The saxophone is capable of a huge range of sounds spanning from Ben Webster’s warm and lush tone to late-Coltrane’s powerful and strident approach.
The low register of the saxophone is, in some ways, more powerful and louder than the other registers of the horn and tends to exaggerate certain elements in the sound. That’s true whether you’re going for a warm round sound like Webster’s or a more punchy and intense one like later Trane.
This kind of potential comes with its own unique challenges, and saxophone players often struggle to master the low tones. Some common problems include a stuffy or dead sound, notes sounding an octave higher than intended, bad intonation, and difficulty articulating. These problems are generally the result of a few common pitfalls, which can be avoided with some effort.
Supporting Your Tone
Proper air pressure is vital to a healthy sound when playing low notes on a saxophone. Nearly all of the problems mentioned above can result from taking shallow chest breaths. Two stomach muscles sets play into blowing out air, your intercostal muscles and your abdominals. Between the two stomach muscles, your abdominal muscles are much bigger and more powerful, and they do the job better and more efficiently.
This means when breathing in and playing low notes on saxophone, you have to:
- Lower your diaphragm and keep an open throat. This helps you push all the air out fully and quickly, increases the air pressure in your lungs, and gives your abdominals something to push up against.
- Focus on filling your lungs from the bottom up when you breathe in. You should immediately feel the air flow building up in your lower abdominal area. This lets you know you are engaging your diaphragm, resulting in a fuller and easier to control sound while playing low notes on saxophone or any wind instrument. In contrast, blowing out should feel somewhat effortless. In other words, the most important part when you play low notes on saxophone is to breathe in.
Focusing on breathing is a quick way to improve your low notes while benefiting the rest of your playing as well
Starting Point: Low B-flat
If you spend some time in the lower notes , you’ll soon realize that B-flat is possibly the richest sounding note on the horn, probably because it uses the whole horn. As long as your setup isn’t too extreme and you are breathing correctly, you should be able to achieve a big vibrant sound when you play bottom notes like B-flat at a medium to loud volume.
While you play, make sure to keep your embouchure in control. Keep your embouchure firm and shoulders relaxed. The corners of your mouth should stay flat relative to the reed with consistent relaxed pressure. Try comparing B-flat to its closest neighbor like low B, and you will likely notice a difference in timbre and in how it feels.
Generally, a low note like B-flat is more vibrant and feels a bit less resistant. Try to keep your embouchure control as you play B-flat. Don’t let the sides of the bottom lip come in towards the mouthpiece or up. Continue the process, comparing the other lowest notes to B-flat and maintaining the embouchure control. This will go a long way to improving your tone quality and the ease of playing low tones in the lower octave, particularly for the notes B up through E.
Using the Overtone Above
Having dealt with air support and embouchure, we also need to address voicing, which is the shaping of your oral cavity. Often our default voicing for any given note is not optimal, and generally we err on the side of too open a voicing resulting in a less colorful timbre.
A quick way to improve your voicing on a specific low note like low C and low D is to play the overtone above it and slur back down into the original note. You’ll arrive back to the starting pitch with an improved tongue and throat position, which accelerates the air stream and allows your embouchure to stay in its more relaxed form.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with overtones, they are the higher pitches that are possible over a given fingering. For example, when holding the B-flat fingering it is possible to make B-flat an octave higher sound, then the F above that, then the next B-flat above that, etc. Overtones are generally a fantastic way to work on voicing and develop your sound.
For this particular exercise, a good sequence would be to start on low notes like B-flat. I find that the most efficient approach is to play the starting note, slur up the octave to the overtone above without using the octave key, and then slur back down, all within one breath. Once you’ve done this exercise a couple of times and achieved a beautiful and vibrant B-flat, move up to B and go through the same process.
Again, focus on maintaining the more relaxed and correct embouchure position you achieve on B-flat. As you continue upwards chromatically, occasionally check in with B-flat to make sure you are maintaining the same ease of playing and rich sound. If you are, then you are well on your way towards your best tone and response in the low register, and the proof is in the sound.
About the author:
Ben Britton is the author of the “Complete Approach” series, in-depth studies on sound and overtones, and a blog, Everything Saxophone. His books have been endorsed by the likes of Dave Liebman and Ben Wendel. He is also a composer and performer and has played at major venues throughout the U.S. www.everythingsaxophone.blogspot.com.