Friday, April 12, 2013

Benefits of Subtone and Diaphragmatic Breathing to Tone

Ben Webster, king of subtone...
I've made a couple fun discoveries recently, and while both are rather simple, they are certainly worth sharing. Best of all, both will help improve tone.


Have you ever noticed that playing in subtone, when you pull back your bottom jaw and create that warm and smooth lower register, can at times be much more demanding than playing in full tone with a normal embouchure. After some exploration I discovered that creating a good subtone, especially in the lowest part of the horn, requires a correct breath support, more so than a full tone embouchure does.

OK, so you have to use better air support. So what? Well, that makes subtoning one more tool you can add to your arsenal of exercises that build support. Need to develop air support? Pick your favorite ballad and play it, focus on the lower register of the horn, and subtone through the whole thing. Effective and fun. Even if you never use subtone in your normal playing, it is still a fantastic practice tool. Practicing subtoning also helps you learn to keep a flexible embouchure and keeps you from letting your sound become to brittle at the other extreme.

For those of you who haven't even tackled subtone and are not sure of the sound you are aiming for, here is a clip of myself practicing subtoning, something I recorded on my old Buescher True Tone Tenor:
Ben Subtones on Body and Soul (for anyone who is interested, the Buescher is for sale here)

The effect is created by pulling your bottom jaw back and a bit down. The sound becomes rounder and warmer and inflections become more exaggerated.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing now enters the scene as it is practically necessary to subtone correctly. Correct breathing on the saxophone can sometimes be a bit of a mystery, but I found a simple way to explain it to students. Simply, push out your abdomen when you breathe in. That's right, make yourself look fatter... when you breath in. After that go on autopilot and just play, but each time you breath in make a concerted effort to push out your stomach.

Try this simple experiment. Play a low Bb with a chest breath, meaning breath in lifting your chest keeping your stomach in and play low Bb. Now try breathing in with a diaphragmatic breath pushing out your stomach while your breath in. Play low Bb. It's noticeably easier. Try again with a subtoned low Bb and compare the two methods. Diaphragmatic breathing feels easier and sounds better every time.

Take Home

Subtone practice will help you maintain or improve your air support, and it's fun. It does require correct breathing technique however, which can be pretty simple. Push your gut out when you breath in. Good luck.

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