Friday, November 18, 2016

Strident, Harsh, or Stuffy Sound: Breaking the Habit

Saxophone Colossus: A fantastic
example of a resonant full tone.
Recently, I've worked with a few saxophonists, a couple of them being serious gigging college students, who have had similar problems. The common thread has been that their sound wasn't speaking properly. The tone was either too harsh and strident or too stuffy and muted. I've gone through periods where I've struggled with the same thing. Since the problem is pretty ubiquitous, especially with saxophonists who are practicing a lot and really going for it and because it can be a difficult rut to get out of, I wanted to address the problem generally. I hope this article will be a helpful resource for frustrated saxophonists everywhere.

Symptoms
The following are a list of issues that saxophonists experience, which are essentially aftereffects of a similar underlying problem. Not everyone experiences all of these issues, but the first is the most common.
  • Sound is not as clear or as resonant as you'd like.
    • One end of the spectrum: too harsh and strident, possibly distorted or grating.
    • The other end of the spectrum: too stuffy and muted, possibly overly dark and sluggish.
  • Sharp high register.
  • Feeling like your normal reeds are just bad, every reed in the box seems bad. 
  • Response feels sluggish, saxophone doesn't "speak" as easily as before.
  • Difficulty playing overtones.
  • Difficulty keeping your embouchure steady at low volumes.
  • Notes coming out in higher register than intended, even chirping or squeaking.

The Problem
The underlying problem is essentially that your embouchure is taking over. Instead of relying on air speed and pressure created by diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal support, and proper voicing (tongue position and oral cavity shape) to make the reed vibrate, the embouchure tightens to help the reed vibrate more easily. It tightens to such a degree that it changes how the reed vibrates, affecting sound and response.

This can be brought on by a number of different factors. It can be a reaction to practicing altissimo or upper overtones without proper voicing and air support, over-practicing altissimo or overtones, or simply over practicing. In the latter cases, as your abdominal muscles and voicing tires, your embouchure tries to take over. This keeps the pitch from dropping and allows you to continue playing but creates its own set of problems. Another way this increased embouchure pressure can occur is by the mouthpiece being positioned too far out or too far in on the cork. Your ears pick up on the intonation problem, and in reaction, your embouchure tightens or drops to correct the issue, depending on whether the mouthpiece is positioned too far out or too far in. If the change in pitch is subtle enough, it can happen almost immediately without you consciously picking up on the intonation issue. Again, this either adds embouchure pressure or creates a malformed embouchure, resulting in tone and response problems. The most obnoxious part of all this, is that the new embouchure can be habitual, leading to a cycle of less than ideal tone and lots of frustration.

Here is a quick list of potential ways in which the problem gets started:
  • Attempting altissimo or upper overtones without proper voicing and air support.
  • Over-practicing altissimo or overtones.
  • Over-practicing generally.
  • Out-of-tune mouthpiece placement on the cork.
  • Non-diaphragmatic breathing or breathing from the chest and not engaging abdominal muscles.
  • Overly tight or badly shaped approach to embouchure technique.
  • Too resistant of a setup: combination of reeds, mouthpiece, and sax offers too much resistance or back pressure.
  • Playing on reeds that have gotten too hard through warping.

Breaking the Habit
If you've identified that you have this general problem, one of the most important things to do is to take a break from playing. Similar to taking a day off after working out, the rest helps with recovery. It allows your embouchure technique to loosen, letting your air support and voicing take the helm. This is especially applicable to saxophonists who practice a lot and likely fall into the over-practicing category. You need to let your voicing, abdominal, and embouchure muscles all rest. If you can, take a day or two away from the horn. Just do it!

As you approach correcting your technique, the single most important factor will be to listen carefully to your sound while playing. If you hear the harshness, stridency, or stuffiness in your sound, take steps to fix it right away (see below), and if you can't, take a break from playing and come back to the problem fresh. Your ears are the best guide to whether you're playing with good or bad technique. It's all in the sound.

