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David Hollingsworth
David Hollingsworth

For continuation the Beginner's Corner series, SOTW would like to introduce a music teacher David Hollingsworth. He recently pointed out a glaring hole in the subjects presented in the Beginner's Corner series, and authored this installment of new Sax on the Web articles. So, we depart from our usual format of question/answer, and present what is undoubtedly the most important aspect musicianship.

More from David:
The Gift of Rhythm

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Created: June 11, 2003
Update: December 19, 2009


Beginner's Corner 12

Tone Quality

by David Hollingsworth

I have never met anyone who wanted to have a "bad" sound. We describe tone qualities in many ways, most of which do not have anything to do with music. We use terms like "Velvet", "Dark Chocolate", "Bright", "Cutting", etc. These terms are of little use to a beginner as they have no point of reference. For beginners, I have found that the best helpers in developing tone quality are the physical actions of producing a sound and taking to heart the words of one of my old teacher Joe Christensen. "If it looks right and they are doing the right things, then eventually, it will sound right." It does take time to develop good tone quality as it is dependent upon several physical and mental factors.

Embouchure. Formation of the embouchure for saxophone and clarinet is very similar. The concept that was discussed in "sucking your thumb" is an excellent place to start and one that I have taken to heart in my beginning instruction. Generally, the clarinet embouchure is more "rigid" in its formation and there is one very important difference. I use the following description: "The clarinet mouthpiece is designed to be blown ‘across’ and the saxophone mouthpiece is designed to be blown ‘through’." Simply stated, the clarinet mouthpiece enters the mouth more on the vertical plane and the saxophone mouthpiece more on the horizontal. For both instruments, it is important to hold the head up so that the difference can be seen. A clarinet player with their head down will, in actuality, have the mouthpiece going almost straight into their mouth. The straight Soprano Saxophone is not held like a clarinet.

That being said, I’ve developed/borrowed/stolen several exercises that help to build the necessary strength in the embouchure to control the sound. The first is a variation on "sucking your thumb". Have the student suck on their thumb hard. When the chin comes down and the corners of the mouth firm up, have them hold it there for 10 seconds and then relax. Yes, it’s an isometric exercise for the mouth. Repeat this 3 or 4 times each session for the first few weeks and stress the importance of keeping the "shape" of the mouth the same when blowing. Remember to keep the angle of the mouthpiece correct for the instrument in question. It is very, very important to stress fundamentals in each lesson for the first few weeks. I use "key phrases" that have been explained in great detail to check these items.

Failure to put the top teeth on the mouthpiece. This is a very common error with beginners and must be emphasized constantly.

No more than half of the bottom lip over the teeth. This varies slightly from student to student but is a good rule of thumb.

Corners of the mouth held firm. This is key on every instrument.

Chin held flat. This, I believe is more critical on the clarinet than on the saxophone, but it is generally agreed that a collapsed chin is bad on every woodwind except bassoon.

After a while, it is possible to do these checks with the words "Teeth", "Lip", "Corners", and "Chin". It takes almost no time and is worth the effort. Often, rather than saying "One, two, ready, play", I’ll say "Teeth, Lip, Corners, Chin". (I have other nifty things to reinforce hand position, posture, and air speed.) Prior to beginning on the instrument, we do spend some time, perhaps a week, playing on just the mouthpiece. I do this because, without the instrument complicating things, the correct positioning of the mouthpiece is easier to accomplish. During this time, we will begin playing rhythmic figures and establishing articulation practices. Playing time will be interspersed with rhythmic drills, which will far exceed their technical ability to actually perform and with breath control exercises (see Breath Support below).

The starting note on the instrument doesn’t really matter that much. I’ve known teachers to start clarinets on 4th line "D" to ensure good hand position from the beginning. I do like to use some note that has fingers down as it helps kids hold the instrument. I like 4th line "D" for the saxophones and "Open G", with the right hand down, for the clarinets.

As soon as a sound is being produced which is generally characteristic, I teach the students fingerings for the "F" Concert Scale and we begin to play it, descending only, as a long tone exercise--usually beginning with 8 beats (beat=60 mm) per note with 2 beats rest between notes. As soon as possible, we begin to play with no rests and slurring to develop the concept of not stopping the air between notes. This takes us to the second physical area of tone production.

Breath Support. This seems to be one of the most confusing areas for beginning students. I believe that the "wind" in wind instruments actually is a two part thing. The two parts are air speed and air volume or "how fast and how much".

