11 Tips for Making Your Saxophone Playing More Expressive and Soulful
The definition of the word, Soul as defined on Dictionary.com:
the emotional part of human nature; the seat of the feelings or sentiments.
When it comes to music, it’s been my experience that the sound of a human being singing tends to touch the average person’s heart more than any other sound. Because we all relate very intimately to the sound of a human voice, its innate ability to express the emotional part of human nature is indisputable.
That said, there’s no doubt that the saxophone is one of the most vocal sounding instruments in all of music. For this reason, the sax shines like crazy when it comes to romantic ballads or when soloing in an R&B band – among many other musical situations where the quality of “soul” is highly exposed.
Discovering Your Inner Cannonball
Of course, we must always strive to play with as much feeling as possible, but even when done well, blazing through rhythm changes at 300 bpm doesn’t always convey a deep emotional feeling aside from that of an adrenaline rush. On the other hand, wailing over a slow blues is much more likely to touch people’s hearts instead of just their heads – especially if those people are not musicians.
Of course, all of this is just my opinion, but my guess is that many of you will agree. So if we want to increase this quality of soul and strengthen our ability to bring listers to tears, I believe that there are things we can do besides simply waiting for life to kick us in the a$@ so that we have something to wail about. I believe that we can hone certain skills so that when it comes time to express those powerful emotions we have engrained in our consciousness the techniques necessary to get those emotions across in the most powerful way possible.
Vocalizing Your Sound and Pumping Up the Soul Factor
1) Bend your notes wisely.
Remember when you first learned how to scoop notes? For most of us, as newcomers to the instrument, the tendency is to overdo the bending and scooping. Try to imagine a singer scooping a ton of notes, and the phrase “looney tunes” comes to mind, as that singer would sound downright kooky. On the sax, over-scooping may not cause your loved ones to commit you to the local mental institution, but it definitely communicates that you are an amateur (even if we actually are amateurs – ouch!).
Here’s an excellent example of highly expressive yet tasteful bending of notes by Charlie Parker on KC Blues:
2) Practice conscious vibrato.
There are countless approaches to vibrato and I could probably write an entire article on this subject alone. There’s the approach of holding the note out straight for a moment and then vibrato-ing with slightly increasing intensity into the release of the note. Used by players from Dexter Gordon to David Sanborn, this is an extremely common approach to vibrato in jazz and jazz-related music.
If you go back to the swing era, you’ll hear legends such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster opt for a wide vibrato which kicks in almost instantaneously when notes longer than a quarter or even an eighth note are being held out.
At the end of the day, there’s no right or wrong way to use vibrato, but I would recommend at least being conscious of how you’re using it, so that it becomes a more accurate representation of what you’re trying to convey, as you’ll have yet another dimension to add to your powers of expression.
Check out Ben Webster’s flawless and highly influential vibrato technique:
3) Don’t forget about dynamics.
Dynamics are a great way of adding elements of depth, drama, and storytelling to your playing. Granted, there are some great players out there who don’t make much obvious use of dynamics, Coltrane being an example (just my opinion, don’t shoot). But his approach of playing at a mostly loud volume was his method of deep self expression.
However, if, unlike Trane, we’re just blaring blindly along through every tune, we may very well miss an opportunity to take our listeners on a compelling ride. For example, we may want to calm our listeners into a mellow trance, and then work our way up to a swift kick in the pants.
But regardless of how we use dynamics, the possibilities of this tool are endless when it comes to deeply hooking our audience. So again, no right or wrong here, but I simply suggest that you ask yourself whether you’re simply playing at a volume that’s become a comfort zone, or if you’re actually using dynamics for the purpose of authentically expressing yourself.
Antonio Hart takes us on a melodic journey by sprinkling softer passages into a rendition of a ballad which he’s playing here at a mostly louder volume:
4) Start and stop notes in style.
To make the saxophone really sing, we need to notice the way we attack and release notes. Do we want to slap the reed and play that horn like a drum, a la Maceo Parker or Phil Woods? If we’re playing funk, or if we’re playing a ballad and want to momentarily shock people out of their seats, then a hard attack is how it’s done. On the other hand, we may want our sound to pipe in gently, like Stan Getz or Paul Desmond.
And when it comes to releasing our notes, we can do as many of the greats do, and vibrato our way right out of a note, or not. We can end our notes quietly, or with a little bit of dynamic life as we release.
