How to Put Yourself on the Path to Bulletproof Intonation
Let’s face it – saxophonists are known for playing out of tune.
Well, not only for playing out of tune, but suffice it to say that the saxophone is anything but a perfectly tuned instrument. Simply pressing down the keys while blowing ain’t gonna cut it. And if you play alto or soprano – forget about it. You’ve really got to know what you’re doing or else you’re going to seriously hurt some people.
Also important to keep in mind is that no band plays perfectly in tune, so it’s really important that we’re able to shift our pitch in a controlled manner at any point while playing in a group.
Ignore your Instincts
What good intonation comes down to is the development of our ears in concert with our inner mouth, throat, and tongue. When it comes to adjusting pitch, the pinching up and dropping down of the jaw seems to be the first option that just about every saxophone player turns to at first. It’s just a natural reflex that’s triggered when we feel like we’re out of tune. And make no mistake, it is quite possible to fix our intonation by playing around with the pressure from the lower lip.
But in doing so, we risk sending our pitch all over the place because we’re moving around muscles that don’t need to be moved, making precise intonation very difficult to manage as our embouchure starts spinning out of control. Using the lower lip as a means of controlling intonation also brings with it an unnecessary clamping down on the reed, which constricts the vibration and makes our sound smaller.
While working on my upcoming saxophone e-book and audio course (more on this in the coming weeks), I came across a great exercise that I thought I’d leak out to you guys right now.
One of the contributors to the aforementioned course is Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. contributor Sam Sadigursky. In an interview I did with him, Sam shares an exercise he got from the great woodwind doubler, Eddie Salkin.
According to Sam, here’s how it works:
“I’ll play a high G, and finger a G#, but keep my pitch at that G. So I am trying to play a G while fingering a G#.
“And then I’ll finger an A, but still be actually sounding a G. I can go up to high C, and keep that G. It sounds pretty raunchy at that point, but what I’m demonstrating here is that there should be a huge amount of control of the pitch when you’re playing. It’s really more about what you’re doing with your throat and the back of your mouth than it is about what you’re fingering.”
So you can do this starting on just about any note on the horn and finger different notes moving in half steps either up or down the horn until you’re a fourth, or even more away from the starting note that you’re still holding out. For people first doing this exercise, it’s probably best to start higher on the horn, where pitch is more easily brought down, so the high G (first G above the staff) is a good starting place. Also, keep in mind that this exercise forces players to use a lot more air than usual, which is worth mentioning.
For example :
- Hold down a high G and play it as you normally would. (When starting to play this exercise, I suggest starting in the middle of the instrument’s range, since the very low notes will be much more difficult and should perhaps be tackled only after you have a first grasp of doing this in the middle and upper registers).
- Now finger a G# BUT don’t let the pitch of the note move from G.
- Now finger an A, but again, don’t let the pitch of the note move from G.
- Continue this up until you’re fingering a perfect fourth above the G, which would be C, all the while holding out the pitch of that middle G.
- Once you’ve made it up to the C, finger and play a high F# (the F# at the top of the staff) and continue fingering notes up by half steps while keeping the pitch of the F# intact.
- Continue the pattern downwards as far as you can go.
The ability to move pitch around is a big part of achieving expressiveness on the instrument. Think of how great singers are able to use pitch to powerful effect when gliding between notes. This a great exercise for improving that aspect of your playing.
How it’s Done
I wish I could tell you something like “to maintain a G above while fingering G#, simply move this muscle two centimeters to the left.” But it’s not that cut-and-dry. Since all of this happens inside the mouth using very precise movements of muscles that we don’t normally use consciously, there’s no way to clearly demonstrate what needs to be done. But we can certainly be pointed in the right direction.
Here are some tips on how to practice this exercise without moving your lower jaw:
- As an obvious example of controlling the pitch via the movement of the throat, practice singing a note and then jumping up an octave. Notice the changes in your throat that occur with each note. Now that you know which muscles to feel out for, try to maintain the throat position for the note you’re shooting for as your fingers take you up the range of the instrument.
