Steven Banks

Saxophonist. Educator. Inclusion Advocate.

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

- Ludwig van Beethoven

That's Gon' Be A Fascinatin' Transition (Yes, It's a Kimmy Schmidt Reference)

INTRODUCTION

I am confronted by the fact that I no longer have the safety net of being a student musician. As such, I am actively considering the characteristics that the successful professional musicians that I admire have. I need to be sure now more than ever that I will be prepared to sound my absolute best anytime I am called for a gig or give a public recital. I find that my favorite single and double reed performers and teachers have objectively incredible sounds, but bring something unique and easily identifiable to the table as well. In this post, I will focus on the search for the ability to create the sound that you visualize in your mind’s eye.

If you dig deep enough, you will find that the common thread is that we all create our sounds by vibrating a reed and allowing our instrument to be an amplifier for those vibrations. All of our pedagogical ideas are in some way helping us facilitate the vibration of our reed and how those sound waves travel through the instrument. Realizing this simple fact has helped me refine my overall approach to saxophone playing.

There are two concepts that I have found most helpful in quickly developing and improving sound for myself and my students. The first is to consciously think about allowing the reed to vibrate freely. The simple change of mindset from playing your instrument to allowing your instrument to sound has a wealth of benefits. The second is to do regular spectral analysis of your sound to ensure that the instrument is amplifying those free vibrations in the exact way that you want it to. Talking about sound can be very difficult since we all have different definitions of terms like bright, dark, warm, round, among others. Seeing a visual representation of these sounds takes out the guesswork out of your own practice sessions and when explaining a concept to a student.

 

ALLOW THE REED TO VIBRATE FREELY

Embouchure

As saxophonists, the first step to making sure that the reed can vibrate freely is to optimize the placement of our embouchure around the mouthpiece. The point of contact with the reed should be at the point where the reed and the facing curve of the mouthpiece separate or possibly even further towards the ligature. This will ensure that neither our natural embouchure pressure nor vibrato usage is dampening the natural vibrations of the reed. In my experience, most classical saxophonists do not take in enough mouthpiece to ensure free reed vibration. Sometimes the answer to taking in too little mouthpiece is to consciously keep the chin more forward, and other times there needs to be more mouthpiece taken in all around. I believe that classical saxophonists often subconsciously dampen the reeds vibrations because it reduces the upper overtones in the sound. This “dark” or “covered” sound is lucrative, but it ends up making it much more difficult to play in tune, articulate, have a natural sounding vibrato, and certainly takes away from the natural acoustic resonance of the instrument.

Similarly, it is vital that the embouchure is incredibly consistent and firm so that the pressure on the reed is as consistent as possible. If you look carefully at the embouchures (particularly the upper lip) of top-tier professional single reed players, you will notice that there is virtually no movement, even in extreme registers and with large intervallic motion. This is because they realize that any disturbance of the reed actually makes these difficult gestures more difficult. Once you truly internalize the fact that the embouchure must stay completely steady, you can focus your energy on the things that should actually be flexible like tongue position and air pressurization.

One extremely effective way to make sure that your embouchure is strong and consistent is to spend time practicing with a double lip embouchure. The double lip embouchure gives you more awareness of your upper lip musculature and decreases your chances of biting. Many people give up on double lip before they experience the effects of it because is definitely harder to get the same amount of flexibility and control as playing single lip. However, this is precisely the point. If it hurts your upper lip to play with the double lip embouchure, then you probably rely too much on biting in your playing. If the sound is really muted or covered when using this technique, then you can experiment with taking in more mouthpiece or making sure that your chin stays forward so that the reed can vibrate freely. While double lip playing has lots of benefits, its ability to make you focus on the right muscles in your embouchure is undeniable.

Another common flaw with the saxophone embouchure that takes away from reed vibration is the bunching of the chin and lower lip into the reed. Bunching into the reed increases the surface area of skin that is actually touching the reed which, in turn, takes away from its natural vibrations. Some students have not developed the ability to control their chin and lower lip muscles, so it is imperative that they consistently monitor their practice in the mirror or by video recording their practice sessions.

 

Breathe, Don’t Blow

There is a fantastic article by bassoonists C. Robert Reinert and Alan Goodman entitled Breathe, Don’t Blow, in which they discuss the idea that using excessive force when pushing air through your instrument actually negates your ability find the maximum resonance and vibrance in your sound. This idea is best understood when listening to players back to back in a large hall. Some have an ability to consistently project while staying relaxed, and others may look like they are putting a lot of physical effort into their playing without actually having a sound that resounds in the hall.

Physically speaking, there is truly not a great amount of air that can actually go through the tip opening of the saxophone mouthpiece at one time. The amount of air you push through the mouthpiece does not determine how loud the sound is that comes out. What matters is how you manipulate your airstream to get the maximum vibration and full spectrum of overtones out of your particular setup combination. Through using spectral analysis, which I will discuss more fully later, I have learned that many times forcing more air through the instrument makes some of the overtone spectrum less present than if I back off on the air pressure and make sure that my chin is forward and out of the way of the reed. This method of projection also makes you hyper-aware of when your sound may be starting to spread or distort. Spreading or distortion is a result of pushing more air through your setup than it can handle. If this is happening (assuming that you are not biting), something in your setup needs to change so that it can handle your full, natural airstream.

 

 Find the Right Setup

In my personal quest to allow my reeds to vibrate freely and enjoy the natural acoustic qualities of my instrument, I have found myself making lots of changes in my setup (ligature, reeds, neck, mouthpiece, etc.). The two most notable pieces of equipment that I have started using are the Silverstein Original brushed silver ligature and the lefreQue sound bridge. Both of these products give me the ability work less hard to create a sound that is vibrant, relaxed, and still capable of projecting.

