We all know that tone is important – everyone talks about it, but how do we actually get a better saxophone tone?
Of course there are so many elements to developing a better saxophone tone. Breathing, posture and throat position are all so important but how about your fitness?
Specifically I’m talking about your embouchure fitness.
I like to think about practicing saxophone the same way you might think about training for a sport. You have to stay in shape. You have to maintain your body.
If you play football or rugby, chances are you’re going to be spending some time pounding the pavement and in the gym. Strength and fitness helps you to perform better on the field. The same can be said of any sport – even table tennis!
In the practice room, as sax players we need to be maintaining our embouchure strength because this, along with a good concept of throat position, breathing and posture, will “free us up” to play with the tone and control we need.
So how do we work on the fitness as sax players?
A couple of suggestions
The tried and tested method of long tones is generally the default exercise that is suggested, but let’s be honest – they can be pretty boring. And because of this, I think most of us don’t get as much out of long tone practice as we could.
I’m a big of combining skills in the practice room to make your saxophone “workout” more fun and efficient. Here are a couple of exercises that you can use in your practice routine to build fitness. Do these right and you will see a massive improvement in the quality of your sound and the strength of your embouchure.
Play something nice
Ok, this sounds too simple to be true, but have you ever considered just playing a beautiful melody, slowly?
I can remember when I was studying at the Queensland Conservatorium in Australia years ago, everyone was working on playing faster and higher than the next person.
I think we are all guilty of doing that at some point. However, taking the time to play slowly through a beautiful long melody can be a great workout. And if you do it right, will absolutely test your embouchure.
Using a melody that has large intervals works best. Think about the melodic shape of The Christmas Song or Misty. Somewhere Over the Rainbow is another good one, or if you like show tunes, why not try Bali Ha’i from South Pacific.
Use your tuner, go super slow, and if you want an extra challenge, try playing the melody in a few different keys. You’ll be working on your tuning, tone and transposition, plus making your neighbours happy at the same time!
Spruce up your scales
Another exercise I’ve been really enjoying lately is playing through scales in intervals. If you ever went through your music grades, chances are you played scales in thirds. Why not take this a step further and work on your major scales in 4ths, 5ths, 6ths and 7ths?
The great thing about this exercise is that you can start easily by choosing a single scale and a single interval. You have enough options to keep you busy for months!
Always start slowly and for an extra challenge use your tuner to check your pitch. Spending 5 minutes playing through a major scale in 6ths over your whole range will do amazing things not only for your embouchure fitness, but also your intonation. It’s also brilliant for your ear-to-finger skills and you will see this benefit in your improvising.
Not-so-boring long tones
If you do want to practice long tones, you can do a couple things to make it more fun. Firstly, work on your dynamics at the same time. Try a crescendo for 8 counts followed by a diminuendo for 8 counts. Keep the beat slow and use your tuner. Even the best players will find that a massive challenge if it’s done right.
Also don’t forget to use your whole range. Playing this simple exercise on low Bb or High F# is a gruelling exercise!
Check out the YouTube channel for more great hints and tips on long tones
The best physical fitness routine is one that you do every day, or at least a 3 to 5 times a week. The point is, you have to be consistent to see real improvement and get a better saxophone tone (and not feel guilty about the beers and curry on Friday night!).
When it comes to learning saxophone, the same thing is true. Adopt a “workout” mentality with your practice routine and fit one of these exercises in each session. Do it right and you will definitely see your embouchure fitness improve.
Go for it!