The speed of the air, in my opinion, is what most effects tone quality while the actual amount of air into the instrument determines the volume of sound. This is where the old adage of "It’s harder to play with a good sound softly" comes from. I ask students which will shoot water the farthest, a garden hose or a fire hose. Most all will say that the fire hose will shoot the farthest and, of course, they are wrong. Given the same relative pressure at the end of the hose, both will shoot water the same distance (speed). The difference, of course is the amount of water (volume) on the target. These concepts can be quite confusing for beginners.

Therefore, I link them together in the beginning by encouraging students to play with pretty strong volume, which encourages good air speed. The key here is strength in the embouchure to control the pressure and amount of air. If the embouchure collapses, then that’s too loud. I equate the formation of the embouchure to the nozzle on the end of that garden or fire hose. It must be strong enough to control the pressure of the water/air trying to come through. This also helps them to understand the forward focus and shape of the embouchure. I’ve found a couple of easy/fun ways to help students understand the concepts of "air under pressure" as they relate to playing a wind instrument.

The first is simply blowing up balloons. I use 9" (23 cm) party balloons and we spend time blowing them up in one breath. What makes it different is that the student is required to "hold" the embouchure while blowing and is only allowed to use one breath. The resistance of the balloon forces the student to feel the tension in the abdominal area where breath support begins. It also tends, for some reason, to promote a relaxed, open throat. (I try to not mention the throat unless it appears to be a problem with a specific student) This has proven to be an enjoyable way to begin classes. Be prepared for the laughter at the sound of the air being released from the balloon and for the excitement when someone looses control of their balloon and it goes flying around the room. However, both of these offer opportunity for teaching that the sound/flying is being caused by the air leaving the balloon under pressure, or being forced from the balloon by the "muscles" of the balloon.

The second exercise stresses the same things with different "props". I have the students tear/cut a letter sized piece of paper into 4 equal parts. Then we pull the music stand up until the middle of the stand is at "mouth level". With the stand tilted to vertical, have the students slide forward in their chair so that their mouth is about 3-4 inches (8-10 cm) from the stand. Have them place the paper on the stand and hold it in place by blowing on it. This cannot be done without adequate air pressure (breath support). The upside of this exercise as opposed to balloons is that paper is cheap. The downside is that, since paper is cheap, students tend to leave it all over the floor.

The third exercise emphasizes the importance of a steady stream of air and also uses paper as a prop. The letter size paper is cut lengthwise into 2 inch (5 cm) strips. The students are to hold the paper just below the aperture of the lips and by blowing, cause the paper to rise and stay in one position. If the student blows too hard, the paper will "flap". What I’m looking for is for the paper to rise to a certain point and stay there without bouncing up and down. If you’re really into interdisciplinary teaching, you can explain the physics of the exercise and that it’s basically what makes airplanes fly.

What is important with all of these exercises is that the teacher stress keeping the formation of the embouchure intact and constantly questioning students as to what they are feeling physically as they perform the exercise. Have them put a free hand on their abdomen and feel the tension of the muscles as they blow up the balloon or hold the paper against the stand. They will notice that with the long strip of paper being held in position, they are not blowing anywhere near as hard but the tension in the abdomen is still there. This will help them begin to understand the difference between the speed of the air and the volume of air. Holding the paper against the stand is akin to playing loud and holding the long strip of paper in position without flapping is akin to playing soft.

Of course, none of these "fun things" will replace long tone exercises as the fundamental tone development exercise. As I said earlier, I use the "F Concert" scale descending as a long tone exercise for beginners. For intermediate and advanced students (who know all the chromatic fingerings), I use a tone development exercise from Rascher’s "Top Tones", which is a series of three note patterns descending chromatically.

In a full band setting, I have everyone start on "F Concert" rather than on Rascher’s beginning note of "Ab Concert" for alto sax. For brass players, we use the long tone portion of the "Remington Warm-Up" as published by Emory Remington, the famous trombone player. My advanced band begins each rehearsal with these exercises and yes, we do the brass and the woodwind exercises at the same time, along with one I’ve developed for stick control with percussion. It’s a bit confusing at first but you must realize that the different instruments must work on different things. I could use one exercise for all but each of these is based upon a 2 measure pattern in 4/4 time so it’s not that confusing. The brasses finish their warm up with 2 measure lip slur patterns as the woodwinds work to the lowest and highest notes on their instruments. This leaves us with the final aspect of tone production... "What do you want to sound like?"

