When players come to me to work on their tone, I first check how freely and fully the reed vibrates. Most problems with tone and pitch originate from a reed that is not fully vibrating.
To better understand what makes the reed vibrate, I start the tone in the middle of an exhalation. Most players are unsure what causes the reed to vibrate when played like this. Exercises in Freeing Your Breath and Release The Breath To Produce A Tone help develop an understanding of getting a sound from the middle of an exhalation.
Steven Jordheim, at Lawrence University, using endoscopic recordings of the larynx when producing various sound on a saxophone, show that the vocal folds come together when making a sound, similar to when we sing. You can view videos of this on his website, The Saxophonist Anatomy (http://www2.lawrence.edu/fast/jordheis/).
Since there are no sensory nerves in the throat, you cannot feel what happens in the larynx when you make a sound but feel the result. I jokingly refer to this as “the throat thingy.”
Like other actions, we notice more and have greater control when we relax the throat, tongue, embouchure, and jaw. Intentionally closing or opening the throat adds unnecessary effort and diminishes your awareness of what to do.
Play a note going from air to tone. Release a lungful of air through the mouthpiece, which takes about one second. If you cannot do this, revisit the exercises in Freeing Your Breath and Release The Breath To Produce A Tone.
Produce a tone in the middle of your exhalation, like a breath attack. The tone will kick in if the larynx, tongue, and throat are free. Play breath attacks this way throughout the range of the instrument, using scales or arpeggios. I recommend starting in the middle register where the instrument responds easiest.
Your throat is probably tight if you cannot readily produce a sound. The looser you play and the more air you use, the sound will respond quickly and easily. This is an effective way to loosen up your throat, tongue, and embouchure.
Don’t worry about your tone quality. This exercise is about getting the reed to fully vibrate, which sounds uncontrolled and even ugly. Allow the pitch to go flat and sound loud. Whoosh – Plaaaah! The tone may sound like the very first note you ever played on a saxophone! Trying to make an attractive or controlled sound negates the benefits of the exercise, which is to get the reed to vibrate as much as possible.
If you still find it challenging to loosen your throat, part your lips with a soft, flat, fat tongue without the instrument, like a baby’s tongue. Notice that your face, jaw, and throat will relax when you do this.
You can play up and down the horn with long breath attacks to sense how a small, almost unperceivable change in your throat powerfully kicks in the reed to vibrate. Your airstream will be free and even.
Tone quality is addressed in other parts of the SaxCoach site. Right now, just get the reed to vibrate like crazy. Let go of your inclination to control your sound. Simply move a lot of air and do “the throat thingy.”
This is a great exercise to add to your warm-up routine.
Related videos, articles, and exercises:
A Fully Vibrating Reed is Part 3 of three-part series on the breath.
Part 1. Freeing Your Breath
Part 2. Release The Breath To Produce A Tone
© 2019, Steve Duke