Part 01 / Warm Up Exercise #3
For quite some time now I have been developing and playing several warm-up exercises. Some of my main goals have been to make the tessitura of the notes sound consistent throughout the full range of the horn, better wide interval response, pitch control, and getting the reed to vibrate more freely. Like many, I have spent time playing overtones to try and “open” my sound up. I find many of those exercises well and good however I did not find that they always were translating to when I wasn’t playing with overtone fingerings. How do I open my sound up consistently and eventually with little to no effort? I’m certainly still working on answering these questions however; I have found that the following exercise as well as several other I have been experimenting with and practicing have really helped me get much closer to the sound I’m hearing and the note and interval response I am striving to master.
Exercise #3 is all about the ear guiding the throat and tongue (or vocal tract) to make the right adjustments.
Just like singing and whistling, every note has a different throat and tongue position. One thing that makes the saxophone so unique to each player is that these same muscles are key ingredients in tone production and pitch manipulation. This is why you can often tell Coltrane from Getz in one note. Just like if you picked up the phone and heard “hello” spoken by someone you know well you would know right away who it was. It is our voice through the horn that the listener hears and how we communicate.
Brass players and flute players have to use these muscles effectively and accurately just to get the notes out! I’ve had several teachers show me the benefits of working with just the mouthpiece so I thought why not find an intermediate step between playing just the mouthpiece and playing the saxophone as it was intended to be played—with the keys.
Octave slurs are exactly what it sounds like except without using the octave key. With no octave key pressed, the player is forced to use the throat and tongue to make the leaps occur. This can prove very difficult in the mid and upper ranges of the horn. The focus here is anticipating the note coming up in the mind’s ear, then realizing the pitch by singing the note (no actual vocal chords touch!) through the instrument in order to engage the throat and tongue muscles to position themselves according to the desired pitch. If this is done correctly, the octave leap will occur while letting the reed vibrate at the same intensity as the starting pitch. That last sentence is super important. It’s part of the whole reason this exercise can be so beneficial. Often when doing octave slurs the player will tighten the embouchure in order to get the upper octave to sound. This will cause the vibration of the reed to be stifled and results in a more covered and thin sound than the starting lower pitch. One could argue that there is a percentage of this happening when we play with the octave key but I have found that minimizing any pinching or inhibiting the reed in any way will result in a more even tessatura throughout the horn and dramatically open up the sound. Many of my favorite players like Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Chris Potter, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker exhibit constancy in all ranges of the horn when it comes to sound. With these players, the reed vibrates freely and after all isn’t that what we play...the reed?
One of my favorite teachers would tell me almost on a daily basis that “everything we do is ear training”. With this exercise we learn how to start communicating through the instrument and begin realizing ideas. We begin or strengthen the aural and tactile connection. We learn to get “inside” the sound. We also learn (what another great teacher told me many times) to “play the reed and not the saxophone”.
How To Play This Exercise...
I must begin by saying that I do play this exercise on tenor saxophone and for the tenor this is a somewhat comfortable range. This exercise is in the key of F for Bb tenor saxophone. This will vary on other instruments. I believe saxophonists should be able to play this exercise on their primary horn.
I have set up notation using whole notes in 4/4 time however you can ignore that and play as slowly or quickly is appropriate to you level. I would suggest playing this very slowly for quite some time before picking up the tempo. One of the goals is to learn to anticipate the following note so take your time. Playing this extremely slow is often more difficult than a more moderate tempo. For some real fun with anticipating at a slow pace check out “Warm-Up Exercise #4” when it is available.
Measures containing two notes should be played as overtones with the lowest note fingered while sounding the upper note.
First thing I do...
Put a pitch reference or drone on set to Eb concert. I use web metronome.com/piano and click on Eb(5) on the flash piano. This gives me a constant Eb concert as my reference for singing and playing in tune. This is also is ear training of course.
Sing each pitch before you play it!
