zaterdag 3 april 2004

The Classical Saxophone Tone

In this short article I will discuss some aspects of saxophone tone: how to make it and how to use it. Of course it is necessary to bear in mind that this article is written from a very subjective point of view, although I tried to make it helpful for everyone. Because I have had so much trouble getting a good tone, and kept on working on it, I discovered a lot of things that also might be useful to other people.

First I would like to explain how to make the tone an the saxophone as attractive as possible according to what you like. I will sum up some parameters which determine the saxophone tone.

The Air stream: The air stream is the most important parameter for making a good and nice tone. The more air in the sax, the more tone there is. One should see the flowing of the air stream as follows: The air is pushed from the lungs by the diaphragm. After it passes through the throat which subsequently should be as relaxed as possible (see: "The Throat"). After the throat it enters the mouthpiece. When entering the mouthpiece the air makes the reed vibrate, and the reed makes the air column vibrate, which produces a tone. The pitch of this tone is determined by the length of the tube. It is very important a lot of air under high pressure enters the mouthpiece. If this is the case, the reed will be able to vibrate even. If this is not the case (when lacking breath support), the reed will not able to vibrate constantly and thus the tone will be without direction, then softer, then louder and unmanipulatable. We do not want this to be the case: thus there has to be a lot of support from the diaphragm. The control of the tone should come from the diaphragm, not from manipulating the throat! When playing a crescendo or playing towards a point, the tension from the muscles right under the navel, the back muscles and maybe even from the upper legs should increase. When playing a decrescendo or playing away from a point, the direction of the air must remain forward and controlled. In this way the throat doesn't tighten up, which is often the case when playing softer.

A good way to look at the lungs is to compare it with a plastic bag, which is inflated. When you deflate it, the more speed you want, the more pressure from the outside is needed. So when the air has to go faster or there has to be more pressure, contract the diaphragm. So that means when there is less and less air in the lungs, you should give more support to the lungs. It is like the feeling of always palying a crescendo.
Bear in mind that playing saxophone without breath support is IMPOSSIBLE. There is always resistance to be overcome and thus one needs extra support. The hard thing to keep a stable air support, and this needs practicing of the mucles involved.

Exercises for air support:
Because low notes require a lot of air, it's wise to play a lot of long tones in the low register, forte and piano. In piano, try to not tighten up the throat, but when the tone gets more difficult to sustain (the beginning is usually fine), tighten up the diaphragm and not the throat.
Practice long notes with accents: When playing a long tone, push more air in the sax by contracting the diaphragm shortly. Repeat this while playing the same tone. Maintain a basic air support when doing this.

Also practice the above exercises with crescendos and decrescendos.
Practice scales........a lot!!!..........: They're good for everything!!! When playing scales and going in the high register, give more air support, because high notes require faster air and they sound softer than the lower notes with the same amount of air. Again: instead of tightening up the throat more and more, give direction to the diaphragm,and keep the throat relaxed.

The Throat: I talked about the throat before, it is next to the air stream a very important parameter determining the tone quality of a saxophonist. The throat should be very relaxed at all times. A lot of people talk about it being as open as possible, but this not the case, it should be as relaxed as possible and in this way it will be very manipulable. It can be open or closed, but not tense. Through a closed throat, air can still pass, but the tone color will be different. This is very functional. A closed throat gives less overtones, than an open throat (brighter and bigger sound)because the body resonates less and more air is able to pass the throat at the same time, an open throat will give brighter tone, because the chest will resonate more. Sometimes a certain passage will call for a more open tone and therefore a more open throat will be very functional.

Exercises for relaxing the throat:

Do the exercises above and you'll notice that the tension gained in the diaphragm will replace the tensions from the throat.
Breath in cold air. When doing this the throat is opened and air can freely pass. When blowing, keep the same feeling in the throat and maintain throat position as when breathing in the cold air.
Blow hot air. Blow hot air against your hand, that feeling can be used when blowing in your horn. Some people prefer the feeling of blowing cold air, experiment with this.

More on Embouchure:
It's very important to realize that there are muscles in circle form around the lips.
These muscles should be used to close the lips around the mouthpiece. When using tension in these muscles, there doesn't have to be tension coming from the lower jaw and the throat, because all the direct reed control comes from the muscles around the lips.

In General:
When looking at the above it is important to realize that, it is the air that does the work. Everything we change on the embouchure should be in favour of the air stream. That is why we play windinstruments and not lipinstruments. The air makes the music and in the end the air comes from your creative mind, as does your overall technique. Having a strong musical indea is the best trick to have good technique.

For a lot of people vibrato is a very sensitive subject. I will tell you my experiences, and I hope you can subtract some things of them you can use. Make sure you play the vibrato you like, big, small, slow, fast, etc.

Vibrato is a very powerful expressive tool and can be used in a lot different ways. The first two are to use non-vibrato and vibrato notes. For example if you want to emphasize a certain note, play it with vibrato, and the note before without. If you have two notes that both need vibrato. You can use different kinds of vibrato. For example, a note that has a lot of tension could have a vibrato that goes through the middle of the centre of the tone. The note that is more important could have a more bright vibrato; a vibrato that goes a little under the middle. When doing this, one should pay attention to the intonation, and raise the pitch of the tone (by using the throat), a lower vibrato will make the tone sound lower too!

A very important thing to remember when playing vibrato is that it should be played from a relaxed embouchure. When you want a powerful vibrato, the power should come from air support and not from tightening the jaw-muscles and tongue. A good thing to take into consideration is that almost always when the vibrato is not the way you like it, it is above the center of the tone. The way to solve this is to lower the centre of the tone, and keep the vibrato the same (this way, the tone itself will improve too). Lowering the centre of the tone is done by just to relax the embouchure muscles and use more diaphragm support to compensate for the embouchure tension.Try to experiment with this and you will notice that there are a lot of coloring possibilities with the vibrato.

copyright 1999/2004 T.H. Mellema

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