In this article, I hope to offer some sound advice toward the development of a quality, in tune, exciting sax section. Many of today’s sections have difficulties that can be readily remedied through easily developed techniques in rehearsal and individual practice. I will take them one by one in order to make them more comprehensive.
The most common difficulty with a section is getting it to play in tune. A few suggestions:
- Always use a tuner with tuning up. Not only at the beginning of a rehearsal, but occasionally during the course of practice as horns tend to get sharper as practice goes on.
- Tune not only to Concert A and B but check out the D and C on the individual horns. The upper register may be consistently sharp. Different makes of horns seem to have different problems in their scales as the players learn their own horn they can tighten or loosen their embouchure accordingly to help with adjustments.
- Use a tuner during individual practice sessions. Set it on the stand as a reference. Soon the players will familiarize themselves with the horn and get used to adjusting the embouchure.
- Playing some standard jazz chords (five parts) can assist in improving pitch – take a major 7th (double the lead in the bari) or a major 9th and check pitches carefully. As pitch improves, work on more exotic chords and even progressions. Instead of an uncomfortable dissonance, with in-tune playing, they, and the director, will be really pleased with the sound.
- Normally, a section is tuned to the lead alto after using the tuner. A few extra minutes in rehearsal will definitely make a big difference in a short time. The more the players are conscious of their own pitch and consequently, with the other members of the section. The faster they will notice the change and appreciate the good blend they are producing.
A somewhat sticky question, in that players are using fast, slow, wide, narrow and often no vibrato at all. Certainly using vibrato in a sax section in a sax section has many merits-providing a sweeter, more mellow sound (as in the Glen Miller band and the great big bands of the 40s and 50s. Matching vibrato is not necessarily ideal, but will provide a great section sound. No vibrato is EVER used in unison passages. If used it causes a harsh and often irritating sound. Unison passages offer a great opportunity for players to listen to each other and get really will in tune.
Saxophones use a jaw vibrato – be cautious about a diaphragm or throat vibrato, which sometimes happens when a player is not formally trained. If you listen to older big bands, you’ll find a fast vibrato used almost all of the time. The more recent sections use a slower vibrato. Vibrato, or the lack of it, is a matter of taste. Over time, the director should make his or her own determination. Listening to big bands from all decades is a big help in choosing not only vibrato styles, but the phrasing and interpretive rhythm patterns to ones liking.
Balance and Blend
Finding a level within a sax section is often related to the individual taste of the leader. Some basic principles are important to note, however. Of course the lead instrument is most important, whether it’s lead alto, tenor, or even at times, the baritone. It’s wise at times to listen to the section without the lead alto and identify what’s “sticking out”. Then, add the lead and see if the balance has improved. Many leaders like a strong baritone (Ellington, Kenton). Again, a unison passage is an excellent way to set the level. Sectionals are probably the best place to concentrate on blend. Always ask the players to listen to each other. The very best solution to not only a fine blend, but good intonation can be found by using this technique.
Saxophones have great capabilities with their dynamic range, from a great sub tone to a bright cutting, clear and full FF. They cannot out blow a brass section however, so care must be taken not to allow the brass to kiss the saxes in your jazz ensemble. Encourage the saxes to exploit their talents, using a lot of dynamic contrast coupled with improved intonation and balance. A wonderful sound can be achieved.
In many situations there aren’t enough saxes to complete the five man roster. Conductors can wisely substitute clarinets, alto clarinets, brass clarinets or double parts to fill in the section. Care must be taken in all instances to allow for tonal differences plus balance problems. Sometimes sections have to play a bit lighter to even out the blend problem. Again, it the group really listens to each other, it can really help with blend and pitch.
Mouthpieces and Reeds
This is an “oh-boy” problem. Students and frankly, professionals alone can get over involved with the myriad choices and literally drive themselves crazy over the “right” reed or the “right” mouthpiece. The major problem with mouthpieces is that many play out of tune in order to five the player a “bigger” sound. Plastic, metal, hard rubber, silver plated, etc – all can deliver the same quandary. Selection of a good mouthpiece should be in the middle ground area. A medium facing with a good scale pitch would offer the better chance for the average player with a decent embouchure. The sound is affected somewhat in addition to that noted above. A more open or brighter sound may be experienced with a larger bore or facing or double chambers, etc. These may work will for the more advanced player, but are not readily adaptable for concert work.
Reeds are a little different story. Again, there are many choices both in brands and strengths. I personally recommend a cane reed over a plastic or plastic coated one, simply because they are more in tune and can be trouble in the extreme upper and lower registers.
I have not touched on attack and release or the general interpretation that good jazz ensembles require. These affect the whole group and, of course, are extremely important for all of the players. I have listed some general recommendations for listening.
Some Sax sections to listen to:
Lead players changed over the years. These are some of the more notable ones. The sections provice a good overall listening experience. The McConnell, Florence and Catingub bands are current and offer some more up to date styles.
Some possible mouthpiece choices:
Jewel – Dave Knox
Meyer – 5m
Selmer – C or L.T. model
Otto Link – especially for baritone
Some possible reed choices:
Van Doren V-16
These are general choices that I have used myself and had success using with my students. If you have any questions or comments you can e-mail me at email@example.com
Bio: Larry Teal
Past president – Mi. chapter International Assoc of Jazz Educators
Ex Director – Macomb Center of the performing Arts
Performer – Detroit Symphony
Big Band – Lead Alto: Tex Beneke, Buddy Morrow, Tony Bennett, Vic Damon, Jack LaRosa, Rosie Clooney, etc.
Creator and leader – Sax Alive
Instructor – Wayne State University
High School Band Director 17 years