Avoiding frustrations while playing the sax part 1


I know the feeling:
you have been playing the saxophone with gusto for a while, and perhaps already performed live"”and then, one day, you hear someone play the saxophone as if it were a completely different instrument. How come?

In this workshop series about the instrument, sound and playing technique, I want to show advanced saxophone players which aspects matter for playing the saxophone, how to avoid mistakes and how to practice. Let’s begin with the instrument:

The saxophone

Playing the saxophone is only possible with a saxophone"”that’s pretty obvious. A good saxophone will allow you to play better"”true again. But what is a good saxophone?

A good saxophone is an instrument that works: its intonation is acceptable (no saxophone is perfectly in tune), and all tones respond, which means it is "tight" and the keywork doesn’t scare you. Mind you, a good saxophone doesn’t have to be expensive, old, spanking new or rare! Conversely, a good saxophone player will still sound like a good saxophone player on an affordable student instrument!

To understand this, you need to know how the instrument works, and more specifically, which part does what.

A saxophone comprises the following elements:

- Mouthpiece with a reed
- Neck (bocal)
- Body

The saxophone mouthpiece and reed

The mouthpiece-reed combination has the biggest influence on the saxophone’s sound and dynamics. The sound is produced by the reed’s vibrations. As a rule, the mouthpiece material has little or no influence on the sound and playability. The important aspects are rather:

Opening of the mouthpiece tip
An open mouthpiece requires a stronger embouchure than a narrow mouthpiece. It also provides a wider dynamic range and leaves more room for sound modulation. But there is drawback: it requires more air, stronger support, and the modulation features may cause intonation problems.

Bore (throat)
In most instances, the bore corresponds to the mouthpiece’s opening. Mouthpieces with a large bore usually have a longer and straighter air duct, even though this depends on the philosophy of the mouthpiece manufacturer in question. I encourage you to try out different options and to select the one that feels most convenient for you.
Sectional drawing of a saxophone mouthpiece
Baffle and chamber
They determine the basic sound. As a rule, a narrow chamber and a high baffle produce a brighter sound, while a mouthpiece with a large chamber and a flat baffle provides a rounder sound. Here is an example of a mouthpiece with a large chamber:

The saxophone reed
Saxophone reeds are usually made of cane, albeit that more and more manufacturers also sell synthetic reeds. Saxophone reeds come in different strengths. Most players like to use light/thin reeds for an open mouthpiece and heavier/thicker ones with a narrow mouthpiece. New saxophone reeds need to be broken in before they can sound their absolute best.

They need to be soaked to become elastic. Some people use a glass of water, I myself prefer to use my saliva and therefore suck them. A reed’s lifecycle varies greatly and always depends on the material, your playing style, usage frequency and how well you look after your reed. If you carefully clean your reed and store it properly after playing, it will last a lot longer than if you leave in the sax’s mouthpiece.

It would be a good idea to cycle through several reeds rather than just using one. Each reed indeed becomes "lighter" each time it is played, which is also true of its response. If you then insert a new reed, it feels "sluggish" and requires you to change your embouchure. This natural degradation can be delayed by cycling through several reeds for your various gigs.

Saxophone neck and body

These always come together and constitute what most of us consider to be "the" saxophone. Their combination constitutes the sound tube. The sound tube and the tone holes on it are used to select the desired note pitches.

The saxophone body is important in that:

a) The position and dimension of the tone holes determine the instrument’s tuning and note separation. The correct adjustment of the keywork also affects the instrument’s tuning. If you notice that certain notes are flat or sharp, chances are that this can be corrected by adjusting the key mechanism.

b) The keywork needs to be arranged ergonomically, allowing the player to effortlessly reach all keys.

c) It needs to be airtight in places where a key is pressed: the pads need to close all the way.

True to the idea that the closer the instrument is to the tone generator (i.e. the mouthpiece), modifying the bocal may have a significant impact on the instrument’s sound, response and/or intonation.

The body material and finish have a much more elusive effect on the sound than the mouthpiece-cum-reed: in many instances, differences only become noticeable when A/B’ing different instruments. I’m not saying that this aspect is totally irrelevant"”the material strength and combination indeed alter the sound and response"”but not to the extent a light or stubborn reed does.

Tips, tricks and one exercise

There is an easy way to check whether your mouthpiece/reed is usable: blow into the mouthpiece. You should be able to play loud, soft and even different pitches.
If you manage to play "All my little ducklings", you can be sure that you have a winner!

New reed?
If your current mouthpiece/reed combination doesn’t allow you to produce the sound you have in mind, you may have to experiment. But whatever you do, be sure to only alter one parameter at a time. I encourage you to first try different/new reeds in various strengths with your current mouthpiece, because that is cheaper than buying a new mouthpiece every week. And...

Careful: the quality of saxophone reeds tends to vary. Chances are that some of the reeds you buy prove unusable, because they sound too dull or squeaky. As a rule, you should by your reeds by the pack and hope that most of them are usable.

New mouthpiece?
Before deciding to buy a new mouthpiece, try to find out which make your favorite sax player is using for that "gorgeous sound". Even though that particular mouthpiece may not be your best choice, it may nevertheless provide a good indication.

Whatever you do, be sure to test the new mouthpiece thoroughly, using different reeds in the process"”never ever buy a mouthpiece simply on recommendation!

The rest of the saxophone

There is one important aspect about the "instrument" we haven’t mentioned yet: the player, i.e. the person on the other side of the mouthpiece who blows into the mouthpiece and causes the reed to vibrate. And there is more: the player also acts as soundbox that is connected to the instrument through the mouthpiece and has a significant influence on the sound.

Till next time when we will discuss the Sound.

Jürgen Wieching

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