ESSENTIALS OF SUCCESSFUL SAXOPHONE PLAYING
© Gary Keller, 2014 JEN Conference, Dallas TX
In comparison with other wind instruments, the saxophone could fairly be considered the easiest on which a beginner can produce a tone and achieve an elementary technique. But the saxophone also lends itself to being played very poorly, as the fundamentals of a quality tone, intonation, and a flexible technique can be elusive.
The saxophone is indeed unique in that its tone contains the most complex overtone structure of all the instruments, and is said to be the closest instrument to the human voice. Indeed the tone generator (mouthpiece and reed) responds to much of the same stimuli used in the creation of vocal tones. As with singing, compelling musical statements can be made with sounds ranging from the most reserved and elegant to the most impulsive and guttural. The saxophone can tell many different stories.
The following paragraphs will introduce some basic principles essential to saxophone playing, the goal being to provide some insight for intermediate players and band directors less familiar with the workings of the instrument. If more seasoned players reading this gain some helpful tips to use in their teaching and performing, I am indeed flattered!
THE BOTTOM LINE: TWO TUBES
The acoustical phenomenon of an open-end tube connected to a vibrating tone generator is this: the vibrating body will oscillate to the frequency dictated by the length of the tube. This is true of any reed instrument, even the mechanically driven reed organ. When a key on the saxophone is raised or lowered, the speed of the reed will change to match the frequency determined by the corresponding length of the pipe, no matter the skill of the player. This fundamental concept is crucial to formulating an approach to tone production on the saxophone because in actuality the reed is being governed by the synchronization of TWO tubes, that of the horn and that of the player’s anatomy. Achieving this synchronicity is the goal of the many now well-established exercises such as overtone production, note matching, note bending, etc. and is commonly referred to as “voicing the tone.”
Two mechanisms within the player’s “tube” that have a profound effect on the synchronization of his or her anatomy with the saxophone itself. The first is the vowel syllable produced in the oral cavity, which is essentially the manipulation of the tongue and its position in relation to the soft palate. This governs both the proper volume of the oral cavity and the proper shape needed to deliver an even and steady airstream to the reed. It is fairly easy to control once the player is aware of its importance. The second mechanism can be much more elusive, that being the contribution of the larynx and vocal folds. These structures also have a profound effect on tone generation but generally operate “under the threshold of consciousness” as great saxophone and clarinet teacher Joe Allard used to say. In summary, both the oral cavity and the larynx work together to manipulate the dimensions of the players “tube” and enable it to synchronize with the horn to achieve a sonorous, well centered, and in tune sound.
As with natural singers, players with an ear for tone may latch on to the above principles pretty quickly, with or without training. They just “have a knack” for getting a good sound. But all players can benefit from understanding these fundamentals, as there is always potential for improvement. Today’s demonstration will feature several exercises that can aid in achieving improved control over the player’s “internal tube.”
One of Joe Allard’s teachings was “to play the saxophone is to play the reed.” I once asked Eddie Daniels, who studied with Allard from a young age well into his formative performing career, the most important concept he gained from all those lessons. He told me “Joe taught me to be aware of the reed.”
The reed is the engine of the saxophone. Likewise we could consider the airstream to be the “fuel” and the embouchure the “steering and suspension,” but the reed is at the center of it all. It must be physically capable of responding to the “commands” of the two tubes and join with the mouthpiece in producing an organized series of sound waves that will be amplified by the body of the saxophone. The reed is tasked with many important duties: it must vibrate freely while still providing resistance; it must respond to the entire range of the saxophone from the low Bb through the altissimo; it must operate at all levels of volume; it must deliver the desired balance of resonance, not being too bright or too dark. This is a tall order indeed, and it is no wonder saxophonists are so preoccupied with this small piece of cane.
Understanding only a few basic principles of how to adjust and maintain reeds can save the player money and frustration. It is one of the best skills a teacher can pass on to a student.
Perhaps the most common misconception about the saxophone embouchure is that it “makes the sound” or is the single most important factor in achieving a good tone. The embouchure cannot force vibration into the reed. It is much better to understand how the embouchure functions to enhance (or impair) the vibrations of the reed, given that all the other factors that govern tone production are in place.
It is the job of the muscles of the face and jaw to apply enough pressure to the reed to support and control its vibrations, much in the same manner as the bridge of a string instrument supports the vibrations of strings. A slack embouchure will not allow the reed to vibrate, and too much pressure will surely choke off the vibrations. In order for the reed to vibrate at its fullest, support needs to come from the jaw and muscles of the bottom lip, not from the corners of the mouth in the form of a smile, which will tend to pinch the sides of the reed and interfere with the production of the middle and low frequencies. An analogy would be the shape of a violin bridge, arching up into the strings, as opposed to a hammock suspended from two sides.
Unlike the bridge on a string instrument, the saxophonist can choose to control the placement of the pressure on the reed, essentially applying movement forward or backward, heightening or dampening the vibrations at various frequencies. This act of “covering” or “uncovering” the reed is fundamental to controlling the saxophone throughout the range and at various degrees of volume. It also offers the potential for a wide variation in timbre, something jazz saxophonists often exploit to a great degree.
