2.7 Special effects - growling, vibrato, slurs

Special effects are a favorite of mine but may ultimately make you want your old, pure style back for good. So make sure these don't spoil your sax life (oh dear...!) ;)

Two effects I refer to specifically are growling, and slurring notes.

Growling, as used in rock and roll quite frequently, involves getting your sax to play a combination of notes together to produce an oscillating, `gritty' sound. There are two ways to do this, humming and key work. I have never really had much success using the keys to play undefined notes and hope for the best - I suspect this is as much my fault as anything as it's not easy to remember another set of fingerings. One such fingering you may like to experiment with is playing a low C, and then releasing your right hand F key. The resulting multiphonic can be extended into all sorts of other notes, if you carefully plan your fingerings.

The easy way is to hum into the mouthpiece as you play. This is quite a strange feeling and may not prove simple to master, but a few weeks will usually be sufficient to get the growl in at will. Choosing your hum is very important. If you play an A, try humming a D, or generally a 5th or 3rd. The resulting growl will be much more effective than if you just hum any note. The tendency will be to hum the same note you're playing! You'll get no growl if you do this...

Slurring notes is not too difficult, but will not be easy if your embouchure is untrained (beginners) or too much jaw pressure is being used. These two evils should be the first thing to look at if you're having problems sustaining notes or are damaging your lip, incidentally. To slur a note, you may like to start with a middle C. Now, gradually, let your lower lip apply less pressure on the reed until the note begins to drop. You can keep slurring down a full semitone, if you try carefully enough and release your jaw in the correct way (while keeping your airstream going). Then, tighten your lip again to sharpen the note and get your C back. Practise! It's harder on the lower notes, and easiest in the middle register. You will need to supply more air at the bottom of the slur. Using this technique it is possible to play a low A on any Bb instrument!

Vibrato is a useful technique. This is a rapid flatten/sharpen sequence, producing an oscillating note. If you can master slurs, then vibrato is the next important effect. A point worth remembering is that when you're on stage or using a microphone, you need more vibrato for the audience to get your tone. Vibrato does, of course have one problem: you are oscillating your pitch lower and then normal, lower and then normal. The net result is a flat note. Ideally, you need to be able to sharpen your note as well as flatten it. This is a feat which can be achieved (allegedly!) with the following method:

Using a metronome and working out vibrato speeds, evenness, and so forth is very helpful for learning vibrato, but what you have described above is a prescription for pitch problems. It makes you flat. Never mind that it is the method most people use. I don't think it is David Sanborn's method, though, or anyone else who sounds pretty much on pitch even when using vibrato.

Here's the problem. You are starting with a pitch in tune, and when you want to get expressive (with vibrato) you make it go flat. Graphically, your vibrato would look something like this:

(Pitches obviously would vary a lot from player to player, and depending on how wide a vibrato you were attempting to use. This one is pretty wide, but illustrates my point.)

For a vibrato to sound really nice, it must not create the effect that the pitch has gone flat. Unfortunately, that is exactly what you hear in most players, especially legit or classical players. It can be very annoying when overdone. Here is a more ideal vibrato:

[note the change in the pitch range]

It cannot be done if you play on the high side of the pitch. By that, I mean if you already have your pitch compressed upward so that "lipping up" the pitch is difficult in a tasteful way throughout the range of your horn, then you will not be able to do this kind of vibrato. Instead, you'll get a chopped sound where the sound chokes on every upstroke of the pitch.

In order to play this sort of vibrato, you must center your pitch at the more natural level of the instrument, lower. That means you might be pushing in your mouthpiece a little bit. Many student saxophones make this undesirable, as they are designed to play with a pinched embouchure with the mouthpiece further out to compensate. The Selmer Mark VI is a good instrument for the proper kind of technique (and by no means is it the only horn), although it can be applied successfully to any instrument with some work.

This gets very tedious, I know, which is one reason I've never posted on it before. Consider this information as something on the virtuosic end of saxophone technique, and don't fret too much about it if you can't or don't feel like pursuing it at this time. But if you want perfection in your control of vibrato and pitch, this is the path. That said, let's continue.

