A Game Plan for Great-Sounding Saxophone

The Game Plan for Great-Sounding Saxophone

Producing a beautiful sound should be the first goal of any musician. Correct notes and rhythms performed with poor sound quality? No one wants to hear that, let alone create it.

Saxophone students need a game plan to produce great sound. They need a strategy that covers every aspect of their sound production, including tone, embouchure, breathing, tuning and voicing, technique, articulation and vibrato.

This article, adapted from a presentation we made at the 2016 Midwest Clinic, offers educators (even those whose primary instrument is not the saxophone) a strategy they can use with their saxophone students.

Tonal Game Plan

Every student must develop their own personal sense of what a beautiful saxophone sounds like. Tone is an abstract: they will require tonal and stylistic models. If students haven’t already begun the process, we need to encourage them to discover their musical heroes. It’s important that they listen to and study professional saxophonists to develop their own conception of great sound.

It’s also crucial that they hear the masters of other instruments. This will widen their perception of what is possible on their own instrument. You can help them with suggested listening lists. Be sure to include both classical and jazz artists; again with the end goal of expanding your students’ horizons.



Embouchure Game Plan

There are some general guidelines that can help students produce a successful embouchure. They should strive to:

  • Place their top teeth on the top of the mouthpiece
  • Bunch their lower lip over the bottom teeth
  • Draw the corners of their mouth in

The entire embouchure should be firm, hugging the mouthpiece. The proper amount of mouthpiece taken in is also important. The top teeth should rest on the top-center of the mouthpiece at the point where the reed and mouthpiece break away from each other.

Next students need to conceptualize (or even vocalize) the word “ooh” with the lip formation suggested above, then blow a concise and focused airstream into the instrument, focusing the air on a point across the room at eye level.

How do you know if they’re on the right track? With this proper embouchure, students should be able to produce the following pitches on the mouthpiece alone:

  • Soprano Saxophone: concert C (2 octaves above middle C)
  • Alto Saxophone: concert A (1 octave and a M6 above middle C)
  • Tenor Saxophone: concert G (1 octave and a P5 above middle C)
  • Baritone Saxophone: concert E (1 octave and a M3 above middle C)

Breathing Game Plan

Great air equals great sound. To start, make sure student have good posture. The instruct them to:

  • Visualize their breath and the shape of their sound as it projects from their body.
  • Strive to relax their body completely before taking a breath.
  • Breathe in as deeply and quickly (with a relaxed midsection) as possible. They might think of saying the word “how” as they inhale.
  • As they fill their lungs with air, they need to focus on relaxing their shoulders and relaxing/expanding their midsection.
  • Exhale as much as they can before taking another breath. Stale air is as bad as an insufficient quantity of air.
  • Focus their air as they blow.

You will also want to work with to students to mark their breaths in their music as they practice. Consider musical phrasing and harmonic and melodic content. Investigating recordings will also be helpful in encouraging student decision-making regarding a breath game plan.

Tuning Game Plan

Playing out of tune is essentially the same as playing a wrong note. Equip students to play in tune.

To start, they should use a tuner daily. Drone exercises and the Tuning CD are musts for all. Be advised that most students play sharp. Daily practice of voicing, overtone, and long tone tuning exercises is essential. Students should also know specific fingerings for sharp and flat notes on their instrument.

Technique Game Plan

Like the embouchure, there are practical steps every student can take to promote efficient technique. They need to keep their fingers slightly curved as their hands form around the instrument in a relaxed fashion. Have them visualize (or actually grasp) a small grapefruit or a foam nerf ball to approximate the correct curvature. The fingers and thumb should form the shape of the letter C. Students should strive for fingertip contact to the middle of each pearl.

Good technique involves as little finger movement as possible, especially in fast technical passages. Encourage students to use a  metronome for at least 75 percent of their practice to attain not only good rhythm but also concise and controlled finger motion.

Articulation Game Plan

Proper articulation is accomplished by placing the upper part of the tongue (just behind the tip) on the reed at a point or area just behind the tip. The reed is closed by lightly pressing the tongue against the reed.

Students should:

  • Create a pressured air base by blowing into the mouthpiece with the tongue closing the reed.
  • Conceptualize the syllable “Da” or La,” as they release the tongue from the reed,  in order to initiate the sound.
  • Stop the sound with the tongue or air.

Again, encourage the use of a metronome to practice articulation with carried rhythms.

