Breaking Down the Four Areas of Saxophone Tone Production
In my time teaching private saxophone lessons, I’ve needed a way to show my students how much control they have over the saxophone, as well as ways to manipulate their airstream to get the sound they want. I have developed this approach to give my students the ability to fix their own problems be it a harsh tone, bad intonation, squeaks or any number of unwanted sounds.
The first concept I teach my students is the airstream and the parameters of the airstream that a saxophonist can control. The two parameters are the speed of the airstream and the volume of the airstream. Teaching how the volume of the airstream can affect the saxophone is pretty easy. More air equals louder sound. Speed is a bit harder to explain because it isn’t readily apparent how speed affects sound.
Speed of the airstream affects pitch and register of the sound. If your students have been in marching band, especially during the cold fall season, they know that when their instruments are cold, their pitch goes flat. That’s because cold air moves slower than warm air. Another way you could show how airspeed affects pitch is the result of breathing in helium and talking (which I don’t recommend doing yourself because people don’t run on helium). Your voice rises in pitch. This is because helium is much lighter than air (which is mostly nitrogen and oxygen) and moves faster out of your lungs, vocal cords etc.
There is one more parameter of sound, which is direction, but I avoid mentioning it because students need to focus on putting air through the mouthpiece first, avoiding any air leaking out the sides of their mouths.
The Four Areas: Breath Support, Larynx (Vocal Cords), Oral Cavity, and the Embouchure
When explaining these areas and the concepts behind them, I try to eliminate as much jargon as I can, or at least jargon that can’t be defined quickly. Bogging students down with terminology is one thing I try to avoid. Also I often state the obvious in this article, but teaching from the perspective of the beginning band student (4th or 5th grader) is helpful because it allows everyone to have strong foundation with no assumed knowledge.
For breath support, I teach my student to breath from their abdomen or belly, as opposed to their chest. There is much more room for air in abdomen, and the muscles of the abdomen and lower back can push air out more effectively than the wheezing breath of the chest.
Also I use the word abdomen instead of diaphragm because the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, no student would know how to control it. The muscles you can control are the abdominal, oblique, and lower back muscles.
Each of these areas has an accompanying exercise. For this area, I have my student blow through a straw against a piece of paper, trying to make the paper go horizontal. This is an exercise he or she can do all week to build up strength in the appropriate muscles.
The Larynx (Vocal Cords)
There are two ways I get my students to have control over their larynx. One way is to sing sirens up and down. The other is to sing in succession the vowel sounds “A-E-I-O-U” on a steady pitch. The larynx is regulator of air speed. Unlike breath support where students can blow more air into the saxophone for a louder sound, the application of the larynx to pitch isn’t as easy to understand. The way I show it is by playing a high ‘B’ and bending the pitch down as much as I can with my larynx. I avoid using the term ‘voicing’ as it has another meaning in music (voicing of a chord).
The exercise for this area is singing sirens up and down and sing the vowel sounds on a steady pitch.
The Oral Cavity
The oral cavity deals mostly with the tongue. First, however, I tell my students not to puff out their cheeks when they play, just as a general rule. Puffing out their cheeks will inhibit the muscles that their embouchures use to fix intonation.
I teach my students high and low tongue positions to show how the sound of the saxophone can be affected by the tongue. I use the word ‘heel’ for the high position and ‘pool’ for the low position. I have my students alternate between both words to show how the tongue can move. To show them how pitch can be affected, I play a high ‘E’ and alternate between the two positions.
The exercise for this area is alternating between the words heel and pool.
The embouchure is the most unique area of saxophone tone production because there is no other discipline that uses the mouth in this way.
To each of my beginning students, I try to explain how to use their embouchure as fully as I can. There’s also a lot of variety in the formation of the embouchure, however, the following tenants should be observed.
- Top teeth are placed on top of the mouthpiece
- Bottom teeth are never to touch the reed
- The top teeth should remain at the same place
What to do with the bottom lip, either curled in or pushed out, is up to each teacher’s preference and is beyond the scope of this article. I believe in the notion that everyone’s physical makeup is a little different from everyone else’s. But what remains the same are the areas students can use to create the saxophone sound they desire.
An Exercise to Put It All Together
One of my favorite exercises to have my students perform is crescendo-decrescendo longtones. After students have had success with regular longtones, this exercise is a great next step.
With this exercise, three things must happen. The dynamics must increase and decrease at a steady rate, the timbre must stay consistent and pitch must stay consistent as well. Once students have been taught how each area of saxophone tone production can affect pitch, timbre, dynamics, all other aspects of their sound, they then have tools to perform the exercise. This applies to all etudes, studies, and other technique exercises.
