Thursday, May 15, 2014

Saxophone Skills: Long Tones = Wind Power!

Long Tones = Wind Power

I cringe when people assume that the saxophone is fun and easy to play. It’s not. Who is to blame for this misguided notion? One culprit is the popular, yellow plastic toy known as the Fisher-Price Bubble Saxophone. With a light puff of air it sends soap bubbles ascending to the heavens.

Attention earthlings! Get those feet back on the ground! Playing any instrument takes time, technique and thoughtfulness. At the same time, it behoves us to maximize our advancement with the most efficient methods. Incorporate some l......o......n......g tones into your practice routine and get set to witness the positive results.

You may ask: how will long tones improve my playing? How can something so simple and easy to do improve my technique? Half the answer is in the question. It is precisely because long tones are simple that you can use them to focus your mind on improving one thing at a time. They are like isolation chambers for the brain.

The long tone is the perfect vehicle for building fundamental skills.

The long tone is the perfect vehicle for building wind power.

The Set-Up

1. Pick a focal point, a visual marker that gives you a place to direct your sound. Look around your practice space for something small like a push pin, a letter on a poster, or, best of all, the innermost circle of an archery target! Until you learn instinctively how to direct your air stream, a visual aid is helpful.

2. Adopt perfect posture: stand up tall, chest open, shoulders back, and feet underneath your shoulders for balance.

3. Finger an easy note on the saxophone. Actually depress the key in preparation.

4. Review the details of a perfect embouchure. Place your mouth on the mouthpiece. You may want to do this in front of a mirror. Make sure your embouchure looks right.

5. Breathe in (through your mouth) once or twice for maximum lung expansion.

The Release

6. Blow and keep your mind engaged!

Focus on keeping the air column constant and the dynamic level even. Maintain your embouchure without tensing or loosening up. You may need to focus on this more towards the end of the process. You will begin to feel the inter-costal and abdominal muscles helping to force the air into the mouthpiece.

Keep playing for as long as you can. Get it? LONG tone. Test your limits. You may feel slightly uncomfortable by the end, and it may require some mind over matter to keep going. Often we feel the need to stop blowing, not because we’ve run out of oxygen, but because of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.


7. You did it! What’s your time?

Use a stop-watch or get your teacher to record the number of seconds you played. Over time, your long tone will becomes.....longer! Maybe one day you will beat the record of Richard Berendt, MD, who once held a long tone for one minute and thirty seconds. (Yes, it was pianississimo.)

Just think of what you could do if you could play -uninterrupted- for one minute and thirty seconds.

Easily, easily, you could play the ENTIRE fourth movement of the Sonata for Eb Alto Saxophone and Piano by Henri Eccles, arranged by Sigurd Rascher, in ONE massive breath! How awesome would that be?!

Even if you decided to take the three best opportunities to breathe (measures 20, 35/36, and 56) you would feel better; you would sound better. Instead of gasping, dropping notes, and speeding up, you could coast through the lines like a canoe on a still lake.

Of course, the audience will have no idea that it’s your fantastic air capacity that allows you to play so quickly and effortlessly. They will chalk it up to “fast fingers”. But that’s ok. You know what’s really creating the magic.

The primary goal is to learn how to play for a long time, so that you don’t have to breathe as often. You can breathe for artistic reasons rather than out of sheer necessity. There will be no need to “break the phrase”.

A major bonus is that practising long tones improves almost every aspect of wind playing. It is easy to see how it improves embouchure, posture, inhalation, exhalation, support of the air stream, and quality of tone. When you play a long tone, you are increasing your capacity in each of these areas.

Caution! There is one small caveat. You must actively use your mind to maintain good form. How?

If one area is weaker than the rest, it can become the primary focus. Never breathing in with enough gusto? Focus on increasing the amount of oxygen you take in. Slumping forward and losing your posture? Focus on keeping your shoulders back and chest open. Zoning in on one issue at a time greatly increases the probability that you will correct the habit for the long term.

Indirectly, playing long tones improves tonguing. While flexibility and nimbleness at the tip of the tongue are important, most issues can be sorted out with greater support of the air stream. Without realizing it, students often relax their support or stop pushing actively when tonguing. They often assume that their slow tongue is to blame. Not so! When the air is there, the very strong tongue muscle is able to work as envisioned.

It would be a shame if you spent a lifetime practising long tones on middle B. Expand to include long tones on the highest and lowest notes of the regular range, on altissimo notes, on multi-phonics, with vibrato, and with flutter-tongue. Work on all long tones at different dynamic levels. They provide an unparalleled opportunity to work on truly graduated crescendos and decrescendos.

And finally, pick a scale, set the metronome, and set up your stop-watch. Play through, full compass, as many times as you possibly can. Remember - the fingers are secondary to the air stream. It’s all about wind power.

Series presented by

Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction

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