Improving Saxophone Intonation

by Jeremy S. Brown
he twentieth century has seen the saxophone grow dramatically in popularity as a solo instrument. Although professionals can perform with fluency and flexibility of tone, an inexperienced saxophonist often produces sounds that strike dread in the heart of a band director. Intonation is one of the primary problems students have when playing soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones. Poor saxophone intonation can be the result of an unsuitable mouthpiece or reed, a poor embouchure, or an alignment problem. Students should be taught the importance of pulling their shoulders down and back to enable them to take in as much air as possible. The lower jaw should drop, the upper teeth should remain on the mouthpiece, and the throat should be in a yawn position for a large amount of air to fill the lungs. Students should sit with a straight back and feet on the floor. If the neck strap is properly adjusted the mouthpiece will fall directly in front of the mouth; students should not have to move their head to the mouthpiece. Most student saxophones are satisfactory instruments, but the mouthpieces that come with them should not be used. Mouthpieces are manufactured with many different internal dimensions that affect intonation; therefore, the mouthpiece should be acoustically matched to the saxophone and the embouchure of the student. Hard rubber mouthpieces with a medium tip opening and chamber are best for young players. Among the good mouthpieces for beginners are the Selmer C* S-80 and the Meyer SMM. Both are designed to project sound and are manageable for young players. Reed strength is important when tuning. A reed that is too soft tends to be flat whereas a reed that is too stiff tends to be sharp because there is a tendency to bite down and produce a sound rather than to increase the breath support. Students will have to compensate for a bad reed by adjusting the placement of the mouthpiece and the cork, but this

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"Sharp intonation in the upper middle and high registers must often be attributed to the student's desire for a brilliant cone. Like many a brass player, the saxophone student may think this can be achieved through application of force. Not only is more air then forced through the mouthpiece but it is also under greater pressure. The resulting tone is not more brilliant but is edgy, piercing, and lacking in body and modulation." - Sigurd Rascher

only alters the pitch further. A beginner should generally start on a 2 strength reed and, as the embouchure muscles strengthen, move up to 21;2 strength. The larger the tip opening on the mouthpiece, the softer the reed should be. Because reeds from the same box vary in quality of sound, students should try several reeds and choose the one that sounds and feels best. Dynamic changes often cause intonation problems because students make incorrect embouchure and breath support adjustments. For example, when playing loudly, players tend to relax the pressure of the lower lip and cause the tone to go flat. When playing softly, the tone tends to be sharp because students increase the pressure of the lower lip against the reed. Poor breath support exaggerates this tendency. To play in tune at a forte dynamic, players should drop the jaw slightly while increasing the pressure of the lower lip against the reed. In a piano section the abdominal pressure should remain the same as when playing forte, but the quantity of air should decrease. The corners of the lips should move toward the center of the mouthpiece so more of the reed vibrates, lowering the pitch. Practicing long tones with a tuner and piano can help improve intonation.

If two students with identical instruments and mouthpieces have to place the mouthpiece at different spots on the cork to play in tune, then one may have an incorrect embouchure. The saxophone embouchure is similar to the shape of the lips when whistling. The top teeth contact the top of the mouthpiece, but the lower teeth do not touch the reed because the lower lip acts as a cushion. On the alto saxophone the contact is approximately a 1/2 inch from the tip; the soprano saxophone requires slightly less mouthpiece in the mouth, while the tenor and baritone require slightly more. If too little of the mouthpiece is used the pitch will be sharp and pinched, and if too much is used, the pitch will be flat and unfocused. A student will be able to produce the following crow pitches on the mouthpiece alone if the embouchure pressure is correct. Students should hold the mouthpiece with one hand, use normal breath support, and playa solid mezzo forte.
Crow Pitches for Saxophone
(concert pitch)

Soprano

Alto

Tenor a

Baritone

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A perfect octave can easily be played with a balanced embouchure and the octave key mechanism. The following study is a good exercise to improve embouchure pressure.

