Exercises for Developing a Great Jazz Saxophone Tone

By Tracy Heavner

Share This:

Developing a great jazz tone is one of the most important aspects in learning to play the saxophone. In addition to a properly formed embouchure, there are several other factors that also play an important role in tone production. Proper breathing technique, optimal tongue position, playing with an open, flexible throat, and the ability to play overtones are skills that are essential in producing an excellent jazz saxophone sound. By becoming aware of these factors and practicing exercises that improve their mastery, jazz saxophonists should be able to greatly improve their tone quality.

Proper Breathing Technique

Proper breath support is one of the most important aspects of playing a wind instrument. However, some jazz saxophonists ignore this aspect of performance since other factors occurring simultaneously also require their attention. If saxophonists do not play with the proper breath support, numerous performance problems are likely to result. To avoid these problems, diaphragmic breathing should be used to establish proper breath support allowing the embouchure and instrument to correctly work together. Although the method is sometimes not an instinctive habit for many players with focused practice, this method of breathing can be mastered and will greatly enhance a saxophonist’s performance ability.

Inhalation

The first factor in developing breath support is proper air intake. The saxophonist should breathe air in through the corners of the mouth, while keeping the rest of the embouchure in place on the mouthpiece. An alternative to this method is to drop the lower jaw, keeping the lower lip in place over the lower teeth, and breathe in through the center of the mouth. Either method is acceptable and should be selected by the individual performer. When breathing in, air should be inhaled quickly and deeply in one large breath. As the diaphragm drops downward, it forces the waist area to expand outward in all directions, even on the sides and back. The shoulders should not rise but remain motionless. Saxophonists should think of filling up the body with air, starting with the area around the belt buckle and moving up to the head. Imagine pouring water into a container filling it up from the bottom.

Exhalation

When breathing out, the jazz saxophonist should push the air upward with the diaphragm muscle located in the area just below the rib cage. The visible effect will be the waist area contracting to its original position before the breath was taken. This motion is much more intense than breathing out normally. When blowing air into the instrument, a narrow, steady stream of pressurized air should be blown throughout the duration of the phrase being played.

Air Pressure

When correctly performing the breathing motion, correct air pressure will be maintained in the oral cavity allowing the embouchure to work properly. In addition, by having air pressure pushing outwards in all directions in the oral cavity, the saxophone can be played with less embouchure pressure from the lower jaw and teeth on the lower lip. The reason being that air pressure pushing downward on the jaw and lower teeth from inside the oral cavity helps equalize the upward pressure applied from the jaw and lower teeth. This will allow the reed to vibrate more freely producing a more resonant sound.

Breathing Exercises

One exercise to practice proper breathing is for the jazz saxophonist to lie down on the back or stand with the back against a wall while placing a hand on the stomach. Next, a large breath should be taken through the mouth, making sure that the waist expands in all directions as air enters the body. When performed properly, it will feel as if the air is filling up the body starting at the belt buckle and moving up to the head. The shoulders should not move during this process. If they do, the process is being performed incorrectly and must be tried again. Lying down or standing with the back against a wall should assist in this matter by holding the shoulders stationary while inhalation is taking place.

Another alternative position for this exercise, in addition to lying down or standing with the back against a wall, is to sit in a chair and bend over placing the chest against the knees. This position will also assist in keeping the shoulders stationary during inhalation.

When exhaling, the jazz saxophonist should blow a narrow consistent stream of pressurized in a slow controlled manner with the diaphragm muscle. As a result, the waist area that was expanded during inhalation will return to its original position. When exhaling, the lips should be shaped in an “O” position, which will continue to focus the air into a narrow, concentrated stream similar to one used to blow out a candle. This will approximate the motion performed when actually playing the instrument. The saxophonist should practice this exercise by inhaling for two seconds and exhaling for eight seconds. With practice, a performer will develop the ability to inhale a large quantity of air in one quick breath allowing long phrases to be played with no loss in tone quality or control.

Review of Proper Breathing Procedures

  1. Breathe in quickly and deeply through the mouth
  2. Fill up the body with air from the bottom up
  3. The waist should expand outward while the shoulders remain motionless
  4. Breathe out by pushing the air upward with the diaphragm
  5. A narrow consistent controlled stream of air should be blown out
  6. The waist should contract back to its original position
  7. Proper air pressure should be maintained in the oral cavity
  8. With proper air pressure, less jaw and lower teeth pressure is needed

Optimal Tongue Position

A jazz saxophonist’s tongue position has a direct effect on tone, response, and the ability to articulate quickly. The best tongue position is one that is comfortable, produces a good tone, provides a quick response in all registers, and places the tip of the tongue close to the reed for quick and clean articulation. It is very important for saxophonists to find this position since without it progress will be impeded.

The best tongue position is one that is high in the oral cavity where the back of the tongue is close to roof of the mouth. In this position, the sides of the tongue touch the sides of the upper teeth as if saying the word “he” or “her.” By using a high tongue position, the oral cavity is made smaller keeping the air stream narrow, focused and quickly moving. In addition to assisting in good tone production, response and articulation, this position will also assist the saxophonist in playing overtones and the altissimo register. Although this tongue position may change slightly when playing in different registers, the overall position should basically stay the same. By using this position, jazz saxophonists will discover that their tone is more focused, response is better, articulation is quicker, and overall playing the instrument is easier.

