Playing lead alto saxophone in a jazz ensemble is fun, but carries certain responsibilities. The lead alto player sets the intonation, style, and dynamics for the saxophone section, while also matching the intonation, style, and dynamics of the brass section. This can be a big responsibility for a middle school or high school saxophonist. What follows are some thoughts and exercises to help your students to develop into confident lead alto players.
The lead alto needs to produce enough volume to cut through the rest of the section. To start, make sure the saxophonist is playing on good equipment, including a jazz mouthpiece, jazz reeds, and a horn in good working condition. The next step is to make sure they are using their air correctly; otherwise it will be difficult to cut through the rest of the section. Before each rehearsal have the student put a towel, t-shirt, or something similar into their bell and then warm up for 10-15 minutes.
This will require the student to push the air harder, and give them a sense of how much more air they should be using all the time. Too often younger jazz students do not use enough air to blow through phrases and this causes the music to sound choppy and uneven. This technique could also be used during rehearsal to reinforce the concept of good air support. Learning to use air correctly will benefit both the student and the ensemble.
One common problem among younger jazz players is their use of articulation; they will articulate too often and with too much tongue. Once a student is using their air correctly, have them practice passages slurring everything, regardless of the written articulation. Then begin adding articulation using a “doo” or “loo” syllable. The tongue should brush the tip of the reed and keep the sound as smooth and uninterrupted as possible. Jazz articulation is a debated subject. While there are some general rules about articulation, it tends to be a personal choice among jazz players. For a young player, the most important thing is to keep the articulation light and smooth and to slur more often than they articulate.
There are many factors that can contribute to a saxophonist’s ability to play in tune. Again, good equipment will aid greatly in this area. Assuming the student has good equipment, these exercises will help solidify their intonation.
First, make sure the student has a good tuner. Although I prefer to have one with a sweeping arm, a digital tuner (or even many cell phone apps) can work just fine. The student should begin practice playing long tones at a mezzo-forte while looking at the tuner and adjusting the pitch to be in tune. Once the student finds where the note is best in tune, they should practice playing the note while looking away from the tuner and then checking the tuner to see how accurate they are. This is an exercise that every serious musician does regularly.
Once the student improves at playing in tune at mezzo-forte, have them play long tones at different dynamic levels. In general, louder dynamics cause a saxophonist to play flat and softer dynamics cause a them to play sharp. Knowing these tendencies means that a student can practice playing at more extreme dynamics with a tuner to make sure they are playing in tune.
Next have the student play long tones from forte to piano while looking at the tuner and keeping the note in tune. Then play the same exercise from piano to forte. All of these exercises should be practiced regularly for many weeks, months, and even years to assure that the student can play well in tune.
Going to the Source
All of the previous information is helpful for developing young lead alto saxophone players. However, recordings represent the single most important tool for any young jazz musician. The lead alto playing of Don Redman (Fletcher Henderson), Johnny Hodges (Duke Ellington), and Marshall Royal (Count Basie) form the cornerstone of lead alto playing. Students should take time to listen and absorb their sound, style, rhythmic feel, interpretation, etc. This is best done by finding the lead alto part that matches a specific recording and studying how each player interpreted the music.
A good lead alto player can elevate the sound of the saxophone section and the entire jazz ensemble. Focused work on volume, articulation, tuning, and the study of classic recordings will help your students to become confident lead alto players and overall better musicians.
Dr. Andrew Stonerock is the director of jazz studies at Cameron University. He oversees all aspects of the jazz program and directs the jazz ensemble and jazz combos. He is frequently in demand as a saxophonist, woodwind doubler, adjudicator, and clinician.
In his spare time he enjoys spending time with his family and his dog Basie.