Saxophonists, from beginners to veterans, are always looking for ways to improve their sound. Every time you practice your taste and intuition direct you toward the sound you want. Below are some quick tips on how to accelerate the process of finding that sound. However, be forewarned because this is not an article about the hottest new setup, saxophone brand, and mouthpiece/reed combination. Don’t become seduced by new (or old) equipment before you have tried everything I describe here.
This one is pretty obvious, but you should listen to your favorite artists. Naturally, the more you listen to someone the more you will begin to model your sound after theirs. It turns out we humans are expert imitators. This is due to the brain’s mirror neurons, which allow humans to observe other people and model their behavior. Our innate ability to imitate each other not only allowed us to survive as a species, but develop culture and civilization! In summary, if you want the culture or tradition of the instrument to grow, you better be listening and modeling.
I would recommend that saxophonists of any style get in the habit of transcribing because this is the most potent and expedient way to assimilate another saxophonist’s sound. Jazz musicians are quite adept at transcribing because it is the best strategy for learning jazz and its unique feel, rhythm, and expression. This process was described to me as doing your “desert island shit” to me by Dave Liebman in a masterclass. What he meant was that you need to sit down with a recording for a very long time and completely absorb every detail of the saxophonist’s playing. Liebman then played recordings of his students perfectly imitating the sounds of such masters as John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
Classical players rarely imitate to this extent because they learn their music from the page. It would be fruitful for any classical saxophonist to use Liebman’s strategy. In fact if you want to improve your classical sound, try this: transcribe the next solo piece you want to learn from a recording of your favorite saxophonist WITHOUT the music.
CHANGE YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Your sound will always meld with the environment you practice in most. So when you play in a big room your sound will grow to fit the space. With that growth comes a lot of qualities that are undesirable in a smaller room. In my case, when I play in a small room I’m alarmed at how much “stuff” is in my sound. “Stuff” can range from airiness, buzziness, grit, and what Itzhak Perlman described in Jascha Heifetz’ sound as “JJT” or “ZZT” (sp?). Here’s a better explanation from the man himself. Perlman argues that the negative qualities in the sound are absorbed by the hall, and THE AUDIENCE is left with a luminous full sound.
Anyone who is well-acquainted with their “big-room” sound should experiment with playing in a small space to work out the finer details. This was the case with the principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, Liang Wang. He practiced for a month in his closet while preparing for his audition with the NY Phil in 2005, and the rest is history. Thus, depending on your needs utilize a bigger or smaller room to get instant feedback to change your sound.
And if you have not watched the complete “The Art of Violin”, it’s time:
CHANGE YOUR EARS
During my undergrad my professor, Dr. Frederick L. Hemke, always told me that my ears needed to change. He reminded me constantly that as my ear matured my sound and musicality would mature with it. To expedite these ear-changes Dr. Hemke recommended long tones, listening to great musicians, and even reading great authors or going to the museum. While Dr. Hemke’s advice is pure gold and I teach the concept to my students today, I have since taken a more literal stance on changing my ears.
I recommend anyone who is looking to improve their sound, and possibly protect themselves from damaging their hearing to purchase a pair of high fidelity ear plugs. I went to an audiologist and had my ear canal injected with play putty to create a custom pair. Though these are a bit pricier they store conveniently in my saxophone case and are there whenever I need them. If you are not willing to spend a couple hundred dollars then there are all kinds of alternatives on the web (please leave a comment below if you have a pair you would recommend).
Beyond just protecting your ears, ear plugs simulate a lot of what is provided by a big room. When I practice with my earplugs I get the sensation of pushing the sound out of my saxophone, instead of letting notes get caught in my throat. I have found that the sound I appreciate so much is not exactly sound that best serves my audience. Just like the big room vs. small room phenomena because of your proximity to your instrument when you play you are able to hear much more in your tone than the audience. The ear plugs allow you to play with that “stuff” in your sound you might otherwise eliminate. For me, wearing ear plugs puts me in the audience’s seat, thus giving me the big room sound when practicing in your closet.
I’ve already written extensively on this topic. Click on that link and be sure to read the tips on how to improve your embouchure. With a better embouchure you are guaranteed to get a better tone regardless of your setup.
Do you have any tricks you would like to share? Please leave a comment below!
And be sure to Like Saxophone Performance on Facebook!