In order to do this consistently throughout your instrument's range, you must first be able to comfortably vary the pitch upward on the flattest note on your instrument, which is often a low D, low G, or somewhere in the lower half-octave of your horn. This means the mouthpiece must be pushed in enough to allow for it. But it's not quite that simple. If you play a hard reed, pushing your mouthpiece in will only make you play extremely sharp. We're talking about a whole new concept of playing for some people; one where the pitch is actually centered in a much more relaxed position. Holding it stable requires - I repeat, requires - controlling the instrument through the airstream more than the embouchure.

This means you'll be playing the sax more like the flute. Incidentally, the same airstream control works on all wind instruments, making doubling a lot easier. If you resort to the upward pressure you may have used before, you'll just go sharp all the time. Nobody wants to play with someone who just blows sharp, so you'll pull out your mouthpiece again, and then you'll be right back where you started with the "flat vibrato." So, if you're not prepared to go the whole distance, don't bother to try this at home!

Now, I know it's looking pretty grim at this point, but do you think I'd lead you into the dark woods without a path to get you out of it? Of course not! And if you've read my posts in the past, you know what I'm going to say next: Mouthpiece Exercise. This is where it really fulfils its promise.

Now let me repeat, in case you missed it above: If you play a hard reed, this will be difficult for you. I play a reed that must be very balanced, free-blowing, but with some resistance. Not hard, though. I've always used Vandoren Mediums, but I might go through several boxes of them to find one that is worth working with. Then it takes a lot of patience and reedwork to get it consistent. Note that by no means is the reed "soft." Never. Like Goldilocks preferences, it has to be "just right."

Once committed to doing this, and with the proper reed/mouthpiece setup, commence perfecting your airstream with the mouthpiece exercise. I won't repeat that here. But obviously, it is a major chunk of what we're doing.

Now... when you've gone through the mouthpiece exercise, the harmonic exercises, and are ready to work on long tones with vibrato, get ready to use a tuner. Slowly vary your pitch as per the ASCII diagram above and learn to do it in rhythm. Work so that every note has even vibrato. Your lower notes will change more in actual pitch than your higher ones. Altissimo vibrato is almost more of a suggestion than a real change of pitch. It is especially important that you learn that five vibrations per second difference in one octave is equal to 2 [[Omega]] vibrations per second change in the next octave up in order to keep the proportion the same. That means that your low D vibrato, applied to your high D would sound like a screaming nanny goat. See what I mean? It's tedious at first.

You'll need models, so listen to flutists, cellists, and violinists. Soon you can branch off and listen to the jazz and pop players, but I recommend starting with some classical challenges for immediate perfection. This is not a comment about perfection or lack of it in jazz. Classical vibrato offers the regularity we want for training muscles at this time. I recommend listening to a variety of players, but don't miss James Galway on the flute. He has pretty much revolutionized wind playing over the past 20 years.

The rest is up to you. Do the studies with the metronome at first, in 4's, 6's, and 8's. Keep your vibrato narrow and tasteful until you are in control enough to make it do what you want. Learn to apply it at different rates, varying the rate, and at different widths. Learn specially to taper it to straight tone at will, or vice versa. Listen to your favorite artists. Remember that from here on out you will never be able to play a note without considering the pitch and vibrato (or straight tone) as essential elements of your expression at that point in the phrase. Pitch isn't something you tend to when tuning your horn. It's part of your sound. Vibrato is merely the manipulation of pitch.

That's pretty much it for now. There's no way that this short explanation can cover the intricacies of everything, but if you are intuitive, it will give you some direction."


One last note on fingerings for sax. Your instrument will sound out of tune in some registers but there is something you can do to change this. The palm D key for example will not be right in the middle register. This is so on all saxes. There are ways to correct the intonation, by adding other keys or finding other ways to play the notes. For example, a palm Eb key can be flattened at the embouchure to sound like a D (don't play the D key). Similarly, you can get a high E by playing a palm F key only. These are not accepted fingerings but the idea is fine: experiment. Saxes are versatile! (e.g. finger C, add a D palm key - it will be quite close enough to use as a trill from D to low C, release the D key for an octave A... middle D can be played in passing using the palm D key. Traditionalists would frown, but it really helps sometimes...)

"In soft passages it is also possible to use alternate fingerings for a few more pitches. Add the RH E lever to the palm key E-flat and you get D-sharp. Add the F palm key to that combination and you go up another half step to E. On some saxes you go once again up to F by adding the high F-sharp key. I wouldn't use this technique except for trills or very soft passages and as Ben said, a little work on voicing is necessary."

