When you look online for “Vibrato & Saxophone”, besides factual information you'll also find the common opinion that a vibrato adjusts itself already when you play with enough emotions and that it has to come “from the heart”. (You'll find similar esoteric quotes about the “swing phrasing” as well!) In contrast, there are the statements made by Jean-Marie Londeix who committed himself very intensively to the topic of vibratos in the saxophone play after having been a student of Marcel Mule:
“The vibrato is the easy and regular vibration of a tone – consciously produced according to the musical intention, in order to reinforce the expressive value of the note [...]. When it comes to the saxophone, one of the most expressive and lyrical instruments, the vibrato is a great tool to design the musical phrases in a more convincing way – but only if it is mastered well and of good quality. If not, it can be the reason for thousands of maladies and disturbances.” (Jean- Marie Londeix in: Saxophon Spielend leicht, Band B, Teil III und IV - Blasmusikverlag Fritz Schulz, Freiburg 1978)
What is a “vibrato”?
In musical terms, the vibrato is defined as regular (periodical) playing around a target note with equal deviations of the pitch upwards and downwards (change of frequency). It is probably most common among string instruments, where the player produces it through fast movements of the fingers on the strings and the fingerboard. This creates periodical fluctuations of the pitch while keeping a consistent dynamic (volume and intensity of the tone).
Graphically simplified, the vibrato can be presented as follows:
In the practical performance, the played tone moves with a certain number of vibrations per time unit (time period) in a previously defined pitch deviation (amplitude) around the target tone.
A mistake that happens easily, is that the target tone is played around downwards.
It is just as wrong to only change the target tone upwards.
Different methods to produce a vibrato are among others:
Lip and approach vibrato: The tension of the lips or rather the lipping vibrates slightly with the assistance of a relaxed lower jaw – this kind of vibrato is the most suitable for the saxophone
Diaphragm vibrato: It is produced through controlled vibrations of the diaphragm when exhaling the air – this kind of vibrato is common among flautists
Larynx or tongue vibrato: Through variations of the tone, a vibrato effect is produced (imagine formulating something like “oioioioi..”) - especially the larynx vibrato can be found in singing, just like the diaphragm vibrato
What is NO vibrato?
The “Tremolo” is a thing that has to clearly be distinguished from the vibrato. It also describes a periodical change of tones but this one is based on dynamical differences or changes of the timbre where the pitch (frequency) isn't changed, though. The tremolo can also be shown through the example of string instruments: the same tone is played with fast strike changes of the bow.
In the practical performance, the tremolo can be described as a recurring series of swelling and subsiding dynamics. Accordingly, the diaphragm vibrato would rather produce a tremolo in saxophone playing because primarily the dynamics are influenced, not the intonation of the tone.
1. Play a long note and control the right intonation with the tuning device. Slowly loosen the lipping and watch how the pitch goes down. The deviation can account a semitone or more, depending on the position of the tone, the lipping and the support. Open mouthpieces naturally keep a broader modulation scope than mouthpieces with a tight opening.
2. Play the same tone again and try to change it upwards through a stronger lipping. You will remark that the upward deviation will be way slighter than the downward shift of the intonation. Possibly, this doesn't occur in higher positions of the instrument because these tones often intonate higher, depending on the design.
1. Get to know the location of the tones: play all the tones in a long and equal way and control them with the tuning device. Maybe the instrument even has to be tuned deeper than usual!
2. Try to start the vibrato with an upward shift of the pitch: That's a way of how to control the downward deviation more easily. When the first vibration points downwards, it easily becomes too deep and the entire vibrato will take place below the target tone.
The above-mentioned Marcel Mule was a pioneer in the field of vibratos for the saxophone. In the 1920s, he introduced a cultivated form of the “jazz vibrato” - which was way less controlled at that time – to the “serious” classical music. Intense surveys on this topic resulted in 240 to 320 vibrations per minute as a recommendable value. This means: - four vibrations per beat at a speed of 75-76 - three vibrations at a speed of 100 - five vibrations at a speed of 60
Hint The following exercises are helpful when it comes to gaining rhythmic control of the vibrato. Always perform them with a metronome and keep in mind the entire pitch range of the instrument in order to maintain the homogeneity and regularity of the vibrato and to achieve a control of all the tones.
First, this exercise has to be played with all the tones, then slowly increase the speed.
Here, we will practice the transition from a “straight” tone to a vibrato. Practice this exercise with all the tones as well before slowly increasing the speed.
This exercise should equally be played with all the tones. When the speed is too fast in the beginning, start slowlier and continue by raising the speed step by step.
Rules and hints for the vibrato
Finally, some rules according to J.-M. Londeix: - Don't use the vibrato when the intonation isn't perfect - Never use the vibrato on all the tones, often not even quavers are appropriate for a vibrato. In points of subordinate importance, like in an orchestra, the vibrato should be used as imperceptible and as little as possible. - Vibrato should be used mainly for very expressive tones in a phrase, in complete consent with their musical character. Accordingly, there is no fixed speed for the vibrato. The player has to show a good taste and personality through a more or less voluminous amplitude, which can be different, always depending on the target phrase. It also depends on the frequency of vibrations, which can be diverse, depending on the style of the musical piece.”