The correct saxophone sound

About the saxophone sound

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?

This workshop series discusses the instrument, the sound and playing technique.

Discover the aspects that influence the saxophone sound, how to analyze mistakes and which exercises will help you progress.

After describing the Instrument/Workshop (26), I would now like to talk about the sound.

It’s not what you play but how you play it

If we want our saxophone to sound better, the first thing we need to focus on is the sound. For the sound is the first element that reaches the listener’s ear.

You already know that the mouthpiece and reed are important elements of the overall sax sound. If the sound nevertheless fails to convince you, there may be other issues, more specifically your breathing and embouchure, that need correcting. The problem is often that producing saxophone-like noises in the medium register is even possible with flat breathing, hardly any support and a weak embouchure.

Only in the upper and lower registers, and for overtones (so-called "high notes") will it become clear that "something is the matter", and so most sax players instinctively believe that they need a new reed, mouthpiece or instrument (depending how much they suffer and on their disposable income).

Who’s playing?

Here are the body parts involved in producing sound:

- Belly and lower torso=> active


This is the "compressor" that takes in fresh air and expels it to the mouthpiece. Remember to use all torso muscles (not just the abdominal muscles at the front) for breathing out/blowing.

- Chest=> passive


Needs to remain relaxed, flat, serves as resonator.
Use this area only for breathing if you need an extra amount of air.
Remember to also relax your shoulders.

- Neck=> passive


Should be "open" and relaxed, i.e. the vocal cords and the larynx should rest at the center. Imagine singing a low, open OOOHHH"”without producing sound, that is"”or imitate the typical yawning posture.

- Mouth cavity=> active


The tongue position within the mouth cavity bundles the air flow and expels it towards the mouthpiece.

- Jaw and lips=> active


Relaxed "biting" allows you to press the reed against the mouthpiece where the air jet will cause it to vibrate. The sound depends on the lip tension: soft lips tend to muffle the sound, hard/tense lips produce a more focused tone.

Breathing exercise for sax players

To check to what extent abdominal breathing is performed, imagine going to the doctor’s who gets out his stethoscope: "Breathe in, breathe out, stop...

Here’s how to proceed:
- stand up at ease, slightly spread your legs and bend the knees, let your shoulders down.
- now take a deep breath into your chest and simultaneously lift your shoulders
- breathe out swiftly and let your shoulders drop until the chest has returned to its original position and you have run out of air ("poooh")
- next, place one hand on your navel and expel the air from your abdomen using your torso muscles, blowing against a slight resistance from the lips until the last quantum of air has been expelled ("pft")
- Finally, relax your trunk muscles and, through your mouth, let the air flow all the way into the area that felt empty just a minute ago ("haaaa")
- There should now be enough air right where we need it.

If you haven’t come to grips with abdominal breathing yet, repeat this exercise until it comes naturally to you.

Support and embouchure exercise for saxophone players

This exercise needs to be performed with the saxophone
- Play a note in the medium register"”an "A", for instance"”with relatively firm embouchure
- release the embouchure until the pitch begins to drop, producing a lower note
- keep the air flow steady while dropping the jaw in a controlled fashion to lower the pitch without cutting off the note.
- You should be able to lower the pitch by a semitone.
- And to finish off, let’s play a complete melody a semitone step below the actual fingering. To check how you’re doing, play the same melody with the correct fingering (a half-step down, that is).

If you manage to perform this exercise, both your embouchure and your diaphragm support are up to speed.

Mouth and embouchure exercise for saxophone

Overtone exercise
This exercise will help you play overtones ("high notes") at a later stage.

You may already have noticed that playing notes one octave up is possible even without using the octave key. Blowing forcefully or with too tight an embouchure tends to cause low notes to sound one octave up.
This is due to the fact that all notes we play and hear are actually a collection of harmonics (or "overtones") that are masked by the intended note. The first harmonic is 1 octave up, the second corresponds to the fifth of the 1st octave, then follows the 2nd octave; see also the illustration below for the harmonic structure of a Bb

This exercise requires you to play all harmonics from top to bottom and back. At first you may only be able to play two or three of them, but with a little practice, four or five harmonics should be possible. The important thing is to play clean and long notes.

For this exercise, be sure to...
- keep the throat open=> keep reminding yourself of the low, open "ooohhh" while playing the highest notes
- keep your embouchure in place=> the jaw is used as support, the lips form a tight ring around the mouthpiece; pretend you want to shape the reed round
- arch the tongue against the palate to narrow the mouth cavity in such a way that the air expelled into the mouthpiece is already accelerated before that point.=> The tongue should be shaped in the same way as for the "yo" in "yoghurt".
- First play the intended note with the regular fingering (where possible) to get a clear idea of the sound and pitch.

Try to avoid squeezing the mouthpiece, because the air needs to race by the reed as quickly a possible to produce the desired high-frequency vibrations. You may have to adjust the jaw position=> push it slightly forward.
Harmonic series of Bb

Once you master this exercise, playing "high notes" will come almost naturally!

Give you tone some space

The final, and perhaps most important, sound shaping tip is:
ensure that your tone has enough space!

Granted, each note is the result of a reed that vibrates between your upper and lower jaw, but you need to think further than that. Imagine blowing the note itself through the instrument and into the room, and try to fill the entire room with that note. This requires a certain level, but with a little practice you may soon be able to do the same with soft notes!

Have fun and until next time when we’ll tackle saxophone techniques.

Jürgen Wieching

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