Great Drill to Balance Saxophone Intonation

Most of player’s intonation problems come from two issues:

  1. Inability to hear the pitch
  2. Inflexible embouchure

I addressed the second problem in my post, Top Six Tricks to Improve Your Saxophone Embouchure, if you need a review of how to get your embouchure on fleek. Also, the drill I describe in this post uses one the easiest interval to hear, the octave, so we’re covered there too!

I used to always wonder why classical players had different intonation problems then jazz saxophonists, but after playing a wee bit in both styles it is now abundantly clear that most classical players use too much jaw pressure. As an example, a lot of classical players have problems tuning over the break (middle register left hand notes B, C, and C# to upper register notes like D, D#, and E). Top jazz saxophonists simply don’t have this issue because their lack of jaw pressure allows them to easily glide between registers. This problem is amplified when classical players use harder reeds to accommodate for their jaw-pressure habit. Hard reeds only exacerbate intonation problems because you have to clench down even harder to produce a sound. As a result you have even less flexibility in intonation, low notes respond poorly, and it is difficult to connect large, especially descending, intervals (i.e. descending from any octave-key note to a non-octave-key note).

The chief reason we don’t want jaw pressure or biting is that it constricts not only the reed but your options with both sound and intonation! When you use static, tense jaw pressure you cannot move your bottom teeth up and down or forward and back. You need this motion in your embouchure to manipulate pitch. For example, moving your jaw up and down allows you to make the pitch sharper (up) or flatter (down). Moving the jaw forward and back has a huge impact on color, dynamics, and response in the high and low registers. There are certainly intonation issues with the saxophone, but these are only amplified the tighter you make your embouchure. When your jaw and lips are flexible you can glide between problem notes (i.e. connecting left hand middle register to first-octave-key notes), connect large intervals, and have better response in the low and high register. I think of the embouchure and reed as if they were the left hand and strings on a violin. The left hand of a violinist is able to slide up and down the string to correct pitch; similarly, the bottom lip and jaw can do much the same on the reed.

Joe Allard again comes to the rescue with a drill that I have used with my students again and again:

Click HERE to download this exercise

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To activate the upper register in Allard’s drill, try to phonate “hee” while fingering the lower register note. Also experiment with how little jaw pressure you can use to activate the upper register. While it’s great to be flexible, this drill will help to eliminate any superfluous jaw movement because the parameters are so tight. Because you’re tuning octaves and want the tone qualities to relatively similar there’s no room for an overactive jaw, so cut the fat and get those intervals smooth. When I was finally able to connect the octaves smoothly and play them in tune I was forced to:

  1. Push in my mouthpiece to make the lower register in tune and resonant
  2. Use MUCH less lip pressure in the upper register
  3. Reduce superfluous tongue and throat movement

This third point should be addressed a little bit. It serves as a caution to classical players because I believe most classical players play these notes with too much jaw pressure. The result is that middle E, Eb, and D are sharp, and because the jaw and lip are locked classical players must adjust these pitches with their throat. There are two problems with this approach: 1) it is too difficult to slur down the octave in tune and smoothly because of the jaw pressure and the compromised, note-specific throat position, and 2) it is too hard to connect upper register notes to left hand middle register notes (i.e. connecting middle E, Eb, and D to “left-hand” middle-C#, C, B and Bb).

Remember, practicing my embouchure tricks in conjunction with this Joe Allard drill will make you an intonation all-star.

This drill is a foundational exercise, but it only covers a limited range of the saxophone. I’m hoping to address palm keys and ALTISSIMO in a slew of posts in the future. However, my advice in those posts will not be too dissimilar to what I wrote above. If you strangle the reed with jaw pressure, you limit your options for intonation, note connection, and even sound colors!

In the meantime, thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on tuning the saxophone by commenting below.

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