Here are some important aspects of your playing to check when attempting to fix the problem:
  • Are you breathing deeply? When you breath in, you should be building up pressure in your lower abdominal area.
  • Is your mouthpiece placed ideally on your cork? Here is an article that can guide you in experimenting with mouthpiece placement: Intonation and Your Ideal Sound
  • Is your bottom lip tucked too far in? Say the letter V, and where your teeth touch your bottom lip is a good estimate of where your bottom lip should contact the reed. 
  • Are you applying too much vertical pressure with your lips or jaw? Instead, try to use pressure at the corners of the mouth to maintain the seal around the mouthpiece. Your bottom lip should stay relatively flat (see next bullet point).
  • Are the corners of your staying out of the way of the reed? They shouldn't be coming in towards the reed or upwards. Those motions can skew the reed shape and cause havoc.

Overtones with Vibrato
This first exercises is very helpful in promoting good voicing technique while simultaneously loosening your embouchure. Starting on an easy overtone (maybe the first overtone off of low B or C), first play with a straight tone. Once you have a solid sound, add a slow wide vibrato. Listen carefully for tenseness or resistance and fix when needed. You want a clear resonant overtone sound with a fluid easy sounding wide vibrato. The vibrato helps you to maintain good voicing while lowering your lower lip/jaw to drop the pitch. It also helps your embouchure to relax as it needs to be flexible to affect the pitch up and down. Once you have a solid slow vibrato, move to a faster vibrato. Start with your easiest overtones, and then work your way to others, always paying attention to tone quality. If you can’t get a good tone, take a break.

Recalibrate Your Embouchure
The following exercises are all designed to help you play with better embouchure technique. Experiment and use which ever ones work the best for you.
  1. Minimal Pressure Long Tones (adapted from Ben Wendel)
    • Play a long tone with just enough embouchure pressure to make the note sound (very flat).
    • Play the next long tone with a bit more pressure.
    • Repeat until you have found the least amount of embouchure pressure you need to be in tune.
  2. Low Bb with Vibrato.
    • Full tone with wide and fluid slow vibrato, then fast vibrato.
    • Subtone with wide and fluid slow vibrato, then fast vibrato.
  3. Quarter-tone Long Tones (adapted from George Garzone)
    • Start on the pitch B, slur down a quarter tone and hold it as a long tone.
    • Repeat the process starting on Bb.
    • etc.
  4. Old School Subtone
    • Play in the middle and low register with a big fat subtone and vibrato.
    • Maybe play a melody or just improvise.
    • Think Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, etc.
  5. Mouthpiece Slur
    • On just the mouthpiece, slur evenly from the default pitch down to around an octave.
    • It should sound smooth and even.
    • If there are breaks, readjust your embouchure (see above).
Air Support Exercise
Lastly, this exercise is helpful in increasing your abdominal support while playing: Abdominal Pulsing. Don't overdo it though. You can end up tightening your embouchure with this one if you continue after your abdominal muscles are tiring.

Conclusion
Playing with a habitually over-tight or malformed embouchure can be overcome. If you put all the right elements in place you can correct it fairly quickly. I've had students fix the problem in a matter of a few days. Remember, to listen carefully and be aware of your technique. Whatever you do, don't keep playing if the sound is getting worse. Always play with a great sound, and don't put up with anything less!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ligature Position and Sound

After a few years of experimentation and observations including putting various students through the paces, I'd like to share share an overview of the effects of ligature position on sound.

Before we get too far that I've also found that for some yet unexplained reason(s), what ligature you use does have an affect on your sound (here is a great demonstration of variations in sound by ligature on bass clarinet). While I'm not going to get into that today, I'd just like to mention that I find that ligatures that make drastic changes in your sound often come with unadvertised disadvantages. A lot of fantastic saxophonists in the past used basic ligatures. I'm thinking of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Michael Brecker, etc., and a lot of the current greats also use basic ligatures, including Chris Potter, Ben Wendel, Seamus Blake (in the past couple of years), Donny McCaslin, Walt Weiskopf, Steve Wilson, etc. That being said, it's also a good idea to experiment with different ligatures and pay attention to things like intonation, response, resistance, and stability as well as tone quality.

