In my book Easy Easy Bebop, I refer to the lesson below as “the magic of the neck strap”.
The short tip from the book has helped so many players that I decided to give further information on finding the “sweet spot” in the adjustment of one’s saxophone neck strap. As you know neck straps are made adjustable so so as to raise or lower the horn to a comfortable position. Finding the correct position can help the embouchure and tone production.
Setting the length of the strap sub-optimally can cause back and neck pain from slouching and bending while playing. The optimal jaw position, the ability to effectively articulate, and the openness of the airflow require good mouthpiece placement inside of the embouchure.
Lowering the jaw too much to play low notes hinders moving back up the horn smoothly. If a player standing straight and looking forward lowers the horn by lengthening the strap, he can feel the reed and mouthpiece making more contact with the lower lip/teeth. As the player raises the strap they can feel the reed/mouthpiece raise up off the the lower teeth/lips. The higher the strap, the more open and brighter the sound gets.
Look at the Charlie Parker pic above, and notice the slight upward tilt of the head from the high neck strap. A very high neck strap just needs a slight upward head adjustment which for most players is much better that a lowering of the head possibly affecting the airflow.
To illustrate the principle, as a more extreme example (which may or may not be considered proper posture, and would definitely take some getting used to in any event), check out the high position of David Sanborn’s horn in the image above. It is likely that part of his signature ultra-bright sound up and down the horn comes from that position on the strap.
Knowing You’ve Arrived at the “Sweet Spot”
Setting the neck strap at a few different lengths, try the following:
- Hit a low Bb, and while maintaining air flow play high Bb up two octaves.
- Do the reverse, and play from high Bb and drop two octaves to low Bb.
Playing those octaves legato or staccato will be easier with the correct setting of the neck strap’s length, and the resulting position of the horn.
This approach is a good place to start. Once that height is set, octave jumps are much smoother. The “sweet spot” is where there is the least amount of jaw and embouchure movement.
There will always be a feeling of slight adjustment as the horn is played, but fewer movements in the embouchure make for smoother and easier playing. With the right neck strap length, overtones and altissimo notes are much more easily achieved, and your overall tone production is smooth and even from top to bottom, provided you’re playing in a good position with proper air support.
In addition, finding this “sweet spot” this will take some of the horn’s weight off of the right thumb, and avoid the extreme thumb callus which is results from compensating for and overly-long neck strap setting.
To wrap it all up, some saxophonists like the feeling of blowing down into the saxophone, and others like the feeling of blowing up and out of the saxophone. Experiment and find that “sweet spot” neck strap length – you’ll likely be quite surprised by the results.