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Part 2

by Ian O'Beirne

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Part 1 next


I have created this consolidation of saxophone basics in order to clue beginner players into the mass of information involved in saxophone and wind instrument playing in general, and to explain some facets of playing that even intermediate and advanced players may not be aware of.


The phrase "attack" is very misleading. In a wind instrument the note is not "attacked" but rather "released". The attack would be the touching of the tongue to the tip of the reed to close off the air flow (but NOT to stop blowing air). The release would be the tongue leaving the reed and allowing the air to flow again.

Articulation on the saxophone is basically putting pressure on the tip of the reed from the tip of the tongue. Slightly back from the tip of the tongue can be used in low register because these require more pressure to allow the reed to set into vibration at such low frequencies. Pronouncing the syllable "tah" is an often-used demonstration of general wind and brass instrument articulation. However the position of the throat for "tah" is very different from that used for the saxophone. Pronounce instead the word "toll" with a heavy "t" and the throat position is more accurate: open and relaxed.

Apply this motion to the saxophone. Unless articulation is always played with the tip of the tongue to the tip of the reed, a player will fall into the careless habit of "kah" or a throaty articulation. This is unacceptable in most playing situations and should be very much avoided.

The staccato articulation is characterized by assigning a note half its original value and is notated by a dot above or below the written note. Thus, a half note with a staccato mark would be played as a quarter note, a quarter as an eighth, an eighth as a sixteenth, etc. Generally staccato is reserved for quarter notes and smaller notes, and means to play a note short and with a slight accent.

In reference to the finger position I will note the only known video of Charlie Parker. He flies up and down the horn with rhythmic and melodic virtuosity but his fingers barely move! This is a result of constant practice and attention to minor details; if his fingers were slapping the keys very hard, he would not be able to move that fast with such fluency.

There are certain aspects of technique that are problems for most saxophonists but overall, can be easily fixed. For example, the horrors that sometimes occur in fast passages involving middle Bb and the surrounding notes. A simple knowledge of the four fingerings of Bb, the two fingerings of middle C, the various false fingerings of the surrounding notes, and the many "trick" ways to move between the octave without noticeable quality change can help you to eliminate these problems. I will not get into details because there are many resources that can help you in regard to technique.


There are three parts to the saxophone tone: edge, core tone, and shadow tone (some have different names for these but I find these to be the easiest to remember). By playing a low Bb very loud up against a wall, you may be able to hear a second octave F (the perfect fifth + 8) in the background. This is an overtone. If you play an open tip mouthpiece with a soft reed, you will have more edge and thus more overtones. Edge is characterized by a "buzz" in the sound such as the sound of David Sanborn or Michael Brecker, who are probably the finest edge-tone and overtone players. Core tone is the regular tone of the saxophone. If you play a closed mouthpiece with a harder reed, the core tone is brought out and the edge nearly disappears. This style was more popular in past years, with players such as Paul Desmond and Cannonball Adderly in the spectrum of dark, core players. The shadow tone can be heard audibly in the background on very low and very high notes, and is very hard to hear specifically because it is masked by the core tone. However, without the shadow tone, the instrument would not sound much like a saxophone anymore. Play just the mouthpiece off of the sax (no shadow tone: duck call!) and then put it back on the sax and play. You should hear a tonal (as opposed to a pitch) difference.

The tone starts in your chest cavity and the shape of the chest cavity largely affects the beginning of the tone. Next the oral cavity, probably the most important aspect of the "wideness" of the tonal waves, and then the mouthpiece which is the "projection chamber" and speeds up the air flow. The mouthpiece is to the tone much like the gun powder is to the bullet. And if you'd like to take this analogy further, your oral cavity and chest cavity are like the factory where the gun powder is produced! Finally the saxophone itself, which, surprisingly, has the least bearing on tone quality. The sax mostly affects intonation (how well in tune one is) and whether the tone is "covered" (low Bb with octave) or "wide" (open C#), or covered and wide in general. The sax itself also affects shadow tones which has commonly attributed qualities of "darkness" and "brightness."

Use breath support (detailed below) and always make sure that the oral cavity is open and relaxed, like when you say "Aahhh" in the lowest baritone note you can sing in tune. Sing this note with a tight oral cavity, and then relax it again. The sound quality of your voice should immediately improve and become more present once the oral cavity is relaxed (think Pavarotti). The same applies to saxophone. Be sure the tongue, when not being used, is flat in the bottom of the mouth. (Except for the altissimo range but that won't be covered here.)

Staccato should be practiced at the fastest speed at which it sounds reasonably well. Once the current tempo sounds good, increase it by small increments. Speed will come eventually, and usually one finds a rapid speed increase at some point in time. I know that my speed increases have been rather like "breakthroughs" in many ways. Once a speed increase occurs, you must practice staccato every day at that speed for at least 5 minutes to keep it clean and to hope for more speed. Never "force" speed though. If it does not feel natural and relaxed, it will not hold for long, and you will slow down and fatigue very quickly. Be sure to play the best you can naturally. Sufficient breath support is required for any degree of rapidity in the staccato tongue.