One other piece of advice worth mentioning is that you shouldn't over-tighten your ligature. The tighter the reed is clamped down on the mouthpiece the harder the reed feels. If the reed feels too hard you end up overtightening your embouchure and squashing your sound. Of course, if the ligature is too loose that can be a problem also.

Ligature Position

left mouthpiece: ligature towards the back, right mouthpiece: ligature towards the front.

Depending on which way you move your ligature, there are consistent changes to your sound. Each player needs to experience these for himself or herself and figure out what tone they most prefer. What follows is a quick overview to get you started and to help you know what to listen for. These observations apply most consistently to players who don't have extreme setups, meaning overly hard or soft, and have healthy embouchure and voicing technique.

As you move your ligature towards the front of the mouthpiece (towards the tip):
  • the connection between notes sounds smoother.
  • the sound becomes more spread  and more flexible (i.e. you can more easily change your sound depending on how you play).
If you move your ligature too far towards the front of the mouthpiece:
  • the sound becomes thin.
  • the connection between the notes becomes so smooth that it becomes difficult to hear each note distinctly, especially when playing fast.
  • if your reed is pretty stiff or hard or if you have embouchure problems, you may end up with a distorted rough tone.
As you move your ligature towards the back of the mouthpiece (towards the neck of the saxophone):
  • the beginning of each note has a clearly heard ping-like quality.
  • bends and vibrato becomes more pronounced.
  • the sound becomes more focused or compact.
If you move your ligature too far towards the back of the mouthpiece:
  • intonation becomes hard to control and is generally sharp in the upper register.
  • the tone, though very thick sounding, loses some of its color and can sound a little dull.
Below is a short video demonstrating a middle position, one that is further forward, and one that is further backward. Listen for the different characteristics of each example (listen with headphones).


Resistance (one reason why moving your ligature changes anything at all)

(The following observations are a bit more speculative. They're best guesses.) There seems to be two types of resistance in playing saxophone. First, there is the stiffness of the reed, which requires a certain amount of embouchure pressure to overcome. Second and related, but not always in lock step, there is a resistance to your airstream or blown air.

When you move the ligature forward, the reed, in essence, becomes stiffer as the fulcrum shortens the amount of reed that can flex and vibrate. However, this also seems to lower airstream resistance at the same time, as if the mouthpiece is letting more air in despite requiring increase embouchure pressure. The reverse is also true. As you move the ligature towards the back of the mouthpiece, its appears that the reed becomes more sensitive to embouchure pressure yet offers more resistance to your airstream, letting in less air.

The above is very consistent with my observations on sound and the principles of saxophone acoustics. The greater the airstream resistance (the further back you move the ligature), the harder you have to blow causing the the reed to slap the mouthpiece harder. This elicits a larger amount of higher overtones in your sound, which we hear in the ping-like attack of each note and the general thickness and focus of the tone. Conversely, with the ligature further forward and a decrease in airstream resistance, you can blow more softly overall, creating a less punchy and more spread tone quality.

Of course, the situation is more complex than this. The observations above assume you have a fairly balanced tip opening and reed size. For example, if your reed is fairly stiff and you move your ligature forward making it even stiffer, you can screw up your embouchure, which deforms your reed and get a distorted rough tone.

Conclusion

Experimenting with where you put your ligature can help you get closer to your ideal sound. However, the above is only meant as a guide for experimentation. You should experiment with different ligature placement and record yourself. Listen for the different traits described above, and find a balance that fits your personal sound and style. Happy sound searching.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Using Transcriptions to Learn and Digest Music Theory

An article I wrote was recently published in Engaging Students, a journal on music pedagogy. The focus of the new volume builds on the common observation from music theory teachers that "students with jazz experience are among the most knowledgeable and proficient in their classrooms," and the articles explore how jazz can be used in the theory classroom to strengthen student learning. My contribution is on using transcriptions and related practice methods to help students learn and digest music theory. I include an approach to using transcriptions that I think a lot of jazz students will also find helpful.

