Playing Low Notes
Saxophonists spend much time and effort exploring the notes above the normal range of the saxophone, and a great many (good) words have been written and published about how to play them. Yet, very little information is available on a successful approach to the lower end of the Saxophone. Everyone seems to have an opinion on how to play the lower notes; who hasn’t heard advice such as "drop your jaw," "brush the reed lightly with the tip of the tongue," or even "use a soft reed?" While these suggestions may appear to have some justification, without a deeper understanding of the elements of the saxophone sound producing mechanism, the above mentioned advice can be more detrimental than helpful. Moreover, very little has been written on how to play these notes consistently at soft dynamic levels. What follows is not a method, but a few simple techniques for helping produce these notes. They are straight forward ideas that have been proven by professional saxophonists and students alike.
It goes without saying that to play low notes softly, your saxophone must be well constructed, free from leaks and properly adjusted. Pads that leak will make playing low notes softly on the saxophone very difficult. Once your horn is free from leaks (and I recommend checking your saxophone periodically with a leak light – don’t simply take the word of your repair technician, unless you trust him/her very much), you need to check the articulated G# adjustment, something that can actually be difficult to do effectively with a leak light. The articulated G# key adjustment is important, because when you play any of the low notes – C#, B, or Bb - the G# key is also activated. If the G# adjustment screw (uppermost of the two found on the little bar above the F-key) is not adjusted properly, the G# key will open slightly, even when the right hand pads are closed, essentially acting as an enormous leak. The result: low note production becomes difficult. The easiest way to check the articulated G# connection is to play low D, and then depress the G# key. If the saxophone timbre or resistance changes at all, you will need to adjust the G# mechanism. With a screw driver, turn the screw a quarter turn clockwise and then recheck by playing the low D again and adding the G# key. Repeat this procedure until there is no difference in timbre when adding the G# key to low D.
The Reed is one of the most important factors in playing low notes softly. While it has been suggested that simply playing softer reeds will make low note production easier (this is essentially correct), the tone quality in the upper registers with soft reeds is often less than ideal. So-called French cut reeds, like Vandoren, Glotin, Rico Royal, Hemke, etc., make blowing in the low register somewhat freer while retaining resiliency in the upper register by utilizing a second cut in the area of the vamp. Even so, I find that many of these reeds still offer too much resistance in the lower range of the saxophone. Removing (often considerable) cane in the area of the second reed cut (see Figure 1) with a reed knife can significantly reduce blowing resistance in the lower range of the saxophone without adversely effecting tone quality in other registers. Before setting in on your best reeds with a sharp, new, reed knife, practice on a few older or harder reeds until you begin to get results that will be satisfactory. Also keep in mind that while removing cane is relatively easy, replacing it is impossible!
The Air Stream
It is only natural that the air stream plays an important role in low note production – the saxophone is a wind instrument, after all. What most people don’t realize is how complex the variables are in producing a tone on the saxophone(especially because no matter how we blow in the saxophone, we can produce a sound). The challenge is to produce an air stream that is consistent. In this there are two parts. The first is tongue position. As any one who has played altissimo on the saxophone can attest, awareness and control of tongue position is essential for altissimo production. It is no less so for low tones. The problem, of course, is describing correct low tone tongue position to saxophonists. We can’t really see the tongue while we are playing, and moreover, I suspect that descriptions of how the tongue feels are so personal as to render them useless. Rather than describing the tongue position, then, I offer the following exercise that will bring the tongue (and embouchure) into the correct position.
On the mouthpiece alone, start by producing a concert A (if this is impossible it could indicate other embouchure/air problems). Once you can do this consistently, play the A at a forte dynamic level, then gradually decrescendo while maintaining the A. As you get softer, the pitch naturally wants to rise. In order to keep the pitch constant, you are forced to change something within the oral cavity – concentrate on whatever it is that you need to change in order to keep the pitch centered on "A." This is the feeling you should have when playing low notes softly. Some of my students describe it as the back of the tongue lying very flat, others feel a constricting in the back of the mouth (personally, I think it feels like what I imagine having a large egg in my mouth must feel like – you begin to see why I suggest we ignore descriptions!). After practicing this for a few minutes while trying to "visualize" or "imprint" your own particular feeling, replace the mouthpiece on the saxophone and practice playing low notes in the same way, at first forte, then decrescendo to piano while trying to reproduce the same feeling while playing the low notes that you had with the mouthpiece alone. In time, the tongue/embouchure position will become "automatic." At first, however, you will have to consciously practice this technique.
The second component of the air stream is the articulation. Because there is so much emphasis on how to articulate low notes, what I am about to say will fly in the face of common practice. To produce low notes softly, you should not use your tongue. I repeat – DO NOT USE YOUR TONGUE! Think about it for a second. If you say "TAH" (or whatever syllable you use for articulation), there is an incredible amount of motion going on (in even the most refined articulation – either in the jaw, or by the tongue itself). When the tongue is in motion, as it is during articulation, how can we hope to produce a consistent air stream? On the other hand, if you say the syllable "HAH," you can feel that the tongue position remains constant. For this reason, I almost always use a breath attack when producing low tones softly. This, in conjunction with the tongue position advocated above allows me to produce low tones cleanly and consistently. Oddly, it is difficult to get students to play notes without using the tongue (we often use the tongue as a crutch), however, producing low notes without the use of the tongue can be so dramatic that I am convinced it is worth the effort.
This technique is one used successfully by many saxophonists and I feel it is an essential tool for producing low tones cleanly at all dynamic levels. The pièce de résistance, as it were. Lets say you are about to play the low B at the beginning of Alfred Desenclos’ Prelude, Cadence, et Finale. First, you would finger the low B. Just before the "attack" (and we wonder why saxophonists slap-tongue that passage!), lift the first finger in the right hand (the "F" key), and at the moment of "breath" (or onset of articulation), gently tap the "F" key closed, coordinating it precisely with your air. The natural inclination of most people is to want to "slap" the key, but this is not required. In any event, slapping the key makes air/finger coordination more difficult. This technique requires some practice, but the results will make it well worth your time.