Controlling the intonation of the saxophone and indeed of most instruments is a difficult affair. Each instrument has individual tendencies and general trends resulting from bore design, tone hole placement, and key opening discrepancies. Despite these difficulties it is extremely important that all saxophonists learn to control the intonation to an extreme degree.
I like to think of pitch control as being similar to regulating the temperature in a large building. Each floor will have a different tendency; the basement will probably naturally be colder and more humid while upper floors will naturally be warmer and drier. The only way to have a uniform climate throughout the entire building is to have a comprehensive plan or system in place to regulate these differences. The same is true with the saxophone.
I believe that when manipulating the pitch on saxophone we should always be bringing the pitch down, never up. I feel this way for two reasons:
- While it is possible to bend the pitch quite far down, we have very little ability to bend the pitch up.
- When bending the pitch down we are generally applying less pressure from the embouchure and thus allowing the reed to vibrate more, creating a more resonant sound. Conversely, when we apply more pressure to bring pitch up we restrict reed movement and thus pinch off tonal possibilities.
In other words, we should always be bringing pitch down to the correct level because we have more ability to do so and in the process we will create a more resonant tone.
To do this, we must tune the notes that will naturally tend to be the flattest to our tuning standard. (typically A440) For me, this means tuning middle ‘b’ or the ‘a’ just below it. For me, these notes tend to be flat and there is very little that I can do to bring them up. This will most likely push the sharpest notes at the extreme high end of the range to be very sharp. This is OK however because these are the notes that we can bend and shape the easiest. Also, these are the notes which require more focus to create a resonant sound, so in essence we are killing two birds with one stone.
As we ascend into the higher range of the saxophone, we need to use a higher tongue position or ‘voicing,’ as well as resist the urge to pinch with the embouchure and throat. By maintaining a fast and focused airstream we can use the back of the tongue to bend the pitch quite far, often more than a minor 3rd. Imagine trying to touch the back of your tongue to your soft palate while playing a note as if you were making the sound, ‘kik.’ For exercises and a thorough explanation of how to develop and control these muscles I would recommend extensive study of the “Top-Tones,” by Sigurd Rascher, and “High Tones,” by Eugene Rousseau.
One highly effective strategy for improving intonation is to practice with a drone. I believe that this is much more effective than spending hours with a tuner. I believe this because when using a drone, you are actually relying on your ears to tell you when the note is in tune and not on a mechanical device. Set the drone to the tonic and then slowly play scales and arpeggios over it. Listen closely to get every note to ‘lock in’ and ‘ring’, even the dissonant intervals have a different sound when they are ‘locked in.’ Notice how much you are bringing the major 3rd down to make it ‘ring’. Then move on to another tonic note and repeat the patterns in that key. Be creative and slur some large intervals or practice excerpts from your repertoire this way.
Performing with precise intonation is a life-long battle and should be the goal of all saxophonists. However, without a systematic approach such as the one I have laid out, many will find this goal illusive and frustrating.
Good luck and please feel free to get in touch with comments