(cover photo: The Edmonton Saxophone Quartet where the writers plays with)

The saxophone is the invention of a single man, Adolphe Sax (1814-1894), with the suggested year of invention of 1839, according to Jean-Marie Londeix. The saxophone is not a single instrument, but a whole family of instruments, which covers approximately the range of the piano.

The usual saxophone family consists of six members: Sopranino (E♭), Soprano (B♭), Alto (E♭), Tenor (B♭), Baritone (E♭), and Bass (B♭). The contrabass-saxophone does exist, but is extremely large and rarely used.

The saxophone has its most unique expression in the variety and flexibility of dynamic possibilities, the variety of its tone quality, and the diversity of its type of attack. Furthermore are the possibilities of playing extremely wide intervals, playing outside the tempered scale, playing in multiphonics, and also playing sounds and noises unique and irregular to the saxophone, such as key-clicks, pad sounds, breath effects and more.

The following information are excerpts of the materials I usually use for a high school workshop teaching. I hope you find it useful in your saxophone performance! 

Breathing

  • We are the experts in breathing since birth. But sometimes we need to adjust our breath support when playing a wind instrument.
  • The goal is to eventually let it become a habit by having a regular practice

Embouchure

  • The corners of the mouth should push toward the mouthpiece as if saying “ooh” (or imagine the goldfish mouth movement!). Corners of the mouth should wrap around the mouthpiece
  • Upper front teeth are placed evenly on top of the mouthpiece and lower lip rolled in comfortably to cover the lower front teeth
  • Embouchure in jazz playing is much more flexible, but still with the proper formation

Air, Oral Cavity and Tongue Position

  • Inhale through the mouth, and exhale warm air
  • Relax the back of the mouth and throat to get more air into the lunges more quickly. Treat the breath cycle as a constant moving process to avoid creating tension.
  • Tongue is use to guide the air stream. Different notes on the saxophone have different tongue positions/oral cavity shapes
  • The larger the saxophone, the less air pressure but greater air quantity is required

Exercise – With the proper embouchure, finger the notes as in actual playing and blow air through the mouthpiece (with reed) and into the instrument. Listen carefully to the pitches of the air stream, and to balance the quality of every single note. It should reflect the changes in dynamics and fluency of the music. What one hears in the air WILL reflect in the actual musical sound.

  • Test for embouchure and air balance using the mouthpiece alone. The student should be able to obtain the following notes on the respective instruments:

Soprano – concert C; Alto – concert A; Tenor – concert G; Baritone – concert D

If the result is a higher pitch sound, means that the student is putting too much pressure onto the mouthpiece. Vice versa, a lower pitch sound means more support from the embouchure is needed.

Articulation

  • To touch the reed with the tip of the tongue
  • The jaw is not moving up and down while tonguing
  • Use a smooth and consistent air stream

Vibrato

  • Should be taught as soon as students have a good characteristic sound – no later than the second year of study
  • Use jaw rather than breathe vibrato. Saying and singing the syllable “woo-woo-woo” to understand the feel of playing with vibrato

Equipment

  • Although it is not always possible to have the best-made instrument for students, we should try to stay with time and field-tested brands such as Selmer, Yamaha, Yanagisawa, etc
  • Have the instrument checked regularly to make sure the pads are not leaking. Summer break might be a good time to send the instrument in
  • The mouthpiece is another vital part of the saxophone. Make sure the tip opening is suitable for the level of the player

Recommended brands:

Mouthpiece

  • Classical – Yamaha (4C or 6C), Eugene Rousseau (NC4), Selmer (C*, S80, S90, Concept), Vandoren (AL3 or AL4/TL3 or TL4/BL3 or BL4)
  • Jazz – Meyer, Otto Link, Berg Larson (medium size 6 or 7)

Reed

  • Choose the right strength: 2-2 1/2 for beginners and 3-3 1/2 for intermediate to advanced students. Jazz playing normally require half size down from the classical reed strength
  • Classical – Vandoren blue box, V12, Rico Reserve Classical Select
  • Jazz – Vandoren V16, JAVA (green or red), ZZ, Rico Reserve
  • It needs to have a yellowish-brown or golden color with no green (too young) or brown discolorations (too old) in the vamp
  • Reeds need to be soaked thoroughly with water before playing and dried properly afterward
  • Reeds need to be stored in reed guards or other commercial holders. Store the reed guards in a ziploc bag are a good solution to keep the constant humidity
  • Always use a mouthpiece cap when not playing
  • Always rotate a few reeds
  • Make sure the reed is positioned securely and properly on the mouthpiece
  • Find a reed that plays easily on all registers with a good tone

Reed too soft?

  • Move it up slightly beyond the tip rail but not too much

Reed too hard?

  • Try to spend a few days to slowly break it in, by playing it 3-5 minutes every day
  • If the color of the reed is dark, especially in the heart area, the cane is probably dead and will not vibrate correctly

Squeaky reed?

  • Check if the reed seals with the mouthpiece; is it warped?
  • Check if the tip is chipped or cracked
  • Does the player have correct embouchure, correct tongue position, or excessively puffed cheeks?
  • Check if the tip rail of the mouthpiece is not damaged
  • Check if the ligature is broken or too loose
Chee Meng Low
Written By Chee Meng Low

An active performer and educator, Chee Meng Low is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Lethbridge Canada, where he conducts the University of Lethbridge Wind Orchestra, teaches saxophone performance, conducting and musicianship skills. He is also involved with the Edmonton Saxophone Quartet, U of L Faculty Wind Sextet, Symphonic Winds of NSO Malaysia, and has performed as a soloist, chamber musician and guest conduct in North America, Europe and Asia.

During 2007-2010, Chee Meng served as the Assistant Communications and Planning Manager for the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, developing the education & outreach programs, as well as implementing the daily operations of the orchestra. In addition to that, he also served as one of the saxophone instructors for the College of Music, Mahidol University, coaching private lessons, saxophone quartet and saxophone ensemble and serving the College as assistant to the Deputy Director for Academic and Research Affairs.

A recipient of the University of Alberta FS Chia Doctoral Scholarship, Chee Meng holds a Doctor of Music degree from the University of Alberta Canada, under the guidance of William H. Street (saxophone) and Dennis Prime (conducting). While working on his degree, Chee Meng taught Band Technique and Aural Skills courses at the University of Alberta and served as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the saxophone ensemble, symphonic wind ensemble, and concert band.

Chee Meng was a member of the International Committee, World Saxophone Congress (2006-2009), regional representative of the Asia Pacific Band Directors’ Association (2007-2010), and current member of the North American Saxophone Alliance and Alberta Band Association.