THE AIR COLUMN
Air is the fuel that propels the vibration of the reed, so it follows that the ability to inhale and store a great deal of air, as well as control its release over time, is paramount. Breathing is a natural and subconscious act, but the volume of air required for playing a wind instrument is not the same as that which is used for daily existence or even mild exertion.
The subject of breathing can get very deep in the areas of physiology and technique, but the fundamental concept is simply the principle of air acting to fill a vacuum. Various muscles (diaphragm, intercostal, oblique, abdominal muscles, etc.) expand the capacity of the lungs, creating a vacuum that is instantly filled with air. The same muscles reverse motion to exhale. Wind players must learn the proper technique to maximize the intake and control the outflow.
Since sound travels in all directions, air held in reserve in the lungs keeps the wave propelled forward, as opposed to dissipating back into the chest. The analogy of a toothpaste tube or squeeze bottle can be effective in visualizing the principle of support. When filled to capacity it takes much less effort to expel the contents than when half full, let alone almost empty.
There are several avenues for the study and enhancement of breathing technique. Eastern cultures place a strong emphasis on breathing as a basic life skill, thus breathing principles taught in Yoga, Tai Chi, etc., can be very useful. A lesson with a good voice coach can also provide individualized recommendations for improving one’s ability to both maximize and control the airstream.
Saxophonists have at their disposal an extremely wide variety of possible articulations. Virtually any percussive syllable that can be spoken has a parallel articulation on the saxophone, form the shortest t’s to the most legato d’s, not to mention doodle tonguing, slap tonguing, double tonguing, and more. Young players left to their own devices often develop a single way of articulating that may be appropriate for their favorite style (or sub-style), or even a single phrase, and then attempt to apply that technique to everything they play. An efficient method of “base line” tonguing that produces clearly defined notes with the potential to for rapidity is often not established until in late the game.
The goal when tonguing is to be able to stop and start the vibrations of the reed without interfering with the embouchure or air column. This demands teaching the tongue to move independently of any motion in the face, and to maintain the desired vowel syllable and air direction while simultaneously starting and stopping the reed. The most efficient way to do this is with the tongue well forward in the mouth, with the tip located in the vicinity of the inside of the bottom teeth and gum line. The tongue can then move up and forward in edge of the reed, leaving the back of the tongue in the arched position for good airspeed, and keeping the tip of the tongue from interfering with the gap between the reed and the mouthpiece. Telling the young player to “touch the tip of the tongue to the tip of the reed” may seem to make sense from a layman’s point of view, but is actually one of the most cumbersome and inefficient ways to articulate on the saxophone. Today’s demonstration will feature a tonguing exercise that is very effective in developing a good “baseline” tonguing technique.
The saxophone mouthpiece joins with the reed, the horn, and the player’s anatomy to produce the sound, and its acoustical properties are very important indeed. The saxophone will accommodate many styles of mouthpieces across a broad range of chamber styles, facings, and materials of construction. Combined with the wide array of available reed styles and degrees of stiffness (not to mention a healthy degree of marketing hype) making a choice can be confusing to say the least. Securing an appropriate mouthpiece/reed combination is certainly an area where a young student needs guidance from a knowledgeable teacher.
Ease of control is the most important factor for a beginning-intermediate player. It is truly unfortunate when a young saxophonist purchases a mouthpiece hoping to imitate his or her favorite player and ends up with a setup completely inappropriate for establishing a solid foundation. Young players should be cautioned not to evaluate a mouthpiece on tone quality alone, as this is a recipe for frustration. The response of a mouthpiece in terms of resistance, articulation, stability, and flexibility across registers will give the player the best overall result and the least trouble down the road. Playability trumps all other factors in the long run, as less energy exerted to maintain control equals more energy that can be directed towards music making.
For players performing across a range of styles, the mouthpiece/reed combination is simply a tool for enhancing the desired musical result. Much like an actor will don the appropriate costume or learn a particular accent to reflect a specific character or period in history, players wishing to adapt their sound to various musical settings may prefer to use different “set-ups” which lend themselves to achieving the appropriate tone and “diction” for their musical “character.” It goes without saying that, regardless of equipment, the end musical result will always depend on the player’s ability to accurately imagine the desired timbre and inflection.
Pressing down a finger is an action associated with a variety of everyday tasks. However, rapidly lifting a finger is as an action virtually exclusive to manipulating a musical instrument. In my experience technical issues getting to the next note in a fast passage are almost always related to getting off the previous note. This seems obvious, but it is not always recognized, so exercises designed to speed the lifting of fingers are paramount. Young players admonished to keep their hands close to the keys before they develop the fast twitch muscle fiber needed to rapidly lift their fingers may actually find their technique stunted as a result. Imagine telling someone to run as fast as they can but keep their feet as close to the ground as possible!
