How to play Low Notes on Saxophone - Top Tips next lesson
How to play low notes on Saxophone - Sax Lesson
Have you ever tried to play a low note on Saxophone and it’s everything but low? It’s happened to every sax player at some stage. Playing low notes shouldn’t be difficult, with correct approach and solid saxophone fundamentals you’ll be playing Bb’s at ppp in no time.
In this Saxophone Lesson I’m going to cover the most common reasons why students struggle with low notes and give you some sure fire solutions and techniques you can implement to improve this tricky area of saxophone playing.
What are considered “low notes” on Saxophone?
Generally speaking any notes that are played at the bottom of the treble clef or using the right hand buttons (without the octave key) are considered low notes on Saxophone. We have the easier of the “low notes” starting at F and then the more challenging extreme range of low Bb which is the bottom note on most saxes and involves passing air through the entire closed tube (Baritone saxes and some more experimental Saxophones include a low A tone hole and key).
Why are low notes challenging to play?
Low notes on the sax require a much more consistent embouchure and air flow to speak correctly. Beginner Saxophone players struggle with this as they often haven’t ingrained the correct embouchure and conditions to allow the reed to vibrate at the slow rate it needs to. Most commonly low notes will be played as an overtone of an octave above where they should be (commonly referred to as a “squeak”), honk out too loud or not speak at all.
So, what am I doing wrong? Why aren’t my low notes consistent?
Here are the top 10 most common issues that I come across when students are struggling with low notes. These issues related to low notes these cause the majority of Saxophone problems and fixing them will improve your entire saxophone playing greatly.
Tension when playing is an absolute killer of Saxophone success. It’s very difficult to improvise, play melodically, feel rhythm, enjoy your playing or control the sax when you’re tense. The Saxophone is one of the closest instruments to the human voice both in terms of tone and pitch. We need to make sure that we are setting the right conditions in place for the sax to work properly by relaxing and keeping our embouchure and body in a natural position. Putting too much “effort” into low notes often means they will squeak. Relax, chill out, listen and enjoy the experience of playing lower notes and you will have more success.
2) Shrugging the Shoulders
The biggest enemy of the diaphragm is the shrugging of the shoulders when breathing in. As you sit there reading this try raising your shoulders as high as you can in a “shrugged position”. Can you feel the effect this has on the back of your neck? The inside of your mouth? Your throat? Even your sinuses? This shrugged position causes tension much related to point one in this list. The sax will emulate your physical state, sound pinched and cut off your low notes making life much more difficult. The next time you play keep your shoulders in a neutral position and focus on expansion of the stomach when breathing in.
3) Squeezing Too Hard
In the Saxophone Fundamentals course over on SaxCasts.com I speak a lot about the school ruler. Think back to being in a classroom, have you ever rested a ruler on the edge of a desk and made that satisfying springboard “boing” sound? The saxophone reed works in exactly the same way. If you press down too hard the ruler isn’t going to move, if you don’t squeeze enough then the ruler is going to fly through the air and impale the unsuspecting classmate behind you. The lower the note you play on the saxophone the slower the reed vibrates and to do this we have to provide the correct table and support for it to happen.
For how hard exactly you should be holding the reed you can check out this lesson on becoming a crook champion.
Not taking in enough Air
The Sax is a wind instrument meaning it thrives on a full lung of air. Literally, the more air you have inside you the better you will sound. When you breathe in make sure you have done so “naturally”. We are very good at breathing already. The issues arise the minute we want to sound like amazing sax players. Next time you lay down in bed place your hands on your stomach and think about what happens. SPOILER: The stomach rises as you inhale and falls as you exhale. Certain things don’t happen, like the raising of the shoulders or the arms flailing out like chicken wings. When we breathe in for saxophone playing we pivot on the mouthpiece with the teeth, have a large grin which opens the throat push the stomach out as we inhale which draws lots of air in sharply. Once you master breathing in like this you’ll see your playing ability skyrocket.
When we are uncertain, concentrating or musing over something we often narrow the throat. You can emulate this by raising your eyebrows and saying “Hmmmmm”. Notice how the throat narrows and feels very restricted? This will stop low notes from speaking and stop your tone in its tracks. Move the “Hmm” shape to more of an “Ah” and that tension will go away.
Warm Air vs Cold Air
Moving on from the narrow throat, “Warm Air” or “Cold Air” is a great way to feel the different throat shapes and air speeds. “Open your throat”, “Quicker Air”, are phrases used by Saxophone teaches around the world all the time but most students don’t know what this actually does let alone how to do it when playing a tricky low note passage. Place the back of your hand in front of your mouth and blow hard. The air is fast and cold. If you give 4 or 5 strong cold blasts you will feel the larynx (hollow muscular organ forming an air passage to the lungs feat. Wikipedia) contract which in turn speeds up the air. This fast air is going to be great for notes where the reed needs to vibrate quickly but devastating toward the low, slow vibrating notes.
For low notes we use a “Warm Air” throat position. Image you are trying to fog up a pane of glass and blow on the back of your hand to feel warm air. The throat is much more open for warm air and helps us control the lower end of the sax.
Consistent Air Flow/Unstable Embouchure
Another issue students have is that they manage to get the low note to speak initially but cannot sustain the note for any length of time. This is often due to issues with sustaining a constant amount of air pressure or the embouchure changing during a note. The best solution for this is working long notes into your practice routine in which notes are held for as long as possible without bumps in the sound or changes in pitch of the notes.
Direction of Air Flow
Experimenting with the direction in which the air travels can make a big difference in how both low and high notes speak whilst playing any wind instrument. Changing the direction of the air alters the speed and distribution of the air on the reed. Often students have success blowing downwards (without moving the head) for lower notes and upwards and raising the eyebrows for higher pitches.
If you have any uncertainties about the fingerings for Low Eb, Db, or A# then you’re going to struggle to get them to speak. Practice walking through these different notes and thinking about them with their “enharmonics” without actually playing them to take away a level of difficulty. Then move through the same movements whilst blowing. You’ll find your percentage of success will be much greater once the fingerings are solid.
Not spending time working the bottom end
Focus low notes into your practice schedule. If you’ve been playing a while you’ll know that we don’t often go to the extreme ranges of the instrument. The only time we often think about low notes is when they’re actually causing an issue. Practicing in a varied and structured way that covers all of the bases will allow you to proactively train troublesome areas of the sax limiting the time intensive troubleshooting procedure.
Long Note Exercises
Leaps, Long tones, volume, pressure