Some common terms relating to the Saxophone
Bocal (or “Neck”)
Bis key (or “Bis-Bb”) Sometimes abbreviated "P" for "plateau" key in scores
Side Keys (left and right-hand side keys – abbreviated LSK and RSK respectively)
Table keys (left pinky)
Front F key
Care and Feeding of the Saxophone
The Saxophone is a delicate instrument and can go out of adjustment easily. To help keep your saxophone in good working order for years to come, follow these tips:
Never leave your saxophone in a parked car – extreme hot or cold can severely damage a saxophone.
Never store music in your saxophone case – this almost always results in bent keys.
Handle your saxophone carefully – always pick it up by the bell, not by the keys.
Whenever the saxophone is out of its case, make sure it is attached to your neckstrap AND that at least one hand is on the saxophone at all times!
Make sure that the neck screw is loose when assembling the saxophone, and that it is tight while playing (but not too tight!).
Never put cork grease on the metal end of the saxophone neck – only on the cork (if the neck is difficult to attach to the body, try rubbing the metal end of the neck with a dry, clean, soft cloth).
When you are finished playing, always dry the inside of the saxophone with a swab, dry off upper pads with a piece of chamois , and wipe off the keys with a soft cloth.
Once a year or so oil your saxophone by placing one drop of (clean!) motor oil (a toothpick works very well) between all joints
Inspect your saxophone occasionally for loose screws.
It is recommended that you carry extra reeds, a small plastic cup (for water to wet your reeds), a metronome, and tuner.
Saxophone Mouthpiece-Reed Adjustment
Have plenty of reeds on hand (not all reeds will work!).
Beginners should use a number 2 1/2 reed. If you have been playing a couple of years, use a number 3 reed.
Soak two or three reeds in a cup of water for a minute or two.
Center reed on mouthpiece and position so that the tip of the reed is even with the tip of the mouthpiece.
Place ligature around mouthpiece-reed combination and tighten screws firmly, but not too tight. If the ligature moves when you place the mouthpiece on the saxophone neck, it is too loose.
Test the reed/mouthpiece to see if it seals. To do this, place the large end of the mouthpiece flat in the palm of your hand (the end that goes on the bocal or neck). Put the reed end of the mouthpiece in your mouth and create a vacuum in the mouthpiece by “sucking” the air out. If your reed seals, it will remain tightly closed to the mouthpiece for a second or two, and then will open with a very audible “popping” noise. If you can’t get the reed to seal or pop, chances are the reed is warped, and will not play well. Conversely, if the reed remains closed for several seconds (say 5-10 seconds), the reed is too soft, and it will be difficult to produce a good saxophone tone.
Don’t drop the ligature or tighten it upside down on the mouthpiece – both will damage the ligature!
Holding the Saxophone
Put your neckstrap on. Use a good neckstrap – one that is comfortable (in general, the wider the neck cushion, the better) and that attaches securely to your saxophone.
First, assemble the saxophone, but leave the neck-screw loose for a moment.
To find the correct neck position for you and your saxophone: While standing (saxophone securely attached to neckstrap!), balance saxophone by thumbs only (left thumb on upper thumb-rest, right thumb under thumb-hook). Your mouthpiece/neck should come to your mouth. If not, position neck accordingly and tighten neck-screw.
If you are standing, you should let the saxophone rest against your right leg. If sitting, you should sit on the edge of your chair (straight back!), Alto saxophones should be between your legs, resting against your left thigh. Tenor and Baritone saxophones should rest against the outside of your right thigh.
To determine correct neckstrap/saxophone height: Again, balance the saxophone by thumbs only. Look straight ahead and bring saxophone slowly to mouth. If mouthpiece centers on your mouth, neckstrap is adjusted correctly. If the mouthpiece touches your nose or chin, neckstrap needs to be readjusted.
Hands should be relaxed with fingers slightly curved – as if you were holding a softball.
You should touch the pearl keys of the saxophone with the part of your fingers where your fingerprint swirls – don’t use the tips of your fingers!
Left thumb should always be pressing against thumb-rest, and touching the octave key. Engage octave key with a rocking motion of the thumb, not by lifting thumb off of thumb-rest.
Left thumb, wrist, and arm should be aligned at a 45 degree angle from plane of thumb-rest.
Right thumb should ALWAYS remain under the thumb hook (don’t hold the saxophone up by this thumb – it mainly functions to let us always know where the right hand keys are).
If the tips of your fingers or knuckles turn white, you are holding the saxophone too tightly. Relax – the saxophone is an easy instrument to hold!
First, make sure that the saxophone is positioned at the correct height (see Holding the Saxophone, above).
In the saxophone embouchure, the top teeth are placed directly on the mouthpiece, while the bottom lip forms a cushion between the bottom teeth and the reed.