No matter how you do it, finding your way of attacking and releasing notes will take you one step closer to making that horn truly sing.
Here’s an example of alto titan Phil Woods using varying types of attacks and releases to make a tune truly come alive:
5) Get some sound effects under your belt.
Growling, flutter touguing, slap tonguing, half-tonguing, overtones, split tones, altissimo are a few of the sound effects which we sax players can use to augment the saxophone’s natural power of expression. I’m not going to attempt to summarize what all of these effects are (fyi, the hyperlinked ones I’ve included here do have their own articles), but I will say that while sound effects are, by no means essential, they can go a long way in getting people to feel deeply and dance heartily.
If you’re looking to add some killer sound effects to your playing, you might want to check out a great book on the topic, reviewed here.
James Carter takes saxophone sound effects to a new level in this short clip:
6) Learn the lyrics.
Of course, this only applies to playing tunes that were originally written for voice, such as jazz standards, blues songs, R&B, rock, etc. Knowing the words gives you insights on ways to approach the rhythm and phrasing of the tune, as each syllable has its own characteristics of timing and attack.
More importantly, delving into the subject matter that inspired the song can serve as a springboard off of which to apply your own experience and emotions. Knowing the lyrics will do wonders in bringing out soul that wouldn’t have emerged otherwise. If the song is about love lost, you can, instrumentally-speaking, “tell a story” about the guy or gal who ditched you on your birthday. If it’s a happy song of joy, you can think of the time your first kid was born.
It’s kind of like what actors have to do when turning on the tears for a scene. The technique is that they think back to a really sad event, and the more they can conjure up the feelings of that sad time, the more powerful their performance is going to be.
Of course, you can totally ignore the lyrics and create your own totally unique approach, but the art of translating lyrics to instrumental melody is almost essential to anyone who wants to be a great saxophonist.
Why David Sanborn is a true master of blurring the line between singing and playing:
7) Practice playing back phrases from your favorite singers.
I’ve actually already described a sax-centric version of this technique in a previous article. What you do here is simple.
Put on a recording of a favorite singer, find 2-4 bars that particularly speak to you, and practice playing that same melody on your horn, using the same note-bending style, vibrato, attacks, releases, and dynamics. In other words, do whatever it takes to get your horn sounding like your singer.
If you want to get extra fancy, you can record yourself playing the singer’s phrase, and play back the recording of yourself, and quickly stop the recording of yourself and switch to the recording of the singer, and keep doing this, going back and forth between the two recordings. This will give you a clear picture of how close you’re getting to that singer’s phrasing and power of expression. If you have a mixer, it’s even easier, as you could put yourself in one channel, the singer in another channel, and simply cut back and forth between the two.
8) Tell a story, paint a picture.
I actually touched on this concept in #6.
It’s funny, but today I heard songwriter Glen Fry on the radio talking about how he tells students in workshops something along the lines of “nobody cares about your feelings – paint a picture, tell a story.” I love this sentiment! What’s the point of simply conveying to the audience, “I feel happy!” or “I feel disappointed.”
So when playing, whether we’re interpreting written music or improvising, it’s good for us to use things like rhythm, melody, inflection, dynamics, vibrato, attacks, releases, etc to paint a musical picture. It might start lighthearted and go dark before ending in joy (not a very unique story arc, but it’s just an example). The point is, once you become invested in your story, your natural soulfulness will flow through you and directly into the hearts of your listeners.
Michael Brecker takes on a harrowing but triumphant journey on this solo from Chick Corea’s classic album, Three Quartets
9) Get inspired by listening, watching, and reading.
Expressive and soulful playing is a natural outgrowth of one’s powerful inspiration to make music. Of course, we all know that listening to as much music as we can possibly digest is key to gaining inspiration. And by listening, I mean, not only to sax-centric music, but to as many different styles of music that we can open ourselves up to.
But I believe that there are other ways we can become inspired, especially in this day and age when we have so many resources available to us than we ever had before. I often find myself lost in the world of YouTube, checking out all sorts of amazing performances that would have been lost to me otherwise. I’ve also watched documentaries on great musicians which left me with a burning desire to get on the horn and start shedding away. And what about reading a biography or autobiography of one of your favorite musicians? All of these are totally inspiring activities for me.
For more on the topic of getting inspired, check out this article.
10) Be here now.