Often when my students are having difficulty with a particular exercise, all I have to do is remind them what they can change to fix their problem. Otherwise, they’ll keep doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result (ie: insanity).
Also, young students tend to think that each key of the saxophone has a particular function that directly affects the sound of the saxophone. This isn’t correct. The keys are responsible for changing the length of saxophone pipe. The keys of a saxophone aren’t like the keys of a piano where every key is well defined. The four areas of saxophone tone production are the real factors in tone quality, pitch, dynamics, etc.
This is very apparent when students learn the function of the octave key. Press the octave key for a higher sound of the same pitch. You can, however, disrupt this function with the airstream. If students are getting a gurgled/multiphonic on ‘high G’ I tell them to sing a higher note in their throat, use slightly more embouchure pressure, and/or a higher tongue position, then they get the sound they want.
It is important to realize that all of these areas work in conjunction, not as separate units. Changing any one of these areas will affect the others. Also, it is the sound that matters. How you use the four areas of saxophone tone production depends on the sound you want. Just because you used this much embouchure pressure, with this particular tongue and larynx position, and this much breath support, doesn’t mean it will be the same forever. All the other factors in saxophone playing, especially reeds, will cause you to adjust how you use the four areas.
I have started several young students with this approach and the results have been positive. Once they gain enough embouchure strength, they have no problem playing the full range of the saxophone and even have success with overtone exercises after just a month of lessons.
On the other side of the spectrum, students who have played the saxophone for over 30 years require a lot of deconstruction to their approach to the saxophone before the application of these areas becomes useful, especially if they have bad habits like biting or weak airstream. For these students I focus of exercises away from the saxophone (like blowing through a straw) to draw them into good habits.
So there you have it, the four areas of saxophone sound production that you’ll need to tackle in order to get the sound you’re looking for. Put your energy into these areas, and watch your sound get big and beautiful a lot quicker than you might imagine!
March 19, 2015 @ 7:10 am
Interesting article, but I don’t think it is quite correct to say that airstream speed is the determinant of pitch. It is true that cold air is more viscous than warm air, and thus will flow more slowly under a given force. However, pitch is most affected by the speed of sound (the speed of pressure wave propagation) in air, which is at least a hundred times faster than the airstream speed. The speed of sound is temperature-dependent and this is the major reason why cold instruments sound flat.
March 19, 2015 @ 7:14 am
Another thought is that airstream speed and airstream volume have to be related to one another. Air passes into the horn through the gap between the reed and the mouthpiece, which is relatively constant, so the player cannot increase the speed of air moving into the horn without also increasing the quantity of air moving into the horn in a given period of time.
May 19, 2015 @ 3:05 pm
Hi Joe Q, my science is a little shaky, especially dealing with the vicasity of air in regards to temperature, density of other gases. Its really dealing with fluid dynamics which takes 10 semesters of college level math to understand, but I’m mostly teaching 4th grades. I’ll try to write a follow up later but there is a great article about scientists creating an automated clarinet playing machine and measure different parameters in regards to reed hardness, lip pressure and others.
April 7, 2015 @ 12:17 pm
Very good article. The method of long tones you described is a tremendous way to practice solidifying sound production and air support with just a few minutes practice a day. I also like how you’re taking care to make clear, unique terms for all of the factors discussed in the article.
April 10, 2015 @ 7:26 pm
Hello Ryan, and thanks for your article — I enjoyed reading it, and will try your exercises in my own practice routine. I’m curious about your vowel sound exercise. (I recall a related article that Doron posted a while back about forming vowel sounds while playing tones.) When you have your students sing through the vowel sounds, do you have them form short vowel sounds? That is, “aaaaah, ehhh, eeeee, awwww, uhhhh”? Or are they singing long vowel sounds? That is, “aayyyyh, eeeee, …”, and so forth? Seems like long-vowel sounds require movement of the tongue and/or throat during tone production. I’m just curious which sound — long or short — you find most effective for the exercise. Again, thanks very much!
May 19, 2015 @ 2:53 pm
Hi Bill, I have them sing long vowel sounds. Granted when applying any of these areas to the saxophone, they all work together. So if, for instance, if you play with a oo vowel sound but also raise your tongue, it will change the vowel sound. But its the saxophone sound that matters. Which of course is obvious. But students need concrete steps to achieve their goals.
August 16, 2016 @ 8:00 am
I have a new website with free method books and lessons available for saxophone, flute, and clarinet.