Perhaps the most captivating thing about a great classical saxophone performance is the player’s tone quality. A clear, beautiful and consistent tone is something we all strive for but how do you start to develop this if you are new to the classical style of playing?
Go to the source
As with learning most things, the best first step is to go to the source. And with classical saxophone that means taking time to research the “Master Players” who founded the classical tradition. The two founding classical saxophonist artists in my opinion are the French player Marcel Mule, and Sigurd Rascher from the German school of playing.
As a young player, I discovered Marcel Mule’s recordings through a private instructor I was studying with at the time. Mule’s sound and style became the foundation of my tone concept.
“The “pure” classical saxophone sound is very much inspired by other instruments in the orchestra.”
It’s interesting to note that Marcel Mule was really the first classical player to experiment with the use of vibrato on the saxophone. Early in his career he played with no vibrato, and then after hearing vibrato used in jazz music, began to apply the technique in his classical playing after being asked by an orchestral conductor to “vibrate”. The technique of vibrato as an expressive element in the sound is something that has become a cornerstone of the classical saxophone tone quality and tradition.
Checkout our article blog article on Marcel Mule.
There are a number of recordings available of both Mule and Rascher. It’s very interesting to hear the differences in their concept of sound, musical interpretation, and overall performing technique.
In order to develop a concept of a traditional classical tone quality, you don’t need to be limited by listening to only saxophone recordings. The “pure” classical saxophone sound is very much inspired by other instruments in the orchestra. Students who are interested in exploring the classical saxophone sound may also be influenced by world-class recordings of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, and cello artists for examples of a controlled “pure” classical tone.
Listening to other great classical performers is not only inspiring, but we can absorb a concept of what the classical sound tradition is so we can then begin to apply it on our own instrument.
Getting the right gear
In order to develop a “pure tone” it’s imperative to make sure you have quality equipment. As well as the most basic prerequisite of a horn that seals properly, it’s essential to have a mouthpiece that’s not too closed or too open. Additionally, you need to have a reed that’s not too soft or too hard. The ultimate goal is to have a horn and mouthpiece setup that gives you the freedom to create the tone quality you have in your head and doesn’t color your sound in an unnatural manner.
It’s always a good idea to take advice from your teacher or local saxophone specialist when choosing a setup to make sure you’re on the right track.
A great classical sound comes from excellent control of both the embouchure, the area of the throat, and the airstream.
We are all familiar with long tone exercises and their benefits. These are very important daily warm up techniques to achieve a classical sound with a rich mixture of overtones (lows, middles, and highs) and a definite focus on consistency (evenness) of tone over the full range of the saxophone.
“Great breath control and a relaxed/open throat capable of changing position are important for a consistent classical tone on saxophone.”
The successful performance attitude and tradition for classical wind instrument playing is to always keep your richest possible classical sound in mind when working on long tones and strive for a pure and even tone on each and every note in all registers. To develop a great classical sound on saxophone you will need to have consistent control over every aspect of each note: richness of tone, intonation, evenness of tone quality, attacks, and releases. Focus on each note individually during long tone practice with this in mind.
Although we breathe all day every day without thinking about it, when applying the concepts of inhalation and exhalation to saxophone performance we need to concentrate on taking full breaths as opposed to shallow and learn to control the exhalation process.
Rather than forcing the air out from the abdomen which can lead to a constricted/closed throat, it’s better to relax and allow the air to flow for a more consistently free and open tone. Great breath control and a relaxed/open throat capable of changing position are important for a consistent classical tone on saxophone.
As your saxophone skills develop, it’s important to be aware that the technique of playing should be allowed to serve the tone quality and musical line. Although it’s common to fall into the trap of thinking of tone and technique as two separate aspects, world-class artists achieve consistent/even tone quality throughout their technical practice.
It’s easy to work on long tones and focus on sound but then lose awareness of these elements when concentrate on fingerings in technical passages. Tone quality, musical artistry, and technique need to be completely intertwined.
“I like to teach beginner students the chromatic scale as soon as possible to assist in the development of this concept.”
For this reason, one of my favourite exercises is to combine the above concepts by playing the full-range chromatic scale. The player is able to practice the entire instrument’s range using chromatic fingerings for F# and A# while keeping the tone consistent throughout all registers.
I like to teach beginner students the chromatic scale as soon as possible to assist in the development of this concept. Once there is a certain consistency of tone control on the instrument in the middle register, the student may then progress toward applying that evenness of tone to all registers.
The chromatic scale also gives the student an excellent opportunity to iron out any glitches in finger technique. Strive to be constantly aware of evenness of fingers and sound over difficult technical transitions such as the break (between middle c and octave d), in the palm keys, and in the lower register C – Bb.
Incorporating chromatic alternative fingerings is a great technical tool while maintaining consistency/evenness of tone quality.
Start simply. Remember this chromatic exercise is about connecting your tone and technique. Begin by playing at a tempo where you are able to master both, even if that is in whole notes or half notes. Progress in speed as you are able with the ultimate goal of playing the chromatic scale over the entire range fluently in both technique and tone.
In my own practice I play chromatic scales every day. To get my technique moving I spend time burning up and down chromatic scales, but never at the expense of tone quality!!
In interviews, Marcel Mule often talked about “la sonorité” – the quality of the tone. In my opinion, that and tasteful musical interpretation was the thing that drove him over and above everything else. He had an incredible technique but never at the expense of a beautiful sound. That is the nirvana that we all strive for as classical saxophonists.
Todd suggests listening to:
Marcel Mule Saxophone Quartet
Marcel Mule’s solo albums these have been re-released on the Clarinet Classics label
Download this: The Chromatic Scale worksheet