Fixing Face Fatigue

Have you ever arrived at a point in your playing where your embouchure muscles were too sore to hold a steady tone? For example, have you ever felt any of the following?

  • Your embouchure muscles gave out while playing
  • It was too painful to go on
  • Air started leaking out of your mouth because of fatigue
  • Extreme soreness after a practice session
  • You can’t play the next day because you’re still sore

Good News!

The good news is this: you’re not alone. In all my playing over the years I’ve had variations of this fatigue from day 1, even into my professional career. As a beginner (or after a long break) the muscles get tired faster and more often. The more you play, the less of an issue this becomes.

Why does this fatigue continue as a pro? The embouchure muscles work like any other muscle in the body. If you work them to the extreme (which pros do) then eventually they’ll get tired. However, when your muscles are “in shape” like an athlete, the recovery time may only take a few seconds.

4 Tips

Just like any other muscle group, we can do exercises to strengthen our embouchure muscles. Below I have listed 4 things you can do to help alleviate the pain and strengthen the muscles.

Tip #1: Be Consistent

If you practice 2 times a week, you’ll continue to have embouchure fatigue for a longer period of time. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just how muscles work. Just like we are all encouraged to exercise 5-7 days a week for our own health, our embouchure muscles will receive the most benefit if we exercise them 5-7 days a week. Remember, if you only have 10 minutes to practice, that counts!

Tip #2: Split up the Day

If you have a goal to practice a half an hour a day, and you can only play for 15 minutes (because of fatigue), then split up your sessions. Instead of trying to force your muscles to do everything in one session, split up your 30 minute practice session into two 15 minutes sessions that day. Who knows, you may end up practicing longer!

Tip #3: Strengthening Exercise A

An important American saxophone pedagogue, Larry Teal, shared some embouchure exercises in his book, The Art of Saxophone Playing. He shared how we can work out our embouchure muscles when we are not playing the saxophone. Here’s the first exercise:

Whistle (you don’t actually need to whistle, but move the muscles in that direction), and then produce a broad smile. Repeat this pattern 50 times, 3 times a day. You’ll be tired, and if it creates an issue with being able to play, then do this pattern 1 time a day. You can increase the daily repetitions as you become stronger.

Tip #4: Strengthening Exercise B

Simply purse your lips (push lips against each other, keeping the lip line straight, with no bulging) and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 25 times.

Results

Go ahead and try out these tips and your muscles will become stronger. In addition, your ability to play without fatigue will increase. Soon you’ll get to a point where the muscles will become strong enough that the feeling of fatigue will become a rare occurrence. Let us know what you think! Share what has worked for you, and please share your experiences from applying our tips. Have fun playing!

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Comments 10

  1. Nice article, Jeff… Can’t tell less than totally agree!!! Embouchure muscles fatigue is something I had been dealing with since day 1 of my practice… at first I was able to play only about 20 minutes before beginning to “tremble” the notes, especially if I needed to sustain them longer than 4-5 seconds. Moreover, air leaks wouldn’t take too long to appear after that. And that marked the moment to make a break. Fortunately, within some 10 minutes or so, muscles became relaxed and I was able to continue. And never had a sore lip that lasted till next day, not even for hours.
    After 2-3 months of constant practice this issue was overcome. The “smile/whistle” exercises you mentioned from Mr. Larry Teal’s book were of great help indeed. Recommended to any begginner student.
    The bottomline: constant practice is the key. After 3-4 months, and perhaps without noticing it, you’ll discover you’re capable of doing a full hour of practice only with minor breaks to change score sheets on the stand, set the metronome to the required pace, or drinking some water.

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    2. I have discovered I think that I have been practicing incorrectly for nearly 7years -practicing for some 2 hours at time twice a week on my alto sax I have only just started feeling lip fatigue-having been able to move over this time to a reasonably good tone on 2.5 to 3 reeds I will now start exercises and reduce practice sessions to say 20 minutes each and more regular Can anyone tell me if switching to tenor sax will reduce the problem of fatigue.? -wider larger mouthpiece?

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        Switching to a tenor will require less pressure on the read, which means you’ll reach fatigue after a longer time, or possibly not at all. However, with daily practice on your alto, I think you’ll be pleased with your results. Let us know how the shorter, more consistent practice sessions turn out!

      2. I find if you practice with the tenor first you won’t fatigue as quickly or at all but if you practice on the alto later that day or directly after you will fatigue faster than normal. However playing alto first then switching to tenor after is much more manageable.

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          Hi Peter. Thanks for your insight! Smaller mouthpieces definitely take more muscle strength to control. It looks like you found a good pattern for playing both tenor and alto. Thanks for sharing. This helps provide additional insight and experience to our readers!

  2. Jeff,

    Thanks so much for the tips. I’ve just started playing and this is a common problem when I practice. I find that when it begins, I soon have to put the horn down. However, after a short break I can come back and practice again, although for a shorter period of time. Sometimes, I will still have the saxophone in my mouth, and while reading the music (which I’m also just learning) I will finger the notes but not try to make a sound. It reinforces the music reading while my facial muscles are recovering.

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      Sounds like a good plan Larry. If you’re just starting, the best thing to do is play 5-7 days a week and the muscles will get stronger after a few weeks. The quick break is helpful, too. Keep up the good work!

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