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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 ofreference. For beginners, I have found that the best helpers in developing tone quality are the physical actions of producing asound and taking to heart the words of one of my old teacher Joe Christensen. "If it looks rightand they are doing the right things, then eventually, it willsound right." It does take time to develop good tone quality asit is dependent upon several physical and mental factors.

Embouchure. Formation of the embouchurefor saxophone and clarinet is very similar. The concept that was discussed in "sucking your thumb" is an excellent place to startand one that I have taken to heart in my beginning instruction.Generally, the clarinet embouchure is more "rigid" in itsformation and there is one very important difference. I use thefollowing description: "The clarinet mouthpiece is designed to beblown 'across' and the saxophone mouthpiece isdesigned to be blown 'through'." Simply stated, theclarinet mouthpiece enters the mouth more on the vertical planeand the saxophone mouthpiece more on the horizontal. For bothinstruments, it is important to hold the head up so that thedifference can be seen. A clarinet player with their head downwill, in actuality, have the mouthpiece going almost straightinto their mouth. The straight Soprano Saxophone is not held likea clarinet.

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

Failure to put the top teeth on the mouthpiece. This is avery common error with beginners and must be emphasizedconstantly.

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

Corners of the mouth held firm. This iskey on every instrument.

Chin held flat. This, I believe is morecritical on the clarinet than on the saxophone, but it isgenerally agreed that a collapsed chin is bad on every woodwindexcept bassoon.

After a while, it is possible to do thesechecks with the words "Teeth", "Lip", "Corners", and "Chin". Ittakes almost no time and is worth the effort. Often, rather thansaying "One, two, ready, play", I'll say "Teeth, Lip,Corners, Chin". (I have other nifty things to reinforce handposition, posture, and air speed.) Prior to beginning on theinstrument, we do spend some time, perhaps a week, playing onjust the mouthpiece. I do this because, without the instrumentcomplicating things, the correct positioning of the mouthpiece iseasier to accomplish. During this time, we will begin playingrhythmic figures and establishing articulation practices. Playingtime will be interspersed with rhythmic drills, which will farexceed their technical ability to actually perform and withbreath control exercises (see Breath Support below).

The starting note on the instrumentdoesn't really matter that much. I've known teachersto start clarinets on 4th line "D" to ensure good hand positionfrom the beginning. I do like to use some note that has fingersdown as it helps kids hold the instrument. I like 4th line "D"for the saxophones and "Open G", with the right hand down, forthe clarinets.

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

Breath Support. This seems to be one ofthe most confusing areas for beginning students. I believe thatthe "wind" in wind instruments actually is a two part thing. Thetwo parts are air speed and air volume or "how fast and howmuch".

The speed of the air, in my opinion, is whatmost effects tone quality while the actual amount of air into theinstrument determines the volume of sound. This is where the oldadage of "It's harder to play with a good sound softly"comes from. I ask students which will shoot water the farthest, agarden hose or a fire hose. Most all will say that the fire hosewill shoot the farthest and, of course, they are wrong. Given thesame relative pressure at the end of the hose, both will shootwater the same distance (speed). The difference, of course is theamount of water (volume) on the target. These concepts can bequite confusing for beginners.

Therefore, I link them together in thebeginning by encouraging students to play with pretty strongvolume, which encourages good air speed. The key here is strengthin the embouchure to control the pressure and amount of air. Ifthe embouchure collapses, then that's too loud. I equatethe formation of the embouchure to the nozzle on the end of thatgarden or fire hose. It must be strong enough to control thepressure of the water/air trying to come through. This also helpsthem to understand the forward focus and shape of the embouchure.I've found a couple of easy/fun ways to help studentsunderstand the concepts of "air under pressure" as they relate toplaying a wind instrument.

The first is simply blowing up balloons. I use9" (23 cm) party balloons and we spend time blowing them up inone breath. What makes it different is that the student isrequired to "hold" the embouchure while blowing and is onlyallowed to use one breath. The resistance of the balloon forcesthe student to feel the tension in the abdominal area wherebreath support begins. It also tends, for some reason, to promotea relaxed, open throat. (I try to not mention the throat unlessit appears to be a problem with a specific student) This hasproven to be an enjoyable way to begin classes. Be prepared forthe laughter at the sound of the air being released from theballoon and for the excitement when someone looses control oftheir balloon and it goes flying around the room. However, bothof these offer opportunity for teaching that the sound/flying isbeing caused by the air leaving the balloon under pressure, orbeing forced from the balloon by the "muscles" of theballoon.

The second exercise stresses the same thingswith different "props". I have the students tear/cut a lettersized piece of paper into 4 equal parts. Then we pull the musicstand up until the middle of the stand is at "mouth level". Withthe stand tilted to vertical, have the students slide forward intheir 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 holdit in place by blowing on it. This cannot be done withoutadequate air pressure (breath support). The upside of thisexercise as opposed to balloons is that paper is cheap. Thedownside is that, since paper is cheap, students tend to leave itall over the floor.

The third exercise emphasizes the importanceof a steady stream of air and also uses paper as a prop. Theletter size paper is cut lengthwise into 2 inch (5 cm) strips.The students are to hold the paper just below the aperture of thelips and by blowing, cause the paper to rise and stay in oneposition. If the student blows too hard, the paper will "flap".What I'm looking for is for the paper to rise to a certainpoint and stay there without bouncing up and down. Ifyou're really into interdisciplinary teaching, you canexplain the physics of the exercise and that it's basicallywhat makes airplanes fly.

