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Is it necessary to practice long notes on the saxophone?

4730 Views 91 Replies 55 Participants Last post by  -j.
Hi everyone I have a question about practicing long tones on saxophone. Some musicians say that after a certain point, it's not necessary to practice long tones anymore since they're only for beginners, while others believe the opposite. I really admire the great sound of musicians like Euge Groove, and I was wondering what your opinion is on this. Do you still practice long tones in your current practice routine, or do you feel like it's something you don't need anymore? I would really appreciate your input and any additional information you can provide on this matter.馃檹
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You don't HAVE to practice long tones, but if you have any interest in developing a rich compelling flexible sound over the full range of the horn and the full range of dynamics from pppp to ffff, they sure help. I'm not saying that refusal to do tone building exercises will result in a pinched uninteresting dull sound, but there's a good chance of it.

But practicing long tones does NOT mean being a surly middle schooler and playing some notes for a while. You practice long tones, like you should practice anything, with INTENTION and with ATTENTION.
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There's nothing WRONG with using ballads for tone practice, but there are two ways in which it's not as good as specific tone practice.

1) Very few ballads cover every single note in the entire key range of the horn from low Bb to as high as you can play altissimo. No ballads involve the complete range of dynamics from pppp to ffff unless of course you specifically do something about this. Every note, and every dynamic level, is a little different in its response.

2) No matter how you play with the time, you'll still be constrained by the song's form to moving from one note to the next to keep the song going. So if you need to go back to that low F#, you probably won't.

My particular tone practice consists of playing each note on the saxophone from low Bb to the highest altissimo I have, starting at pppp, crescending to fffff, then back down to pppp. If the note drops out when very soft, or breaks up when very loud, I go back and try it again. On the lower notes of baritone, I'll need to take each note in a couple of breaths. One of the objectives is to increase dynamic range. If you are regularly practicing going from too soft to too loud and back again, while trying to maintain a constant tone quality and a constant pitch, over time the soft and loud dynamic levels at which you can play with a pleasing tone in tune will get softer and louder. The wider the range of "just barely in control", the wider the range of "in pretty good control" will be, and the wider the range of "command of the instrument with complete control of expressive qualities" will be. (This applies to range as well; someone who's spent several hundred hours concentrating on starting low Bb at pppp level, or playing high F in the palm keys at ffff without having the reed close up, willl have a far better control of these extremes of tessitura.)

And the last point: I recommend that tone exercises be done, whenever possible, outdoors in a location far away from reflective surfaces. This helps build a big husky tone with vibrancy. Avoid practice room tone.
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Can someone give me a ballpark guess here so I don鈥檛 have to compute it? Well here I鈥檒l try鈥 30 notes on the horn times what? 30 seconds per note so 15 minutes just holding the notes. You work on this 15 minutes every time you practice? (Probably more if you鈥檙e doing the dynamics or other exercises on the notes?) The question isn鈥檛 whether this is a beneficial thing to do鈥 obviously it is. The question is opportunity cost: that was a transcription you might have learned, or a new tune you could鈥檝e gotten down.
Well, the idea of doing this every time you have a practice session is much more of an ideal than a reality.

But "frequently" would be what I'd say.

I'd also point out that if you know 1000 tunes but play with a pinched dull tone and bad intonation, no one will want to listen to you; but you can play the simplest stuff with a big rich compelling expressive tone and everyone will want to listen to you.
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Since I'm the one who wrote the most lengthy post on the pro-long-tones side, I'd like to clarify:

I did NOT say you can't build tone through other means than long tones. I would like to suggest, though, that other things mentioned here do not provide the CONCENTRATION on tone quality that practicing JUST that will do. You do all realize that professional athletes almost uniformly spend time in the gym working on strength, flexibility, and aerobic capacity? Even though the game of American football does NOT involve lifting weights, nor the striking of yoga poses, nor the running of long distances rather than sprints, I can guarantee you that all successful NFL players stretch, they all spend time in the weight room, and they all run laps.

We practice to get better at things. Practice that's concentrated on a specific item is generally more effective for that item than diffuse practice. You need multiple things to be covered in practice, of course. That's why we practice scales; that's why we have etudes; that's why we (many of us) practice overtones; and if you choose to use long tones (there are several different ways to do this), you'll be spending that time concentrating purely on airstream, voicing, embouchure, and the resulting pitch and timbre. You won't be spending any of your attention on fingering, on changing notes cleanly, on expression, on vibrato, on improvisation, on remembering the melody, on reading the notes. You'll need to practice those things elsewhere. And of course you'll need to practice putting it all together, by performing repertoire.

There are as many practice regimens as there are musicians, but I always come back to the proposition that the standard pedagogical methods are generally the fastest most efficient way for most people to get up to speed and/or maintain themselves at a high pitch of performance.
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Listen to the tonal quality of Tony Bennett or Patsy Cline, then compare to that of Bob Dylan or Billie Eilish. Can you tell who's spent time developing proper voice support in the bel canto tradition, and who hasn't?
It's not that the examples of singers (and I didn't spend a lot of time thinking of specific examples, to be honest) were formally taught, but rather that they learned the techniques, whether on their own or by instruction. Good deep diaphragmatic breaths, open air ways, proper projection, etc. Dylan sings through his nose with what's really a rather unpleasant tone; it fits his performance persona, it works for him, but it's an extremely idiosyncratic way to sing. Eilish needs to take about four cups of coffee and breathe. That creaky half asleep thing has a temporary vogue, but it's not an impressive vocal tone. I find nothing compelling about the sound. It may well fit HER performance persona of the bored alienated teenager.

Moving back to the saxophone, it's pretty easy for someone who has a full command of the production of saxophone tone, to choose to play with a pinched tone narrow dynamic range inaccurate vibrato and avoid the extremes of range. It's not so easy for someone whose only tools are the pinched tone narrow dynamic range inaccurate vibrato and has to avoid the extremes of range, to do otherwise and play over the full range of the horn with a wide dynamic range, rich compelling tone, accurate and appropriate vibrato, and flexible timbre.

Getting back to the prescription of exercises, I continue to believe that for the majority of people, subject-specific exercises are the most efficient way to master and maintain mastery of a subject. Long tones specifically target tone timbre dynamic range and pitch over the full range of the horn. Can you develop these by other means? Absolutely! I'm just offering that in my opinion and the opinion of pretty much every professional instructor of saxophone, the long tones exercises are an effective efficient way to get there.
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