"Dynamics" for sax players

Introduction

Says the conductor: "Can you play that with more dynamics, please?" So the sax player replies: "What do you mean? I’m already playing as loud as I can."
OK, I know, this used to be a drummer’s joke, but I’m convinced it also applies to many a wind and sax player. There are still far too many musicians who are completely unaware of the effect of varying the volume and therefore play every song with the exact same dynamics. Yet, starting a song at medium power, then playing softly in the bridge, only to blurt out the closing section can be an important musical statement. Now imagine for a moment that a complete saxophone section or big band uses this approach"”the musical effect will be mind-blowing.

In all fairness: while some players are unaware of the effectiveness of dynamic variations, others may not be able to achieve them for lack of technique. I’m sure most of you have been told by the teacher or conductor that playing softly is far more difficult than playing loud. And that is precisely the problem of certain players or amateur formations: for a beginner, blowing hard makes it much easier to play at least something. While the notes played may be correct, the sound often leaves much to be desired. Certain amateur musicians don’t have the time or patience to work on their sound and dynamics, and so they play too loud most of the time, because that at least ensures that all notes are correct.

I would like to show you a few dynamics exercises you could add to your daily training sessions.

Dynamics symbols:

The following dynamics exercises contain a number of symbols most of us have already seen once or twice: mf, pp, ff, etc.

f= forte, p= piano, mf (or mp)= mezzo forte (or mezzo piano)

"Forte" means "loud", "piano" means "soft""”pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Passages that need to be played louder still, are flagged by "ff", sometimes even "fff" or "ffff." The more "fs" there are, the louder you need to play, the exact loudness you need to produce being left to your appreciation.
The same applies to "piano": "p" means that you need to play softly, "pp" is even softer, and "ppp" extremely soft"”again, all this is rather subjective. The "m" (for "mezzo") means "medium": the passage in question should thus be played "medium loud" or "medium soft". Given that the number of "ps" and "fs" is a rather subjective matter, let’s agree to go no further than "pp" and "ff".

Dynamics exercise #1

Given that dynamics is all about using different levels, that is what we will be concentrating on here. In our first exercise, you need to play a note at "your normal level" and then gradually lower the level until you can barely hear it (just like a fade out). Next, breathe in again and start playing the note at the lowest level you used just now, then gradually increase the level as far as you can muster.

For this exercise, it is important to make good use of your diaphragm and to avoid raising the pressure on your lips and jaw. You should always have the impression that the notes you play come straight from your belly.

Intonation

 

One of the first things you may notice is how difficult it is to keep the pitch constant during this exercise. The softer you blow, the more the note will rise, while increasing stronger notes may cause their pitch to drop. Pay attention to this while playing and do what is necessary to counter this effect.

Dynamics exercise #2

Although this exercise is similar to the previous one, we will now use longer notes: start out at a medium level, then gradually decrease the level until you can barely hear what you are playing, and finally raise the level as far as you can muster.

Dynamics exercise #3

Let’s now play the same with a series of short notes, starting from mezzo forte ("mf"), then getting softer, down to pianissimo ("pp"), and finally increasing the level up to fortissimo ("ff").

Other notes:

 

After practicing the various dynamics levels with the B note, you could also try them with other notes. Ideally, you should practice this first in the medium range, but then also use some low and a few high notes.

Special case: fortepiano

 

This is an extremely effective technique often used by big bands, because it sounds amazing if applied simultaneously by several players. "Fortepiano" means that the note’s attack is loud, but then immediately lowered to very soft, after which the level returns to the original level.

If you think that these dynamics exercises are totally uncool, consider that"”like athletes"”musicians first need to practice a given technique, before they can apply it in a real-life situation. Just try to practice these exercises five minutes a day, and I promise you will be a dynamics expert in just a few weeks.

So, for now, keep saxing loud and proud!

Yours,

Dirko Juchem

 

Information: www.dirko-juchem.de

In addition to being a popular live and session musician, Dirko Juchem is also a respected author of a number of methods for saxophone and flute. He has played with famous German artists, like Rolf Zuckowski, Thomas Anders and Barbara Dennerlein as well as with the American jazz singer Sarah K. and pop icon Paul Anka. Among his numerous publications, "Saxophon spielen - mein schönstes Hobby" has become one of Germany’s best-selling saxophone methods. His play-along score books of the Schott Saxophone Lounge-series are almost as popular.
In 2008, Dirko Juchem received the European Media Award.