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Debunking Saxophone Myths

Andrew J. Allen • September 2022Woodwinds • September 5, 2022

Bigfoot. Chupacabras. Unicorns. Nessie. These are all animals that (perhaps?) exist most vividly only in the minds of dreamers. Still, their legends endure. These creatures range from the frightening to the fanciful, but they all make for a good story. 

In music education, we also have a host of myths that pop up around instruments, performance practice, and pieces. The saxophone draws many misconceptions, lent an aura of reality through generations of well-meaning retelling. This article will shine a light on some of the most prevalent myths.

“The Saxophone Is an Easy Instrument to Learn!”
What could be wrong about an instrument being easy to learn? A young student may assume something is wrong with them if they find difficulties in this “easy” instrument. It may even lead to students quitting band. At the least, it is quite annoying to the accomplished saxophonist to hear how “easy” their instrument it to play.

Like many myths, this one has some basis. The saxophone has a streamlined, logical fingering system, designed, and refined from the beginning with an eye to acoustical laws and technical execution. Unlike many of the other woodwinds, it was invented following the innovations of flutist Theobald Boehm in the 19th Century. In addition, the inventor Adolphe Sax was an early pioneer in acoustics. He experimented to create the most perfect instrument the technology of his time would allow.

The early history and subsequent improvements over the last 170 years of the saxophone have yielded an instrument free of many of the problems of other woodwinds, such as awkward fingerings, intonation, and tonal deficiencies. It could even be said the saxophone IS an easy instrument to get an initial sound on. However, true success and mastery take the same dedication as any other instrument.

“The Saxophone Sounds Bad!”/”The Saxophone Plays Out of Tune!”
This assumes the saxophone is inherently a bad-sounding instrument or one with inferior intonation. The most common cause of the “saxophone sounds bad” comment comes from a misunderstanding regarding the differences in clarinet and saxophone pedagogy (see below). Another prime culprit is the use by a young saxophonist of inappropriate equipment. An extreme or inappropriate reed, mouthpiece, or both, can result in a thin, buzzy sound; a loud, squawky tone. For concert playing, a quality CONCERT mouthpiece, such as a Vandoren Optimum AL3 for alto, should be used, in combination with quality reeds, such as Vandoren strength 3s. For jazz playing, a moderate mouthpiece, such as the Vandoren V16 A5 or A6, should be used. No-name mouthpieces of poor quality and construction or “gimmick” mouthpieces best suited to peeling paint off a wall are inappropriate for any instrument.

Poor saxophone intonation, likewise, is NOT an inherent aspect of the instrument. As with poor sound, the mouthpiece/reed combination can be a culprit. Off-brand instruments will cause more intonational grief than beginner instruments of quality manufacture. Often, intonation problems can find their root in the band’s tuning regimen. 

If you have ever experienced prolonged poor intonation in your saxophone section, ask yourself, “do I tune my saxophones to a concert F?” If so, you are tuning your altos and baritones to one of the pitches on the instrument that is the most unstable from an intonation standpoint. For the saxophones in E-flat, no matter the register, this note needs adjusting to be in-tune. While this is quite easy in performance through the process of voicing (see below), tuning to this pitch will result in every other note on the instrument being miserably out of tune. 

Feel free to tune the tenor to a concert F (as this is a quite stable written G for that instrument) but tune the altos and baritones to either a concert B-flat (their G) or a concert A (their F#). 

Like all other wind instruments, there are a handful of pitches on the saxophone that must be adjusted slightly in performance. To learn how to go about this appropriately, see below.

“The Saxophone Articulates with a ‘Ta!’”
“Ta” is sometimes taught as the “one-size-fits-all” articulation syllable for wind instruments. It works quite well on most brass and on flute, but not the reed instruments. Why?  “Ta” is produced by striking just behind the front teeth. For those instruments with nothing protruding into the embouchure, this is ideal.

For the saxophone (and other reed instruments), a mouthpiece and/or reed project a considerable distance into the mouth. A “ta” articulation will usually yield far too much tongue surface-area on far too much reed surface-area. A far better result is produced using a “too” or “doo” syllable, which should get the closest to yielding an appropriate articulation on saxophone, free of “pops” and “thuds.”

“‘Lipping Down’ is a Great Way to Adjust Intonation!”
A common old instruction to saxophonists to adjust intonation is the command to “lip down” or “loosen or tighten” the embouchure. While these actions can change pitch slightly, they also have a terrible effect on saxophone tone. Instead, young saxophonists should be introduced to the concept of voicing.

Voicing, essentially, can be thought of as changing either air direction or the shape of the oral cavity. When said this way, it can seem like a challenging concept. However, it is as easy as whistling.

To teach basic voicing skills, have the student whistle a comfortable pitch in the middle of their register. There is no need for all students to be on the same tone. If a student cannot whistle, have them simply make a “higher or lower” air sound in the following steps. Instruct your students to “follow” your hand as it moves up and down, with a higher pitch for an ascending hand, and a lower pitch for a descending hand. Have them slide up and down for a few moments.

Next, instruct your students to repeat the exercise, but have them pay attention to what is going on inside their mouths as the pitch goes up and down. DO NOT tell them what is happening, as everyone has different anatomy, which may yield actions that feel quite different to get the same result from student to student.

