Are there physical attributes that make one person more successful at playing the saxophone than another? In a word, no. A fuller bottom lip may need to be tucked farther over the bottom teeth, and an underbite or overbite will require some adjustment of the top teeth on the mouthpiece, but I have never felt a student was further ahead or behind based upon physical attributes. . . .
Weeelll. Yes. And No. It is easy to produce a sound on a saxophone. That is part of its popularity. Seldom does a student not produce a sound in the first lesson. . . . And therein lies part of the challenge for the saxophone. It plays too easily. . . . The saxophone will respond to a wimpy puff of air—and will sound like it. Developing a good tone means developing a good ear that demands the necessary air speed to create that sound. . . .
Good question. The only real limitation is size. Most children between ten and twelve are able to hold the alto around their necks and reach the basic keys. They are also mature enough to follow instructions and be aware of motor control. The alto is by far the most common of the saxophones for beginners. The tenor will work if the student is a little bigger or older. By age fourteen, most students are big enough to play the baritone if it is called for in their school bands. . . .
It is best to start a student on a mouthpiece with a medium tip opening and medium facing. The tip opening is the distance between the tip of the reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. The facing refers to the curve between the tip of the mouthpiece and the place where the mouthpiece and the reed meet, called the fulcrum. The bigger the tip opening or the longer the facing, the harder it is to control the mouthpiece and the louder the potential sound the mouthpiece will produce. This configuration also usually requires a softer reed. The smaller the tip opening and the shorter the facing, the easier the sound is to control and the smaller and softer the sound. This configuration also usually requires a harder reed. . . .
Many problems can surface when playing staccato that may be masked during legato play. A slight movement in the jaw or back of the tongue, for instance, or a slight squeezing of the embouchure at the beginning of each note. Any of these movements will result in a slight change in the pitch or tone of each note as it is produced. Again, have the student play the staccato notes without using the tongue. If doing so eliminates the extra movement, the student should work for a time without the tongue in front of a mirror, and then gradually add the tongue, concentrating on not adding any movement.
If there is still movement without the tongue, then another step back is needed to the simple initiation of the tone. Describe the embouchure as putting on a mask. The mask doesn’t move. It is solid. You blow air through the mask, but the main job of the mask (face and throat and embouchure) is to support the reed optimally, to deliver air to the reed, and that is all.
Have the student blow air out of the mouth without the saxophone while watching in the mirror. . . .
The technique just described can also be used very successfully in dealing with another problem that will appear from time to time in a student who comes to you with prior experience, that being the glottal attack, when the back of the throat emits an ooommmph at the beginning of each note. The back of the throat comes up, the glottal comes down, and the throat is partially blocked off. When the student blows, and releases this back-of-the-throat constriction, a burst of air comes shooting at the reed, and it begins vibrating immediately. However, in addition to the unpleasant sound from the back of the throat, there is no air support behind this initial burst, so the sound immediately dies. It is not an easy habit to remove, but the above routine can take care of the problem if the student works at it daily. Further development will be curtailed until this glottal attack is removed.
All kinds of jokes abound about saxophonists and pitch. There are challenges. But again the weakness is also the strength. This incredible control over the pitch allows the horn to be played perfectly in tune as the well-trained ear controls embouchure pressure and the use of alternate fingerings. Jazz players long ago discovered its flexibility in bending and massaging the pitch as an expressive aspect of jazz performance.
Part of the challenge arises as a result of the mechanism. As you know, if you have experimented with playing harmonics on a guitar string, a harmonic producing an octave is achieved when you divide the vibrating string exactly in half. The same holds true for a vibrating column of air. A perfect octave is produced if the vibrating column of air is divided exactly in two. With twelve notes to the octave, this would require twelve octave keys, a mechanical impossibility. The saxophone incorporates two octave vents. . . .
This compromise does largely contribute, however, to the pitch challenges that saxophonists face. . . .
I will deal with the major pitch tendencies that should be drawn to a student’s attention. Pitch is always the responsibility of the player. Early on I encourage students to think like a violinist, who always has full control of the pitch through subtle finger placement. Saxophonists have a button to push, but that does not produce the exact correct pitch. It just gets them close. Playing perfectly in tune requires subtle adjustment for each note. . .
If students are having trouble with notes not speaking, especially as they go down the horn, chances are they have one or more leaky pads. A leak light will confirm this, and the work I’m going to describe here really can’t be done without a leak light. If one side of the pad is sealing and the other side is leaking, the key is slightly bent. First check the bases of the posts these keys are connected to, making sure there are no bends or dents causing the keys to be out of alignment. I also like to take the neckpiece off and look down the inside wall of the body. If the horn has been dropped or knocked off a chair, there may not be visible dents, but by looking down the inside you may see that the body is bending to one side or the other. In either case, the horn will need to be sent to a qualified repairman for some major work. If no damage is visible, you can adjust the key back to being flat with a couple of simple tools.
Vibrato is a normal part of the saxophone tone for classical playing and is used for embellishment in jazz. Vibrato can be introduced as soon as the tone is steady: that is, when the lip placement and use of the air are consistent enough to produce a controlled sound that does not fluctuate in pitch or volume. Some students will pick up the sound of the vibrato from their teacher or other players they listen to and will just begin to use it on their own. If their ear is good, chances are they will produce it correctly. Occasionally they will find other ways to produce this sound, and you will have to adjust the technique.
There are different ways to produce vibrato on different instruments. On the saxophone, we use a pitch vibrato. . . .