Developing a Sound Concept for the Saxophone

“Developing a Sound Concept for the Saxophone” by Nathan Nabb

Discussing sound concept and its development is fraught with stumbling blocks. Tackling this topic requires both an exploration of the physical approach to the instrument and the qualities of the ideal, resultant tone. When discussing sound, we generally use two kinds of descriptors: metaphoric (dark, woody, round, bright, warm, color, cold, full, thin, etc.), and technical (in-tune, even, homogenous, quality attack, etc.). While both methods are necessary, neither fully gets to the root of how the sound was conceived. Students are regularly given myriad exercises to work on, and are then sent away to the practice room, where they promptly hit the wall.


There’s a missing ingredient. Assigning students technical exercises and telling them to practice more cannot bridge the gap between the mind and the sound produced. There can be many reasons for this, of course, but one of the biggest factors is that younger players very often cannot hear, much less define, the fundamental differences between a mature sound and an underdeveloped one. This brings me to an important point: your ears need to be better than your playing because if you can’t hear it, you can’t fix it. EARS are the bridge between the sound you imagine and the sound you create.

The great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry established some important principles in this regard. When learning to improvise, he said to “imitate, assimilate, and innovate.” For our purposes, we’re going to change it around a bit. I submit to you the Four I’s for Developing a Sound Concept

Investigate Imitate Integrate Innovate



The truth is I, like many of you reading this, was one of the students I mentioned earlier. I arrived at the University of Illinois in the fall of my freshman year full of ambition and energy. I was incredibly lucky to study with Debra Richtmeyer, one of the true master teachers of our instrument, as any of her students will attest. But, while I advanced quickly in so many ways, I also had my struggles. I knew my sound wasn’t where it needed to be. In discussing this with Professor Richtmeyer, she encouraged me to listen to as much as I could, and not just to saxophonists, but to great musicians across the spectrum. So, I did just that. I spent hours and hours listening and combing through the stacks at the library for great recordings.

In particular, I grew to love vocalists because of the natural ease with which they control their instrument. I marveled at Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s color and shaping of Mahler’s Rückertlieder, the clarity and beauty of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s performance of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and Jussi Björling’s projection and effortless legato in Nessun Dorma. These vocalists’ vibrato, color, control, projection, phrasing, note connection, and expression became the standard to which I held my saxophone playing. I also listened to other great musicians on all instruments, and of course, the giants of our instrument as well. I tried to listen intently, and absorb as much as possible.

As I investigated more music I became more discerning, and asked myself lots of questions:   

Do I like their tone? Is it pure? Is it round? Is it dark or bright?
Do I like their vibrato? Is it flexible and expressive? How fast is it? Is it appropriate for the music?
Do I like their articulation? Am I aware of the tongue in the sound? Is it crisp? Is it smooth and consistent?
Does the approach match the style of the music being performed? What was the performance practice when this was written, and do all of the answers to the aforementioned questions also reflect that?

The list goes on and on. And, most importantly, when employed regularly, that list becomes its own guiding force, further developing the discerning ear. This discernment then helps to begin to create your aesthetic. Additionally, these questions, when applied to your own performance, start to guide the growth and development of your sound concept.




What to do with that information? Start reverse engineering! A great way to do this is through transcription. I performed Dr. Hemke’s setting of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from Mahler’s Rückertlieder and attempted to copy Dieskau’s colors, shading, vibrato, and pacing. Imitating vocal technique on the saxophone, for instance, shows you how many variables you have the ability, or rather, the responsibility, to manipulate.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but one of the most valuable things I did in this process was also to decide what I didn’t like about somebody’s performance, and then try to imitate that. Sometimes, when you’re still not totally sure of what sound you want, knowing what you don’t want is the next best thing. And, through that process, you rule-out a lot of misguided applications. Slowly but surely, through the process of elimination, the sound begins to mature.  Imitation can be the most frustrating period during the sound concept process, but you have to be able to replicate what you hear on your saxophone before you can move to the next step.

