The Saxophone’s Low Tessitura: Response, Control, and Intonation by Caleb Burkhardt

Playing in the low register is the bane of many classical saxophonists’ existence. These special notes, Low D, C#, C, B, and Bb, have some of the richest harmonics and feature more overtones than any other range of the saxophone. Despite the gorgeous qualities these notes possess, they have a few drawbacks. Response is difficult in this register, as the overtones often become more prevalent than the fundamental. Control is difficult, since most horns do not come from the factory set up in a way that maximizes the horn’s playability. And finally, intonation is made difficult by the lack of pitch correcting fingerings. Fortunately, there are solutions for each of these drawbacks.

The first and most obvious step in mastering the low register is having a horn that seals perfectly. Even the smallest leak on a saxophone is an issue. Leaks essentially function as an opened octave mechanism, which in turn accentuate the already prominent overtones of the lower notes. For example, trying to play a low Bb on a leaky horn will likely result in the first overtone sounding – a Bb one octave higher. A very common leak that is easily fixed by even the least technically proficient musician is a venting G# key. To test for this leak, play a low C and then depress the G# key. If it is leaking, there will be a slight buzzing sound. If this is the case, then take a screwdriver and turn the G# adjustment screw 1/8 turn to the right and repeat the test. Even with this DIY repair, use extreme caution. Overcorrection could potentially put the F# key and the rest of the right-hand stack out of adjustment. 

Professional players who are putting in four or more hours every day should have their horns serviced a few times a year to ensure that they are not working harder than is needed. A leaking pad takes much more force to close, and, even with increased pressure, may not seal entirely. The increased force required to perform on a leaking horn can lead to carpal tunnel, tendonitis, and similar problems.

Figure 1. Picture of G# Adjustment Screw

Once the saxophone is sealing properly, the mouthpiece is the next thing to consider. Facing length has a great affect on response in the different ranges of the saxophone. Facing length is determined by the “take-off point” which is where the reed leaves the table of the mouthpiece. A mouthpiece with a short facing lets less of the reed vibrate which favors response in high and middle registers, but sacrifices low response. In contrast, a mouthpiece with a long facing favors response in the low and middle registers. A medium faced mouthpiece will generally play well in all registers without favoring highs or lows. For reference, the AL3 and AL5 are described as medium long, a Selmer S80 C* is described as medium, and the AL4 is described as medium short. A medium faced mouthpiece is a good place to start because of its versatility. However, one may find that a shorter or longer facing aligns more closely with their style of playing, reed preference, or choice of repertoire.

One of the most challenging issues with this register is playing softly. Saxophonists have no problem belting out these low tones, but asking a player to fade to niente on a low Bb is a whole other issue. There are a variety of techniques to improve low-note response. Before employing any of these methods, it is important to make sure one has a consistent airstream and a flexible, not overly tight, embouchure.

One method that I have used with great success is removing the top teeth from the mouthpiece. By removing the top teeth one is essentially doing two things: opening up the oral cavity and thus creating more space, and letting the mouthpiece vibrate along with the reed. This typically affects the sound by making it warmer and rounder and gives the added bonus of stability in the low register (think about the tonal quality achieved when playing double-lipped).  

Another method is the use of “classical subtone.” This type of subtone is produced by gently touching the reed with the tongue while still letting the reed vibrate. By touching the reed, almost all of the overtones are removed from the sound. However, this sacrifice results in the ability to play barely audible bell tones (low C#, C, B, and Bb). One must be careful when either removing the top teeth or putting the tongue on the reed because they both greatly affect intonation. 


Besides implementing these techniques many players today use accessories to improve the low register. Perhaps the most common tool is the bell mute–used to assist with the pitch of the low register. This accessory was brought to the United States by Marcel Mule of the Paris Conservatory. Mule’s original design, as told by Larry Teal in The Art of Saxophone Playing, featured a wooden ring wrapped in velvet. This mute eliminates many of the upper overtones and lowers the pitch of the low B and Bb by closing off a portion of the bell. Contrary to what one might think, a mute of smaller circumference will have a greater effect on the pitch and will lower the notes more than a mute of larger circumference. A larger mute will not go as deep into the bell as a smaller one and thus has a lessened effect on both pitch and timbre. Additionally, the angle at which the mute is placed greatly affects pitch and timbre. Placing the mute horizontally has a stronger effect than when it’s placed vertically. Use caution when selecting and installing your mute, as you do not want to sacrifice the saxophone’s rich tone for the sake of pitch. The ideal situation is to have a mute with dimensions that correct pitch, but minimally affect timbre.