Graham Seale suggests a few ways of playing a low A note on a standard Bb instrument:

It all started when I read about how it was possible (with alto) to get a low A thus:-

  1. Be sitting down and doing the playing.
  2. Comes time to do the low A, get the left leg up (K. Everett style!)
  3. Place side of knee near bell of horn as you hit E.
  4. Move onto C.. then as you finger Bb, put the leg over the bell using behind the knee joint, and work hard on the embouchure.

If not playing seriously, Bb flattening to A can be tested by moving leg across at the same time as going for the lowest note Shooshie type embouchure control.

Now all this seemed a bit inconvenient, and ah.. could be interesting if attempted with a tenor. The same effect can be achieved by approaching a person of appropriate height er.. from behind! In general, that method is only good for one note per person approached.

So finally we contrive a workable artificial low stop. The antinode of the standing wave of low Bb can be encouraged to move up out of the bell a bit by putting the edge of the bell up against a vertical hard corner, a little way from a "top stop". The m ost convenient is to stand two crates/gig speakers/whatever slightly staggered to produce a vertical "corner. Then the "top stop" is a book/LP cover etc placed so as to "overhang", providing the third face of a point corner. You find the right place by ex periment - but once you know how, you would be surprised at the number of viable variants that will occur to you.

My alto will not make low A without the "corner trick". I think, with a little trying on embouchure and airstream control, it might be possible to just do it without any special aids.

Graham Seale

Occasionally the question of alternative fingerings which are not the `cheating' sort are discussed in the newsgroup. For example, there are five ways to finger Bb, but these are all more or less appropriate depending on the passage. It's wrong to choose just one Bb fingering and stick to it. This can make playing certain passages more difficult. Even if you're a good, competent player, your method will be improved by the use of the correct alternative fingering at the right moment. Here's a helpful post pointing out the pluses and minuses of the `biz' (i.e. B key plus the small Bb key) and the other Bb fingerings.

"I recommend the biz fingering (covering both the B key and the biz key with one finger-1) unless going down chromatically (use side or biz) or trilling (use side).

Many jazz dudes use the biz. It corresponds nicely with the middle (call it the middle finger) fingering for C (when playing either the C scale or the F scale, many jazz dudes use the middle-finger fingering for C, with 1 used for either the B or Bb biz), and the 1-biz Bb fingering also corresponds as the easiest and most accurate (for execution) when playing arpeggiated or pentatonic runs involving Bb (1 finger-one hand is easier vs. 2 hands for the side fingering e.g. G# A# C# D# F G# or G Bb C# E G). I believe that the biz key was intended to be used with the #1 finger (covering both B and biz), especially when you note the close proximity of the biz key to the B key.

I was a side Bb and side C player for a while until realizing that the biz was the easier (and getting the advice of Eric Kloss). It took me less than 2 weeks (the 1st couple of practice sessions were tough, I admit) to convert to becoming a biz (almost exclusively) player and I regret to this day ever starting out as a mainly side Bb/C player.

The side Bb/C guys can argue against this because they can't get used to going from the 1-Bb or B fingering to the middle-finger C fingering (thus not using any side keys which means you may have to relearn how you play the Cmajor scale), but once you incorporate pentatonics/triads/minor thirds and many other arppegiated combinations and permutations involving C, you find yourself using the middle-finger fingering for C a lot anyway and to me, for improv and for the purposes of assimilating a standard "feel" for a given key signature (such as the key of C for ironic starters) I wanted to have a unitized fingering for all of the key signatures (what I mean here is that I didn't want to be improvising in the key of C say, or any key for that matter, and be using 2 different fingerings for C at anything remotely close to a 50% ratio ....even 80%/20% is too differentiated), thus my abandonment of the side C key except for trill options. That gave me a very limited need to use side C and I've never looked back... I'm comfortable using the side C option when needed and it's handy at times, but I'm glad to have converted to biz Bb and middle-finger C for the vast majority of my playing.

BTW, I watched Phil Woods for 2 hours from 5 feet away at a concert in college, and aside from being awestruck at the man's BAAAADNESS the guy used the biz Bb approach almost exclusively. When going up from Bb to B he just slid his #1 finger off the biz key, which seemed to me at the time to be a more efficient thing than having to release both the 2 finger and the side key to get to B. That prompted my starting to question the side Bb/C approach."

Laren Addabbo

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