To form an embouchure, begin by saying the syllable “ho” (this looks very much like you are going to kiss your girl/boy friend!). Now form a cushion for the reed by rolling your bottom lip over your bottom teeth. You will have to experiment a little, but in general, you will need to roll about half of your lip over your teeth (so that the your teeth meet your lip about where the soft inner skin of your lip meets the harder outer skin.
Now place your top teeth on the mouthpiece between a 1/4 and a 1/2 inch from the tip of the mouthpiece. Again, you will have to experiment a little to find the correct position for you.
You should hold the mouthpiece in your mouth (or embouchure!) just firmly enough so that it doesn’t move around if bumped. Remember, the embouchure must be firm, but not biting.
Tip: try to think “round,” or equal pressure all around the mouthpiece. The idea is similar to the draw strings on those shopping bags you get from the shoe store: if you pull on the strings, the bag opening closes in an even circle. The saxophone embouchure works the same way!
Your cheeks can puff out a little, but not too much!
Note: Every saxophone embouchure is different, just as every person is different. One size does not fit all, but in general, a good embouchure usually has many of the characteristics listed above.
Some Common Embouchure Problems
If the sound is small and much to thin, try taking more mouthpiece in your mouth.
If the sound is too loud, very spread and reedy, chances are there is too much mouthpiece in your mouth.
If you are getting lots of squeaks, first check to see if your reed is placed correctly on your mouthpiece. If it is, you are probably biting too much (too much pressure from above and below). Try increasing pressure from the corners of your mouth (sometimes we call this “bringing the corners of your mouth in”). Remember, with the saxophone embouchure, we are striving for a “round” embouchure, with equal pressure all around the mouthpiece.
Tuning the Saxophone – Intonation
Among all the woodwind instruments the saxophone is probably both the easiest to produce a sound on and the most flexible in terms of variation in tone color, dynamics, etc. It also has the easiest fingering system of all of the woodwinds. But with this ease and flexibility also comes some tradeoffs. The saxophone is also more difficult to play in tune than most other wind instruments! It is important to understand how to tune the saxophone, and to know that even when “in tune,” many notes of the saxophone can still be sharp or flat. Here are some guidelines for tuning the saxophone, and also some ways to correct hard to tune notes.
How to Tune
Initial tuning on the saxophone is done by pushing the mouthpiece “in” or “out” on the saxophone neck. If the saxophone is “flat,” you need to push the saxophone “in” on the neck cork (this makes the saxophone slightly shorter, or smaller, and thus raises the pitch). If the saxophone is sharp, you need to pull the mouthpiece “out,” thus lowering the pitch (by making the saxophone larger).
Whenever possible, it is important to tune the saxophone to “fourth line F#” or, in other words, the F# with the octave key. For Alto and Baritone saxophones, this note sounds a concert “A.” For Tenor and Soprano saxophones it is a concert “E.” The reason we use this note is that it is in the middle of the entire saxophone (and also halfway between the two automatic octave vents), and as such gives a good average of all notes.
First, tune to F#. Ideally, F# should be 2-3 cents sharp. Although it may seem odd tuning sharp, the most notes will be the closest to “in tune” if you do this. It is then possible to bring the F# in tune with a slight variation in air direction or embouchure pressure.
Next, you need to check the tuning on middle “B.” Middle B tends to be flat, and so it should be a little flat when you tune. Next, check high “B.” Likewise, this note is a little sharp on the saxophone, and should be sharp when you tune. If high B is flat, for example, you will play flat on many notes, and if your middle B is sharp, many notes on the saxophone will be sharp.
In review – tune F# (2-3 cents sharp), then check Bs (middle B should be low, high B high). Repeat this process, pushing the mouthpiece in or out until you achieve the desired results.
After warming up and tuning properly, it is a good idea to mark the mouthpiece position on the neck cork. This step will make it easier for you to tune the next time you play!
Saxophone Tuning Tendencies
Many notes on the saxophone are either flat or sharp when the saxophone is in tune. Rather than change the position of the mouthpiece, we correct the tuning of these notes by a combination of embouchure pressure, changing the way we blow into the saxophone, or by adding extra keys on the saxophone or using alternate fingerings. Below is a short summary of some of the saxophone’s tuning tendencies and ways to correct them.
In general, notes played without the octave key tend to be flat while notes utilizing the octave key are sharp.
Low Bb and B – Sharp – use saxophone mute; if sitting, direct saxophone bell towards body; voice lower.
Low D, D# - flat - add low C# key; push saxophone away from your body.
Middle A – flat - add G# key.
Middle B – flat - add side A# key (RSK1 – Right Side Key 1)
Middle C# - very flat – add side C (RSK 2); or finger like middle D without top two fingers in left hand (8 003 456).
Middle D – sharp – add low B key; if playing softer finger with C+LSK 2 (Left Side Key 2).
High A – sharp – add right ring finger (6).
High C# - sharp – add right middle finger (5).
High D-F# - sharp – experiment with leaving one or more LSKs closed; add right middle finger (5); experiment with pitch voicing (use tuner).