Using verbal syllables to define articulation styles such as accents, staccato and legato, marcato, and similar markings is an excellent way for students to develop and perfect flexibility of articulation on your instrument.

Vibrato Game Plan

Developing a pleasing vibrato is also essential. A great place to begin study is to listen to professional singers, string performers, and wind players. This will encourage students to develop their personal concept and style. Again, you might offer some suggested listening.

It’s important to note that vibrato should not be created above the pitch. Vibrato should undulate between the pitch center and slightly below, with a smooth curve (sine wave) at all times. The goal is a moving, spinning vibrato.

As they work to develop their personal vibrato, students should:

  • Remain physically relaxed, concentrating on the movement of the jaw at its hinge.
  • Conceptualize the syllable “wa or va” to create the vibrato. Only slight signs of movement should be visible at the point where the lower lip meets the mouthpiece.
  • Begin slowly, using the metronome to guide the development of their vibrato speed.
    • Start with: quarter note = 60, 4 cycles per beat. Repeat with increased metronome tempo, working towards sixteenth notes at quarter note = 76.

Ultimately encourage students to “spin” the vibrato to achieve a singing quality.

Internalization Game Plan

Encourage students to research, listen to, and memorize their music to deepen their understanding. Specifically:

  • Research the music they are playing. They need to be able to tell you what they know about the composer and the composition.
  • Listen frequently to the music they play and be able to discuss why they like what they hear.
  • Memorize any music that you practice for a long time.

Practice Game Plan

Daily practice is the key. Every student should keep a practice log, and always be mindful of how long they have worked on assignments and of what progress they have made. Whenever possible, encourage them to record their practice sessions and review the recordings for self-assessment and to measure progress.  The majority of practice time should be spent on making progress with assigned literature/repertoire.

A prescribed order can play an important role in a successful practice routine. You might suggest the following order as a starting point for students.

  1. Start each session working on technique (scales and technical patterns that cover both the normal and the extended altissimo range, articulation exercises etc.).
  2. Next practice an etude or two. Each etude is designed to teach us something. It’s important to know what that is, and focus on achieving results that relate to these specific technical or tonal challenges.
  3. Once the basics have been accomplished, move on to extended techniques e.g. overtones, altissimo, circular breathing, double tonguing, slap tonguing, etc…
  4. Finish each practice session by playing something beautiful that is personally meaningful.

The End Game Plan

With a highly developed skill set, students should feel more capable and competent when they participate in ensembles and other performance events.

Of course, individual practice is just one part of becoming a complete musician. Encourage every student to work to:

  • Develop their persona and character. Part of this is being well-read, well-listened, and well-traveled. Every one of us needs to make an extra effort to attend live concerts, not only to support other musicians, but to support culture in our society.
  • Find opportunities to perform art music, either solo or with others. We learn from each other, and there is great joy in sharing music with our friends.

Finally, encourage your students to strive not only to become fine saxophonists but, better yet, to become highly skilled, informed, and competent musicians. This should be the ultimate goal and it is how they will win the game!

John Nichol is professor of saxophone at Central Michigan University, where he has taught since 1980 and has been awarded CMU’s premiere award for teaching excellence three times. He is also an active adjudicator for the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association and has taught saxophone and coached saxophone ensembles at the Great Plains Saxophone Workshop.

Professor Nichol is also a Yamaha and Vandoren performing artist. He has performed by invitation at seven World Saxophone Congresses as well as at the Montreux, North Sea, and Ford Detroit International jazz festivals. He has performed with the Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, and Nelson Riddle Orchestras; the Lansing Symphony Big Band, the Michigan Jazz Trail Big Band and many others. He can also be heard on several recordings released by White Pine Music.

Joseph Lulloff is professor of saxophone and area chair of woodwinds at the Michigan State University College of Music, where he has received the Beal Distinguished Faculty and Withrow Excellence in Teaching awards. His students have won several competitions, including the Gold Medal Prize in the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, and first prizes in the Coleman, Carmel, Coltman, NASA, Plowman, and MTNA Competitions.

A Yamaha Performing Artist, Joseph is in demand as a soloist and clinician. He has been featured as guest soloist with the Cleveland and Minnesota Orchestras - among others - and has also appeared as guest soloist with numerous chamber groups, including the US Navy Band, Dallas Wind Symphony, Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, and Polizeiorchester Bayern. Equally at home in classical and jazz, Lulloff performs with the Capitol and J4 Saxophone Quartets.

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