Studies have shown that people who are the best in their field (athletes, musicians, business people, etc) actually have a smaller number thoughts passing through their brains while they do their thing. It’s kind of like how a computer gets extremely sluggish when you’ve got a bunch of programs running carrying a hefty multitude of tasks at once. Just like the computer, a bunch of processes running at once makes us slow and sluggish, and when that happens, we’re out of the flow, and are forced to rely on our brains rather than our intuition.
We all know that there’s nothing that zaps the soul out of our playing faster than thoughts such as “where should I get my car washed later today” or “why did I say that to her? that was really dumb.” So clear all of that garbage out of your mind before you start playing, maybe by doing some simple meditation, or at the very least, learn to remind yourself to put the focus on the music once your mind wanders. When possible and practical, I’d even advise taking care of whatever’s troubling you before you get on the instrument.
11) Play as though it were your last time ever playing the horn.
Hey, you never know, none of us are promised tomorrow.
So now that we’re all thoroughly depressed, I just wanted to mention this concept, since the thought of someone telling me, “better enjoy this since the horn goes bye bye forever after this tune” is a pretty powerful one. It would almost definitely snap me out of whatever might be distracting me, and get me deep into “the zone.”
David Liebman shows us what it means to put one’s entire being into their instrument:
The Wrap Up
While it’s true that generating musical passion is not something that we can rehearse in the practice room, I do believe that it is a good idea to familiarize oneself with all of the tools available so that we can release the soulful and expressive artist that already lives inside of us.
And for those of you who think it’s impossible to have soul until you’ve gained a certain amount of life experience, I invite you to think back to your time as an adolescent. You want to talk about a ton of heavy emotions swirling about your consciousness? Right there is a gigantic storehouse of feeling, so don’t let anyone tell you that you need a couple of divorces, a bankruptcy, and a balding head of gray hair to have soul.
I’ll even take it a step further and say that you don’t necessarily have to be extremely advanced on your instrument to express yourself soulfully. Even if you can only play five notes, but you play those five notes with the conviction of spirit-filled Sunday sermon, then you’re going to have more musical power at your disposal than someone on autopilot zooming flawlessly up and down the horn.
As you can imagine, simply reading this article isn’t going to put true soul in your playing. But hopefully, you will find yourself with heightened powers of authentic, soulful self-expression after putting these concepts deep into your brain, and in some cases, even the practice room.
So what do you think, did I miss anything, does this resonate with you?
August 14, 2012 @ 11:17 am
Lots of material here to work on and think about, Doran. Nice audio and video examples, too. I especially enjoyed watching Ben Webster play. The James Carter clip is just insane. Also a great example from Michael Brecker on the Three Quartets recording, one of my favorite recordings by Chick Corea, and some of Brecker’s best playing. Side note: In the early 90’s, I heard Chick Corea play the Three Quartets music at Cornell University, but with Peter Erskine, John Pattitucci (I think), and Bob Berg on sax. I was never crazy about Bob Berg’s playing that I had heard on record, but that night he impressed the heck out of me. To my ear, he sounded much better live than on record. Anyway, thanks for the tips and the clips.
August 14, 2012 @ 1:41 pm
Yeah, I love Bob Berg’s balls-to-the-wall energetic approach, but Brecker’s harmonic concept is what does it for me in the end. Anyhow, I’m glad that you enjoyed the article.
I also noticed that you have a sax website yourself – very cool! (readers, click on Paul’s name above his comment and you’ll be directed to his website).
August 14, 2012 @ 1:55 pm
Thanks for the plug there, Doron. (Of course, I have a link to your site on my blogroll. ;) Also, you might check out the 2nd review on my blog to see the source of the inspiration for that review.)
August 14, 2012 @ 2:04 pm
Very cool, so glad I could turn you on to Ricky’s playing, and thanks for mentioning this site in your review.
Ricky is one of the few who can play AND teach.
(for those reading this comment, Paul’s article is here: http://www.alljazzsax.blogspot.com/search/label/Ricky%20Sweum)
August 14, 2012 @ 11:25 am
Addendum to previous post: Oops, I’m sorry I misspelled your name, Doron. –Paul
August 14, 2012 @ 1:39 pm
Ha, no problem, happens all the time!
April 22, 2013 @ 10:30 pm
Great article! Can I repost this on my website and credit to link it back to your site?