Vibrato is defined as a regular oscillation in pitch, tone quality, and volume of a musical tone. Many players often note only the pitch aspect, but from listening to singers and their use of vibrato, you will begin to be aware of slight volume and quality oscillations as well. They are less audible but not less important than the pitch change.

Vibrato should not be attempted until the embouchure is mostly correct. Experienced players will notice that vibrato is much more difficult on harder reeds. This is because the pressure in the lip changes with the vibrato motion and the hard reed is less forgiving in this respect.

The vibrato is essentially this: an up-and-down movement of the jaw at the point where it attaches to the skull. This involves muscles that you have probably not used in years (it differs from the chewing muscles which move mostly backward) so they may become fatigued easily the first few times you practice vibrato.

For about five minutes a day, practice the jaw motion without the saxophone. Use a metronome. Try to get it even in rhythm and tempo, and be able to keep it to tempo. Slowly at first, and then gradually increasing the speed. Once you are no longer fatigued, apply the motion to the saxophone with a similar exercise. Practice vibrato in triplets, quarters, and other patterns to gain greater control and flexibility. HOWEVER this does not mean that vibrato should be done in perfect triplets in time with music. On the contrary, applied vibrato should be done at the player's own natural pace, regardless of the tempo of the music. The rhythm exercises serve merely as a basis for developing control so that you can eventually find what is best and apply it to the music.


Rhythm is a problem that is akin to all musicians, and can only be improved with constant attention during practice at all times. Too many wind instrumentalists have the philosophy of "I will listen to the leader of the section or the drummer for the time." This not only results in a "following" time (slightly behind the lead), but also a guarantee that you will NEVER be good enough for section leader or to conduct. Yes, one should look at the conductor for the tempo, but the rhythm, a totally different concept, rests entirely on the player's shoulders.

Rhythm refers to accurate subdivision of notes within a given tempo. Most players slow down on easy passages or passages that are too fast for their technique, or speed up on passages that look faster than they really are, or appear difficult. Accurately subdividing the notes within the given tempo, and holding one's own tempo, are great skills that must be acquired if one wants to take their music beyond the practice room or the 3rd chair. Most important concept: keep the rhythm in mind ALL of the time. It is probably the most essential aspect of music EVER! It is also, however the slowest-developed skill. It takes years to attain accurate rhythm, so don't give up! And one last thing: practice scales, arpeggios, and etudes all with a metronome. This is a surefire method to improve your rhythm. Practicing this way, you will be able to note where you may tend to speed up or to slow down, and to consciously compensate and be aware of these areas. Eventually, compensation will become accuracy and be a totally subconscious aspect of your playing.


Now, you may have wondered somewhat about that quote from my teacher above, that he got from his teacher. Let's talk about the "fast is slow, slow is fast." Unless you practice a difficult, extremely fast passage at a very slow tempo to begin with, it will never sound clean at the fast tempo. So, to get fast, practice slowly and in rhythm, with a metronome. The same applies in the reverse. In an extremely slow passage, the notes must be long, not the finger connections. If anything, your technique must be faster in slow passages to keep the rhythm accurate between notes, and your subdivision of notes must be ever-present in your mind while playing! Thus, fast is slow, and slow is fast.

Let us treat the other part of the quote up there: "High is low, low is high." Beginning or intermediate saxophonists have a tendency to constrict their oral cavity and throat for high notes, and to open it very wide for low notes. The first action tends to make the tone incredibly thin and to enhance its overtones, making it unpleasant to the ear, and the second action causes the low register's tone to spread to a great degree. When in the high register, think low: relax the throat and open it even wider than before. You must increase the tension of the embouchure to compensate. When in the low register, do not let up on your embouchure tension, and do not relax your throat even more; keep it the same and the tone will be more precise.



Most important part of your practice: LONG TONES. This is surprising to many beginner or intermediate saxophonists. Long tones do three things for the player that are extremely important in most playing situations:

  • Develop the embouchure. If the embouchure is correct throughout all of the long tones, then you will feel the burn as you reach the high notes. Make sure to really squeeze the corners in the high notes, and do not bite. If you feel the biting, stop, rest for a little while, and then continue when you feel ready.
  • Develop intonation. Long tones should always be done with a piano. Remember that alto sax is in Eb so for example a G would be Bb on the piano. Play along with an electric synthesizer piano or finely tuned grand piano. Be sure you are in the nearest octave possible (they do not always match up perfectly).
  • Develop tonal quality. Tone quality is very important, and many players lack this incredible asset. By playing long tones one becomes subconsciously aware of the overtones (higher partials of the notes) and thus can develop a finer tone quality. Use current and past artists as reference points but overall you should try to create and obtain your OWN "tonal concept." Also, quality in the upper register (which typically sounds thin and anemic in beginners) will improve greatly with daily long tone practice of this register.