You can read my article here and browse the entire volume here.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

ii-V-I Exercise: Improvising to Improve

This is a short video I created to demonstrate an improvisation exercise for shedding ii-V-Is. Links to iReal Pro accompaniment and a PDF below. Enjoy!


Monday, August 29, 2016

Saxophone Coach: Scales

I'm starting a new series of blog posts called Saxophone Coach. Essentially, these articles will focus on basic parts of a typical practice routine and give specific advice on how to improve. Today, I'm tackling scales, easily one of the most common practice tools.

For improving your finger technique:
  • Slur. Slurring the scale makes it easier to hear if the entire scale is coming across evenly with no hiccups. Listen carefully as you play. Each note should sound rhythmically equal to the others, and the transitions between notes should be clean and immediate. 
  • Keep your fingers near the keys. One way to do this is focus on keeping your fingers touching each key even when you're not pressing them.
  • Relax. If you feel tension, slow down and let yourself relax the muscles. Often times when you increase the technical challenging (e.g. playing really fast, odd fingering transitions, altissimo, etc.), you run the risk of tensing your hands, arms, and even shoulders. Focus on keeping relaxed and make sure you stay that way. If you can't let yourself relax even when slowing down, you may need to change your posture or hand position.
  • Use a Metronome. A metronome can help keep you honest, and you can use it to push yourself to faster tempos. It's also a great exercise to keep the metronome at a moderate or slower tempo while you play the scale as 8th notes, triplets, 16th notes, etc.
For improving your tone quality:
  • Listen carefully as you ascend. Ascending on saxophone, particularly if you're slurring can be problematic. It's a fairly automatic reaction for your embouchure to tighten taking away from your tone's clarity. Each note's entrance should sound distinct with a slight ping to it. The entrances in the upper register shouldn't be mushier or less distinct than the lower register.
  • Focus on abdominal support. Breath support is the best way to fight off the embouchure's tendency to tighten as you ascend. First, you need to take a diaphragmatic breath. In other words, breath in deeply so that you can feel the expansion down in your lower abdominal area. While playing the scale, provide consistent but relaxed pressure from your abdominal muscles (the same muscles you feel engaged when you blow up a balloon). You may find you need a bit more breath support than you normally use to let the upper register really sing.
  • Play with different dynamics. Specific practice is needed to both play scales softly with a good tone and play loudly with a good tone.

Happy practicing, and as always, if you're interested in lessons via Skype, Facetime, Facebook messenger, or in person please get in touch with me at benbrittonjazz@gmail.com.

  

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Articles on Intonation and Working with Transcriptions

Coleman Hawkins looking awesome.
Over the first half of this year I was writing for Saxophone Life Magazine, which has been a lot of fun, though it has meant less articles here on my own blog. Just recently the magazine released all of its past content on its website, and I wanted to point out two articles that might be worth your time.

"Intonation and Your Ideal Sound"
This article is on the effect your mouthpiece placement on the cork has on your sound and the response of the reed as your body compensates for intonation issues. The basic principles outlined help players to use timbre and the feeling of reed response and resistance to arrive to the best mouthpiece placement, which in turn makes it easier to play and sound your best. In terms of saxophone technique, these concepts are very important to consistently playing at a high level.

"Making the Most of a Transcription"
Here I write about using audiation (the "inner ear"-to-instrument relationship) and the way our brain processes music in improvisation to get more out of the transcriptions we work on. Some of this we know we should be doing, and other aspects covered are new ideas based on some of the interesting research I've learned about recently.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Reed Frustration

People complain about reeds all the time. It's true; they are frustrating. If you don't keep them at a relatively constant humidity level, the weather can really affect them. Even then, if the temperature drops down or shoots up far enough, the change in moisture can screw it up. Often times, reeds from the same box can feel harder or softer, and some can just be duds from the get go.  All that being said, I think reeds play more consistently and better than we give them credit for. 

