Master Classes Online

The articles listed below are contributed by different individuals and are for the benefit of your studying:

Vibrato Basics—Thomas Liley
Physical Considerations—Thomas Liley
Who Wants to Talk About Reeds?—Kenneth Tse
Golden Tone Defined: Obtaining Premium Sound from Your Saxophonists (pdf) —Kenneth Tse
Saxophone Low Notes: Tips from the Masters (pdf) —Kenneth Tse




























The saxophone sound is a sound with vibrato. To quote studio saxophonist Walt Levinsky, “A saxophonist who doesn’t believe in vibrato is like a painter who doesn’t believe in blue.”  The correct production and judicious use of this expressive device will enhance the saxophonist’s tonal palette.

            PRODUCTION:  Undoubtedly the best method to learn vibrato is by imitation.  Many students are introduced to vibrato by listening carefully to a good saxophone tone, preferably produced by the teacher.  Recordings of many fine saxophonists are also available, although this approach is less effective.  The most common way to produce a saxophone vibrato is by moving the jaw down and then up as though saying the syllable “vah-vah.”  This jaw motion will be almost unnoticeable visibly although initially it may feel like a large physical gesture.  Some slight change of pitch below (but not above) may be produced.  More important will be the relatively great change in the intensity of the air.

            SPEED:  The recommended vibrato speed is four undulations (or “vahs”) at quarter-note equals 80.  This is a very satisfactory vibrato speed but a player may choose to use it as a reference point from which occasionally to create a faster or slower vibrato.  Sometimes an inexperienced player will have difficulty producing four undulations to the beat.  A simple solution is to have the player produce three “vahs” at quarter-note equals 80.  As soon as this is comfortable, the player can usually move to four “vahs” with little trouble.  The important concern at this point is not the number of undulations but rather the feeling of moving the jaw smoothly and evenly.  It’s crucial that the air stream remain constant; some young saxophonists forget to supply a large quantity of warm air when they add vibrato to a good basic “straight” sound.  An excellent exercise to correct this problem is to practice turning the vibrato on and off.  Using the metronome set at 80, select a sustained mezzo-forte pitch in the middle register, perhaps fourth-line F.  Play the pitch for four beats without vibrato and then four beats with vibrato for four measures; don’t articulate except to begin the sustained pitch.  Listen closely to make certain that the quality of the basic sound doesn’t change when the vibrato is added.  Continue the exercise by reversing the procedure:  i.e., begin the pitch with vibrato for four counts and then play four beats without vibrato.  As the saxophonist progresses, other registers and other dynamic levels should be used.

            AMPLITUDE:  Although the speed of the vibrato should remain relatively constant at all dynamic levels and in all registers, the width or amplitude of the vibrato does change in conjunction with the volume.  Stated simply, the more sound, the deeper the vibrato; the less sound, the narrower the vibrato.  A wide vibrato will help a forte note to gain richness and power but it will cause a piano note to sound wobbly and unfocused.  On the other hand, a narrow vibrato (or none at all) is appropriate for a pianissimo note but will add nothing to a fortissimo sound. 

            USE:  Vibrato is best used judiciously; it loses much of its effect when used constantly.  Vibrato will often give life to a long note but if used with a series of short notes will make the sound seem unsteady.  Eugene Rousseau, in the second volume of his Saxophone Method (published by Kjos), provides a chart listing various circumstances in which the use of vibrato may or may not be appropriate.  Assorted situations, including solo passages, tutti sections, and unison with other instruments, are commented upon.  It’s important to note that vibrato should not be used on every note.  Vibrato can enrich and enhance a good basic tone; it can also be a detriment and must therefore be used wisely.  For the same reasons that the best approach to learn vibrato is by imitation, the best way to determine when vibrato should be used is by listening to performances by excellent saxophonists.  Their music making will provide the guidelines for the most expressive use of the important to a clear and beautiful tone.

Thomas Liley, D. Mus., Yamaha Artist/Clinician
Woodwind Faculty, Joliet Junior College









Although the human body was not made with playing the saxophone in mind, the saxophone is constructed to be as comfortable as possible to play. The following commentswill focus on some of the outward physical aspects of playing the saxophone: hand position, posture (both seated and standing), and neck strap length.

