Pitch accuracy is vital for a saxophonist, because of the great flexibility of this transposing instrument. As a result, a good saxophonist will perform intensive ear training to help increase their ability to stay in tune with their accompanying instruments. To tune, remember these guidelines
- Pitch is more easily lowered then raised
- Notes with longer tube lengths or closed keys have less flexibility
- The higher register is more flexible then the lower register.
The sum of its parts...
The mouthpiece affects every aspect of sound production, and should never be taken lightly. I recommend that every student make a good purchase of a high-quality mouthpiece, and one should never buy a mouthpiece without playing on it first. Most mouthpieces are made out of hard rubber, although those tenor Jazz sax players like their metal mouths. There are many different sizes and shapes of mouthpieces, and many different organizational categories which may be disheartening for the new saxophonist. Here is a general guideline.
The number on the mouthpiece indicates the size of the mouthpiece opening at the tip, with a larger number meaning a larger opening and so forth. Selmer corporation, however, uses letters, and not numbers to indicate size, with a C as a medium, and D larger, and so on. An asterisk (*) after a number or letter indicates a longer facing, so more reed will vibrate. Thus, a 7* will play louder than a 7, because of the longer facing. There are also some brands which include S, M, and L as indications of the chamber size of the mouthpiece. A good guideline to remember is that the larger the chamber, the darker the tone will get. I recommend trying out all sorts of different mouthpieces until you find the one that suits you best.
As with all wind instruments, the saxophone is at the mercy of the reed, which has a huge effect on the quality of the tone. A used, or overblown reed will produce a harsh, thin tone, and extreme notes of the registers will suffer. A reed that is too soft will produce an flat, unfocused tone, while a reed that is too hard will give an airy, dull tone, so getting and keeping good reeds is a must.
In buying a reed, most companies will use numbers to indicate the strength of the reed, although some use the labels "soft", "medium", and "hard". The beginner saxophonist will want to start with a #2 reed, and then will progress to the standard #2 1/2 reed fairly quickly. Advanced saxophonists may use a #3- 31/2, because of the increased strength of the reed, but mostly, the strength of the reed should depend on the player's experience, personal preference and facial structure.
Saxophonists do not generally make their reeds, as good reeds can be found at almost any instrumental shop. However, one should make an effort to keep your reed in good condition as long as possible, if only to cut back on the cost. Here are some steps to keeping your reed in good working order.
- During the break-in period of one week, limit the amount of time playing a new reed to no more than five minutes per day, and be gentle with the registers and how hard you tongue.
- Polish the flat side of the reed before playing it.
- soak the reed briefly in purified water
- Allow the reed to dry for a few minutes after playing, then store it in a protective container that lets light through.
The Care and Keeping of a Saxophone
A saxophone is a really good instrument for kids because it is a fairly easy instrument to care for. After playing, all you have to to is swab out the inside of the neck and body with a soft, dry cloth. A pull through weight can be used, but be careful to use one that is the right fit for your instrument. The mouthpiece should be washed occasionally with a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water to keep it sanitary and in good working order.
If you have sticky pads, clean them with ungummed cigarette paper, and not with any powdery non-stick stuff. Non-stick powder will eventually build up on the pads and ruin them. To clean, simply place the cigarette paper between the pad and the instrument, press down gently, and slide the paper out. After a few goes, the pads should work just fine! Nonetheless, pads will eventually need to be replaced, and a good indication is when the pads are dry, brittle, look dark brown or black in color, and may even split open. A complete overhaul of the saxophone may need to take place every few years, and should be done by a trained professional, don't spare the expense. A cheap price means a cheap fix.
The exterior of a saxophone can just be wiped down with a cotton swab and soft cloth, making sure to get the nooks and crannies of the instrument, and to reduce the key and joint noise, use some light key oil.
A beautiful tool of the more advanced saxophone player is vibrato, which should be used to enhance a rich tone, rather than to cover up a poor one. Saxophone vibrato is produced using a slight chewing action of the jaw, using the teeth to transfer variations of pressure to the mouthpiece. Make sure, when learning vibrato, to aim for evenly placed, controlled vibrato, as this is better technique and creates a cleaner sound. The best way to learn is to listen to professionals who play with good technique. Find a vibrato that you like and emulate it, being sure to focus in on how clean the sound is.