I wasn't a huge fan of singing until I started getting real results in terms of my playing and musicianship so just power through the singing if you’re reluctant. Sing each pitch with the “too” syllable. This syllable gets the sides of your tongue up and touching the your back molars. Air will travel more efficiently through a more focused opening shaped by your tongue. Your throat will also form a shape more suited to moving the air efficiently. Woodwind guru Joe Allard taught using the “too” syllable and there is a great video of him talking about and explaining why to use this syllable.
With the “too” syllable sing the first note of the exercise matching Eb concert sounded by the drone. Try to match the exact octave if you can. Do not move on until you are in tune with the drone. Play the first note also using the “too” syllable. Do not use your tongue to start the note or the octave key. Play this note and every note as you go through the exercise using the “too” syllable, with no tongue, and until it is in tune! It becomes more of an “oo” syllable if you are not using your tongue to start the note. Sing the second note the same way and then play the first note to the second note using only your throat and tongue to make the leap happen. Try this a couple of ways.
Try to slowly let the pitch drop from the upper note to the lower note all the while controlling it on the way down. This is like weight lifting for you vocal tract muscles (throat and tongue) and will
improve your flexibility with pitch and be useful for better response with larger leaps. Also try to get the leap to occur as if you were using the octave key. Make it sound like you’re turning on and off a light switch. The light on is the higher octave and the light off is the lower octave. It’s not a dimmer switch so there is no in between on and off or high and low octave.
Continue singing each new note before you play it. I will often return to singing the drone (Eb concert) and then sing the new note I have added so that train my ear to hear the interval created between the two notes.
When you get to the overtone fingerings you want to play pitch notated above the lower note while fingering the lower note. Slur from the overtone to the next note which is often the lower note you are already fingering. Practice the same two ways of slurring from one note to the next. First try letting the pitch drop slowly from the overtone to the lower octave and then try doing it as if you had the octave key on.
Hear comes a challenge...
When you get to the overtones that are two octaves above the note you are fingering practice slurring into the overtone from the preceding pitch as well as to the proceeding pitch. It is difficult to slur an octave leap and pressing the overtone fingering. What works (but still takes lots of practice) is using your throat to help jump start the higher octave with the overtone fingering. There is a slight attack created by the throat when you sing (not actual singing) the higher octave through the horn. This is often referred to as a “Ka” attack or throat attack. Donald Sinta speaks of this in his book on altissimo and voicing. There is no tongue touching the reed in this type of attack. Often a small gap between the two notes will result from using the throat attack. Once you can successfully go from the lower octave to the upper octave with the overtone fingering using the throat attack it is now a matter of refining the attack slightly to make it less explosive and working for speed between the two notes so it sounds slurred.
The real point of the throat attack is exactly that...to use your throat! Your ear has to be engaged and guiding your throat and tongue position in order to successfully do these leaps without the tongue and slurred. By using your throat and tongue position (still slurred) to make the pitch sound rather than you fingers (for the most part) you gain the control needed to be consistent with pitch and sound or tessitura through all ranges of the horn as well as learn how to let the reed vibrate freely. I can't stress that last point enough. Letting the reed vibrate freely consistently throughout the horn is one big factor in getting what many would consider a better sound. Remember we play the reed and not the saxophone!
Things to listen for... Ask yourself: Is my pitch consistent? Am I really playing these octaves in tune?
Even though I am not using the octave key, are all of the notes in the upper register speaking with the same openness as the notes in the lower register?
When not using the octave key this is tricky. I have found the ability to get my notes to speak and the reed vibrating the same way without the octave key as with the octave key has really helped me to craft my sound and get much closer to the sound I am really hearing. This exercise and exercises like it have been the most beneficial to me when it comes to realizing the sound I want.
Try mixing up the exercise by changing the direction of the line. Everyday I try to trick myself by jumping up or down octaves in a different pattern than I did the first time I played the exercise or how I did it the day before. It’s good to work on your ability to anticipate the next pitch in a more conditioned manner like when you play the same sequences of pitches over and over but also be able to anticipate a sequence that is less familiar. Switch things up and challenge yourself!
Several more exercises and VIDEOS to come but this should get you started. Happy practicing!