The Silverstein ligature is exceptional because of its customizability and capability to have a firm, yet free grasp on the reed. This ligature has what the company calls “fine tuners,” which are two metal bars that the player can easily move to prioritize different characteristics in the sound. For example, when I’m looking a sound that naturally has less upper overtones, I move the fine tuner bars as far away from the reed as possible. When I need projection and extra vibrance, I can move these bars so that they are actually touching the reed and enhancing the vibrations like a metal ligature would. This customizability enhances my ability to find a wider palette of tone colors during a single performance. This is certainly not a replacement for practice in finding the full spectrum of your sound. This does, however, make that search for different colors significantly more easy and natural.

The cord that Silverstein uses in their ligatures allows it to have a small surface area of contact with the reed, that still holds the reed securely in place. In the quest to free the reed as much as possible, having less contact with the reed is desirable. I find that this ligature allows my good reeds to play their absolute best, but is not as forgiving of a reed that is not sealing properly, cut well, or made with bad cane. In the end, this actually saves me time, because I don’t spend as much effort using bad reeds and wondering if the problem is me or my reed.

The lefreQue sound bridge is a fascinating invention that is capable of being used on any wind instrument that has multiple parts. The product is a pair of metal plates that connect the vibrations of the various parts of an instrument (for saxophone: mouthpiece to neck, neck to body, etc.). Scientifically speaking, the lefreQue allows the fundamental and overtones in your sound to travel through the instrument more naturally. It allows the sound waves of the overtones to match the length of the fundamental and, therefore, makes the instrument generally more in tune. The previously troublesome overtones contribute to the sense of difference resistances on each note. The lefreQue’s effects help to even out the resistance of each note on the instrument. This, in turn, makes intervals more connected, your instrument more even throughout the range, and gives you a greater control of dynamics. Again, this piece of equipment gives you the ability to have the greatest amount of musical flexibility with the least amount of mental and physical exertion.

 

ANALYZE YOUR SOUND REGULARLY

Sound is one of the most difficult aspects of music to discuss objectively with other people. Terms like bright, dark, warm, rich, and other descriptors can easily get lost in translation between teacher and student as well as among colleagues. However, I believe that the future of this discussions will be based on facts and less on terms that can not actually be defined. I have already had a lot of success using this as a teaching tool in lessons and as a way to maximize blend and tone matching in chamber music, in addition to the amazing realizations that I have had about my own solo playing.

With the help of an amazing app called SpectrumView 2, we can now analyze our sound with a smartphone, just as easily as using a tuner. The app comes with a spectrogram, spectral analyzer, recording capability, and the ability to turn off the auto-gain feature on your device's microphone (very important!). It is also free, and the only in-app purchases that you would encounter allow you to import your favorite recordings from iTunes and SoundCloud to find the sound makeup of your favorite performers in real time. The possibilities with this technology are seemingly endless!

As a teaching tool, spectral analysis facilitates discussion about sound, evenness of intervals, projection, articulation, connectivity of line, and more. When it comes to sound, I have found that students find it extremely helpful to be able to see the makeup of their sound in comparison to yours as the teacher. Many times, students cannot hear what makes their sound different from their teachers initially, but seeing a visual representation of these differences is undeniable and makes a cognitive bridge from the eye to the ear. As a student starts to make aural connections to what they see, they develop the ability to hear more clearly the nuances of sound that are possible. This app gives you the ability to visualize the effects of allowing the reed to vibrate freely. Resonance and projection in a come from there being a clear representation of sound at a wide spectrum of the overtones for each particular note. Using this app, you can realize that pushing more into the instrument is not generally what does that. You can begin to experiment with other contributors to your sounds makeup and literally see the effects that they can have.

When teaching evenness and connectivity, spectral analysis gives the student a clear path to success that has not been capable before. When tackling a tough interval, I first have the student play the two notes in question and analyze the sound of each note. Generally, higher notes have a wider spectrum of overtone peaks that are further away from each other, making them more and more unstable as you go up, but great for projection. Low notes are based more firmly on the fundamental and don’t project as well because of the lack of overtone representation. Once they have played the two notes separately, we find a strategy to make the shape of the analysis curves look the same. This means that there is a similar representation of overtones in each note. Students usually have to find a way to enhance the spectrum of the lower note to match the higher one. I find that ensuring that the reed is not being dampened (keep the chin/bite point forward, not overblowing, etc.) in any way for the lower note generally opens it up to a greater overtone spectrum. Once they are capable of making the same curve shape on both notes, they must practice doing so while going between the two notes with no break. This is another case when you have to think about the reed vibrating without interruption. The hiccup that happens between two is a quick moment when the reed has been disturbed. Sometimes this means that they need to depressurize the reed before the interval and other times it requires more pressurization. Either way, a successful interval will keep a similar curve shape when before, during, and after the note change.

 

CONCLUSIONS

I have already seen the effects of this approach in my own playing, in chamber groups that I am in, and with students that I teach. For the first time in my life, I am very confident that the sound that will come out of my instrument every time I play is very close to the one that I visualize in my head. If it isn’t, I have pedagogical tools to help me get it back very quickly. It is important to note that these advances have absolutely been facilitated by changes in equipment. Since my priorities have changed, I have switched my mouthpiece (S-90 180 facing), ligature (Silverstein Original - Brushed Silver), neck (Selmer Series III - Solid Silver), and added lefreQue sound bridges to connect the mouthpiece to the neck, and the neck to the body. This equipment has not necessarily changed my sound, rather it makes it significantly easier for me to get the sound that I want consistently. Sometimes I forget that saxophone pedagogy is still rather young, so it is exciting to have the opportunity to be a part of its development!