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Saxophone alto.jpg

The Saxophone[edit]

The saxophone, or sax, is a single-reed instrument, which comes in many different sizes: from sopranisimo (soprillo) to sub-contrabass. The four "main" members of the family are the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone (bari). Although it is almost exclusively made of brass, the sax is a member of the woodwind family. It has fingerings and mouthpiece similar to that of the clarinet, but with a conical bore. The small mouthpiece and short length of the soprano make this member susceptible to changes of the embouchure; therefore the pitch is widely variable and requires control and a well-developed sense of pitch (see ear training). Conversely, the tenor and bari saxes are somewhat easier to control, but the amount of air needed to produce a tone is much greater. The alto sax is a good beginning instrument because it is widely available, fits into small hands easily (that is, most 9-10 year-old children), and is the most popular.

Musical Styles[edit]

The saxophone can be used to play a variety of musical styles. Many modern wind ensembles will include 2 alto saxophone parts, 1 tenor saxophone part, and 1 baritone saxophone part. The lead alto saxophone player may also be asked to play soprano saxophone in more advanced literature. There are many classical pieces have been written for sax quartets, which consist of one tenor, one baritone, one alto and one soprano sax. In a quartet the four musicians usually play with just each other sans accompaniment. In the classical realm of study, the standard instrument is the alto sax, for which such standard pieces as the Creston Sonata have been written. Although the tenor is more commonplace than the soprano, there are quite a number of well-known and prolific artists that write for and perform on the soprano sax. No jazz band would be complete without a sax section, and in a standard jazz big band, the sax section consists of two altos, two tenors and one bari sax. The lead is the first alto, and the bulk of the solos go to the first tenor. For jazz in general, the sax is one of the most popular instruments in the art. Jazz legends such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Adderley, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond are (or were) sax players who had very unique styles of playing their saxes. Saxophones can also be used in many other styles of music such as rock, pop, smooth jazz, adult contemporary, and musical theater.

The Reed[edit]

The reed on the saxophone is very similar to that of the clarinet, but somewhat wider. The single reed vibrates against the mouthpiece when air is blown into it. Depending on the mouthpiece, reed, and ligature used, and also on the dimensions of the mouth and embouchure, a wide range of timbres (tone colors) can be produced. Reeds come in a wide variety of strengths and cuts, which vary from box to box and from manufacturer to manufacturer. For the beginner, a reed of strength 2 to 2.5 is normal. An intermediary to advanced setup would use a 3.5 (Vandoren) on a Selmer S80 C* (or C for tenor) mouthpiece (This is the "classic" setup, and works for both tenor and alto. It is used by many college institutions, and many private instructors use this). As the embouchure becomes stronger, higher strength reeds can be utilized. Generally, a stronger reed will be more in-tune throughout the range of the saxophone, and make playing the altissimo range possible. Using a higher strength reed will also affect the timbre, or tone, and can increase the overall volume. The softer the reed the easier the lower range, but in the upper register the reed may remain closed against the mouthpiece, not allowing the high notes to speak well or at all. The harder the reed the easier the higher notes will pop out but it will be more difficult to get the lower range out. Proper care of your reeds is very important. When not in use, take the reed off and keep it in a protector to prevent warping. A good reed keeper can be commercially acquired, or you can make one out of a glass microscope slide or cut plate glass (careful with the edges) and rubber bands. During periods where the reed will be left on in between playing, use a mouthpiece cap. This protects the reed both from accidental physical damage, keeps it moist for longer, and helps prevent the reed from cracking (by slowing down evaporation). It is important that while playing that the ENTIRE reed maintains its wetness. Before playing, soak the reed for about 2-3 minutes. Remember to wet the stock or back sides of the reed. There are many brands and strengths of reed from the performer to choose from. Players of all abilities are encouraged to try different brands, cuts and strengths. Although a reed may be called a "jazz reed," it could certainly be well suited for classical or rock playing.