Long tones should be practiced in the following way:
Begin with low Bb and play this note at a piano volume the best you can for 10 seconds. If you need to, use a metronome and set it to 60 bpm (1 beat per second). Then go up chromatically and play each note in the range of the instrument in the same fashion (to high F or higher if you can control the intonation). Don't be lazy and just play the note because you were told to. Playing all of these notes out for a lengthy period of time will show you how your intonation may be jostling around. Play with a piano and you will hear this intonation wavering. With correct lower lip and breath support, and a well developed control of the muscles involved, you should be able to keep the intonation even (given that your equipment is in good adjustment). Be conscious of tone quality, intonation, volume, breath support, the embouchure muscles (use a mirror to see your embouchure). If you are conscious of all of these things, you will see exactly how difficult an exercise this really is. If you really want to improve your playing, LONG TONES ARE VERY IMPORTANT AND SHOULD BE THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL PART OF YOUR PRACTICE ROUTINE.

Long tones should be practiced for about 15 minutes at a time, two sessions per day. In the first session, start at low Bb and ascend to the highest note you can play correctly. In the second session, start at the highest note you can play correctly, and descend to low Bb. After a good deal of such practice, you may want to vary your routine with such variables as this:

  • Begin at D3 and ascend to your highest ranged note; then play an A2 and ascend to D3; then an E2 and ascend to A2; etc. This is a register flexibility exercise and also can be practiced in the reverse fashion: beginning on Eb1 descending to low Bb; then to Ab1 descending to Eb1, etc. -Play each note beginning at a piano, crescendoing for 5 beats to fortissimo, then decrescendoing for 5 beats back to piano. Try your best to hold the pitch. Think faster air, not more air. More air will simply throw the patch off; air SPEED determines volume.


Scales serve three major purposes:

  • To develop a fine and consistent technique throughout the range of the instrument.
  • To develop familiarity with the scale pattern, a commonly used musical phrase.
  • In jazz music, to develop an unconscious and ingrained creative fluidity in improvisation.

Scales should always be practiced in all 12 keys, in perfect rhythm (use a metronome), and with strict attention to connections (clean movement between notes) and intonation. The purpose of using all 12 keys is to develop consistency so that you are equally adept in all forms of music.

Major and minor scales should be practiced in 8th notes at about quarter note = 120. Once your rhythm improves, set the metronome to half note = 60 so that you will play 4 notes per beat rather than 2. Some points to keep in mind:

  • Initially, all scales should be SLURRED. A tongued scale will not tell you where your connection problems lie (typically low C and below, and high D and above because these areas are not often stressed in written and performed music. Problems also occur commonly in the alternate fingerings of C and Bb). A slurred scale will expose your problems so that you can correct them. For example, most beginners have trouble trilling from high Eb to high F. With just 5 minutes of practice in one day, with attention to perfect connection, one can from that day on trill from Eb to F with ease. Do such an exercise (constant, even repetition of the fixed error) every time you come across such a problem area.
  • Practice in front of a mirror to note any embouchure changes that occur as you go up and down the scale. Rapid changes should not occur, merely a tightening of the corners at the high notes and sometimes a slight decrease in lip pressure on certain notes tending to be sharp.
  • Memorize all of your scales. The purpose here is to easily recognize a scale pattern (we're talking in a split second here) and to ingrain it into your musical knowledge. You should be able to recite all of the notes in a scale verbatim without any sheet music. Then try to write your scales out on sheet music from memory so that you can recognize the notation and become familiar with it. Be sure to use the proper key signatures; for example, the Db major scale has 5 flats, and if you're thinking "Db major" you should not also be thinking "7 sharps" because 7 sharps belongs to C# major. The pitch is exactly the same but the notation differs greatly.
  • Eventually scales will come naturally and will be a part of muscle memory. If one wants to be an ample improviser, one must build a great musical vocabulary. Scales, chords, and patterns are all a part of that vocabulary.
  • After a good deal of the slow, slurred method, play your scales at a similar tempo but vary the articulations. Slur 2, then tongue 2, or tongue all, or slur 3, tongue 2, etc. This is an exercise of dual attention to articulation and technique, and will more correctly match your fingers with your tongue and thus improve your rhythm in the process.


  • The Art of Saxophone Playing by Larry Teal
  • The Saxophonist's Journal by Larry Teal
  • My own experiences with what works best for me; 99% of what I learned from the above references works for me, so I hope it works for you too!

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Created: June 22, 2005
Update: March 19, 2013
© 2004-2013, Harri Rautiainen and respective authors
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