“Proper” finger technique may really lie more in the eye of the beholder; for starters, players have wildly differing hand sizes and arm lengths, and this profoundly affects the hand position each player finds most efficient for playing the instrument. Small hands/short fingers lend themselves to staying close to the keys, larger hands/longer fingers much less so. I would maintain that efficient hand position develops as the result of many hours of diligent practice, and that “proper” hand position in and of itself will not automatically lead to a more rapid technique.
The saxophone does not have a “dainty” appearance, and some would think it much more forgiving to abuse than a flute or clarinet. Actually the opposite is true – the relative softness of the brass key work, not to mention the abundance of leather and cork, make the saxophone particularly prone to maladjustment. An experienced player may be able to overcome an instrument in poor working order, but the beginner will have no such luck. Every student deserves a horn free from leaks, and it’s really up to the teacher to be sure the student is not fighting an uphill battle trying to learn on a poorly functioning instrument. A leak light and some basic repair skills are invaluable in keeping a saxophone touched up between major overhauls, as is knowledge of proper key heights and other critical adjustments.
There is a reason for the infatuation with vintage saxophones; the materials and dimensions of instruments produced half a century or more ago just seem to resonate more profoundly. Sometimes this can more obvious in front of the horn than to the player, as older horns tend to generate a little more resistance and may require more of the player’s “voicing skills” to govern intonation. In my opinion alterations in the dimensions of some modern saxophones to make them “more in tune” for the inexperienced player has resulted in instruments that reject good voicing technique and feel dull and inflexible. However, purchasing a vintage saxophone is something that should only be considered with the advice of a trusted and knowledgeable expert, as abuse and shoddy repair of a vintage instrument over the course of many years may render it an unwise investment, even if on the outside it appears to have been restored.
When purchasing new saxophone be sure the intonation is satisfactory, especially the octave relationships and the pitch across the break from open C# to fourth line D and E. Use a tuner, or better yet play octaves and triads against some drones. Keep in mind that flat low notes are just as undesirable as sharp high notes. If there is no single positioning of the mouthpiece that allows the octaves, thirds, and fifths to be gently coaxed into proper tuning, be cautioned. Young players are often unaware of intonation flaws, or assume if they are having trouble playing in tune “it must be me.” A good teacher should be able to evaluate if tuning issues lie mostly with the player or with the instrument. While intonation is ultimately the responsibility of the player, there are saxophones (and mouthpieces) that make the task of playing in tune more difficult than it should be.
TOPICS FOR TODAY:
With the above concepts in mind, I would like to use today’s presentation to discuss and demonstrate both the how and the why of various exercises many of you may already be familiar with, perhaps present some new ones, and hopefully dispel some non-specific dogma that has long been part of the pedagogy but often misunderstood and misapplied. We will take a look at the following topics:
- What does it mean to play with an “open throat”?
- The tongue, soft palate, and vowel syllables
- The larynx and “singing” as it relates to the saxophone
- How is pressure applied and how much? Where and what is the result?
- Exercises for good embouchure formation
- Are there different embouchures for jazz and classical playing?
- The difference between air pressure and sound pressure
- How the embouchure and the throat work together
- Ways to practice
- How the overtones come into play across the range; crossing the breaks
- Tongue placement
- A great tonguing and all around sound production exercise
What is good hand position? How is it related to technique?
- Common hand position problems
- Practicing lifting the fingers
- Important adjustments anyone can make
Practicing with Drones
- The relationship between pitch, timbre, and blend
- Tempered and un-tempered intervals
- Practice devices
Publications that can aid in developing fundamentals:
Books can be helpful, but I think an experienced teacher can also design on-the-spot exercises customized for individual students. A more advanced student or professional should be able to intuitively design practice protocols based on the particular task at hand. That being said, I have a few favorites, most of which have been around for quite a while:
Top Tones for the Saxophone by Sigurd Rascher
The preliminary exercises in this book are the key, as well as the overtone exercises. Caveat: the fingerings offered don’t work on most saxophones
Saxophone Overtone Exercises adapted by David Demsey
Very well organized and sequenced, can be found on www.daveliebman.com
Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound by David Liebman
Great insights from a jazz saxophone master
The Saxophone is My Voice by Ernest Feron
A “mini treatise” on the saxophone. Includes acoustical principles, design and construction, reeds, mouthpieces, playing technique, repair, etc.
Saxophone Altissimo by Robert A. Lucky, Ph.D.
Excellent descriptions, exercises, excerpts, and lots of fingering suggestions for the all the saxophones
Taffanel & Gaubert Complete Method for the Flute
A number of these exercises can be adapted very successfully for the saxophone. My favorites are on pages 123, 125, 128-133. These can be very effective when combined with drones.
158 Saxophone Exercisesby Sigurd Rascher
Arpeggios exercises on triads, diminished, half diminished, and dominant seventh chords, and various chromatic interval patterns
28 Etudes on the Modes by Guy Lacour
Studies on seven different symmetric scales (whole tone, diminished, etc.) and their transpositions. Technically challenging and harmonically interesting to jazz players