The Path to Your Biggest Saxophone Sound Ever
If you’ve ever studied sound engineering, one of the first thing you learn is about signal flow. You see, in a recording studio you’ve got gobs of equipment that the sound passes through before making it to it’s final destination, which, in the “old days” was a tape machine, and these days, is a hard drive.
As that sound passes through compression units, a mixing board input, effects boxes, etcetera, the goal is for that sound to be as loud as possible before exceeding the amount of energy that the current piece of gear can handle, thereby causing distortion. If you can get that sound going as loud as possible into the compressor, and then as loud as possible into the effects box, the mixing board input, and so on and so forth, you’ll end up with a pure and powerful sound which carries with it very little background noise.
At this point, some of you might be asking – “so what in the name of Coleman Hawkins does this have to do with the saxophone?” Well, I’d like to suggest that we all have our own internal signal flow when it comes to moving air through the instrument.
Starting at the Lungs
When it comes to breathing, some of us think in terms of filling up our stomach with air and pushing it back out with the stomach as well. Obviously, the only place we can draw air into is the lungs, and those are located above the belly, towards the back of the upper torso. So when we take a deep breath, we’re actually expanding the inside of our ribcage and allowing the air to naturally rush into the lungs.
From there, we release up from the diaphragm (notice I said “release” as opposed to “squeeze”) while letting the rib cage naturally sink downwards, pushing the air out with the simple force of gravity while our head releases upwards from the spine.
Onwards and Upwards Through the Throat
The next step on our air stream’s journey is the throat. We’ve all heard time and time about playing with “an open throat” – but here’s the thing, folks. The throat is not a muscle, and therefore cannot open or close. All we can do here is get our tongue out of the way.
To explain…many, and I’ll even go so far as to say most of us, have been taught to think of making the “AH” sound while we play, Well, think about it – when we’re saying “AH”, the tongue is laying down towards the very bottom of the mouth. And that, my friends, serves to block our precious flow of air (why do you think that the act of gagging sounds more like “AH” than any other vowel sound?).
Instead, we should think of the “EE sound” while we play. This will allow the tongue to life upwards a bit and make way for that smooth but solid block of air we’ve released from your lungs.
Next Stop, Inside the Mouth
Now that we’ve got the tongue lifted a bit to make that “EE” sound, there’s another benefit we enjoy. Since the tongue is raised up in the mouth a bit, it’s freeing up the space directly in front of the throat, while blocking off some of the air going into the mouthpiece.
Blocking off air? Isn’t that a bad thing?
No, it’s actually a good thing. The analogy that many people use is that of the thumb on the garden hose.
Most of us can remember being little kids and goofing off with a garden hose. You know, we turn the hose on until we’ve got a nice stream of water coming out, and then, what do we do? Why of course, we cover half, or even a bit more than half of the nozzle with our thumb so that the water comes flying out of the hose moving twice as far and twice as fast, leaving our unlucky friends or siblings unexpectedly soaked.
Just like partially blocking off the hose’s nozzle makes the flow of water more powerful, partially blocking off the exit out of our mouth with the tongue makes the stream of air more powerful as well.
Moving into the Mouthpiece and Rockin’ that Reed
Now that we’ve maxxed-out the air moving through the mouth, we can look at what happens to the air as it leaves us and comes rushing into the mouthpiece.
Since it’s up to the vibration of the reed to get actual sound coming out of our instrument, the most important thing we have to look at is how we get the maximum amount of vibration out of that reed. In my experience (as well as the experience of many of the world’s greatest players and teachers), we must make sure that the reed rests above the fleshiest part of our lower lip.
Many classical saxophone players opt for the approach of having the bottom lip tucked in over the teeth. And that’s a legitimate approach which works very well when looking to produce a sound in the vein of classical saxophone. It’s also popular among many great jazz saxophonists. But from the standpoint of getting our reed vibrating to the max, I suggest keeping that lower lip rolled out a bit so that it makes contact with the reed using the part of the lip that’s the softest and least constricting. I’d also recommend keeping the pressure on the top of the mouthpiece as minimal as possible. The point is, we want to make sure that the reed is left free to vibrate as fully as possible while at the same time, clamping down just enough so that the mouthpiece stays in place.
For more information on this type of embouchure, I suggest you seek out the teachings of the legendary saxophone teacher, Joe Allard.
