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Josh Harris • Archives • August 16, 2012

By Andrew J. Allen

This winter, band directors across the nation will walk into their bandrooms, ready to get down whole-heartedly to the business of the concert ensemble. Since June, or even earlier, the educator has been involved feverishly and completely with the marching band. The time for Holst and Hindemith has finally come. The uniforms, sousaphones, and flags have been packed away; the newest trophies have been proudly displayed; and the director has assiduously studied many scores in preparation. The mind races with all of the new possibilities. Contest season is quickly approaching! With a mix of hope and apprehension, the director mounts the podium, raises a baton, gives a downbeat – and SQWANK!!!!!!

An unholy noise issues from the saxophone section! What happened!? Hope quickly turns to fear and worry. What went wrong? How could this possibly have been avoided?

Why Quartets?

As we all know, the marching band is an excellent educational and public relations tool that offers a great avenue for instruction, public recognition, and the building of esprit de corps. However, without proper preparation, some deleterious and pervasive habits can creep into students’ playing through this ensemble. This is especially true for the saxophone section, for whom the very act of marching requires a different instrument position, which can lead to adverse effects on embouchure and tone-production. Over-blowing and other marching band missteps can lead to the “laser-tone” all too often encountered in band rooms throughout the country. Of course, many band directors continue some form of concert-ensemble training during the fall, and many also have active private-lesson programs throughout the year. Whether or not a program is able to support these endeavors, however, an active chamber music program during both semesters can lead to great technical and musical advances with a minimal amount of active oversight from the directors.

There are several reasons why a saxophone quartet can be a particularly advantageous educational undertaking. First, tone quality – with the correct guidance – can be greatly improved. The small ensemble offers the student saxophonists a chance to play out with full sounds, without the fear of drowning out others, as they might in a band. As a result, they will learn to support more, and their sounds will improve in solo, chamber, and large ensemble performance. By seeking to balance and blend with each other, also, the students can learn to hear and manage in microcosm the problems that are encountered in day-to-day band rehearsals. Second, intonation can more easily be addressed in the small ensemble. While out-of-tune saxophones may be able to hide somewhat in a full band, poor intonation will be painfully apparent in a quartet setting. With the reduced musical texture provided by the ensemble, it also provides a prime laboratory to resolve this issue.

Third, the quartet offers an opportunity for the budding tenor and baritone players to stretch their technical wings. Quartet literature offers many more chances for those instruments to shine than the standard band repertoire. Further, along these lines, the activity allows young saxophonists to play all of the voices of the instrument family. The student who is primarily a baritone player can work on his alto chops, the tenor player can pick up the soprano, and so on.

Also, by introducing student saxophonists to quartets, they are given an arena through which they can continue to enjoy playing their instruments upon graduation from high school or college. It is much easier to find three other saxophonists and rehearse with them regularly and avocationally than it would be with a band of fifty or more instrumentalists.

Where Do I Start?

When forming a middle school or high school quartet, the first issue to be addressed is that of instrumentation. While most advanced and professional literature has been written for the combination of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, there still exists a great deal of music for ensembles of two altos, tenor, and baritone, when access to a soprano is lacking. Two wonderful collections exist for the beginning ensemble. For the SATB combination, Sigurd Rascher and Lee Patrick’s Masterpieces for Saxophone Quartet offers 13 arrangements of music from the Renaissance through the Classical periods. Larry Teal’s Ten Saxophone Quartets delivers equally wonderful transcriptions for the AATB ensemble. Through these, the young quartet can have a wealth of literature at their disposal for a very reasonable price. Both of these collections, written by lauded pioneering pedagogues of the saxophone, have stood the test of time admirably.

After they have exhausted these resources, quartets can delve into standard works like the quartets of Caryl Florio, Jean Baptiste Singelee, Faustin and Maurice JeanJean, and many more. If there is one problem with the saxophone quartet literature, it is that much of it is weighted toward the professional performer. A surface search for lower grade-levels may yield many novelty pieces, but a great deal of quality music exists. Texas’s UIL-recommended literature list is an especially fruitful resource for band directors in search of quartets.

If the director sets a routine for the ensemble in the first few rehearsals, the students will be able to be self-directed much of the time thereafter. When seating the new ensemble, many directors will be tempted to have the group rehearse in the same configuration that they would perform in on-stage. However, especially in the early days, it may be more profitable for the group to sit in an “X” formation, with soprano (or first alto) and tenor, and alto (second) and baritone facing each other, respectively. In this compact formation, it will be easier for each student to hear the parts of the other members of the group, as well as intonation discrepancies. If a concert is approaching, the ensemble can simply begin practicing in a configuration suitable for the stage. Seating the group in a tight arch, placing soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone from stage right to stage left is one common set-up.

Next comes tuning. The ensemble should tune from the baritone, with that student playing their lowest written F# in the staff (a concert A), carefully referencing an electronic tuner. Once the baritone is tuned, the tenor matches the concert A, followed by the alto (or altos), and then the soprano, if applicable. Next, every instrument should play their respective written F#s, with the octave key, so that fifths result, further insuring over-all intonation. Finally, the quartet should play a unison scale very slowly, checking for precise intonation and uniform timbre.

After the initial tuning routine, the quartet should play a chorale for the purposes of intonation and ensemble-building. This author is partial to two resources. The first is John Nichol’s transcription of Five Bach Chorales. These are useful for both rehearsal and performance. The second is a book entitled Bach and Before for Band by David Newell, which includes 19 chorales, with each of the four parts printed in every book. This provides an opportunity for a wide variety of musical combinations. While, in the early stages of development, a group may struggle with tuning a standard SATB voicing, the older quartet can profit immensely from dealing with the challenges of intonation, musicality, and balance posed by the baritone playing the melody, while the soprano or first alto performs an interior voice.

After the warm-up phase, the quartet is ready to rehearse their literature. It should be mentioned again (and even encouraged) that after the first few rehearsals, the director can take a mostly supervisory role, offering the occasional coaching session and popping by when a vexing problem comes up. Chamber ensembles are a wonderful experiment in musical democracy, where each member’s voice and opinions are equally valid. In the first few supervised rehearsals, the director can set a model of how to organize and offer help and criticism in the small-group rehearsal. Perhaps, the director could recommend that a different student take the lead in every rehearsal, encouraging each to develop a critical ear and the ability to voice musical thoughts independently. The most important thing to ensure consistent progress with a young ensemble is to establish a consistent routine: tune, chorale, and rehearse literature.

The quartet can be an excellent pedagogical tool for the young saxophonist, both in the fall and throughout the year. By exposing these students to the challenges faced in chamber music, you will help them grow immeasurably as musicians. Aside from all of this, there is one other consideration that pleads the case of the saxophone quartet and all chamber music: What could be more fun than playing music with a few of your closest friends?

Andrew J. Allen is currently a Presidential Doctoral Fellow at the University of South Carolina, where he is a student of Dr. Clifford Leaman. He holds degrees in music education and saxophone performance from Tennessee Tech University and Central Michigan University, and has studied with Joseph Lulloff, John Nichol, and Phil Barham. Mr. Allen has premiered new works for the saxophone throughout the United States and Europe, and serves on the faculty of Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

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