "art" and "skill" with hard work to accomplish properly.


What type of ligature should I play on your mouthpieces?


I play on the standard tw0-screw ligature and have no problems, but the tables on my mouthpieces are also perfectly flat. The two-screw ligatures are not expensive, and they work great. The ligatures are standard with Hard Rubber Otto Links. Selmer (Paris), Yanagisawa, and Yamaha also ship their horns with such ligatures.


On my next reface, would you please adjust the tip of the mouthpiece to fit the brand of reeds on which I am currently playing? It look’s really nice.


Absolutely not; it’s a complete waste of time. I simply won’t do something that will negatively impact you the next time you decide on a different reed make and/or cut.


Doc, is there any advantage in refacing a modern Vandoren mouthpiece such as the SL4 or V16 if I don’t want to change the tip opening?


No, it’s a complete waste of time and money. Leave those mouthpieces alone.


Concave or flat tables?


It seems to be generally recognized that the reed will conform to the surface supporting it and will "deform to conform" with that surface if the surface is concave. Since the reed "table" extends well up the side rails toward the tip before the facing curve itself "breaks" away from that surface, I wonder why reed warpage is apparently thought to only happen on the solid area of the table. What do you think is happening to the area of the reed over the window supported only by the part of the side rails which are an extension of the (hopefully!) flat solid reed table?


Does it matter? Possibly not since it is not having to "conform" to anything except the perimeter of the window, but this may be a source of oft-overlooked problems. The idea of putting a concavity at the bottom of the window extending into the solid reed table having any influence on the ligature position as it would alter the effective facing curve length is pretty "far out" in my book. The part of the reed below the facing curve "break" from the ostensibly flat surface offered by the solid reed table and the continguous side rails simply doesn't vibrate if the ligature is properly placed and tightened. Otherwise, why bother with carefully establishing a facing curve "break" from flat in the first place? And, anyone trying to establish a correct facing curve on an alto or tenor mpc whose thickest feeler gauge is only 0.050" is failing to measure what is arguably the most important part of the facing curve which is nearest the tip. It's only my opinion, of course.


Embouchure, Intonation, and Sound


What is the proper introductory pitch center for a tenor saxophone mouthpiece?


The mouthpiece only introductory pitch for a tenor saxophone mouthpiece is either F# or G; maintaining the proper embouchure for this pitch is essential to obtaining solid intonation and a good saxophone sound.


But I was taught to role my lower lip over my lower teeth while applying significant embouchure pressure--this biting sometimes causes pain, especially on the altissimo.


"Biting" is an absolute "no-no" regardless of the playing situation or range being played. I've been using the "eff" lower lip position saxophone and clarinet for over 60 years (which is essentially the same as the “vvvv” position). I have yet to damage my lower lip or have register control problems.


Some players get confused when using the "vvvv" advice since they continue on to actually fully enunciate the "vvvv" approach which ends up as "Vee" with the mouth open. Suggesting "effff" instead is less confusing and results in the best final lower lip position over the lower incisors regardless of personal dental or facio-oral anatomy.


Once I have established a constant mouthpiece only introductory pitch, how should I tune my saxophone to achieve ideal pitch and sound?


Do not “tune” the saxophone by using a "tuner" and focusing on producing A=440 by playing B1 on tenor as this generally introduces poor intonation given the acoustic design of the saxophone.


Instead, let’s apply our general knowledge of the saxophone’s acoustic design by recognizing that palm D2 (without the octave key) is a "short" note while conventionally-fingered D2 using the octave key is a "long" note. Moreover, conventionally-fingered A2 (using the octave key) is in the "short"category.


Knowing this, and after obtaining the proper and stable mouthpiece only pitch, place the mpc on the saxophone neck tenon cork so the pitches of both "short" and "long" D2 are as identical as possible (focus on pitch only as the timbre of the two pitches may be quite distinct). Remember, the pitches of “short” and “long” D2 need to be the same--close is not not good enough. Some “fiddling” may be required to achieve this.


Next, with as small and minimal of a mouthpiece adjustment as possible, play and position "long" D2 so you can easily obtain either the D2 and the A2 pitch, which is the next note in the overtone series, both on attack and as a sustained long tone. Ensure this overtone A2 is an absolute pitch match with the conventionally-fingered A2 again not being concerned with timbral differences.


When all this is accomplished correctly, the intonation over the entire range of

the instrument will be greatly improved and the tone produced will have a rather unique and pleasing "vibrance" or "liveliness"


There are really only two elements in the sound introduced into the instrument from the mpc, "EQ" (the relative balance of harmonic frequencies) and dynamic level measured in dB. Only two elements are moving to produce a player's sound - the player's airstream and the reed - both of which may be less than optimal. The "EQ" is determined by the player's variable inputs, the reed and the chamber configuration of a given mpc. The "EQ" is established by the mpc chamber and is essentially a fixed and passive element. Volume measured in dB is dependent on appropriately controlled airstream. All the other attributes freqently discussed here (such as "projection" or "spread") are objectively immeasurable and are only very imprecise and completely subjective individual perceptions. Maybe we should spend more time discussing the importance of a properly developed airstream and embouchure form as they contribute to the desired tonal end product than in discussing the various equipment "crutches" that seem to be used to compensate for genuine - or perceived - problems in obtaining a desired tonal product. I find it absurd to suggest that a given reed/mpc/horn combination may sound "just fine" when "played against a wall" but becomes unsatisfactory and "too spread with not enough projection" after passing through a system of sound amplification and processing. Maybe it's time to have serious visit with the "soundman running the board" to see if he knows what a saxophone is supposed to sound like.........