Friday, May 4, 2012

Shaping Your Sound

Michael Brecker: Sound Shaper Extraordinaire
Today's post is possibly the last one on saxophone sound for a while. I generally write about things I'm experimenting with myself, and after my recent overtone find and air support realization, this seems to be the fitting conclusion.

At one point in the recent past I was doing my various tone exercises, and I wasn't arriving to my ideal sound. I was a little frustrated, but I was patiently working through it. My son asked me in his four year old way what song I was playing. I told him I wasn't really playing a song and that I had been playing exercises. He suggested that I should play a song. I took his advice, really just to humor him, and began playing with a record. Then, within a relatively short period of time I arrived to my ideal sound.

 What's the Point?

As saxophonists and as musicians in general we need to be engaged in shaping our sounds from the first note of the day. No amount of warming up, overtone exercises, etc. will automatically sculpt or shape your sound. Those exercises serve to strengthen and increase your abilities, but you will need to make the conscious effort to put your abilities to work.

The Shapes Your Sound is Made Of

Here is a short list of things to pay attention to which will help you shape your sound:
  • The beginning of each note: articulation, intonation, clarity of sound, and inflection
  • The end of each note: supporting the note to the end, intonation, and inflection
  • Vibrato: speed, depth, and where and when you choose to use or not to use it
  • Inflection: bends, subtone vs. full tone, and any other shaping that affect pitch or tone color
  • The connection between successive notes, relates both to articulation and air support
  • Dynamics
I find myself mainly focusing on inflection, and vibrato, which are related, but really all of these, and probably others I'm not thinking of, fuse to become the style of your sound. Again, long tones, overtones, bending exercises, etc. will not force you to pay attention to these moving parts of your sound. They will simply make you more able to control them.

A Few Practical Ideas

Following are a few ways I incorporate sound shaping into my warm up. They have resulted in an increased awareness of the subtle details of sound and greater consistency in sounding how I want to.
  1. The first thing I play is music. Generally I'll improvise in the lower and medium register of my horn making a conscious effort to shape my sound. Starting my practice this way gets me into the right mindset from the get go.
  2. At some point during my warm up I'll play a melodic overtone exercise like the bugle call in this post, or the first chorus of the main theme from Michael Brecker's Delta City Blues notated below. These more musical exercises help me be extra cognizant of sound sculpting while accomplishing my technical goals.
  3. Depending on where you are in your development as part of your practice you might consider trying to imitate the sound of saxophone players you are drawn to. This will help you engage those sound shaping abilities with a very focused goal.
The overtone and register jumping make for a great workout.

This is a video of Brecker performing a solo version of the song. I've cued it up to where the theme begins.

I find that I sound my best as I both have the correct tools and make musical expression my goal throughout my practice. My understanding of the overall process of sound creation has evolved and refined over the past month, and this has been the last piece of the puzzle so to speak, at least for the moment. (If this is the first sound post of mine you have encountered, I would suggest also going over the posts I linked to in the beginning of this article and combining the information in them.)