Playing With an Open Throat

The term open throat means that the throat is relaxed and unrestricted allowing the air stream to flow easily from the lungs into the oral cavity. Playing with an open throat will greatly assist the jazz saxophonist in producing good tone, intonation and response. It is sometimes difficult for saxophonists to know if they are playing with an open throat because the inside of the throat cannot be observed when performing. However, there is an exercise that when completed, will allow the saxophonist to know if the throat is open when playing.

Open Throat Exercise

To simulate the feeling of playing with an open throat, saxophonists should practice speaking in the lowest voice possible. Speaking in a low voice places the throat in the optimum open position, allowing air to flow freely from the lungs. Jazz saxophonists should remember the feeling of the throat position when speaking in a low voice and reproduce that feeling when performing. If this exercise is performed every time the saxophonist practices, in a short time playing with an open throat will become a natural part of the performer’s routine.

Developing Throat Flexibility

An open, flexible throat is a great asset since it gives saxophonists the ability to adjust the intonation of a pitch without moving the embouchure, to play smoothly between registers and also to bend notes which is often required in certain performance styles.

A flexible throat can be developed through the correct, consistent practice of appropriate exercises and patience.

Throat Flexibility Exercises

An exercise that will develop throat flexibility is to take only the mouthpiece and play a Concert C#. Next, practice bending this note down chromatically one, half step to a Concert C and then back up to the Concert C# using only the throat muscles. Jazz saxophonists should make sure not to bend notes by lowering and raising the jaw. Now start on the Concert C# and bend it down a whole step to a Concert B then back up to the Concert C#. Continue bending the Concert C# down increasing the interval one half step each time and then back up until the largest interval possible can be produced. This exercise can also be practiced on the saxophone with a starting note of high Forked F following the same procedure described when using the mouthpiece alone. Remember to slur both exercises bending the notes with only the throat muscles.

Play Using Only the Mouthpiece

Play Using Only the Forked F Fingering

Overtone Exercises for Improving Tone

Overtones are often performed as preparatory exercises for playing the altissimo register since the air direction and tongue position necessary to produce these overtones are essentially the same as those needed to produce notes in the altissimo register. However, practicing overtones can also be very beneficial in developing a more resonant tone quality. By their nature, overtones are the purest, most resonant tones as they are produced not by different fingerings, but through the use of the natural harmonic series. Because overtones are very resonant, an ideal way to improve the overall tone quality of conventional notes is to compare the two and try to increase the resonance of conventional notes to the same level as their matching overtones.

Overtone Tone Exercise 1

An exercise that will accomplish this is to first play a low BH. Next play several overtones using the BH as the fundamental pitch. These tones are played using the same fingering as low BH and are produced by adjusting only the air stream and tongue position. The next seven overtone notes that will be produced above the low BH are BH on the middle line of the staff, F on the top line of the staff, high BH above the staff, palm key D, palm key F, altissimo AH and altissimo BH.

Use Low BH Fingering for All Notes

Overtone Tone Exercise 2

When these notes can be produced individually using the Low BH overtone fingering, the saxophonist should play each note twice, first using the regular fingering and then with the overtone fingering (Low BH fingering). The note produced with the overtone fingering will be much more resonant than its counterpart played with the conventional fingering. The jazz saxophonist should listen carefully to each note and then try to increase the resonance of the conventionally fingered note to match the resonance of overtone note by adjusting the embouchure, tongue position and throat position. By doing this, the resonance and tone quality of the conventionally fingered note will be improved.

Overtone Fingering

Practice this exercise up through eight overtone note using the fundamental note low BH. In addition, low B and low C can also be used as fundamental notes, which will cover almost every pitch of the middle and upper register. If jazz saxophonists regularly practice this exercise, their tone quality will be greatly improved.

Use Low B Fingering for All Notes

Use Low C Fingering for All Notes

Summary

Proper tone production, which is an essential part of jazz saxophone performance, not only requires a correctly formed embouchure, but is also affected by proper breathing technique, optimal tongue position, playing with an open, flexible throat, and the ability to play overtones. By practicing exercises that develop mastery of these skills, jazz saxophonists will notice a marked improvement in their tone quality in their quest for developing an ideal tone.

Dr. Tracy Lee Heavner is a professor of saxophone, music education, and director of jazz studies at the University of South Alabama. He is an accomplished author, music educator and distinguished multi-instrument performance artist for Cannonball, Yamaha, Beechler, and D’Addario music corporations. He is also a recording artist for LiveHorns.com whose projects have earned two Grammy nominations and a Dove Award. He has performed throughout the United States and internationally in 15 countries on five continents. His latest book, Saxophone Secrets: 60 Performance Strategies for the Advanced Saxophonist, has received glowing reviews and is published by the Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group.

Leave a Comment

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!

Check Out Some Past JazzEd Magazine Issues