There are many brands of saxophone reeds sold in music stores that musicians universally recognize as good quality reeds that can be used in a lot of styles. These brands include: Vandoren, Hemke, La Voz, and Rico Royals (not the generic Rico reeds in the orange box). There are other types of reeds available as well. Some players choose to use plastic reeds or plastic covered reeds. These reeds sound and can feel different from plain cane reeds. While some daring, experienced players use artificial reeds with good results, the tone of a good natural reed is usually superior to that of a plastic reed.

The Mouthpiece[edit]

The mouthpiece (sometimes abbr. MPC) is one of the most versatile and changeable item that can affect a performer's sound. Mouthpieces are made out of different materials including but not limited to plastic, hard rubber, and metal. Plastic (famously played by Charlie Parker) or hard rubber mouthpieces are more commonly used in classical settings although can be used for jazz, rock and pop style music as well. A metal mouthpiece is usually marketed only for jazz or rock styles, but depending on the opening they can also be suitable for classical playing. In general, the higher the opening of the tip, the softer the reed you must use, and the harder it is to play (correctly, with good tone). Once you have developed decent tone, branch out a bit and try as many mouthpieces as you can. Look at various professional player's setups, and see if you like them. You may want to seek assistance from a private music teacher or your school music teacher when looking for a mouthpiece. But most importantly: Try before you buy!

If you are a beginner and have an intermediate or professional saxophone, you may need to look into a different mouthpiece. Consider one of a few standard and widely-available choices as "step up" mouthpieces once the basics have been "mastered":

  • Selmer S80 C or C*
  • Yamaha 4CM
  • Meyer 4M
  • Rousseau 3R

The Ligature[edit]

The ligature, colloquially referred to as a lig, is yet another piece of the mouthpiece setup, and it does deserve some consideration. Because the sound is a result of the reed vibrating, you want to have a ligature that will let the reed vibrate efficiently. The ligature should apply even and symmetrical pressure on the reed. This is so that the reed can vibrate evenly, giving the player the clearest and most balanced possible sound. There are a variety of options to choose from. For most applications, the best, easiest, cheapest (~$12-25), and most widely available are canvas (marketed under the Rovner brand name) and metal ("Selmer style) ligatures.

A Final Note About Reeds, Mouthpieces and Ligatures[edit]

Selecting high-quality, hand-selected mouthpieces, ligatures and reeds that fit your playing level, style and mouth is the most important part of your setup (and probably the cheapest, too). A mouthpiece setup will sound similar on many different saxophones, whereas the same sax can sound drastically different with a different MPC/lig/reed setup. Even a beginning student should try several brands and sizes to see what is most comfortable. Buying a MPC/lig/reed setup that costs $150-300 and then buying a $700-1200 (used?) instrument is MUCH better than spending $850-1500 on an instrument and using the "free" mouthpiece that the sax comes with.

The Embouchure[edit]

The saxophone embouchure, when formed correctly, should feel natural and comfortable. When forming the embouchure, take the following steps:

1. Cover gently the lower teeth with the lower lip, and press gently against the reed.

2. Place your top teeth on the top (biteplate) of the mouthpiece. Do not bite hard!!

3. "Purse" the corners of your lips, and form an airtight seal around the mouthpiece.

4. Relax and blow easily (think warm, slow air).

Producing a tone[edit]

After practicing the embouchure as described above, and the resulting tone is not beautiful, try altering the firmness of your embouchure. Most likely you are biting too hard, especially if it sounds "choked," or you cannot produce a steady, moderate volume, in-tune pitch. The saxophone tone is not overly difficult to develop, but like all instruments improves with practice. Getting with a private instructor is the best method to ensure that your technique is correct, and to learn quickly.

Altissimo Register[edit]

It is possible to extend the range by about one octave into what is known as the altissimo register. After a few years of study, one can become very proficient. The notes that can be produced above the fundamental tone are called harmonics. Altissimo notes are harmonics that can be played using alternate / creative fingerings. For example, while playing a low Bb, try using your throat play a middle Bb while maintaining the low Bb fingering (don't pinch!). See how many harmonics you can make while fingering a low Bb. For further study, obtain an altissimo fingering chart. Note that fingerings will be different from one instrument to another, and also vary by the player. Learning altissimo note also helps develop your embouchure.

Mrzonules 20:46, 7 February 2007 (UTC)