April 22, 2013 @ 11:02 pm
Actually, Google will penalize us both in the search engine rankings if we post duplicate content on our sites. If you want to write a paragraph or two paraphrasing my article and include a link, that would be awesome. In fact, I notice that you’ve also posted Brad’s article from my site, “12 Tips for Hitting that Altissimo G Like a Pro” – so if you could please paraphrase that or change it so that we don’t have the same article verbatim, that would be ideal. But I do appreciate you crediting the site. I once saw a site that was basically a carbon copy of my site, with every single article taken w/no credit (ouch!).
But thanks so much for the kind words and the support, great to meet another sax website owner, looks like you’re doing some really cool stuff over there.
April 28, 2013 @ 10:17 am
Really great article. More people need to hear about stuff like learning the lyrics, vibrato, listening to singers, not over scooping and using dynamics, when playing. Stan Getz really used dynamics well. Also the Basie Band was a model of dynamics.
April 28, 2013 @ 10:40 am
Thanks Larry, Getz and the Basie band are awesome examples of amazingly expressive music-making, indeed.
June 4, 2014 @ 8:41 pm
Hello there!…really appreciate this.but,do u think it will be very easy for a beginner or an intermediate player to get this done in d reality without someone teaching.
June 6, 2014 @ 8:51 am
Absolutely! It will take some practice, but building these habits into your playing will only benefit you in the long run.
June 6, 2014 @ 9:45 pm
Most of this was new to me, so thanks! I’ve been playing saxophhone for just over a year now, and only one of these I’d really been acting upon; ever since last September I’ve been learning by ear the vocals of a wide variety of songs from different genres. Your articles are always easy for me to comprehend and need no further clarification, and as I told you before I’m only thirteen. Thanks again!
March 21, 2015 @ 7:52 pm
I’m really glad I went through this article. its so enlightening.
June 22, 2015 @ 11:58 am
Back in junior high school, my sister and I took some saxophone classes as part of a summer school event. For me, the sound of a saxophone sounds so sweet and amazing. It’s something that I have been wanting to play since coming into junior high.
February 7, 2016 @ 3:59 pm
What was the song of David SAnborn? Youtube deleted… u.u
February 8, 2016 @ 5:25 pm
Oh man, that’s the danger of posting YouTube links to videos of music controlled by a record label – they tend to disappear over time. :) I just replaced the broken video with another one which illustrates the point in the article just as well. Thanks for the heads-up!
September 26, 2016 @ 10:47 am
Really enjoyed reading and listening to this article and getting reminded of some techniques I over look in the unfortunate pursuit of trying to impress.
September 27, 2016 @ 12:10 am
Great Doron: I think you covered it all, succinctly and easy to read. Knowing the lyrics is a must. Take it easy dude. ( still don’t remember me from the days when the site was a monthly newsletter ? Always had time to have a laugh. A black and white shot: myself with Selmer6 tenor and a parrot on my shoulder ?? ) No worries, it was years back. Ade
September 27, 2016 @ 5:42 am
Doron pls I want to be great too. I have just pick up my alto sax at age 35. Don’t knw how early or late. But I want make a statement in life. Pls hold my hands. I don’t want your effort of providing me articles to be wit in vain. Pls, pls ,pls, Muyiwa.
January 11, 2017 @ 3:02 am
Tip #12: sell it and buy a trumpet…
February 7, 2017 @ 4:19 am
Well, learning multiple instruments would help one get better on all instruments so learning the trumpet too wouldn’t be too bad. But I definitely wouldn’t sell a saxophone to pay for a trumpet. (There are many other ways to conserve money! ;))
January 12, 2019 @ 1:08 am
thanks for the information
April 29, 2019 @ 1:15 pm
Relatively new to playing the saxophone, I find myself stuck in sounding practiced and non-expressive.
Your article will give me new things to practice and expand my learning toolkit. Thank you for the gifts.
September 9, 2020 @ 3:57 am
I’ve been playing for 8 years and I’ve done a bit in jazz but I was wondering if you have any tips on how to to play warmly. I’ve been listening to take five and he sounds so smooth and warm like me edges and the notes sound so much warmer and softer even though he’s borderline altissimo is there embouchure that you use to get that sound in other registers like sub tones. I just don’t understand how jazz players can get that warm sound and also the edgier almost dirty sounds. I can growl And vibrato but it’s not the same at all. I guess I’m just asking how do I make my saxophone sound warmer throughout the instruments full range?