Some thoughts about tone quality

What is necessary in order to achieve a focused, warm, tone quality?

I see this question (or a variation of it) just about every day on various Internet message boards and social media posts.  I also see the numerous responses to this question – some are insightful, others are just plain ridiculous.  What I try to teach my students is that a tonal concept ultimately comes from within the individual player.  The equipment we use is only the set of physical tools that helps one to create their tonal concept as best as they can.

So this begs the question: what should a saxophone sound like?

There is no single answer to this question.  It depends upon the personal preferences of the individual player.  For myself, I like the darker sounds associated with one group of saxophonists.  When I was much younger, I listened to these players over and over again and got that type of tone inside my head (or inner ear).  I have striven to emulate this tone as best as I could, which necessitated purchasing a certain type of mouthpiece to help me achieve that type of sound.  Once I had my new mouthpiece, I worked diligently to sound as best as I could on it.  After some time, I noticed a dramatic improvement in my tone quality; however, I also noticed that I didn’t quite sound like the players I was listening to.  I sounded similar, but not exactly like them.  There is another crucial element to determining one’s tone quality, and that is the construction of the player’s oral cavity.  Since each person has their own unique physical characteristics, these would undoubtedly have an influence on that person’s tone quality.  This, as well as the inner tonal concept, are the two most influential parameters of a player’s tone quality.  Even if two players use the same exact mouthpiece, ligature, reed type/strength, and instrument, they will sound different from one another.  There will understandably be similarities, but each individual will sound slightly different due to their differing oral cavities and inner tonal concepts.

There is no “magic” mouthpiece or trick.  A good tone comes from within.  It comes from your physical being, your tonal preferences, a great deal of hard work, and a mouthpiece that helps you to best achieve the sound you’re searching for.

Healthy Practice Habits

When I work with students, I often encounter this question: “How do I practice?”.  There is no single “correct” way to practice, but I’ve used a simple methodology that works for me, and I share it with my students.

I begin my practice sessions with simple tone building exercises (long tones with a metronome, tone imagination, and overtones). These exercises develop not only proper breathing, but also stamina, pitch awareness, and flexibility. I set the metronome at a very slow tempo (for me, quarter-note = 46) and attempt to stretch how long I can sustain a tone. For students who haven’t developed their lung capacity to this degree, I generally have them set the metronome at quarter-note = 72 and work backwards to a slower tempo. I use exercises from Sigurd Rascher’s “Top Tones for the Saxophone” and Donald Sinta’s “Voicing” to practice overtones and pitch bending exercises. Daily practice of these exercises will increase your tonal flexibility, ability to hear tones before playing them, sense of pitch, and overall breath control. I also use a mouthpiece pitch bending exercise to develop embouchure focus.

Articulation and technical work is next. Using Rascher’s “Scales for the Saxophone” and “158 Exercises”, I pick certain scales/arpeggios that I want to work on that particular day (i.e. major, minor, or whole-tone). Simply practicing scales/arpeggios in sixteenth-notes at various tempi is not enough. Everyday (or every few days, depending on difficulty) I choose a rhythm from the “Scales for the Saxophone” text, one that I made up myself, or one from a piece of music that I am studying, as well as an articulation pattern (from any of the previous sources). This then becomes the pattern to practice the chosen scales/arpeggios. Very often, I need to begin at a slower tempo to focus on all of these parameters before it becomes comfortable. I then apply the same articulation and rhythmic pattern to arpeggios from the “158 Exercises.”  Additionally, I practice a line or two of the altissimo tone exercises out of “Top Tones” and/or “Voicing” to continue developing my proficiency in that register.

Finally, I practice the repertoire I’m studying. I try to incorporate Bach (or another composer from the common practice period) into my daily practice regiment, in order to practice good phrasing and sensitivity to the musical line. Recital pieces (i.e. sonatas, unaccompanied works, chamber pieces, etc.) are also practiced. I generally don’t set any limit on how much of the music I’m going to practice. I begin with the first phrase, and if I meet with some success, I’ll move on to the next phrase, and so on.  Singing the phrases is a great way to develop your inner ear and overall concept of a work. I cannot emphasize it enough.

These are just some of my thoughts regarding how to practice. It’s by no means a comprehensive list of techniques, but I have met with some success implementing this method into my practice regiment. If anyone has any comments, please don’t hesitate to let me know what you think.