As far as the mouthpiece goes, we want to make sure that the facing of the mouthpiece is a good match for the strength of the reed we’re using. The general rule of thumb is that the more open (or bigger) our facing is, the lower the strength our reed should be. Inversely, if we’re playing a mouthpiece with a facing that’s lower on the spectrum, then the harder our reed should be. I suggest a middle-of-the-road approach where we’re playing on a mouthpiece of medium facing and a reed of medium strength.
If you’re confused about all this talk of mouthpiece facings and what constitutes “an open facing”, take a look at this page on the Woodwind Brasswind site.
Final Destination, The Saxophone
Of course, no two saxophones are exactly alike, but regardless of the brand, model, or quality of your horn, it’s important that it be in good working condition. Specifically, that means making sure that our horn is not leaking air, since leaks break up your airflow as it travels through the sax.
Beyond the Bell
For those of us who are new to travelling this “path of least resistance,” if we’ve applied all of the techniques and principles described in this article, we should find ourselves sounding bigger and better than ever. So here’s to all of us relaxing and letting that air flow easy, breezy…and powerful!
Photo by Bengt Nyman
May 23, 2012 @ 6:28 am
Nice article. It’s cool to see the sound production traced from step one through the end.
I took issue with one thing in your first section, and I wanted to share it because it has improved my playing immensely over the past couple of months.
Basically, I think you left out the concept of forced exhalation. There is a big difference between just breathing out (gravity doing the work for us) and forced exhalation, which engages the abdominal muscles primarily and the intercostal muscles. We used forced exhalation when we do things like blow out a candle or blow up a balloon. Basically, we use our abdominal muscles (and intercostals) when we either blow air faster than normal or blow against any resistance, and with the saxophone we do both of those things. This is what teachers mean when they incorrectly refer to using the diaphragm (like you said we only release it when we breath out). We can however blow air faster by tapping into these forced exhalation muscles.
Anyhow, I’ve been working on building up these muscles primarily through long overtones. I’ve been doing an exercise where I hold each overtone in the series for one minute, with as many breaths as needed. The first couple of weeks were killer, and my abs were so sore the following day. The exercise is outlined here – http://everythingsaxophone.blogspot.com/2012/03/best-long-tone-overtone-exercise.html
By building up these muscles and learning the feeling of engaging them (It feels like I’m blowing from really deep inside my body) I’ve freed up my sound, made it bigger, made inflection easier, increased my flexibility in jumping large intervals, and extended my range beyond four octaves. Up until a couple of months ago 4th octave Bb had been my overtone goal, and now I’m halfway to 5th octave Bb.
Put it to the test, and let me know what you think. By the way, I love the site, newsletters, etc. Its a great resource.
May 23, 2012 @ 11:46 am
You’re absolutely right about engaging the abdominal muscles, and I’d like to clarify. Of course, you have to push a bit with your abdomen, but I think a lot of people ONLY think about pushing out, so I wanted to provide a new perspective on what should happen while exhaling.
Thanks for sharing the exercise – you’ve got a great site yourself. And thanks for the kind words, it was awesome to feature you in that interview a few months back (https://www.bestsaxophonewebsiteever.com//ben-britton-on-time-feel-tone-production-and-listening/).
Hope you’re doing well otherwise,
May 23, 2012 @ 11:52 am
I agree that some people think about tensing too much. I went through a phase a few years ago where I tensed my abs a lot trying to improve and didn’t get anywhere. It’s too bad saxophone playing muscles can be so complicated to zero in on (forced exhalation muscles, the back of the tongue and vocal tract focus). It certainly makes the challenge of becoming a master of the instrument more difficult. Then again, it makes it all the more fun to discover.
May 27, 2012 @ 6:06 am
how can i develope a style of playing jazz
June 1, 2012 @ 3:39 pm
Listen and transcribe. Practice copying your idols, but just as an exercise. Use your favorite aspects of their playing in your own playing. Get out there and jam with other live musicians as much as possible. And then listen some more.
May 27, 2012 @ 10:46 pm
Learning to use tongue position for voicing was a biggie for me. There’s a tendency to use lip pressure to correct intonation and make the altissimo speak, which leads to all sorts of unwelcome things such as squeezing the sound down, losing control at the bottom end, and fatigue. But once the tongue is properly trained, life becomes much easier.
May 30, 2012 @ 6:44 pm
Thanks for sharing your experiences TenorMoxie! Mastering tongue position can indeed be a challenge, but as you mention, it really saves you from the significant pitfalls of relying on the lower jaw.