Skip Spratt
Skip Spratt
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Playing Tips by Skip Spratt

Kick it DOWN a notch!
Why So Loud?

One of the biggest influences on a young player can be the HUGE sound of another player. In a recent interview I did with Baron Ramonde of Rod Stewart fame, he sited and early influence: "One thing that's real important to me is sound. When I was younger, I used to sneak down to the Village Vanguard in New York. They wouldn't let me in but I used to stand at the stairs and watch Dexter Gordon. He used to fill the room with sound and I thought, Wow, I want to sound like that where I can fill the room with sound like he does!"

Personally, I can recall listening to early recordings of Michael Brecker, John Coltrane, David Sanborn and Jan Garbarek. They all had different styles and approaches but each of these players grabbed my attention in their seemingly enormous sound. In their own way, each of these players were particularly aggressive when blowing into the horn. The well-known story of Michael Brecker's neck injury in the early 80s adds fuel to my fire.

The question is: Why so loud? All too often younger or less-experienced players seek recognition by being the the "loudest cat around". I too, subscribed to this approach for some time while in my early 20s. A Bobby Dukoff D8 with Rico #3 1/2 reeds was the most obnoxious that I ever got but I was definitely pushing the envelope on good taste. That tip opening and reed combination was not ridiculously large or hard to blow but it certainly was LOUD! The funny thing is that in most situations I played in back then, there WERE adequate monitors and playing loudly was a way of life, not a necessity. Having a "big sound" is among one of the most noble of aspirations of saxophonists, however it is important not to confuse volume with sound.

As the years have passed, my sound has darkened, mellowed somewhat and is definitely lower on the decibel meter! Excitement will make me play louder but definitely not overblow, which brings me to the center of this topic-over blowing.

Invariably, students will approach me with concerns about pitch on their gigs. The other horns they play with seem out of tune. When they play together it's not right but if they play individually the pitch seems o.k. This is most definitely a byproduct of over blowing. Over blowing will change your sound, possibly ruin the pitch and in the extreme cause injury.

Recently I conducted an informal survey on one of my regular gigs. There was a regular trumpet player and the leader of the band was an outstanding trombone player. The three of us together had a very nice blend and sound however much of the time the trumpet player and I were left on our own while the leader sang or played one of his doubles in the rhythm section. Although the regular trumpet player and I had a "unit sound" he was often subbing out to cover his demanding schedule as first call for many area contractors. Virtually all the subs he sent in were good, however the time feel and pitch of each player was slightly different. Soon I came to realize that to "lock in" with one sub I needed to push more air through the horn. With other players I needed to play softer and with more finesse to "match up". Playing the way I wanted with disregard for the guy(s) next to me only proved frustrating. It was during this period that I came to understand the power of blowing too little or too much air, i.e. under blowing and over blowing.

The reason certain players "lock in" on pitch or time with each other all too many times has to do with how hard they are blowing. It seems like a simple enough concept although good habits in the practice room sometimes fade when we are on the gig. Below are some tips on how to find where the other guys are with regard to pitch and time. Thinking through the concepts below doesn't replace a good ear and adequate experience but knowing the tendencies will hopefully help you find your way on the next gig, session or rehearsal.

1) Be comfortable with your set up at all volumes. The scenario is a familiar one. You played on a nice little jazz set up-perhaps a Meyer 5 or a Link 6 or 7. You started to play in louder situations and felt the need to "cut through" the sound around you. Later, a larger mouthpiece perhaps with a wedge or baffle was purchased and you could hear yourself again. As the volume around you increased (and you heard yourself less) you settled on using a harder reed. Now you're playing on a "Super Turbo Edgemaster Plus" with HUGE tip opening and a baffle that makes Hoover Dam look like a ripple on the horizon. Here's the skinny: larger tip openings and baffles are fine and good but you must be able to play from the softest pianissimo to the loudest or loud with only a reasonable amount of effort. If you can't do this on your present equipment, consider a more versatile set up.

2) Take it down a notch. If you're a fan of Emeril Lagosse on the Food Network, he's always saying "Kick it up a notch!". I'm saying, "Kick it DOWN a notch!". Next time your out playing try playing everything a little softer. Your fingers will relax and you'll be able to play faster with more agility. Your sound will be more centered and your pitch will likely be more consistent.

3) Realize what effect over blowing has on your sound. Every mouthpiece and reed has a threshold at which they just won't get any louder. Blowing harder beyond that point will definitely achieve something-fatigue. Find out while practicing where exactly that point is and what it feels like. Splitting notes àla David Sanborn is a result of controlled over blowing and can be used quite convincingly in aggressive solos. This is an "effect" that is used tastefully and sparingly. Please don't confuse this effect with plain over blowing.Check out what effect your volume has on the pitch. You'll likely be amazed at how flat you can play when over blowing on a saxophone! Next time you can't hear yourself on a gig double check that you're not blowing beyond that threshold.

4) Monitors are good. Monitors are bad. Let the microphone and monitoring system do it's job. A little delay and/or reverb in your monitor will create the illusion of you being louder in the mix. When we blow our ears "close up" and we can not hear as well. A little delay or reverb gives you just enough sound after you've stopped blowing to create the perception of being louder. Beware that the guitar player and everyone else in the band can turn up when you do. Reasonable stage volume is a collective effort from everyone on stage.

5) Protect your hearing and your playing. Let me be the first to say that I HATE PLAYING WITH EAR PLUGS! Although this is true, I will put one or both plugs in when I can't hear myself or risk losing additional hearing.Ear plugs have come a long way in recent years. Disposable foam plugs can be purchased at your local pharmacy or drug store and they will reduce the volume by 25-30 decibels in most cases. Customized plugs can be ordered through an audiologist and music stores usually carry ear plugs that are made specifically for listening to loud music. You probably want to play music for a long time and being able to hear it is paramount.


©2002 Skip Spratt

Sax on the Web featureEarlier SOTW article by Skip:
Confessions of a Weekend Warrior


About the Author:
Skip Spratt holds a (BM) with honors in Jazz Saxophone and an (MAT) in Music Education from The University of the Arts, and a Certificate from Berklee College of Music in Boston. He is the instrumental music teacher at Berlin Community School and has taught saxophone at Rowan University. Skip is also the keeper of The Saxophone Shed ( He is available for private instruction of all levels in saxophone, flute, clarinet and improvisation in the Philadelphia area. Additionally, Lessons by Mail are Cd lessons available to students in any region.

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Created: February 8 2002.

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