Friday, April 27, 2012

Air Support: The Key to the Saxophone

Want to hear great air support?
Just go listen to Parker.
I recently made a significant realization about the saxophone. Tone quality, endurance, upper register, and articulation are all directly linked to air support.  Of course, we have all heard this or something similar before, but I didn't really understand how fantastically important it is until this past week when I changed my warm up routine. Instead of, while warming up, focusing on my embouchure or tongue position I've made air support my main focus, and I've been able to attain my best playing level with better consistency and efficiency than in the past.

Putting it in Practice

Following are some of the exercises I've been adapting and using to focus on air support. All of these can be expanded upon as well.

Exercise 1 - Get your Muscles Moving
This exercise is meant to get your air moving and your muscles warmed up. It's the same concept that athletes apply for their warm up. You start out by getting blood flowing to the muscle group you'll be using. Doing this first we'll make the exercises that follow easier.
  • Start with some long tones in your medium register. 
  • Also improvise or play melodies, but keep everything below the octave key. The reason why I preclude anything higher than the octave key is that the upper register is where most of us tend to start tightening up, and we want avoid that. While you do this focus on maintaining great tone quality through a deep focused air support. 
  • Do this until you feel comfortable and established, or "warmed up" in this particular register.

Exercise 2 - Low Notes
The low notes are especially pertinent to air support because they require good air support even when playing softly.
  • Play long low Bbs, Bs, Cs, C#s, and Ds.
  • Practice bends on these notes. The first time you try to bend a low note you might find the pitch doesn't change or the note cuts out. With proper air support and a relaxed frown-type embouchure you will be able to bend these notes, possibly a half step down each. If you can't do a decent half step bend down on a note in your medium range, make sure you accomplish that first!
  • Practice playing these notes very softly but still clearly with a relaxed embouchure. You'll hear the sound thin if your embouchure becomes tight due to lack of air support. A good test to see if your embouchure is relaxed enough is to add a little lip vibrato and see if it sounds clear and not distorted by embouchure pressure. Playing low notes quietly and clearly can be difficult to do, and I can often feel my lower abs engaging when I do it correctly. In fact the whole feeling of correct air support feels like I am blowing from the deepest place I can.
  • Its also important to practice long tones with a straight tone free of any quavering.

Exercise 3 - Overtones
At this point were ready to start playing in our upper register, except we'll do this through overtones, as those are the most likely to promote good air support, embouchure, and oral cavity focus.
  • Many of the various overtone exercises would be fine at this point, but my favorite, which can be found here, really focuses on air support. For those of you too lazy to click, it basically involves playing your overtones for a minute each, taking as many breaths as needed, starting from the bottom and working your way up.
  • Other various overtone exercises can be found here.
  • Also, very helpful is doing half step bends on overtones, just like on the low notes. It's really a great test of air support.
  • Another overtone exercise I've been enjoying lately are scales made of successive overtones. For example, playing the F major scale using the overtones of the Bb scale as illustrated below. You can do this, of course, on other partials as well.
Normal note heads represent fingerings. Diamonds represent pitch.
  • One last overtone exercise I've been working on is the slide. Once I'm sufficiently warmed up and in control of my air stream I'm able to slide up and down the upper partials of the overtone series while holding a single fundamental fingering. Sliding up takes some serious control of the air stream, and seems to be a good indicator that I'm using proper air support. Here is an mp3 clip of the slide: Overtone Slide.mp3 

Exercise 4 - Playing Actual Music
Give yourself a break and then start the final part of this process, which is playing actual music, whether it be written or improvisation. It only takes me a few minutes of playing at this point, still focusing on air support, to establish it throughout my playing, and I quickly reach my best tone quality throughout the range of the horn and range of dynamics, etc.


  1. Great post! I love doing those low note exercises without using the tongue to start the note. It really forces you to blow like ceazy with your stomach .... It also makes you use almost no jaw pressure or else you end up getting an overtone sound at the beginning of the note. Please keep posting more sound exercises!

    1. Thanks, David. I think air attacks on low notes can help develop air support too. I might be done with sound exercises for a bit, however I am compiling my approach and exercises into a book.


  2. That overtone slide clip literally blew my mind.

    1. Max, it only get's better with time, meaning the more you practice it the crazier and better it sounds.