Ever wonder the best way to improve your tone quality? Well, I’m going to show you exactly what I work on to develop my saxophone sound with this (short) long tone exercise. And just to show you that it’s not all about having fancy gear, I’ll be using my Jean-Paul As-400 alto saxophone and the AS-4 student mouthpiece also from Jean-Paul USA.
If you haven’t already gone through my free beginner/refresher course – that is the best place to start and I recommend you watch those videos as well. Sound is the most important element of your saxophone playing and if you want to sound good, ideally you want to be playing the saxophone everyday.
Play Sax Every Day
The quality of our sound is heavily dependent on the strength of the muscles in our face that form the embouchure. Normally we use those muscles for facial expressions that aren’t all that strenuous, but once we start playing the saxophone it becomes a lot more of a workout.
Like any other muscle group, we need to exercise to keep them in shape. So just playing the saxophone everyday is going to help your sound a tremendous amount.
Listen to Saxophone Players…A lot
The next really easy thing to do is listening to good saxophone players…a lot.
If you don’t have a beautiful saxophone sound in your mind’s ear from many hours of focused listening, it will be nearly impossible to recreate a beautiful sound. You cannot learn to speak a language without hearing it spoken and the same applies to music.
I recommend spending at least as much time listening to great saxophone players as you do playing, but ideally a lot more.
Who you listen to is up to you and your personal tastes. But to help get the ball rolling I’d like to invite everyone to comment below some of your favorite saxophone players to listen to. This way we all get some fresh ideas.
Take 5 Minutes to Improve Your Saxophone Tone
Now let’s get down to specific exercises you can work on to improve your sound.
Here is what I do these days to work on sound in my daily practice sessions. My routine changes and evolves over time depending on where I want to focus my attention.
Not being able to practice for as long as I would like to due to time restraints, I have to limit how much time I spend on each area. But it’s also a good idea to not spend too much time on any one thing, as it can lead to boredom and slower progress.
So I spend about 10 minutes on just sound exercises at the beginning of my practice sessions.
It’s the sort of thing that if you spend 10 focused minutes every day, over the course of years you will make some serious progress. Of course I start by playing long-tones. I see a lot of people commenting that long tones are boring and they don’t want to do them. I agree, that it can be boring to just play long-tones, and that’s why I only spend about 5 minutes on them. And I’m going to show you how to get the most out of those 5 minutes.
Again, it’s more about being consistent over a long period of time. Doing 5 minutes of long-tones once is the equivalent of doing one set of pushups – you’re not going to get anywhere. Doing 5 minutes of long-tones everyday for a year is like doing 50 pushups a day for a year you are definitely going to get stronger.
Protect Your Hearing
First I get my phone out and open my favorite tuner app Tonal Energy. Then I put in my wireless earbuds.
My headphones serve two purposes – they allow me to hear clearly the sounds from the different apps I’m using while practicing and protecting my hearing.
Playing the saxophone at full volume for long periods of time every day is going to damage your hearing there is no question. If you’re not using some form of ear protection, you should change that right now.
Here I’m using airpods with these little rubber things that add isolation and bass response. The more isolating the ear buds the more protection they give, but also the less you’ll hear your natural sound.
Improve Your Intonation
While I am working on my long tones, I’m also working on intonation at the same time, here’s how.
I set the tuner app to play the same note it hears me play, so now when I play a long tone, I hear it in my ear buds perfectly in tune. I can then use that pitch reference to match my intonation.
This is much better than relying on the visual indicator on the screen. I find that if I look at the needle or whatever it is, and it says I’m out of tune, the natural tendency is to over compensate in the other direction.
Also, in real life, you cannot look at a tuner while playing music. Playing in tune is all about our ears and matching our pitch to the other instruments around us.
Spend 5 minutes a day on this and after a week you’ll notice a big improvement. After a month, your sound will be better than ever, and after a year, you will hardly recognize yourself.
(Short) Long Tone Exercise
I like to start in the middle of the horn since those notes are easiest to play, and then carry that relaxed feeling down to the low register of the horn playing a long tone on every note going down chromatically.
I use a breath attack because I don’t want any articulation to get in the way of how I’m using my air and setting my embouchure.
Take a deep breath and use all your air for each note. If you have a large lung capacity, this may extend the amount of time it takes to go through this exercise. So I don’t always play every note the maximum amount of time.
While playing your long tones, be sure to keep all your fingers on the key pearls and keep your body relaxed. Release any tension from your hands, wrists, shoulders, and neck. Stand in front of a mirror so you can check your posture.
At first, this exercise is going to be mainly about building strength, but as you get stronger, you are going to want to concentrate on the quality of sound.
Tips and Tricks
The free vibration of the saxophone reed is the most important goal here. The trick is finding the balance between controlling the sound with the least restriction on the vibration of the reed.
The most common culprits for a bad saxophone tone come down to too much pressure on the reed. So while you’re playing long tones you should constantly be striving to free up the reed.
This becomes more and more difficult as your muscles get fatigued. When our embouchure gets tired, the corners of our mouth pull backward, thinning out our lower lip cushion. The result of that is less freedom for the reed to vibrate, and a pinched or shrill sound.
Like with exercise, form is important. Take breaks when you need them and don’t practice with bad form. Keep those corners in, and your lower lip bunched up providing a cushion for your reed to vibrate on.
Think of the most luxurious and high tech memory foam mattress here. You want your lower lip to feel super soft and comfortable yet at the same time provide firm support where necessary.
Once I get down to low Bb, I go back to middle C and do the same thing going up, and play up until my highest altissimo note.
If you want to know more about how to play altissimo, I have two lessons on YouTube about that. This one on How To Play Altissimo, and another on Altissimo Fingerings and Warm-Ups. You can get my pdf downloads for those by clicking the link here for the BetterSax Shed where you can find all of my free learning resources.
I also created my Core Essentials course to guide saxophone students through a series of warmup exercises and routines like this for developing sound and technique.
Here’s another tip that will really accelerate your muscle development – but it will be pretty tough for most people.
While playing these long tones, instead of breathing through my mouth as I normally would, I breath in through my nose and keep my embouchure set between each note. This is like embouchure planking, and believe me as you get up to the higher notes, you might collapse.
However, it’s a great workout that gives amazing results. Try it and let me know in the comments how it goes.
The Other 5 Minutes of Sound Warm-Ups
Once I’ve finished with my long-tones, I move on to playing with just the mouthpiece on it’s own.
Then, I spend a few minutes on overtones. You can find my video on overtones here.
Now as you can hear, once you’ve developed your embouchure strength and sound, you’re going to be able to sound good on any instrument with a decent mouthpiece.
Final Thoughts on Tone Improvement
It is a common misconception that you need a very expensive instrument and mouthpiece to sound good and have a great tone. This is false. While a more expensive instrument and mouthpiece can definitely help improve your tone and how easy it is to produce it, less expensive gear like this Jean Paul alto sax will sound almost identical in the hands of a developed player.
Best of luck with these exercises, and if you are diligent and practice every day, I promise you will see great results.
If you want to see for yourself the difference between inexpensive and expensive gear, check out my comparison of the Eastar alto sax and my professional Yanagisawa alto saxophone here.