The Secret of a Good Woodwind Sound

Mike Lawson • Performance • October 1, 2002

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Recently I was in Washington D.C. doing a residency for the Kennedy Center. One of the groups I coached was the award-winning Walt Whitman High School Jazz Ensemble. When he heard me playing long tones to warm up, director Chris Allen said to me, “There are only two kinds of players that practice long tones: Beginners, because they can’t play anything else, and professionals, because they know how important long tones are.”

It’s so true. Every teacher tells students to play long tones, and every student thinks they’re the most boring thing in the world. What’s interesting or fun about holding out one note for a long time?

First, let’s talk about what long tones are good for:

  • Strengthening the embouchure.
  • Improving breath control.
  • Improving tone quality.

It’s obvious that beginners need to strengthen their embouchures, because they don’t have one yet! Likewise for breath control. But why should someone who’s been playing, say, a year or longer play long tones? Answer: to improve tone quality.

Sounds like a good idea. Wouldn’t every player like to have a great sound? How do you get one? Here are some tips to help you and your students discover the secret of a good sound.

First, realize that every single tone has many aspects, or levels, to it. The three basic categories are:

  • Main tone, the “edge” sound (most obvious to the ear).
  • Shadow tone (same pitch as the note you’re playing, but in the background).
  • Overtones (high-pitched whistling or buzzing tones floating above the main tone).

Many players focus only on their edge tone; in fact, they may have never practiced listening to their shadow tone or their overtones. That’s too bad, because discovering and listening to those other levels of one’s sound is one of the most interesting things about playing music.

Different instruments are recognizable by their timbre – the characteristic sound of an instrument. The timbre is a combination of all the elements listed above, so it’s logical that your sound will improve as you start to focus on these essentials.

The Shadow Tone

Have students play long tones against a wall so they can hear the sound bouncing back at them. Listen deeply to each tone. The shadow tone sounds almost like an echo of the main tone. It’s a very plain sound, and it wouldn’t be very interesting by itself. It’s as if you took a black crayon and rubbed lightly on some paper. The color would be grayish, wouldn’t it? Then you take the crayon and rub hard over the gray, and it comes out black. But the gray color is underneath that, making your black even richer and fuller. That’s your shadow tone.

Your students may find that they can hear the shadow tone more easily on lower notes. It can definitely be heard more easily on some notes than others. The shadow tone is the aural equivalent of an optical illusion. Have you ever stared at an optical illusion printed in a book or magazine and had trouble making it go back and forth?

Is the blue side on the inner left back or the outer left front?

Well, the shadow tone is a lot like that. Now you hear it, now you don’t! But instruct students to keep practicing listening for it, and gradually the shadow tone will become part of their awareness of tone in general.

Note to saxophone students: You’ll notice that as you approach the curve at the bottom of the bell, the shadow tone may start to deviate in pitch from the note you’re playing. It may go as low as a minor third below. This phenomenon is due to the abrupt change in direction of the air stream as it follows the curve of the horn, and it may help you to become aware of the shadow tone.


Perhaps you’ve heard the term “overtone series” or “harmonic series” and wondered what it meant. You’ve seen light through a prism, splitting into individual colors that we call a rainbow. The colors of the rainbow are a part of nature and will never change. Sound is also divided into frequencies, or vibrations – just as light is. Any given tone has a specific frequency, and that frequency contains within it still other frequencies – those of the overtone series. The overtone series is a rainbow made up of sound frequencies rather than light frequencies.

Overtone series with C as the fundamental; notes in parentheses deviate from standard pitch:

Woodwind instruments have many overtones in their timbres. Saxophones and double reeds have the most, and overtones are fairly easily heard on the clarinet as well, especially on the upper notes. The flute has a more “pure” timbre, so overtones are more subtle on this instrument. But flutists – because of the timbre of their instrument – can do something that reed players can’t do quite as well: two flutes playing together can create “difference tones.”

Difference Tones

Try this experiment: Have one student flutist play some random long tones with another flute player, each of them changing their note periodically as the other holds a tone. You’ll notice that certain combinations of tones produce a buzzing in your ear that has an actual pitch – a third tone that is quite a bit lower than either of the tones being played. This tone is called a “difference tone” because its frequency is the difference between the frequencies of the other two tones when you subtract the lower from the higher. Does this difference tone really exist in the air, or is it only in your ear? People have been arguing about that for the past 300 years. But it’s a very interesting phenomenon nonetheless!

Creating an Individual Sound

Have students play long tones against the wall, listening closely to them. Have them play them for five minutes every practice session. Encourage students to be a “sound scientist,” and dissect each tone with their ears. If they don’t hear any shadow tones or overtones immediately, don’t worry. As they focus their attention on listening to their sound, in time these aspects of their tone will begin to stand out more. Once the ear becomes aware of shadow tones and overtones, it hears them quite easily.

By the way, the overtones and shadow tones are what give players of the same instrument different sounds. Each player’s ear draws him or her to a preferred emphasis on one of these tonal aspects – all you have to do is follow your ear. It’s also important to listen to professional players, both live and on recordings. Students’ ears needs to be “lured” toward a good sound from outside themselves, as well as inside themselves.

The Art of Listening

Music is a hearing art, and the ear should guide everything we play, regardless of whether we are reading music or playing by ear. As woodwind players, we tend to play notes automatically because we have different fingerings for each note. (Some octaves on the flute are the exception.) Think of the brass players, who have only three keys with seven combinations, or seven positions of the slide. Their ears guide them to find the embouchure for the next pitch. Good woodwind players do the same thing. Our notes should be produced by using a combination of fingering, embouchure and listening to ourselves and the other players at the same time. (And we haven’t even talked about breathing! But that’s for another article. . .) It sure is a lot to do. Thankfully, with practice, these skills become instinctive, without any need to focus on them consciously while playing.

I hope that this short introduction to tone quality has given you some insight into the mysteries of sound. It’s fascinating to help students discover these aspects of their sound that they may have never noticed before. With so much information, students may ask, isn’t there just one thing to remember that would help with all of this stuff? There is. Remember your long tones!

Saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist “Sweet” Sue Terry has performed with many of the most notable figures in jazz, including Dr. Billy Taylor, Clark Terry, Al Jarreau, Walter Bishop Jr., Chaka Khan, George Duke, Hilton Ruiz, Irene Reid, Juan Carlos Formell, Dr. John, Jazzberry Jam, Teri Thornton, Mike Longo and Dianne Reeves. She has appeared as a soloist with the National Symphony, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, The Downtown Chamber Players and the New York Pops, conducted by Skitch Henderson.

Terry is musical director of the dance/music ensemble Beauteez ‘N The Beat; author of the book “Practice Like The Pros” for saxophone, and the clarinet and saxophone books for the “Step One” series, published by Music Sales Corp.

More about Terry can be found at, and in the book “Madame Jazz” by Leslie Gourse. She is a Yamaha artist.

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