Approaching the classical style - a resource for jazz saxophonists


Well-Known Member
I have found an interesting dissertation:

Some excerpts (from interviews the author did) I am currently thinking about :) :

What are the differences (if any) in your approach to timbre (tone) in each style?
I‘m a believer that by having the front and middle of the tongue reasonably high,
arched forward, and close to the reed (also making articulation easier), the sound is
centered and more focused. The smaller distance between the tongue and the reed creates
some constriction, resulting in what is called the Venturi effect in physics, in which the
air speed is increased as it is forced through a smaller opening. To a certain degree,
having this tongue position is desirable in both classical and jazz, but emphasizing the
position even more in jazz seems to give the tone a bit more zing. Simultaneously, the
back of my tongue is lower and the glottal opening is slightly more closed, thus bringing
the pitch down slightly, and adding brightness and penetrating power to the sound.
However, this is all relative. Some classical players modify their tongue or glottal
position in order to get the kind of volume they need to play a concerto or to assist with
altissimo notes. So, many of the supposed differences between the styles actually do
have a great deal of overlap.
Of course, none of this matters compared to the importance of developing the ear.
We can talk forever about these details of embouchure and oral cavity, but without
internalizing these sounds intuitively as if speaking a language, no saxophonist will ever
achieve great results.

When switching from jazz to
classical playing, this focused area of resonant turbulence in the oral cavity shifts
location. In jazz playing, the resonance focus surrounds the mouthpiece and reed and
also includes the area directly below the reed, behind the front bottom teeth. In classical
playing, the resonance focus shifts up to the roof of the mouth where the soft palate meets
the hard palate. It is this shift in the resonance focus that I am most conscious of now
when I switch styles, as compared to my tongue position, which is more subconscious.

Branford Marsalis, Michael Jacobson, Chris Vadala, and Rick VanMatre also use
similar embouchures for jazz and classical playing in terms of the portion of lip being
used and overall shape, and say that there is a bit firmer approach to the embouchure in
classical playing. Marsalis offers,
There are no embouchure differences. There is a change from a Selmer D to a
C* on the soprano, but that is for volume purposes. One of the hardest things to
get used to is keeping the lip pressure on the reed constant in classical playing,
even when playing low notes. In jazz, how the note arrives is not so important, so
you can cheat to get it there through slides, growls or subtone. One of the best
things I have learned in studying classical is constant lip pressure, often called
breath control (why I‘ll never know).

For the trained ear, it is often possible to identify a saxophonist as coming from
either a jazz or classical background in the span of one note. Even if both players used a
similar vibrato and timbre (which, coming from different backgrounds it is likely they
would not), one should be able to detect primary aural cues in the attack transients. Both
the attack and release of the note can speak volumes to the past experiences of the player.
In general, what one will hear when listening closely to an experiment of this nature
(using a single quarter note, for example) is that the jazz saxophonist will start the note
with a soft noise before the actual tone is sounded, and the note (and air that creates it)
will be stopped with their tongue re-touching the reed. Conversely, the classical
saxophonist will start the tone cleanly without any precursory sounds, and will end the
note by stopping the air only.

Now the other thing that is very important is if you ask a jazz player to start a
note [with a breath attack], 99 percent will play [sings] ?ffaaah.‘ A well-trained
classical player will play [sings] aaah.‘ They won‘t have the ff‘ part in front of
their sound. Many people view this as the jazz player lacking tone control, but
that is false because the tone happens when it is supposed to happen – on the beat.
Therefore he has tone control because he is doing what he intends. Now, if you
ask jazz players to play a note without the ?ff‘ in front of the note, they can‘t.
They don‘t know how to do that. We say, ?you‘re not controlling the sound
because you‘re not getting the tone when you start the air. Don‘t move the air
before the note.‘ It can‘t happen. You could ask a jazz player to do one hundred
attacks and you will get air before the attack every single time. So, then you can
say you‘re obviously making the tone when you want but you‘re preceding it with
the air. In fact, most jazz players won‘t even hear that air before the attack.

They‘ll say ?Wow, now that you point it out I do notice it. I‘ve never noticed that
before. That‘s interesting!‘ Then you can create a game by saying ?okay, start
your air on one beat and then start the note on the next beat.‘ Most jazz players
can do that easily. They can go [singing while snapping out a metronome pulse]
?ff-aaah.‘ The game continues with eighth notes [sings faster] ?ff-aaah.‘ Then
continue with sixteenth notes, and thirty-second notes, so that the ?ff‘ gets shorter
and shorter until finally, you ask them to play right on it and they play [sings]
?aaah.‘ Now within ten minutes, a major concept of classical music is learned.
What‘s happened then, is that conceptually and technically, they have put a
temporal shift on when the air starts and when the tone starts, and they can start
playing with that timing. In order for a jazz player to change their concept of an
attack (which is a major part of the problem) they must have this temporal shift to
focus on when their tone is produced in relation to when their air starts to

I'm not convinced it's not cobblers (the ff-aaah bit, that is).
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Having ploughed through the whole lot, I found it very interesting. There's quite a lot of obvious stuff but plenty that I hadn't heard about before and some good insights from practising musos. Thanks Guenne.