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While a student plays the low F at a mezzo forte the teacher should press the octave key. If the note can be played an octave higher but does not sound at the lower octave, the embouchure is too tight and not enough of the mouthpiece is being used. If the F cannot be played an octave higher, the embouchure is too loose or the student may be using too much of the mouthpiece. Another frequent problem for students is an unstable jaw when playing ascending or .descending passages. Students are often convinced that this unstable embouchure is necessary for notes to sound. However, this habit can

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The fit of mouthpieces on saxophones is not always the same. With young students it helps to tune to an A = 440 and mark the position of the mouthpiece on the cork with a pencil. Although this is no guarantee of perfect intonation, it provides students with a good starting point.
.38

THE INSTRUMENTALIST

I SEPTEMBER 1999

be broken by having the student blow into the instrument while the teacher or another student fingers random melodic passages. The unexpected direction of the melody will demonstrate that an unchanged embouchure produces an improved tone in all registers. Students should then practice full range major and minor scales and arpeggios slowly and slurred, concen-: trating on keeping the embouchure" consistent. Students can listen and blend easily when playing in small ensembles. Saxophone choir and quartet repertoire works well to help students develop these skills. The Art of Saxophone by Larry Teal suggests saxophone quartets for all levels. The studies in De la justesse d'intonation pour taus les saxohones (Alphonse Leduc) by Jeanarie Londeix are effective ear training studies for two saxophonists. Students should tune individually and across the group to perfect the pitch. When the instruments are not in tune with each other, two or more sound waves of slightly different frequencies may be heard.

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to

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"Blow a sustained pitch on the mouthpiece alone at a fortissimo level. The approximate concert pitches which should be obtained are A for alto saxophone; G for tenor saxophone; Eb for baritone saxophone. Generally, the pitch obtained by students on the mouthpiece alone is too high, indicating an improper internal oral cavity. If this is the case, the student should review the embouchure check list, then try to produce the correct tone on the mouthpiece alone. If the pitch is still too high, he should be encouraged to open his mouth wider while still maintaining proper air support." - Eugene Rousseau

Despite the best efforts of instrument manufacturers, saxophones tend to play sharper in some registersand flatter in others. Pitch tendencies also vary slightly between manufacturers and acrossthe saxephone family. Students should make a chart, similar to the one shown below, to learn the problem notes on their instrument. A chart such as the one from Improving Intonation in Band and Orchestra Performance by Robert Garofalo can also be useful. In slow moving passages or while playing long notes, students can learn to adjust the embouchure and use alternate fingerings to improve the pitch. When using alternate fingerings, the embouchure position does not change and should preserve the tone quality. The following example contains out-of-tune

Pitch Tendencies on the Alto Saxophone 1
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6

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40

THE INSTRUMENTALIST

/ SEPTEMBER

1999

notes that may be improved with fingering changes depending on the tempo of a passage.
Alternate Fingerings for Out of Tune Notes

The fourth movement of Suite Francaise by Darius Milhaud is problematic for the two alto and tenor parts in measures 9 to 12 and again in measures 44 through 47.
Suite Fmncaise by Darius Milhaud
Alto Saxophones I & 11

~B

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Add

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Add

Add Low C I Key
Cj

Low

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or

B Key

Low

B or Bb Key

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or C

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A comprehensive listing of alternate fingerings for the saxophones is available in two texts by French saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix, De la justesse d'in-

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"It's exactly the same when you hear an instrument and know what instrument it is (if you hear a door close, you know that it's a door). It's all sound. Think about learning to see color. Someone says, 'This is red.' The next time you see that color (if you can remember the word), it's red. Perfect pitch is just a variation or refinement of this; for example, you recognize peoples' voices on the telephone that you have heard only once before." - Selma Guerra

nation pour tous les saxophones et tous les niveaux (Alphonse Leduc).
The saxophone solo beginning in the third measure of Watchman, Tell Us of the Night by Mark Camphouse challenges students to play in tune as sharp notes precede typically flat pitches.
WalChman. TeU Us of the Night by Mark Camphouse Solo

