The Value of Volume Versatility

Now repeat the title of this article 27 times in a row at 300 bpm.

But seriously ladies and gents, with this article I’d like to stress the importance of practicing your instruments at all different levels of volume, from pianissimo all the way up to fortissimo.

From the Back to the Middle and Around Again

In one of my previous articles, I chronicled my mission to increase the tonal control by playing long tones, taking four bars to crescendo “out of thin air” into fortissimo, and then do the reverse for another four bars. This proved to be quite a difficult challenge, as I quickly learned that different levels of volumes offer different challenges on different notes.

For example, playing a middle Ab at pianissimo presents challenges completely different from playing that same middle Ab at blaring volume. As for the notes below the low D – just forget about it! There are muscles in the lips, inner oral cavity, tongue and throat than need to be trained on how to respond to the various amounts of sound coming through the horn, not to mention the need for proper air support.

Of course, the goal is to make as few physical adjustments as possible, but the reality is that different volume levels will threaten the life of a note, and it takes practice to keep that note from cracking or splitting off into an upper harmonic when playing super-loud or super-soft. Even though many of us spend the bulk of our playing time in small jazz groups or even performing classical repertoire, just wait until you get called to do that rock gig where you’re fighting a massive drumset and distorted guitars. If you haven’t practiced playing loud, it’s likely that you’re going to sound like doggie doo-doo.

And the same principle applies for the rockin” Clarence Clemmons devotee who all of a sudden has to play at a quiet cocktail reception in duet with a jazz guitarist.  If all our bell-blastin’ buddy’s ever done is played loud, then he’s going to have a tough time establishing the proper air support and subtlety of dynamics necessary to fit into that musical setting.

Be Kind to the Music

For the sake of pure musicianship, it’s just plain crucial to incorporate dynamics into your playing. All you student saxophone players out there – you wanna not sound like students? Then get in the habit of really bringing out the dynamic differences in the music you play. Usually, the problem is too much volume, as evidenced by the countless sax solos we hear played at rock band stadium volume – all the way through a ballad.

There’s a Place for Us

For many of us, the challenge is finding a place to practice at all volumes without the threat of an eviction notice.

I, myself live in a condo complex with neighbors on most almost every side of our unit. However, I take advantage of my wife’s walk-in closet (I swear, I don’t try on any of her clothes, really), playing right into her abundant wardrobe. This quells the sonic disturbance quite a bit, and also presents me with my true sound, as I don’t have the reverberation of the walls to help me sound better than I really do.

You can also play outside, or even try one of the amazing saxophone mutes made by e-Sax.

The point is to practice playing at all levels of volume so that you’re ready for Bruce Springsteen, as well as the classical harpist at your brother’s wedding.