Voicing on the saxophone is an aspect of playing the instrument that many of us don’t really get into until we’re in the more advanced stages. Those exposed to this practice early on are among the lucky ones.
Ummm…what do you mean by “voicing”?
As far as I see it, voicing refers to the manipulation of the inner mouth and throat for the purpose of affecting pitch and tonal color throughout the horn. For many of us, while we’re playing, we depend on our lower lip to manipulate our pitch. And as for tonal color, we rely on the mouthpiece and reed setup. Sure, those things technically get the job done, but they rob us of the opportunity to truly control the sound that we’re producing.
Now, extensive articles could be written on the topic of voicing, and in fact, there is a well known book on the topic by master saxophone teacher, Donald Sinta. You can check that out here.
But instead of giving precise instructions as far as where to move your tongue to get this pitch and how your vocal chords need to move to get that pitch, I’m going to try and keep things simple.
Cutting to the Chase
As you’re playing, imagine that you are singing the notes that you’re fingering, and notice how your inner mouth and the muscles inside your throat respond. As many of us already know, all we need to do is touch our throats while we sing, and we’ll notice the movement in that area.
However, many of us are not used to being aware of what’s happening inside our mouth and throat. We’re simply blowing through the horn as best as we can, and when we need to rise up in pitch, we pinch up with the lower lip and vice versa when it comes to dropping pitch.
What works for me, and hopefully for you as well, is to make a point to practice imagining we’re singing each note as we’re blowing through the horn. So, for example, while you’re playing a major scale, imagine that you’re also singing those notes, all the while keeping your embouchure as steady as possible. So no pinching up or dropping down the lower jaw.
That said, if you actually sing aloud into your horn, you will get the rock n’roll growling affect, so unless that’s what you’re going for, just imagine you’re singing the notes and allow your body to do the rest naturally.
Let the Voice Be Your Guide
Of course, while we’re playing on stage in front of an audience, hopefully we wouldn’t be thinking about our throat. But while playing long tones, scales, and arpeggios in the practice room, focusing on the sensation of singing the note we’re playing will work wonders in terms of taking our attention off of the things we might get overly focused on otherwise. This is especially true when it comes to playing those things requiring us to move our fingers quickly.
In another seemingly unrelated article, I talk about how focusing on your fingers is a sure-fire way to slow down and slop up your technique. Well, what better way to get your mind off of your fingers than by pointing your mind towards voicing?
So to reiterate, don’t just move your fingers blindly while you practice those long tones, scales, and arpeggios, but hear, as clearly as possible the notes you’re playing, and adjust yourself naturally, as though you were singing the notes with your voice.
In my own experience, this approach to playing has made my tone bigger, more in tune, and more focused than it would be if I simply let my fingers do the walking. And just like anything else we do enough of in the practice room, soon it becomes second nature and doesn’t require any thought.
So open up your ears, sing into that horn, and listen as that horn sings right along with you!
About the AuthorI've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!
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