Steven Banks

Saxophonist. Educator. Inclusion Advocate.

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable"

- Ludwig van Beethoven

If You Can Sing It, You Can Play It...Really?

Sound in Motion is easily one of the most thorough and well thought out music books that I have ever read. In his book, David McGill (professor of bassoon at Northwestern University and former principal bassoonist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) aims to give musicians the tools to present expressive, passionate performances that are still deeply rooted in an intellectual engagement with the music. I have recently finished reading it and I'm very eager to go through it again to really soak in some if it's finer details. It is so easy to present biased opinions when writing about music, but, in my opinion, he does an admirable job of presenting information in a way that does not seem aggressive or closed-minded. I, myself, may be a bit biased, however, because I happen to agree with most of his points! 

Sound in Motion is unique because  the concepts that are heavily based on personal taste are all compiled into one section called "Controversy." This section includes issues such as tone, intonation (just vs. equal temperament, etc.), ornamentation, and, the issue that I've been pondering recently...vibrato. 

For me, vibrato has always been a bit of a setback to my ability to play expressively. I, and lots of other saxophonists, have the tendency to just turn it on and off as if using vibrato is synonymous with playing with passion. I will never forget receiving the recording of the first concerto I ever played with orchestra. I took it to my teacher, Taimur Sullivan, and couldn't wait for him to say something about how great it was (which was my first mistake). Instead, he seemed pleased, but pointed out to me that I seemed to be keeping the beat by turning my vibrato off on every beat, creating very staggered and unmusical lines. I have, since then, tried all sorts of different approaches to being conscious of what my vibrato is doing at all  times, but I still haven't found a product that I'm 100% proud of. David McGill's writing, however, has launched me on a search to truly develop my approach to using and teaching vibrato in an intelligent way. 

As a saxophonist, I was taught to use a jaw vibrato. It was just what I did, because that's what I was told. I did all the exercises to develop the speed and facility necessary to do it with various intensities. I knew that some players use "diaphragm" vibrato, but I didn't really like how that sounded for me, so I left it in the back of my mind for the most part. I always knew that other instrumentalists used other techniques to create vibrato, but I never really thought about it. 

Throughout Sound in Motion, McGill discusses many of the ways that music relates to speech and the human voice. In relation to vibrato, he talks about using the same technique that a classically trained singer would use when using correct technique. From taking a few vocal lessons with a graduate student Indiana University, I knew that vibrato was not something that you had to try to do while singing. My teacher explained it as something that came as a result of using correct technique, but at that point I just took his word for it and didn't look into it any further. 

With all of these ideas about vibrato floating around in my head, I have recently decided to find out exactly what was happening when singers create vibrato. I found this article by Karyn O'Connor that succinctly explains the anatomical process of correct vibrato (as well as incorrect vibrato). I would STRONGLY recommend checking it out, because she goes into great detail. 

O'Connor Vibrato Article

Working this into my playing is still very much a work in progress, however, I have already noticed a widening in my palette of vibrati. Additionally, I feel that having an awareness of the connection between playing an instrument as an extension of one's voice has drastically changed my approach to playing. Allowing the vibrato to be a relaxation of the throat muscles in conjunction with slight jaw movement literally gives me the same feeling as singing with classical technique (although I'm certainly no expert vocalist!). Saxophonists work constantly to increase our flexibility by doing exercising in voicing. I feel now that many of the same sensations that one feels while bending a pitch or a changing the color of a note on the saxophone are very similar to those feelings of doing so with the voice. I'm very excited about the possibilities that come with opening yet another new door for myself to gain more expressive potential!

Below, there's a very short little diddy that I recorded in one of my first days working on this concept. I honestly have no idea what piece or etude it's from, but I used to watch Taimur Sullivan's YouTube instructional videos (here's the video if you want to geek out) just so I could listen to his playing excerpts at the beginnings and ends of the videos...so it's one of those with a wrong note or two... :)

This, of course, is not the only way of playing or using vibrato. There are situations in which the vibrato needs different levels of intensity, varying widths, and potential to create differing colors. Even within the nine second clip above, I tried to alter the vibrato style according to the shape and intensity of the line. For me, having another tool to use will allow to make very conscious decisions about the sounds that are appropriate for each situation. My end goal is to eliminate the auto-pilot vibrato that tends to creep into my playing and is an issue for lots of instrumentalists!

I am sure that many others before me have understood this connection on a much deeper level than I, but this way of thinking is totally new to me. I also feel that being able to articulate what I'm doing will help me when teaching such a lofty concept that is somewhat ambiguous. For more insight into this idea, I would really recommend reading Professor McGill's book for yourself. I'm very excited to be able to work with him a bit in the fall at Northwestern. I hope to gather some more insight for myself as well! I'd love to talk with any of you that may have experience with this or that may have questions about anything in this post!