As a long-term bonus, this can be turned into a serious teaching tool, because if you can identify and imitate what’s causing issues with sound, then you can efficiently address it with students. I still imitate every week in lessons.




Austin Kleon wrote the book Steal Like an Artist, which it is full of thoughts about how to grow as a creative person. In it he includes a bulleted list of important pieces of advice. One of these statements is “Creativity is subtraction,” and I think that is particularly appropriate here. After a long period of imitation, it’s time to begin integrating the sounds your now-matured ears like into your playing. This is not to say you should model your own approach after one specific person. In fact, I would advise strongly against that. If you go down this path, you’re not finding your own sound concept, but merely copying others. And just like copies of anything, be it recordings, paintings, or pieces of paper, the quality is diminished or “lossy” to borrow a recording tech term. Remember to investigate MANY different artists and performances so as to not become a lossy version of another artist.

The best way to integrate is first in your fundamental exercises. You know, the ones you should probably do more of: long-tones, scales, articulation patterns, airflow studies, vibrato exercises, etc., and record them. Then, ask yourself the same questions you asked of the professional recordings in the investigation stage. Applying this level of critical listening to fundamental studies will immediately make practicing more efficient and yield much better results, because it is practicing with direction and intent. Get to know the kinesthetic aspects of tone production: associate the sound with a particular feel.

Recording yourself is a huge component to success in this process. I still record my practice sessions on a regular basis. It’s so important to be able to hear the results of your work and critique it objectively, which is very difficult to accomplish while you are playing. John Cage put this very succinctly in a list of advice he wrote for members of the Merce Cunningham dance studio: “Do not try to analyze and create at the same time. They are different processes.”


From this solid base of technique and musicianship, you can put your own spin on things…innovate! You can easily create a huge compendium of exercises, combining the fundamentals, and stressing their musical values, not just emphasizing control. One exercise I’ve often given to students is to ask them to play a long-tone on a specified pitch, and then give them a descriptor or two. Through this, you can address articulation quality, dynamic choice, vibrato speed/depth concerns, breath control, and how they all work together. This context creates an essential shift in the way most students think about practicing fundamentals and technique. See below, for example.

While each of the component parts is often addressed via the traditional individual exercises I mentioned, we rarely spend time practicing the synthesis of these parts, and I would submit, that this is where the real upper-level learning and tonal development takes place. After all, it’s how all of these work together that defines your sound concept and a flexible, musically-thoughtful, approach.


Dr. Nathan Nabb maintains an active and multifaceted concert schedule, with regular performances in solo, chamber and orchestral settings, including numerous international engagements at music festivals and conservatories throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. As an orchestral musician, Nathan regularly performs with the St. Louis Symphony and the Houston Symphony, and has also performed with the Minnesota Orchestra, New World Symphony, IRIS Chamber Orchestra and Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. Recent orchestral performance highlights include concerto performances with St. Louis and Houston Symphonies, as well as a 2012 European tour with St. Louis Symphony, featuring concerts at the BBC Proms, Berlin Musikfest and Salle Pleyel.

Dr. Nabb holds teaching positions at Stephen F. Austin State University, where he is Professor of Saxophone, and at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he is Guest Master Teacher of Saxophone. Dr. Nabb’s students have won many competitions both in solo and chamber music settings and have been featured in performances and master classes at North American Saxophone Alliance regional and national conferences, as well as other local and regional clinics.

Nathan received his Doctor of Music and Master of Music degrees in saxophone performance from Northwestern University, where he studied with Dr. Frederick Hemke and was a two-time winner of the Northwestern University Chamber Music competition.  His bachelor’s degree is from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he studied with Professor Debra Richtmeyer.

Nathan proudly endorses D’Addario and Selmer products and performs on D’Addario reeds and Selmer Paris Saxophones.

Be sure to look out for Nathan’s new CD collaboration with Dr. James Bunte, as well as a new website about saxophone technique. Keep up to date with Nathan at! Also buy his wonderful music by clicking below:



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