There are a couple additional factors that can really mess with how a reed plays, and these don't have anything to do with the quality of the reed. In fact, I propose that what we bring to the table can have a huge effect on how an average new reed plays.


One dead reed in humidity-controlled lock down
The Life of a Reed
A fresh reed has a springiness to it that gives its sound vibrancy and color. As we play it, the reed slowly loses springiness as the fibers break down. Each reed ages a bit differently, probably having something to do with varying moisture levels, but eventually the reed starts to have serious difficulty vibrating. This can either make the reed feel softer or stiffer, but either way, it sounds deader than a new reed. You can tell the reed is getting softer when the high register doesn't speak as easily and maybe sounds flat, and the reed feels easier to blow, likely too easy. You can tell the reed is getting more resistant when you have to start blowing harder, you feel like your embouchure is working harder, and the sound is a bit thinner and edgier or brighter. 

As this evolution takes place, our embouchure, voicing, and breathing, can change to accommodate the changing reed. As the reed becomes softer, a player with good voicing will attempt to accommodate via breathing and voicing. At the same time less effort is required of that particular player's embouchure and therefore it slackens pressure, and if done for long enough, his or her embouchure pressure will become habitually less than what is required for a usual reed. On the flip side, a player that hasn't developed their ability to voice might respond to a softening reed by increasing embouchure pressure in an effort to bring up the intonation.

If the reed has begun to feel stiffer, our response is to apply more pressure in an effort to make the reed vibrate more. Unfortunately, added embouchure pressure becomes habitual fairly quickly, so if you spend too long on the old dead reed the added embouchure pressure remains even when you slap on a new reed. Added embouchure pressure also tends to discourage proper breath support as it becomes less needed in the reed-vibration equation.

The results of either of these scenarios is that a new reed then feels either harder or softer than it should. Even after you've given the reed a good 24 hours to fully adjust from dry to a higher humidity level (that's how long it takes), you still may find that the reed doesn't play as well as you'd like because your embouchure is essentially set for a different reed strength. At this point many people figure it's the reeds problem, that it's too soft or hard, and they throw it out or work on it.

What to Do Instead
One way to avoid this is to just not play on a reed that sounds dead, hard or soft. It's most likely going to screw up your embouchure and maybe your breathing as well. Instead, throw it out, and the problem is solved. Fortunately, increasing embouchure pressure after playing on too soft reed comes naturally. Practicing typical long tone and other tone oriented exercises can be extremely helpful in making the transition. However, decreasing embouchure pressure can be more problematic.

For those who find themselves in the predicament of needing to relax their embouchure, here are a few ideas:
  • Focus on breathing. Added embouchure pressure and overly hard reeds generally discourage proper breathing, so work on breathing deeply. A little bit of this goes a long way.
  • Play some heavy vibrato. Try to get a clear and easy sounding wide vibrato. Interestingly, this can cue your embouchure into relaxing. This is particularly helpful on overtones. 
  • If all else fails, take a break. Take the day off, and come back fresh the next day. Giving your embouchure some time to recover can help it relax.

Intonation and Reed Strength
One other problem to watch out for is having your mouthpiece placed too far in (sharp) or too far out (flat) on the neck. Your ears pick up on the intonation difference, and your embouchure tries to compensate. If you're flat, your embouchure tightens up which can make the reed feel harder, and if you're sharp, your embouchure loosens and jaw drops which makes the reed feel softer. Essentially, sometimes your reeds feel harder or softer just because you're not quite in tune.

So, stop crying about your reeds, and figure it out already! OK, maybe it's not that simple, but if you take good care of your reeds and pay attention to intonation and when your reed is dying, I guarantee your reeds will sound and play more consistently.