What is important with all of these exercisesis that the teacher stress keeping the formation of theembouchure intact and constantly questioning students as to whatthey are feeling physically as they perform the exercise. Havethem put a free hand on their abdomen and feel the tension of themuscles as they blow up the balloon or hold the paper against thestand. They will notice that with the long strip of paper beingheld in position, they are not blowing anywhere near as hard butthe tension in the abdomen is still there. This will help thembegin to understand the difference between the speed of the airand the volume of air. Holding the paper against the stand isakin to playing loud and holding the long strip of paper inposition without flapping is akin to playing soft.

Of course, none of these "fun things" willreplace long tone exercises as the fundamental tone developmentexercise. As I said earlier, I use the "F Concert" scaledescending as a long tone exercise for beginners. Forintermediate and advanced students (who know all the chromaticfingerings), I use a tone development exercise fromRascher's "Top Tones", which is a series of three notepatterns descending chromatically.

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

The mental part of tone production. Thisaspect of tone production has been stressed by good teachers formany, many years. A good friend of mine once said that he learnedmore about tone production from hearing his teacher play thananything else. While I doubt that's entirely true, there isa great deal to be said for emulating a quality sound. I reallybelieve that, once the sound is "in your head", it willeventually come out of the instrument. I think that it isimportant for a teacher to play with students and for students. Ithink that it's imperative that the teacher be able toproduce a good, characteristic tone quality on each instrumentthat he/she teaches. You don't have to be an artist on eachone, just be able to demonstrate a good sound. Just as a pictureis worth a thousand words, so is a good example of sound. Itdoesn't matter that you're not a brass player or thatyou play percussion. I believe that any good musician can learnto produce a good characteristic sound on every instrument. Thisis an area where we must lead by example. If they don't tryto sound like you, then who will they try to sound like?

The importance of listening cannot be overemphasized. Make students aware of artists on their instrument byplaying recordings of soloists. Be prepared to tell them wherethey can purchase these recordings. Since I don't allowbeginners to play until we are all playing as a group, I oftenhave recordings playing as the students enter the room and gettheir instruments. Of course, there's no way of knowingjust how effective this is but it cannot hurt for young studentsto recognize the names Don Sinta, Fred Hemke, Wynton Marsalis,Paul Desmond, James Galway, Larry Combs, Phil Woods, BillWatrous, etc. We all learn by emulation.

One of the gifts a teacher can give a studentis good things to copy. This can be especially difficult on thesaxophone as tones can vary greatly from one artist to anotherand a tone that will get "rave reviews" in a jazz setting willget you "ripped apart" in a concert setting. Someone once saidthat the saxophone and the alto clarinet have no characteristictone quality. I'm not so sure about the alto clarinet, butI do believe that the saxophone does have one and it's upto the teacher to help the student find it.

Equipment. Much has been written oninstrument and mouthpiece/reed/ligature selection. While it isvery important, I think that the mental and physical aspects oftone production are more of a factor. Until the embouchure isstrong and correctly formed, the air is leaving the mouth at theproper speed, and a concept of sound is developing, changes ofequipment will not always help the student. I believe thatbeginners should begin with a medium tip opening, a ligature thatworks, and a reed that is stiff enough to require a goodembouchure. If it's too easy to produce a sound, thenecessary strength in the embouchure will not develop. Igenerally start with #2 1/2 reeds and move to #3 as quickly aspossible. As a practical matter, I tend to use inexpensive reedswith beginners. They break many and the necessary reed strengthchanges quickly as strength develops. The second or third year issoon enough to "move up" to premium reeds. I try to startbeginners on the best equipment they can afford. I try to explainto parents the differences between the various price ranges.It's like painting your house. If you want to do it everyother year, then buy cheap paint. You do get what you pay for. Idiscourage "no name" brands but I don't think I'llever be able to eliminate them entirely.

Whatever the instrument/mouthpiece, it isimperative that it be in good working condition. An instrumentthat doesn't work properly not only impairs instruction,but it is very frustrating for the student. Keep disinfectantspray around and be prepared to play students' instrumentsfrom time to time. Examine their mouthpiece for chips whenexcessive squeaking occurs. You need to know if the problem isthe student or the instrument. For beginners, the instrumentshould also be rugged. Since moving to middle school from highschool several years ago, I have seen more instruments "hit thefloor" in one week than in 24 years of more advancedinstruction.

In closing, I suppose I should mention that,in my beginning band classes, I do not start any students on thesaxophone. All saxophone "wanna bees" start on clarinet and mustspend at least one year on the instrument before making theswitch. There is always some resistance and I will accept astudent who moves in already playing saxophone but, once myreasoning is explained to parents, there are few problems. I havemany reasons for doing this and most of you probably understandthem. I look at the "gift of doubling" as an extra benefit.I'll list a few of the reasons for those who maywonder.

1. After the student learns to "cross the break", the fingerings for the woodwinds transfer easily from oneto 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/oractual cost being generally twice that of a good beginner clarinet. This is a factor appreciated by parents who areconcerned that their child may lose interest and they'll be "stuck". As you all know, there has been a flood of very cheapsaxophones 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 theswitch 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 beginnersaxophones and work with beginning saxophones from other teachersin my area. For what it's worth, I don't start anydrummers either... but that's another story, for anothertime.

David Hollingsworth[/QUOTE]

Beginners Corner 11[/B]

Gift of Rhythm

Beginners Corner 13[/B]

Common Transpositions for Saxophone
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