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.
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
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.