my last post I wrote about the a data-rich, super-awesome saxophone book, From the Inside Out. In that post, I explained the basic concept that adjusting your tongue and vocal cord position affects the sound and pitch of the saxophone. Many players, including my past self, have the misconception that air speed or air direction are the fundamental processes in voicing, but as the book shows, it's actually tuning the resonance of the vocal tract that is important. What everyone was right about all along is that you accomplish this through tongue and vocal cord position.
What is Voicing?
Voicing consists of adjustments done inside your mouth and body that affect saxophone playing. These adjustments include tongue positions, vocal cord position, and how open or closed your vocal cords are. Voicing is necessary to get a stable and good tone across the range of the saxophone, and it's important to developing a personal sound, virtuosity, and extended techniques.
For the low notes the tongue is high in the back of the mouth, similar to saying a long u vowel (as in "you"), but the front and middle of the tongue are lower than the back. Obviously, the front of the tongue needs to be below the reed. As you move higher the tongue pivots towards the reed. From the fluoroscopic images (basically x-ray) in From the Inside Out, it's clear that the back of the tongue also lowers for the middle register and then comes back up a bit for the palm keys.
The vocal cords are a bit more elusive, but there are some tendencies. Perhaps most importantly, there are tendencies across the saxophone family for how open or closed your vocal cords are. For example, for low notes the vocal cords are more open, like when you take a deep breath, inhaling through your mouth. For the middle register, the vocal cords are somewhat open. For the palm keys they move very close together, like whispering an "h" sound.
The vocal cords also pivot up and down. It's notable that most of the saxophone's range across all the saxophone family generally have a higher than at-rest or relaxed vocal cord position. For example, while playing low notes the voice box is generally a bit lower than the middle register of the saxophone (the exception being the soprano sax), your vocal cord position should still higher than the voice box's relaxed or at-rest position. Following are the tendencies for vocal cord position throughout the entire range. Focusing on just the first register (without the octave key), on tenor and baritone, the voice box raises as you ascend through the first register until you switch registers and engage the octave key. On soprano and alto, the voice box does the opposite and lowers as you ascend through the first register. As you ascend and switch registers to D with the octave key, all of the saxes except the alto show the voice box lowering (the alto has the voice box rising at this transition). As the saxophone ascends towards the palm key register, the soprano maintains a similar vocal cord position, the alto and tenor both show slightly lowering voice box position, and the baritone shows a raising voice box. For the palm keys, all the saxophones, except soprano which shows a raising voice box, show the voice box lowers in comparison to the middle range. Needless to say, it's complicated and it's certainly not uniform across baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano.
One way to introduce manipulating voicing is to change the octave of a note without the octave key using either tongue position or vocal cord position. Try the following exercise:
Start with a low E or F, and then as you play move your vocal cords close together, like you are whispering an "h" sound. Simultaneously, move your tongue closer toward the reed. As you combine these two movement the upper octave will sound without engaging the octave key.
There you have it, two basic movements of voicing. Of course, it's much more complicated then these two exercises let on, but they are a good start to understanding the flexibility you have. Practicing these independently for just a few minutes today made me more aware of my voicing and allowed me to get up to 4th octave Bb (4 octaves above low Bb), using conventional alissimo fingerings, something I've never done comfortably before.