- Experiment with making very subtle changes to the position of your tongue to keep your pitch in place while the fingers do something else. In his book Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound, David Liebman suggests that moving the back of the tongue could help with pitch control.
- Make sure to include the practice of overtones in your practice regiment. In practicing those, you’re going to be working the same muscles that you’re going to need here.
To Keep in Mind
First off, this isn’t easy stuff. Control of the inner embouchure and the throat is something that is likely to take you years to master, but you can certainly make some serious progress in a relatively short amount of time with regular and focused practice.
Secondly, the most important skill you’ll need to stay in tune is your ears. We can become pitch holding and pitch bending gurus, gliding through notes like a clown on a slide whistle. But if we don’t know where to point that wildly flexible pitch, we’re going to be causing musical mayhem with our homeless tonal center. So try to play some duets with other wind players to develop your ear. When playing in a group, make sure that you’re not just listening to yourself, but listen to the “big picture” of what’s going on around you pitch-wise.
For most of us, playing in tune doesn’t come naturally. But it’s also easier to fix than other musical curses such as poor tone quality or lack of creativity. By taking the advice shared in this article, you’ll be well on your way to not only making your intonation bulletproof, but to building up a bigger, better, and more expressive sound all around.
January 5, 2012 @ 5:06 pm
One of the exercises I use is to play High F above the staff and then a High E. Then finger High F using the Front F key and use your throat to bend the pitch down to the E you had just played. Then repeat for F to Eb. Play the interval using the real fingerings and then again using the Front F key and bending down using your throat.
This is similar to Sam’s exercise in that you’re bending down the pitch in increasingly larger intervals. It’s just that instead of maintaining a single note while changing fingerings, you’re changing notes while maintaining a single fingering.
January 5, 2012 @ 5:08 pm
Forgot to add that you just keep repeating the exercise, lowering the 2nd note a 1/2 step each time until you can’t match it using the High F. For me, that’s usually around G or F#.
January 5, 2012 @ 5:29 pm
That’s a great variation, definitely not easy by any stretch. Thanks for sharing that!
January 5, 2012 @ 11:53 pm
Joe Allard , had a similar exercise. We would actually start on high A, then play G# and then go back to A. Then we’d just finger A and bend the pitch down to G# and back to A. We’d continue this chromatically until we’d reach high F#.
After that process was finished, we’d expand the exercise to a whole step (A, G#, G, G#, A), then a minor third, major third, etc.
Joe himself was able to perform this exercise to a perfect fifth! (I’ve only managed a perfect fourth myself).
This exercise is especially great on soprano saxophone!
January 6, 2012 @ 8:38 am
Sounds like a brass instrument warmup, definitely not easy. Between the article and your and Clayton’s comments, we’ve got an awesome pitch workout program right here on this page, thanks Evan!
June 17, 2012 @ 2:38 am
That is the same exercise that I learned. A perfect fourth is still impressive!
Thanks for the other exercises, they sound very useful as well.
June 20, 2012 @ 9:21 pm
No problem, glad you’re enjoying them!
February 17, 2023 @ 6:39 am
This is exactly what I’ve been struggling with. The more control I have over pitch, which I got by lowering my tone centre substantially (pushing in mouthpiece and opening throat), the more conscious I have to be of aiming it right. With great power comes great responsibility I guess.
Turns out that my intonation issues were actually the result of my ears. I now do long tones for troublesome notes over music. I try to make the note fit in, then I check the tuner only after.
February 19, 2023 @ 7:18 am
Hello David, that’s a great idea for working on intonation! For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed that my own intonation problems stemmed from a lack of breath support in the upper register, which caused me to compensate by pinching down on the mouthpiece. I actually recently wrote an entire article on this approach which you might find interesting: https://www.bestsaxophonewebsiteever.com/how-to-use-breath-support-to-fatten-your-sound-and-fix-intonation/.
Thanks for chiming in!