The mental part of tone production. This aspect of tone production has been stressed by good teachers for many, many years. A good friend of mine once said that he learned more about tone production from hearing his teacher play than anything else. While I doubt that’s entirely true, there is a great deal to be said for emulating a quality sound. I really believe that, once the sound is "in your head", it will eventually come out of the instrument. I think that it is important for a teacher to play with students and for students. I think that it’s imperative that the teacher be able to produce a good, characteristic tone quality on each instrument that he/she teaches. You don’t have to be an artist on each one, just be able to demonstrate a good sound. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a good example of sound. It doesn’t matter that you’re not a brass player or that you play percussion. I believe that any good musician can learn to produce a good characteristic sound on every instrument. This is an area where we must lead by example. If they don’t try to sound like you, then who will they try to sound like?

The importance of listening cannot be over emphasized. Make students aware of artists on their instrument by playing recordings of soloists. Be prepared to tell them where they can purchase these recordings. Since I don’t allow beginners to play until we are all playing as a group, I often have recordings playing as the students enter the room and get their instruments. Of course, there’s no way of knowing just how effective this is but it cannot hurt for young students to recognize the names Don Sinta, Fred Hemke, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Desmond, James Galway, Larry Combs, Phil Woods, Bill Watrous, etc. We all learn by emulation.

One of the gifts a teacher can give a student is good things to copy. This can be especially difficult on the saxophone as tones can vary greatly from one artist to another and a tone that will get "rave reviews" in a jazz setting will get you "ripped apart" in a concert setting. Someone once said that the saxophone and the alto clarinet have no characteristic tone quality. I’m not so sure about the alto clarinet, but I do believe that the saxophone does have one and it’s up to the teacher to help the student find it.

Equipment. Much has been written on instrument and mouthpiece/reed/ligature selection. While it is very important, I think that the mental and physical aspects of tone production are more of a factor. Until the embouchure is strong and correctly formed, the air is leaving the mouth at the proper speed, and a concept of sound is developing, changes of equipment will not always help the student. I believe that beginners should begin with a medium tip opening, a ligature that works, and a reed that is stiff enough to require a good embouchure. If it’s too easy to produce a sound, the necessary strength in the embouchure will not develop. I generally start with #2 1/2 reeds and move to #3 as quickly as possible. As a practical matter, I tend to use inexpensive reeds with beginners. They break many and the necessary reed strength changes quickly as strength develops. The second or third year is soon enough to "move up" to premium reeds. I try to start beginners on the best equipment they can afford. I try to explain to parents the differences between the various price ranges. It’s like painting your house. If you want to do it every other year, then buy cheap paint. You do get what you pay for. I discourage "no name" brands but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eliminate them entirely.

Whatever the instrument/mouthpiece, it is imperative that it be in good working condition. An instrument that doesn’t work properly not only impairs instruction, but it is very frustrating for the student. Keep disinfectant spray around and be prepared to play students’ instruments from time to time. Examine their mouthpiece for chips when excessive squeaking occurs. You need to know if the problem is the student or the instrument. For beginners, the instrument should also be rugged. Since moving to middle school from high school several years ago, I have seen more instruments "hit the floor" in one week than in 24 years of more advanced instruction.

In closing, I suppose I should mention that, in my beginning band classes, I do not start any students on the saxophone. All saxophone "wanna bees" start on clarinet and must spend at least one year on the instrument before making the switch. There is always some resistance and I will accept a student who moves in already playing saxophone but, once my reasoning is explained to parents, there are few problems. I have many reasons for doing this and most of you probably understand them. I look at the "gift of doubling" as an extra benefit. I’ll list a few of the reasons for those who may wonder.

1. After the student learns to "cross the break", the fingerings for the woodwinds transfer easily from one to another with only small differences. It does normally take a year on the clarinet to become comfortable above the break.

2. The saxophone is, far and away, the most expensive of all the beginner instruments with the rental and/or actual cost being generally twice that of a good beginner clarinet. This is a factor appreciated by parents who are concerned that their child may lose interest and they’ll be "stuck". As you all know, there has been a flood of very cheap saxophones on the market. I have to remind parents that their poor construction and musical performance does not make them a good value.

3. As many can testify, the switch from clarinet to saxophone is usually a matter of days whereas the switch from saxophone to clarinet is usually a matter of months.

4. An added benefit is that this method gives me some manner of control over the instrumentation of the group. I can exercise further control since I do happen to own several altos and tenors for student use.

In my private studio, I do start beginner saxophones and work with beginning saxophones from other teachers in my area. For what it’s worth, I don’t start any drummers either... but that’s another story, for another time.

David Hollingsworth

Beginners Corner 11

Gift of Rhythm

Beginners Corner 13

Common Transpositions for Saxophone
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