Producing the First Note 1: Posture
Posture (Click to expand)
When working to improve posture, first put the instrument aside. Sit in a chair with your hips a few inches away from the back. Staying relaxed, try to balance the head evenly above the shoulders, and the shoulders evenly above the hips. By doing this, one should feel the posture become even and tall, without any additional tension or discomfort. Always avoid the phrase “Sit up straight,” because the spine and shoulders should have some natural curve. Often, students will try to exaggerate good posture by arching the back, which creates tension in the spine and can limit breathing.
Now, the student is ready to add the instrument. The teacher should stand behind the student with his or her hands on the student’s shoulders, to show if the student is moving from the great posture created in the previous paragraph. The saxophone is a very ergonomic instrument, so the student should now be able to raise the instrument to their mouth without moving the head, shoulders, or waist. Two common mistakes to look for are “taco neck” (when the mouthpiece is crooked and the student cocks his or her head at and angle to reach the reed as if taking a bite out of a taco) and “chicken head” (where the weight on the neckstrap pulls the head forward like a chicken pecking). Always bring the instrument to you, rather than you to the instrument; if the mouthpiece, neck, or neckstrap are not in the correct place, they are easily adjustable. Depending on the height of the student, some saxophonists choose to play alto saxophone between the knees, and others slant it to the right side. To decide, have the student put the instrument between the knees; if the curve of the bell touches the chair, that student would be better suited playing to the side. Tenor and baritone saxophonists almost always play to the side, and soprano almost always between the knees.
The hands should fall relaxed onto the instrument with a natural curl to the fingers. The space in the hand should be as if the student is holding a large lemon. The fingers contact the pearls of the keys on the pads of the fingers, rather than the fingertips. The wrists should be straight and relaxed to avoid any tension or pain. Some students will have a tendency to squeeze with the palms of the hands, which can open side keys and palm keys accidentally. With good posture and relaxed carry position, the student will be primed for an excellent breath and perfect sound.
Producing the First Note 2: Breathing
Breathing (Click to expand)
Teaching a new woodwind student to breathe presents some particular challenges. Some aspects of musicianship (i.e. embouchure, intonation, etc.) are unfamiliar and thus the student will not have any bad habits; however, everyone has many years of experience breathing, but wind instruments require a very intentional and specific breath technique. The common breath has two main problems: the inhalation does not fill the lungs completely, and the exhalation happens too quickly. The following can be helpful to the educator attempting to correct these breathing mistakes.
The main goal of the inhalation is to allow air to pass into the lungs as efficiently and in as great a quantity as possible. To create an efficient breath, the body must be relaxed. Any tension (especially in the neck, shoulders, and back) will create resistance, narrowing the air passage and slowing the rate of inhalation. Students will often naturally raise their shoulders in an attempt to force the air into their lungs. Encourage the student to breathe once with tension in the shoulders and again without, and compare the amount of air he or she was able to take in; it is much easier to feel the difference in efficacy than to have it explained. Commonly, we tend to think of our lungs as balloons that fill up with air evenly, but the lungs actually function more as a system of caves. Air enters the lungs from the trachea through the bronchi and is contained in the lungs in small passageways called alveoli; as the alveoli fill, they expand and restrict air from traveling past. In layman’s terms, if one takes a high breath (where only the chest expands but not the abdomen), it prevents air from being able to enter the lowest parts of the lungs. It can be helpful to picture the lungs as a small bottle of shampoo, being filled from a much larger bottle. If the filler looks away for a moment and the shampoo touches the rim of the small bottle, it will stick and fill the opening, not allowing any more shampoo to reach the bottom of the bottle. However, if the stream of shampoo goes straight through the opening and never touches the sides, the bottle will fill efficiently from bottom to top without spilling or sticking. The lungs effectively work the same way- if air passes straight through the bronchi to the lowest alveoli, the lungs will fill efficiently and completely without resistance. Again, I would encourage students to try breathing both ways to feel the difference—place the hands on the chest to take a high breath, and then on the abdomen to take a low breath.
Exhalation has two primary factors: volume and speed. A large volume of air should always be used, as this will produce a good and supported tone. The player may then vary the speed of the airstream to change the dynamic level without compromising sound. Another helpful image is the plumbing in a house; even though you can turn the sink nozzle up or down (speed) the water pressure in the pipes (volume) always remains constant. The most important technique for a student to learn is how to produce a consistent, steady stream of air. One of the best ways to practice air support is to blow on a pinwheel, because the speed of its rotation gives a visual representation of the air speed. Any surges or dips in the airspeed will be reflected in a change in the speed of the spinning pinwheel. This exercise is also excellent to help a student who is running out of air too quickly; timing the duration the pinwheel is in motion, the student can have a concrete measure of his or her progress, and in group lessons or rehearsals the teacher can set up a friendly competition. With practice, a student can learn the differences between a common breath and efficient breath for wind playing; good breathing can enhance every aspect of performance, including intonation, tone, balance, control, and many more.