(Alphonse Leduc) and Exercises d'into-

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saxophones

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In the third measure the solo crosses the break from E2, which is a sharp note on many saxophones, to C#2, which tends to be flat. To bring the E down the soloist should play with a full, vibrant sound, open the throat as in saying ho, and bring the comers of the lips in slightly. On quarter and half notes, performers can put the low C or B key down to lower the pitch of the E; the C key will drop the pitch more than the B key. For the C#, a flat note on most saxophones, the pitch may be raised and the tone quality improved by putting the octave key (thumb, left hand) and the left hand third finger down. If the note is still flat, the side B~or C key will raise the pitch. At [AJ the saxophonist may have to depress the low B key on beat one and hold it down until the third beat of the fifth bar before []] to play in tune with the flute soloist.

In measures 9 and 44 the first alto players may pinch the ascending notes, which increases the lower jaw pressure and raises the pitch on the C #, a note that is already naturally sharp. Correct intonation is particularly critical in measure 47 where the C # is in unison with the first comet part. Students should keep the lip and jaw pressure the same while increasing the speed of the air through the line. The C # can be lowered in pitch by putting the F key (index finger, right hand) down. On some saxophones the E key (middle finger right hand) may be more effective. The accompanying half notes in the second alto and tenor parts alternate between sharp Ds to flat C#s. The tenor saxophone may only need to add the side C key to effectively raise the pitch for the C #s. By depressing the low B key to adjust the Os and using the same alternate fingering on the C # as in Watchman Tell Us of the Night, the section will be in tune. In Blue Shades by Frank Ticheli (Manhattan Beach) the first alto and tenor saxophone have troublesome notes at [lI1]. The marcato marking encourages saxophonists to move their jaw or use too much tongue when

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articulating, which results in a scooping or harsh sound. The first trumpet plays Aqs that also tend to be sharp.
Blue Shades by Frank Tlcheli
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Although vibrato is used to make music more expressive and colorful, it sometimes causes terrible pitch problems. The most common vibrato among saxophonists is a jaw vibrato in which the jaw transmits small pulsating changes of pressure through the lip to slightly alter the pitch level. In Sinfonia Five by Timothy Broege (Manhattan Beach Music) the composer instructs the tenor saxophone to play with much vibrato at measure 54; however, too much vibrato distorts both the pitch and tone.
Sinfonia

marcaw
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Fue by Timothy Broege

Tenor Saxophone

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with much vibrato

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gradually decrease vibrato

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"A good saxophone sound is made up of several interlocking techniques, among which are embouchure, tongue position, correct breathing, and vibrato. The instrumental teacher must teach these techniques independently, yet also teach them as one. One should not become so fascinated by the mechanics and technical facets of the saxophone that the art of music making is forgotten. The technical and the artistic aspects of saxophone playing are equally vital." - Frederick L. Hemke

Practice this passage slowly, saying too and isolating the motion of the tongue from that of jaw and lip. Improvement can be made through persistent practice with the tip of the tongue near the tip of the reed. Intonation can also be improved for the first alto by holding down the low B key for the repeated Es, and the tenor saxophone can add the side Bbor C key to even out the pitch. At 12281 notes that are usually sharp the for all saxophones can be lowered by bringing the comers of the lips to the center and pushing the airstream down.

Broege suggeststhat using a fast and narrow vibrato will make the notes sound clearer and will make it easier to play in tune with the hom and oboe. Although listening is arguably the most important skill to develop for intonation, students will have a better chance of fixing the problems they hear if they learn the natural pitch tendencies of their instruments and use alternate fingerings to adjust notes. 0

Jeremy S. Brocum is an associate professor of music education at The University of Calgary where he directs the symphonic band and teaches saxophone. He was recently awarded the Student's Union Teaching Excellence Award by the University of Calgary. He earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Washington State University, a master's degree in woodwinds from The Eastman School of Music, and a doctorate degree from Ohio State University. The author would like to thank Jonathan Helton of Northwestern University and James Hill of Ohio State University for their ideas and pedagogical suggestions for this article.

44

THE INSTRUMENTALIST

I SEPTEMBER

1999

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