Once this exercise has been completed, have the students try the same internal motions while playing a pitch like a written D5 (in the staff) on the saxophone. Using this technique, they should be able to bend pitch down noticeably, and bend up slightly (which will allow them to fix virtually any pitch left out of tune by the above tuning process). Make sure there is no motion in the jaw “helping out” the adjustments. This will take diligent practice, especially to gain range and flexibility, but the resulting intonation accuracy with a constant, quality sound will be well worth the investment of time.

“Loosen to Go Low/Tighten to Go High!”
I have always been at a loss for where this piece of advice comes from: It is completely antithetical to the acoustics of the saxophone (the upper register can tend sharp in most instances, and should be voiced down a bit, for instance). In short, the saxophone embouchure should not change. Equal pressure should be the name of the game, from the lowest to the highest pitch.

To learn what this pressure should feel like in practice, mouthpiece pitches can be a helpful tool for the young saxophonist. With the reed and ligature attached, the student should remove the mouthpiece and play on it alone. The following tone should result for each member of the saxophone family (all are concert pitch):

Soprano: C#6

Alto: A5

Tenor: G5

Baritone: D5

If the pitch is higher than listed (or if no sound at all comes out), the student should allow a bit more space between their back teeth. If the pitch is lower (which is relatively uncommon), the air should be sped up, or the space between the back teeth should be adjusted a bit.

If response is poor in the low register, increase air supply. If this still does not work, the saxophone is likely tuned incorrectly, or it is out of adjustment. 

“Saxophone Vibrato is Like Flute!”
Vibrato is an integral component of the saxophone’s sound, whether in concert or jazz performance. Many young students will have heard this technique in recordings and will seek to replicate the sound. However, there is a right path and a wrong path for vibrato on the saxophone.

Whereas flutists use a “diaphragmatic” vibrato, in which the abdominal muscles contract and relax to change the speed of the airstream to achieve pitch undulation, saxophonists should not use this approach. While it sounds lovely on flute (and oboe), it can sound disjointed and harsh on saxophone. Instead, encourage saxophonists to use jaw vibrato.

As soon as a great, reliable sound is established, vibrato should be introduced. First, have the student say the syllable “vah.” This forward-focused motion of the lower jaw is, in essence, the movement that is required to produce the saxophone’s vibrato. With a slow metronome (set at 60), have them speak “vah” in eighth notes for a few moments. Once this is established, try it on the saxophone.

On a written low G, try to produce two “vahs” per beat at sixty. Keep the resulting pitch-bend as wide as possible without allowing the sound to break. Slowly move the metronome up, all the while producing two “vahs” per beat. Once this can be done at ninety, turn the metronome back down to sixty, and attempt three “vahs” per beat. Slowly move the metronome up, until you again reach ninety, then try four “vahs” per beat. The “vahs” will eventually narrow but stay focused on keeping the vibrato as wide as possible for as long as possible. The result should have a flowing, “spinning” quality. Once the basic mechanism is comfortable, try it on scales, slow melodies, and the like. Constant practice and experimentation will yield the best results in the long term.

“The Saxophone and the Clarinet Have the Same Embouchure!”
The clarinet and saxophone on the surface appear to be similar. They are both single-reed instruments with a mouthpiece and a fingering system that is somewhat alike. However, many of the “bad saxophone sounds” of lore come from the mistaken idea that the two instruments have similar embouchures. The clarinet uses “firm” corners and a “pointed” chin. If this is attempted on the saxophone, the sound will be pinched, shrill, and unpleasant.

A proper saxophone embouchure is much more cushioned. First, the head should rest on top of the mouthpiece through the top teeth. Many students will fight this due to the “funny feeling” of the top teeth contacting the hard rubber, but it is essential for a quality sound. Use cheap and widely available mouthpiece patches on every mouthpiece to make this more comfortable.

The lower lip rests on the lower teeth, with the reed resting on the fleshiest part of the lower lip. To prevent discomfort or biting, many saxophonists use some sort of cushion, such as the Lagan Lip Saver. Next, the corners come in toward the middle of the embouchure, puffing the lower lip. Finally, the embouchure is sealed.

The weight of the head rests fully on the top of the mouthpiece and should be felt through the neckstrap. There is no upward pressure up from the lower jaw. The chin should look virtually the same as it always does for the individual. It should not be bunched up, but it should also not be pulled down to an extreme. The embouchure is sealing in air and providing a stable, cushioned platform. The teeth should be separated, with plenty of space in-between. Besides vibrato, the embouchure should be stable, with no discernible motion while playing. Consult the above mouthpiece pitches for appropriate “feels” for embouchure tension.

I hope this bit of myth-debunking has been helpful to the band director and student. While these myths may have been proven false, there is still much to discover about the saxophone. It is truly a legendary instrument!

Andrew J. Allen is an assistant professor of saxophone and coordinator of woodwinds, brass, and percussion at Georgia College. He has performed throughout the world and has premiered more than two dozen works for his instrument. Allen is a Conn-Selmer Artist Clinician, a Vandoren Artist, and a Key Leaves Endorsing Artist. His recordings can be heard on the Equilibrium and Ravello labels.

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