Tonguing Tips: Pushing the Limits of Your Saxophone Technique

Saxophone Tonguing
Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

Pushing Your Saxophone Technique Limits

It’s true. There are physical limits to how many notes can be played with accurate timing, articulation, and proper intonation. However, there’s really no telling what those limits are. When practicing, it’s important to push ourselves to approach those limits to achieve greater proficiency. That will result in a more relaxed, comfortable and, most importantly, creative playing style when performing. Of almost equal importance, we know what not to do!

Have you ever suffered an ugly squawk right in the middle of a great solo? You know the one I mean. That altissimo note that “usually” plays as expected but not always. If you want to be sure of that note, the solution is to push the limits a bit further. The notes you’re unsure of should be the ones you plan not to use in a performance.

The same is true for technical mastery. If you want to be able to ease through those bebop passages at 340 beats per minute without any worries, practice them at 360. While this makes logical sense, getting there can be a challenge. The following is a practice technique that can help make improvisations more interesting, technique more fluent and articulation more precise.

Pushing The Limits of Speed and Precision

The first thing you need to do is decide on a level you could never reach. Imagine playing a single note on the saxophone and executing the kind of rhythms played by an accomplished snare drummer in a marching drum corps. It’s pretty safe to assume a saxophonist could never play rhythms that fast and complex! However, we can use that as our example of an unachievable target. In other words, to push your limits as far as possible, aim for the impossible.

For this example, you might start with a sixteenth note pattern, all tongued at a moderate tempo. Then do what those snare drummers do. Begin adding “heavy” accents so that the accented notes themselves create a recognizable rhythm.

Try the following example. Start by playing the rhythm created by the accented notes as is shown on the second staff. Then try playing the first staff, making the accented notes strong enough so that you can really hear that separate rhythm interwoven wit the sixteenth notes. It can almost sound like two people playing different rhythms. Start slowly and gradually increase the speed as you continue to repeat. When you reach what you think your limit is, keep trying. Each day, set a goal that you think is just beyond what you can achieve and don’t give up trying to get there.

Saxophone Articulation ExcerciseTry the same accents applied to the first five notes of the G Major.

Saxophone Articulation Excercise

Scale, all tongued.

Saxophone Articulation Excercise

Now try the same sixteenth note pattern while tonguing only the accented notes.

Saxophone Articulation Excercise

Keep going! Make up combinations of your own to challenge your perceived limits. Move the accented pattern to different notes. Try different scale and melodic patterns.

Emphasis On Articulation

Why can’t saxophonists play rhythms as intricate as a drummer would play? Our fingers can move fast enough, but it is the physical limit of our tonguing that sets the rhythmic bar lower. You can push that limit by focusing on less movement of your tongue. The faster we try to tongue the more important that becomes. Use just the tip portion of your tongue while firming the muscles along the sides and back. For this approach at practicing, you should attack those accented notes with a harder tongue. That alone should help you go faster. The most difficult thing of all is to tongue a whole line of sixteenth notes very rapidly while making certain they all are the same volume with the same tonguing force. Of course, you can push that limit as well. Pushing your limits is the way to gain technical prowess.

The Importance of Internalizing Rhythm

Saxophone players can fall into the routine of focusing more on notes or tone at the expense of rhythmic accuracy. An underlying element in this is the importance of masculine and feminine beats and portions of beats. Within that sixteenth note pattern, the first and third beats are more masculine and the second and fourth are more feminine. Through diligent practice, learn to internalize the feeling of emphasizing those feminine notes – this can add an element of surprise to improvisation. We are more accustomed to emphasis on masculine notes and that’s why the complex rhythms played by those snare drummers are so intriguing. They contain that element of surprise and we love being surprised.

Of course there are a number of ways to surprise our audience during a sax solo. Some players do that by allowing distorted notes to happen. Some are so accomplished at playing the altissimo it comes as a surprise. Some surprise with unexpected melodic resolutions as the dissonance and consonance increases and decreases through the matching up of scale structure and harmonic content. As you explore those limits and continue working to push them higher, don’t neglect the importance of rhythm in music. It may be the most important element of all.