HAND POSITION: The hands should assume a neutral position in front of the body, the right hand in line with the right leg and the left hand with the left leg. The fingers should have a natural curve, very much like a softball in each hand. The position one's hand takes to shake another person's hand is also a good description of the natural attitude to be assumed. The thumbs should be in contact with the thumb rests at all times. The right thumb is under the hooked thumb rest; remember that this thumb rest is usually adjustable. The left thumb should always be in contact with both the thumb rest and the register key. Younger players will frequently move the left thumb to operate the register key, a habit which will inevitably hinder the technique. The wrists should be relatively straight rather than broken. Check to see that the forearm flows easily into the hand without a noticeable angle at the wrist. This will help keep the fingers free and supple, allowing the motion necessary to manipulate the keys.

POSTURE: A standing position is the best position to encourage proper use of the muscles involved in playing a wind instrument. Both feet should be firmly planted on the floor a few inches apart. The body is confidently upright, neither bent forward nor ramrod straight. The shoulders are roughly parallel to the floor. Because many players perform almost exclusively in a band, it's important that their seated position be as similar to a standing posture as possible. Players should sit well forward in the chair, using the chair to support the body in an alert position. Again, both feet should be on the floor and the body upright. The saxophone should not rest on the chair. The tenor and the baritone saxophones must be held to the side; the soprano saxophone should be held in front. Although the alto saxophone can be positioned either to the side or in front, many players prefer the instrument in front because this is where it is held when standing. A good test of a correct seated position is to see if the student can stand easily. If the body weight must be shifted or the feet moved in order to stand, then the seated position is no allowing the same use of necessary muscles as the standing position.

NECK STRAP LENGTH: The neck strap should be adjusted to the length which brings the mouthpiece to the player without reaching. Young saxophonists often attempt to play with the neck strap too long. This forces them to reach for the instrument by bringing the neck forward, which is uncomfortable and restricts the air stream. It also puts unnecessary weight on the hands (especially the right hand) and the lower lip. The job of the neck strap is to hold the instrument; the job of the hands is to balance the instrument and to move the keys. Many younger players are unaware that the length of the neck strap must be adjusted when changing from seated to standing or the reverse. The neck strap must be shorter when standing than when seated. This is particularly useful information for saxophonists who stand to take a solo in jazz band. These are a few suggestions to help young saxophonists establish good habits and more experienced ones to correct old problems. The idea is always to eliminate anything that gets in the way of creating the best musical results in the most effective and simple way.

Thomas Liley, D. Mus., Yamaha Artist/Clinician
Woodwind Faculty, Joliet Community College







Who Wants to Talk About Reeds?
By Kenneth Tse


Although literature on single reed or reeds in general are not extensive, there have been quite a few scholastic books and articles published in the last century. However, some of them are either out of print or in journals, such as the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, that are difficult to obtain or to understand for most young musicians.

Despite many guides on reeds, whether it is K. S. Jaffrey’s scholarly-written treatise Reed Mastery in 1956 or commercially-conceived handbook The Reed Guide by George Kirch in 1983, single reed musicians continue to struggle and lament over their piles of cane.

“…there is nothing new under the sun,” the Bible says. Indeed, many methods have been tried and re-tried. Sophisticated equipments have been developed to aid the musicians to find or create the “perfect” reed. Nonetheless, struggles remain and increasingly the subject of reeds has become, at least in the writer’s experience, a taboo topic of our time.

Brief Anatomy of Reeds

The basic material from which reeds are made is called the Arundo donax (or The Great Reed). All double reeds, single reeds, and even bagpipe reeds are all made from this unique perennial grass. Mature canes have a yellowish-brown hue and are suitable for reed making. It is an extremely slow-growing grass that takes at least three to five years to become a usable cane. Perhaps because of the high demand and production schedule, some companies use immature canes for their reed products, which need further storage period.

Arundo donax’ unique textural structure consists of hard and soft fibers. The hard outer shells are composed mostly of silica, mica, manganese, magnesium and other hard elements. Secretion of wax and silica compound gives the cane its hardness and shine. Interspersed between the hard fibers are the soft spongy cells that are composed mostly of carbohydrates.