Figure 2. A bell mute for alto saxophone

 

Alternatively, one could take their horn to a technician and have it “set up” in a manner that adjusts for the bell tones’ high pitch. Pulling out on the mouthpiece fixes the issue of low note tuning, but leaves the rest of the horn playing fairly flat. By adjusting the key heights and experimenting with different placements of the mouthpiece, accomplished technicians can help find a happy medium.

Another problem is “warbles” in the low register. Many modern horns, Yamahas, Selmers, and Yanigisawas, come from the factory with warbles. Even a perfectly sealing horn can suffer from this phenomenon. Selmer Series III sopranos are notorious for their warbles around low E and F. A warble comes from an incorrectly sized air column preceding the tone hole of the note being produced. Thus, there are two kinds of warbles: a warble caused by an air column that is too small, and a warble caused by an air column that is too large. Both are usually fixable, but require very different solutions.

An over-sized bore/air-column is the easier fix of the two. To alleviate the problem, simply drop a wine cork or similarly sized item into the bell of any curved saxophone. This solution is a good remedy for warbles occurring from low Eb and down. Use variously sized corks to determine which best remedies the incorrectly sized bore. Young saxophone students are often experience warbles in their first attempts at the low bell tones. If a cork is not readily available, a quick fix is to drop the saxophone end plug into their bell.  (Editor’s note: I believe Marcel Mule called a cork used in this context “Le Petit Cochon” or “The Little Pig.” Can anyone verify?) 

For a straight saxophone, one solution is to fix a small patch of moleskin inside the bell. Both of these solutions work by effectively decreasing the size of the saxophone’s bore. The moleskin patch has the added benefit of lowering the pitch of low B and Bb. A more permanent and complicated solution is to create a brass baffle and glue or solder it into place inside the bore of the saxophone. The baffle approach can of course be used on a curved saxophone as well.

Figure 4. Moleskin inside YSS-875EXHG

The opposite problem, an under-sized bore, is more complicated. It is possible to physically expand the bore of the saxophone, although it is quite difficult. The method I employ is to remove the resonator from a pad and cut out a section from the pad itself. While this method is out of reach for most players, it can certainly be accomplished by any technician. I have personally found this to be the easiest way to fix this type of warble.

Figure 5. YAS-875EXG with a cut-out pad on RH 3

When all is said and done technique must serve the music. It is the performer’s job to execute passages musically and flawlessly despite the obstacles posed by their instrument. Hopefully the preceding techniques and fixes will help saxophonists explore new and exciting musical ideas in the low register. 

Be sure to read Great Drill to Balance Saxophone Intonation or Top Six Tricks to Improve Your Saxophone Embouchure for even more advice on how to make your low register sing! 

 

Caleb Burkhardt is an American saxophonist currently pursuing his M.M. at Bowling Green State University where he studies with the world renowned Dr. John Sampen. He holds a B.M. from the College-Conservatory of Music where he studied with Dr. Nathan Nabb and Dr. James Bunte. He has also done additional studies with Dr. Fred Hemke, Professor Emeritus at Northwestern University.   As an avid chamber musician, Caleb regularly performs with his flute and saxophone group Duo Metallique. In their 2017-2018 season Duo Metallique will be commissioning two full concert programs of new works for flute and saxophone. Additionally his saxophone quartet, Ultraviolet Quartet, just completed a full season which included performances at the Plowman and Fischoff competitions.

 

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One comment

  1. This was very helpful. I’m delighted to know that I was not weird for implementing that tongue technique to hit low notes. I play a Mendini, Chinese crap horn, but I’ve spent time trying to master the range of the instrument. This has given me more tips on how to do so.

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