The "ff-aaah" bit is explained in more detail in the thesis. I see what he's getting at now.

copy/paste out of the context was not a good idea I suppose...

Thank you for this wonderful resource. I have downloaded the entire dissertation---far too much to read and digest at one sitting.

copy/paste out of the context was not a good idea I suppose...

Also, technically, it is against the rules of the forum (and may be a breach of copyright). It might be better to use shorter extracts but with specific links to parts of the original.
Also, technically, it is against the rules of the forum (and may be a breach of copyright). It might be better to use shorter extracts but with specific links to parts of the original.

Good morning,

yes, after kneeing on a log of wood the whole night I appologize for it.

Good morning,

yes, after kneeing on a log of wood the whole night I appologize for it.

No need to apologise, it is obviously very useful. It's always a tricky one when you link to something like that.
I just wish the author or someone on his doctoral committee would have consulted with someone familiar with acoustics before coming up with the term "area of resonant turbulence in the oral cavity". That is just nonsense. Air flow can have areas of turbulence, and a hollow cavity can have resonance, but a turbulence cannot have resonance in and of itself. There has been a lot of research done recently about what takes place inside the oral cavity of a saxophone player during performance by Dr. Gary Scavone now at McGill University and Dr. Joe Wolfe at UNSW that would have tied in with this dissertation.
He goes on a bit about how materials make a difference too but there's a lot of interesting stuff in there, nonetheless.
Puts me in mind of Jerome K Jerome illustrating the teaching of the German language.

having read all of the dissertation and digesting it I think it helped me a lot, though there is hardly anything in it's contents I haven't heard of (technically).
But it helped me to understand my playing better, and to understand more clearly what I like and what I dislike in it.

What I will try is the following:
I will continue to spend most of my time for "Jazz practice".
Nevertheless I will take half an hour a day, maybe more if I'm not teaching in practicing "Classical" stuff.

I will do this with completely different equipment, different horn, MPC, reeds.

I hope it will make it easier to "turn the switch".

Interesting take on the subject. I've found that my jazz embouchure is somewhat "looser", but more or less the same basic voicing concept as in classical. I definitely agree that someone who plays mostly classical stands out for being a bit too "clean", but then again one of my favorite saxophonists is Paquito D'Rivera, whose attack is always right on the mark. Go figure.

for me, thinking about this subject really opened up my thinking.
It helped me understand why I not always sound the way I'd like to in a certain genre, be it Jazz, Pop or Classical, and to gain control.
I have been working on certain setups for different styles, even different horns. But that is another subject :)
Of course we all are different, and while some just have it by instinct (easier if you stay in just one style), for me it is of enourmous help, especially in teaching.
People who come to me have a certain thinking about how a sax should sound, while there musical career most every time will start and stay in one of our symphonic bands. And we have a lot of very, very good ones here in Austria, especially where I live.
They have to aquire good basics of the saxophone, be able to blend, play in tune and in one concert switch to playing a solo in a Musical or pop medley and play over the whole band.

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I appreciate those comments Guenne, and I agree entirely. I believe those wanting to learn to play the saxophone should learn the instrument first, and then the "styles". That means of course to be able to produce a well controlled "characteristic" classical tone, develop the ability to play in tune, and become familiar with the geography of the instrument. Those who start out just wanting to play "pop" music with a "pop" "new age" "buzzy" sound, end up locked into that one genre that severely restricts their playing opportunities as they go forward. To me, becoming a musician is about musical "growth", not self imposed limitations.
Not sure I agree with all of this. Classical doesn't appeal to all people, especially kids. And if they're not having fun, they don't practice unless forced. They soon give up. Any/all music teachers should have instilling/nurturing a love of music as their primary objective - even before teaching how to play.

I think a better approach is mixed styles of music as exercises to learn to play. But examples should be used that progressively develop proper technique.

What's clear is that formal teaching builds technique, and without this the learner soon stops musically until the technique catches up.
Kev, I understand what you are saying. What I am referring to is not the literature that is used, but the concept of tone the student is taught. I taught literally hundreds of students to play band instruments over my 32 year public school teaching career. What I discovered is that if the group sounds really good, the students enjoy what they are doing. My 2nd year band (7th grade) would typically play a "pops" concert each spring. The purpose was to introduce the students to other styles of music and would generally include TV and movie themes, classic rock and roll songs, and a few current hits. It worked great to let the students "show off" for their peers in an assembly, and it was a great recruiting tool since all of the 5th grade classes were invited to attend. They were taught the articulations, etc. appropriate for those styles, but there was no deviation in the tone production. (Well, I did let them play a bit louder on some tunes than they would on concert or festival pieces.)

My point is that I would never start a beginner on a high baffle, open tip mouthpiece with a soft reed to get that "new age" saxophone sound that is so popular even if that is the type of music the student eventually wanted to play. Instead I would teach the core tone production skills and concepts that one would use in a symphonic band setting until the student had a mastery of the instrument in terms of tone production and control, intonation, and technique. Once that is achieved, it would be the appropriate time to explore other tonal concepts and styles of music and playing.

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