Recently I was in Washington D.C. doing a residency for the Kennedy Center. One of the groups I coached was the award-winning Walt Whitman High School Jazz Ensemble. Director Chris Allen said to me at one point: "There are only two kinds of players that practice longtones. Beginners, 'cause they can't play anything else, and professionals, because they know how important longtones are."
It's so true. Every teacher tells students to play longtones, and every student thinks they're the most boring thing in the world. I mean, what's interesting or fun about holding out one note for a long time?
First, let's talk about what longtones are good for:
- Strengthening the embouchure.
- Improving breath control.
- Improving tone quality.
It's obvious that beginners need to strengthen their embouchures, because they don't have one yet! Likewise for breath control. But why should someone who's been playing, say, a year or longer play longtones? Answer: to improve his or her tone quality.
Sounds like a good idea. Wouldn't every sax player like to have a great sound? How do you get one?
First, realize that every single tone has many aspects, or levels, to it. The three basic categories are:
- Main tone, the "edge" sound (most obvious to the ear)
- Shadow tone (same pitch as the note you're playing, but in the background)
- Overtones (high-pitched whistling or buzzing tones floating above the main tone)
Many players focus only on their edge tone, in fact they may have never practiced listening to their shadow tone or their overtones. That's too bad, because discovering and listening to those other levels of one's sound is one of the most interesting things about music.
Play your longtones against a wall, so you can hear the sound bouncing back at you. Listen deeply to each tone. The shadow tone sounds almost like an echo of the main tone. It's a very plain sound; it wouldn't be very interesting by itself. It's as if you took a black crayon and rubbed lightly on some paper. The color would be grayish, wouldn't it? Then you take the crayon and rub hard over the gray, and it comes out black. But the gray color is underneath that, making your black even richer and fuller. That's your shadow tone.
You'll notice that as you approach the curve at the bottom of the bell, the shadow tone may start to deviate in pitch from the note you're playing. It may go as low as a minor third below. This phenomenon is due to the abrupt change in direction of the airstream as it follows the curve of the horn, and it may help you to become aware of the shadow tone.
Now play your low Bb against the wall. Chances are you will hear the octave + 5th F sounding faintly as well; this is one of the most easily heard overtones. The saxophone has many overtones in its timbre. It's fascinating to discover these aspects of your sound that you may have never noticed before! Regarding the overtones, all musicians should be familiar with the overtone series; please consult other sources if you are unfamiliar with it, as it is beyond the scope of this article to explain it adequately.
So to conclude, play your longtones against the wall, listening closely to them. Play them for five minutes every practice session. Be a "sound scientist", and dissect each tone with your ear. If you don't hear any shadow tones or overtones immediately, don't worry. As you focus your attention on listening to your sound, in time these aspects of your tone will begin to stand out more.
By the way, the overtones and shadow tones are what give players their different sounds. Each player's ear draws him or her to a preferred emphasis on one of these tonal aspects — all you have to do is follow your ear. It's also important to listen to professional players of your instrument, both live and on recordings. Your ear needs to be "lured" towards a good sound from outside yourself, as well as inside yourself.
To quote Chris Allen again, professionals understand how important longtones are. A pro sound is like a beautiful healthy plant, and longtones are the water. You stop watering your plant, and no matter how healthy it is, it will slowly die.
So remember, five minutes of longtones a day keeps the blues away!
© 2002-4 Sweet Sue Music
Sue Terrys's book "Practice Like the Pros" has been reviewed by Tim Price (June 2002).