Certain saxophone players don’t mind spending a fortune just to improve their sound: they keep buying new mouthpieces and reeds, try out different ligatures, bocals, sound bridges, etc., in the hope that this will somehow make them sound better. While these parts certainly do contribute to a convincing sound, most of us forget that the most important aspect is one’s own body and using it to maximum effect.
The most important ingredient we need for the notes we play on our instrument is air—I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet, only if we manage to transfer this air in a focused way will we be able to produce a bright and beautiful sound.
I already dealt with breathing in during a previous workshop, and I’m not going to repeat this here. Let us just suffice to say that you need to take advantage of all the space you have to take in as much air as possible. I like to call this “comprehensive breathing”, i.e. filling my chest and belly with so much air that they both move forward each time I breathe in.
Breathing out is more than just letting the air “escape” (as we normally do when we are not playing)—the air needs to be expelled with sufficient pressure into the instrument. This is called “support”, because we somehow support thee notes we play with our breathing. The full term is “diaphragmatic support”, because the diaphragm is the muscle used for this technique.
Allow me to describe several situations that clearly illustrate how breathing out and the support mechanism work.
Suppose you are in a pool or a lake and want to keep your head underwater as long as possible. To this effect, you first take a deeeeeeep breath (complete breathing), then put our head under water and flex all relevant muscles to keep the air from escaping.
Our second picture also applies to a lake: this time, we want to play with the toy yacht we built with our cousin. Again, we breathe in as far as we can, and then focus on the sail while breathing out with all our might. During my workshops, I ask my students to curve one hand like a sail and then try to blow that hand away as if it were a yacht.
Suppose it is your birthday and you are about to blow the candles on your birthday cake. We all know that this needs to be done in one breath to ensure that our wishes come true. So you take a deep breath and use a strong and focused jet (remember the sail) to blow out all candles.
Here, you need to blow out only one candle, but it is at arm’s length (see the picture). Again, we breathe in and blow out the candle with some pressure, this time using a small and focused, yet powerful jet.
Our last situation is very similar to how you need to blow into your saxophone. Remember that we need sufficient “support” to generate the pressure that is required to keep the pitch stable, while the other parts of our body (our lips and jaws, for instance) should remain relaxed.
Or, to put it the other way: if we lack “breath support” and the pressure required to play the saxophone, we automatically solicit that pressure from other parts of our body. And that is where the mistakes crop up I keep noticing in my workshops: too much tension applied to the lip muscles and/or too much pressure generated by the jaw. Sometimes, the neck is used to add pressure (in some cases, you can actually hear the neck noises that sound like sighs), in other instances, the notes are played with exaggerated tonguing.
These are mistakes that affect the sound and need to be avoided at all cost. Working on your support strategy is therefore of utmost importance.
Irrespective of the type of wind instrument, playing long notes is always the best way to work on your breathing technique and the ensuing beautiful sound, because imperfections become immediately noticeable. Varying the pressure causes the notes to jolt and to tremble.
Below please find an excellent breathing and embouchure exercise. Play it slowly and take your time: listen to yourself playing. Be sure to remain relaxed and to play at a medium volume level.
Devoting just a few minutes each day to this exercise and similar ones by way of warming up will help you solve most of your sound problems—and that’d a promise.