Producing the First note 3: EMbouchure
Embouchure (Click to expand)
The embouchure of the saxophone can be broken down into three primary components: the lower lip and teeth, the upper lip and teeth, and the tongue. The lower lip should form a firm cushion over the teeth to create a firm but pliable contact point on the reed. Imagine the way the lower lip rolls over the teeth when saying the letter “F.” Now, bring the corners of the lips in as if saying the syllable “oo.” Without moving the lips, combine those syllables into “foo” to create the perfect lower lip position. This cushion will be applied to the reed with only enough upward pressure from the jaw to set the reed in motion.
To find the proper position of the upper teeth, one must locate the “takeoff point,” where the reed leaves the rails of the mouthpiece. This is most easily done by placing an index card between the reed and the mouthpiece and letting it slip down until it stops. Place your fingernail in the same place on the mouthpiece opposite the reed, and put the mouthpiece in your mouth with your teeth touching your fingernail. This is the ideal placement of the upper teeth. Now just allow your upper lip to relax onto the mouthpiece to create a seal only strong enough so air does not leak out.
The position of the tongue is often the most neglected aspect of the saxophone embouchure. Because it functions entirely internally, it can be very difficult for a teacher to diagnose. Imagine saying the letter “E.” The tongue will naturally arch and move forward towards the hard palette. By comparison, when saying the letter “O” the tongue will move to the bottom of the mouth and create a large, wide-open oral cavity. Imagine the column of air from the lungs is water running through a hose. In order for the water to spray a long distance, one must cover the end of the hose with one’s thumb, compressing the opening through with the water can pass and forcing it to accelerate. By arching the tongue, the saxophonist can create the same effect on the air and accelerate it through the instrument. Fast air through the saxophone helps produce even tone, response, and intonation. These three main components of the embouchure will work together to help the reed vibrate in a freely and neatly.
Producing the First note 4: Articulation
Articulation (Click to expand)
To achieve a clear articulation on a single reed instrument, the reed should be sealed off with the tip of the tongue, and then removed quickly to create definition in the sound. Articulation on the saxophone can be likened to the handle on a sink faucet. When one turns on the water in the sink, it doesn’t take any time for the water to arrive at the faucet; the water pressure is already built up behind the faucet, and the handle only removes the seal and allows the water to pass through. Similarly, many students make the mistake of beginning to push air through the instrument only after they have removed their tongue from the reed, but this can result in a fuzzy or football-shaped articulation. By building up the air pressure while the tongue seals the tip of the reed, the air is already in motion and the note will speak immediately.
One common mistake is to reach forward for the reed with the tongue and make contact with the flat surface of the reed. This harms the sound in several ways. First, the core of the reed will stop vibrating before the tip, and can result in an unclear “thuh thuh” sound. To compensate for this, students will often pull the tongue off the reed with force, creating suction and causing the reed to slap against the mouthpiece rails (this technique is called a “slap tongue”). Lastly, reaching forward with the tongue forces it out of the ideal “EE” voicing position, which can cause problems with tone, intonation, and response. To avoid this mistake, the student should focus on touching only the tip of the reed with only the front of the tongue (imagine the front taste buds on your tongue, the sector which perceives sweetness) at a perpendicular angle. This keeps the tongue arched, prevents the possibility of creating suction on the reed, and will lead to an excellent, clear articulation.
Circular Breathing (Click to expand)
Circular breathing is a technique which allows a wind instrument player to continue to play while breathing. This is achieved by allowing air into the cheeks, which the player then squeezes into the instrument while breathing in through the nose. If done correctly, there will be no interruption in the sound. It is critical that the player use sufficient air pressure from the cheeks, in order for the instrument’s sound to remain consistent.
When learning to circular breathe, certain equipment choices can make the process easier. The more back pressure the instrument has, the easier it is to maintain the air pressure necessary to keep the instrument resonating. For this reason, I recommend starting on soprano or alto saxophone, as it is much more difficult to circular breathe on tenor or baritone. Likewise, a classical mouthpiece’s thinner tip with create more back pressure than that of a jazz mouthpiece.
An excellent exercise to practice starts by buzzing the lips like a trumpet player. First, puff out your cheeks and poke them to release some air. This is the mechanism we will use to squeeze the air out of the cheeks to free up our lungs. While you are poking your cheeks, breathe freely through your nose. Now, instead of using your hands, force the air out of your mouth using the muscles in your cheeks. Again, breathe freely through the nose. Now time your breathing so that you are inhaling through the nose each time you squeeze air out of your cheeks, then exhale normally. The last step is to connect the exhale and inhale fluidly, so the buzzing of the lips never stops.
You can also practice this technique with a glass of water and a straw. The water makes an excellent visual aid to make sure the airstream remains consistent. Once the transition between inhale and exhale are even, now transition to the instrument. It feels natural to lower the tongue when expanding the cheeks; fight this urge! This will lower the pitch and slow the airstream, causing problems with response. If anything, the tongue should be arched in a more aggressive “E” voicing in order to maintain the airspeed while the cheeks are puffed. Another pitfall to be aware of is a surge in the air when switching back to diaphragm breath, which can cause a bump in the sound. Strive for consistency of tone and intonation in order to achieve the perfect circular breathing technique.