Stop thinking, start listening – How to Improve the Sound of your Saxophone
When you’re a beginner or an intermediate sax student there is always a lot of things you need to keep track of while playing. Do I have the correct posture? Am I not biting on the reed? No puffed cheeks? Breathing from the lower abdomen? Fingers close to the keys at all times? And on top of that there are all the instructions on the music sheet: the rhythm, the notes, the articulation and the dynamics.
But there is only so much a human brain can process simultaneously. If you are trying to do all those things at once you are in danger of forgetting about a very important aspect; Listening. Hearing yourself play.
One of my students last week had been working on a Greg Fishman etude called “Chigaco Avenue” which is based on the chords of Ellington’s “Satin Doll.” The first four bars only contain six notes in a repeated rhythm.
The last note of these four bars is a B played with the octave key.
While playing along with the CD she played this note terribly sharp. She noticed but wasn’t able to correct it. The same thing happened second time around. “My high B sounds awful!!” she exclaimed. I asked her to look at the first grouping of three notes and play them. And then play them again without looking at the sheet. Her tone improved instantly. I repeated this process for the last grouping of three notes. Within a minute she played the four bar phrase by heart. This time the high B was spot on intonation wise. By shifting her attention from reading the notes off the sheet to the actual sound she was producing on the sax she succeeded in playing the pitch correctly. And with a more open, bigger sound too. I did not need to tell her to use a more relaxed embouchure on this high B. That would have probably just been adding to the confusion anyway since it would be one more thing to think about while playing. Instead, I had her use her ears and really listen to what she was playing over the “comping” on the CD. She was making the embouchure adjustment spontaneously.
I am not saying you shouldn’t think about posture, embouchure, breathing etc, etc but there is a time and place (or specific exercise) for everything. When you play long tones there is time to think about embouchure and breathing. Practising scales is a good time to think about finger positions, articulation and evenness of the notes. But don’t allow your brain to get cluttered with all that when playing music. It tends to get in the way of hearing yourself play.
When it’s time to play music (for an audience, for your teacher or just by yourself) use your ears and really listen to what you’re playing.
Good luck !
How to Improve the sound of your saxophone