Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Even more about the Saxophone!

Tuning a Sax
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
  1. Pitch is more easily lowered then raised
  2. Notes with longer tube lengths or closed keys have less flexibility
  3. The higher register is more flexible then the lower register.
Lowering the pitch center by pulling out the mouthpiece will generally help the high register, which is often sharp, while unaffecting the lower register. Remember this, when your upper register is sharp and your lower register is flat.

The sum of its parts...

The mouthpiece
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.

The reed
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.
If you take good care of your reed, it could offer you weeks of good use!

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.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Everything you ever wanted (or didn't want) to know about the Saxophone


The saxophone was designed and built by Belgian instrument tinkerer, Adolphe Sax in the early 1840's, and was officially patented in 1846. In it's outline, a saxophone is really a mishmash of different instrumental concepts, combining the brass, conical-bore body with a woodwind's fingering system and a single reed mouthpiece. The result is a very mellow and rich tone and great tonal flexibility, especially in the upper range. Most people will recognize the saxophone from a marching or military band, or from it's adopted genre, Jazz. However, there is very broad repertoire for what is known as the "classical" saxophone.
There are five typically used Saxophones, whose written ranges are all the same. The normal written range of the Saxophone is from B♭ to f3, although I have included the transpositions for the sounding ranges of the various instruments.
  • Soprano - M2 lower
  • Alto - M6 lower
  • Tenor - M9 lower
  • Baritone - M12 lower
  • Bass - M15 lower
There are also a sopranino and contra-bass saxophone, but I have never seen or heard those played. Most everyone can learn to use a saxophone no matter what age. It is a hardy and versatile instrument, and much easier for the beginning woodwinds student to learn then the clarinet, because the reed on a saxophone is thicker, and thus vibrates with more back-pressure.

Putting the pieces together

One should generally sit down while putting the saxophone together. Less chance of disaster, which is why the mouthpiece cap can be used to cover the reed after assembly. Must protect the instruments! General assembly is as follows;
  1. Put the mouthpiece on the neck with a gentle sliding or twisting motion, using some cork grease if the cork is too tight. One should be really careful with this step, because the placement of the mouthpiece on the neck affects how in tune the instrument is. Pulling the mouthpiece out will lower the pitch, and pushing in will raise the pitch. A general guideline is to put the mouthpiece about one inch into the neck, and then adjust from there.
  2. Then connect the neck to the saxophone body. You should sit, holding the body in your lap with your left hand around the bell, making sure not to grab around any of the keys or valves, as any damage will affect the tone of the instrument. Make sure that the tightening screw is loose, pick up the neck with your right hand, and align the bottom of the neck over the center of the keys. The octave key valve and rod should be lined up, and then just slide into place. You can use some oil if the going gets rough, and then tighten the screw.
  3. Place the ligature on the mouthpiece, watching to make sure that the right side is up. Slide the thick end of a moistened reed into the ligature and line it up, so that the tip of the reed creates a seal with the facing of the mouthpiece. Tighten the screws, and you are done! You are ready to play, or at least try.
Playing a Saxophone

Really, I can not stress enough how important it is. Not just for life (duh) but for proper playing technique. To optimize your breathing, one needs to learn how to control the diaphragm, the bowl-shaped muscle on the underside of your ribs, which separates the lungs from the stomach, and allows for exhalation and inhalation. The action of the diaphragm is largely involuntary, but as all singers and woodwinds players know, you can learn how to manipulate the diaphragm, with other, voluntary muscles to maximize your breathing capacity. There are lots of exercises you can find to help you with this, the best of which will try to get you to hold your diaphragm expanded, in its flattened shape, for as long as possible to increase breath control.

Posture is also critical here, to avoid strain and increase breath capacity. The saxophone uses a neck-strap to help balance the weight, but otherwise the weight rests on the thumbs, under the thumb-rests. The head should be held erect, bringing the mouthpiece to your mouth, instead of bending forward to reach it. Your top teeth should feel like there is pressure on them, and very little pressure on the bottom teeth. The back should be straight and relaxed, with both feet firmly planted on the floor.
Your hands should be relaxed and arched, but spread and ready to play. The keys don't require a whole lot of pressure to close firmly, so being relaxed is the most important part of hand positioning, which leads to more efficient fingering.

There are two types of Embouchure, the "classical" and the jazz, but I am only going to talk about the classical one here. The classical embouchure involves a firm, but not tight mouth seal, like a rubber-band, around the mouthpiece. The mouth should remain relatively still during all playing, and the teeth should line up as if there were no instrument in the mouth at all. To form the embouchure, roll the bottom lip over the bottom teeth, place the top teeth about one-half inch from the tip of the mouthpiece and seal the lips. The throat should be really relaxed, as if one were saying the syllable "ahh".

On the saxophone, all articulation begins with the tongue. To begin, assemble the instrument with a thoroughly soaked 2-2 1/2 reed and hold in playing position. Take a breath and form your embouchure, then place the tip of your tongue gently against the reed, pushing it to create a seal. Start the air pressure and lift your tongue off the reed to initiate the tone. When you wish to stop the tone, simple cease blowing air. Steady breath supply is crucial, and one should be careful to avoid puffing the cheeks too much. Most tonguing problems are the result of changing registers, harsh attacks, neglecting to use the tongue to start the tone, and not touching the tongue to the reed completely. This is a helpful checklist to follow if one finds they are having difficulty:
  • Make sure your reed is in good condition and properly soaked
  • Make sure that the reed is centered and the ligature is straight
  • Being gentle with the tongue
  • still jaw and lips throughout the articulation
As a review, the steps for articulating the tone are;
  1. inhale
  2. place the top teeth on the mouthpiece
  3. set the embouchure
  4. close the reed with the tongue
  5. create air pressure behind the reed
  6. remove the tongue
  7. sustain a tone

That is all on the Sax so far. A cool instrument, isn't it? Sounds so easy on paper...