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Playing Improving your saxophone sound

This discussion pertains mainly to achieving a full, well-rounded sound for players in small groups and big bands, although some of the tips and discussions will apply to classical playing as well.

I should probably begin by telling a little about myself and my credentials, as I am certain no one reading this has ever heard of me, and know nothing about my abilities, background, or credentials for writing this, or any article, on saxophone performance. I have been playing music since I began piano lessons at age four. I played my first public recital on piano at five. When in the fourth grade, I began flute lessons in the Baltimore County, Maryland, (USA) school instrumental music program. The Summer following ninth grade, I began saxophone lessons. I continued to study flute privately iunder Bonnie Lake, who held the second flute chair in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. After graduating high school, I entered the US Navy, where I attended the Navy School of Music. Upon graduating from the School of Music I spent three years as Principal flute/piccolo and Utility tenor saxophone in Norfolk, Virginia with Commander In Chief Atlantic Fleet Band. During my tour of duty at CinCLAnt, I also held the principal flute chair with the Norfolk Symphony Orchestra. Upon release from active duty, in 1967, I took a position at a local Baltimore Maryland strip club, playing (mostly) tenor saxophone for exotic dancers. We played two two-hour shows a night, and three shows on Saturdays. It was while playing for the exotic dancers that I learned how to blow tenor sax with a sound as big as your back yard, all night long, without hurting myself.

Here are the things I discovered:

First, you need to have an instrument that feels completely comfortable to you. Nevermind that it is a 1937 Wombat stenciled "Professional" horn, made by troglodytes in a cave in Southern France. You do not need a "Coleman Hawkins Special" or a gold anything for it to be a good instrument FOR YOU. Yes, the Selmer Mark VI made during the period from about 1960 to 1965 may be almost the "Holy Grail" of instruments, but if it is not comfortable for you, it is worthless. So, if you are used to your beat up old King Zephyr, by all means, avoid the temptation to run out and buy the latest and greatest, thinking it is going to solve all your sound problems.

Second, no matter what instrument you play on, you cannot get a consistently good sound out of it if you are fighting repair and regulation problems. All the pads have to seat properly, and all the keys have to open the proper distance from the pad seat. In general, the best intonation (or "scale" if you prefer) is obtained when the keys open half the diameter of the tone hole. If you have to "favor" a lot of notes, have your repair person (one hesitates to say repairMAN in this day and age) look over the instrument. Explain which notes have to be favored and in which direction in order to play in tune. He (or she) can usually "tweak" the key lift to help with intonation problems. This is a good time to check the pressure required to get the keys to close, also. Being originally a flute player, I have a very light touch, and often have to have my instrument readjusted after a repad, to account for that. Remember, the lighter touch you use, the faster your fingers can move, and the more facility you will have.

Third (and this is probably most important) practice long tones. Not loud tones, but long sustained subtones at the lowest possible volume, at the lowest notes of the instrument. Relax your embouchure, and take the mouthpiece into your mouth WITHOUT ROLLING YOUR LOWER LIP OVER YOUR TEETH. Visualize yourself smoking a cigar, or nursing, as a baby does. Use the muscles in your lip to obtain sufficient "bite" to create the tone. At first, this will seem very tiring, and the tone will be harsh, and very loud. But, as you continue to practice, you will gain muscle tone, and more control. Ultimately, you will find that when you do play loudly, you can get a much fuller sound, with many more lower harmonics, because the reed is not being damped by pressure from your teeth. You will probably not be able to produce a subtone on a low Bb at first; start on a D, and without putting more air into the instrument, close the C, B and Bb keys. When the tone ceases, do not try to force it,. Start over again with a D, and work your way down. You will eventually find that you can easily play a subtone starting on any note of the instrument below a G. After you have mastered subtones at the bottom of the instrument, begin working your way upward. This, you will probably discover, is a lifelong goal. The object is to be able to play a subtone throughout the full normal range of the instrument, from low Bb to high F. I am probably better than many saxophone players at this, and I must admit, I cannot consistently play a subtone above A2, unless I have been playing for about an hour or two, and am fully warmed up and relaxed. Oh, I can play softly in the upper registers, but a true subtone is a sound that is more air, than reed vibrating. That is a very difficult thing to achieve in the upper registers of the instrument.

This is where you will probably find that you need to use softer reeds. A common mistake made by intermediate players is moving to harder reeds, in an effort to produce a louder and fuller sound. Remember, it is the reed's vibrations that produce the sound in a saxophone. A softer reed will vibrate more easily (and at a lower frequency) than a hard one. A softer reed will also allow you to play longer, with less effort than a hard one, becasue it requires less pressure. The key to a big sound is the mouthpiece/reed combination. Using a softer reed allows you to use a larger tip opening,and a larger chamber in the mouthpiece. This is the key to a big sound. If you look at video recordings of the players who had the biggest sounds - the so called "Texas Tenors" for example - you will see tht they play with their lower lip curled outward. When I first started playing tenor saxophone, I played on a Brilhart Ebolin 3* mouthpiece and #2 Symetricut or Vibrator reeds. Those brands are no longer available, but were roughly equivalent to Rico Royal #2. As I developed my embouchure, as discussed above, I went to larger and larger mouthpieces , and softer and softer reeds. My first mouthpiece change was to a Selmer hard rubber D, and the same reeds. Then I switched to 1 1/2 Rico Reeds. My next mouthpiece was a Selmer S80 series F, with the same reeds. About a year or so later, I switched to LaVoz Medium reeds. After playing on that combination for about five years, I switched to my current setup - an Otto Link "New York" 6 mouthpiece, and LaVoz Soft reeds, which I sand the backs of, and rush down, to make them even softer. Several years ago, I purchased a Selmer Modele 26 tenor, which has a noticeably smaller bore than my Selmer Radio Improved model. On that instrument, I play on a Guy Hawkins 9 mouthpiece, with the same LaVoz soft reeds.
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Many of the great players played or play with their lower lip rolled in slightly. You have to do what feels natural to you as every person is different.
Very clear and sensible advice from an experienced player.
Nicely put and explained
I like the good horse sense from years of experience. I have some questions that I will ask in the discussion section in a few days when i have a bit of time.
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