The Function of the Reed and Its Effect in Acoustics

Being a tone generator, the reed is a very important part of the instrument. Even more so than the resonator, which is the bore of the mouthpiece and the instrument. Whether the reed is balanced or not affects the vibration of the air column and hence affects the fundamental tone. Although the effects on a cylindrical bore (clarinet) might be less than a conical one (saxophone), given their acoustical differences, a poorly made or adjusted reed amplifies those effects.

Most reed instruments have the same physical phenomenon in producing sound: as air is forced through the reed, the increased airflow pulls and closes the gap between the mouthpiece and the reed and releases a burst of air into the bore of the instrument. The strength of the natural arch of the reed plus the return of the air wave reflected from the body of the instrument forces the reed to open and allows it to release another burst of air into the instrument, resulting in a valve-like function. Therefore, the quality of the reed and balance of its side rails are of utmost importance.

Selecting and Working with Reeds

In selecting a reed:
• It needs to have a yellowish-brown or golden color with no green (too young) or brown discolorations (too old or moldy) in the vamp.
• Straight, evenly spaced hard fibers across the tip with no blank spaces. (The function of the soft spongy fiber cells is to control the reed so that it will not vibrate too freely. If there is an excessive amount of hard fiber, the reed will sound harsh. On the other hand, however, if there are too many soft fiber cells [blank spaces] waterlogging can be a problem and the reed will sound dull.)
• The surface of the vamp should be smooth.
• It does not matter whether the reed has a U-shape vamp shoulder (American cut) or a horizontal vamp shoulder (French cut). But do make sure the vamp is uniformly cut; some reeds are thicker on one side.
• The butt end/heel of the reed needs to have a relatively high arch. Low arch means the reed is made from a cane that has large diameter, which will not make a good reed.
• The heart of the reed needs to show an inverted U-shape under the light. A large area of dark shadow means the reed is possibly too thick in the middle. A reed with an oddly shaped heart does not vibrate well.
• Choose the right strength: 2-2 1/2 for beginners and 3-3 1/2 for intermediate to advanced students.

In working with reeds:
• To test if a reed fits the mouthpiece properly—put the bottom hole of mouthpiece in the center of your palm and seal it properly. Suction out the air from the mouthpiece. Then quickly take the mouthpiece out of the mouth without removing it from the palm. A popping sound should occur after a few seconds; that indicates the reed is fitting properly.
• To test the balance and strength of a reed—
o Check the balance of the sides and back of the reed, blow through each tip corner and play the middle to low register (clarinet: throat and chalumeau registers; saxophone: Bb to low Bb)
o Check the balance of (1) and (3) [see “Parts of the reed”] using a lamp: soak a reed with water, point the reed toward the light and watching from the butt end of the reed, push up the end tips of the reed, one side at a time, gently with the index finger. If the balance is right, the reflected light on the reed should show that both sides should bend up about the same amount. Adjust the side where it seems too hard to bend.
? If the reed is too hard—Using a reed knife or a Dutch/reed rush, scrape cane from the area (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6) that is too thick (mostly 1 and 3); if both sides are balanced but lower register is hard to blow, scrape area 4, 5, or 6. Please note that adjustments in areas 2 and 5 should be minimum. Any adjustment to the tip is neither recommended nor necessary in most cases.
? If the reed is too soft—
• Move it slightly beyond the tip of the mouthpiece and/or
• Clip a small amount off the tip using a reed trimmer.

Final notes to Band Directors
• Reeds need to be soaked thoroughly with water before playing and dried properly afterward.
o PLEASE NOTE: a warped reed does not mean it is a bad reed. It only means that the reed was dried unevenly or there are too many soft cells in the cane. Teach students to dry reeds with the table facing upward. If warped, soak the reed for a longer time until normal; there is no need to press the tip against the mouthpiece table. Do not use warped reeds for they will not seal properly and will result in a bad tone quality.
• Reeds need to be stored in reed guards or other commercial holders. The author finds that a wooden box (cigar boxes for example), with its relatively constant humidity, is one of the best containers for reed guards.
• Always use a mouthpiece cap when not playing.
• Rotate at least four reeds and discard old, chipped or moldy reeds.
• The general quality of a reed has direct correlation to its price.

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