Being open to opportunities led me to study with the best saxophonists in the world. If you struggle with low notes on the saxophone, try these 3 low-note exercises I learned from the masters to improve your evenness, warmth and control.
Ray Smith - Developing Evenness in the Low Register
At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was looking to study with Dr. Ray Smith, professor of saxophone, master woodwind artist and head of the jazz department at Brigham Young University (BYU). He had studied with Eugene Rousseau for many years at Indiana University, was a Jody Jazz, Rico and Cannonball Artist and directed BYU Synthesis (he later recorded his techniques in his book, The Real Jazz Pedagogy Book). Once, Ray even turned down the directing position at the top jazz school in the country (you know which)! I had tried for months to get into his studio with no success, but as with most big problems, the solution was small.
My mom, an ambitious visual artist, was volunteering at the first Peaks Jazz Festival when she caught Ray in between clinics. She simply walked up to him, told him about me and my twin and like that, I was studying with him shortly after! As with many of my stories of meeting the greats, saying hello is often the first step of networking.
In the first few lessons, Ray printed off a warm-up sheet with various exercises that he required his college students to practice. The first one on this sheet was a low intervallic exercise aimed at developing evenness in the low register. It started at G and descended chromatically in minor thirds (G E, F♯ D♯, etc.), major thirds and so on until major sixths with G-B♭. The concept was to connect each note and maintain a full tone to make the low range as even as the middle range. When applied in a classical style, he would have us move the jaw forward slightly as the line descended. Doing this kept air out of the sound and allowed more of the reed to vibrate.
Ray has a youtube channel with great lessons - be sure to check it out!
Lew Tabackin - Creating a Warm Sound
As a member of the Crescent Super Band, I was able to tour and perform with hundreds of established musicians. One of the most memorable performances was headlining the Telluride Jazz Festival with Toshiko Akiyoshi, composer and pianist, and Lew Tabackin, tenor saxophone and flute, in the mountains of Colorado. We had spent months learning their music, including Long Yellow Road, and I was playing Lew's chair - a heavy responsibility for a high school student.
After a sectional, I kept my horn out while Lew was warming up in the room with all of us. I'm not one to let an opportunity pass, so I approached him and asked for some help with improving my sound. We were both playing links and I remember noticing his gold Olegature, the same one Chris Potter was playing at the time. He listened to me play a little, recommended I check out Don Byas and told me a tenor player needs warmth in their sound.
The concept behind this exercise is learning to start all notes G-B♭ with a breath attack, forcing proper voicing and opening the throat. Standard articulation, like du, is not involved in order to prevent it from becoming a crutch. Avoid pressure from the lower jaw. There's a smooth, velvety quality to Lew's sound that connects all of his notes together like glue. Listen to the master here.
Paul Nedzela - Controlling Low Notes
In March of 2018, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra started their tour with a performance at BYU. Being my university, I quickly found Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, warming up in the infamous room E-251. He saw me through the door, let me come in and said he'd be happy to give me a lesson.
After listening to me play a little snippet, Paul decided to work on a strong foundational approach to bari. The first thing he taught me was how Joe Temperley held his bari. Using his right hand, Joe pushed the horn away from his body in order to make the mouthpiece at a right angle to his embouchure. He said that with the neck, body tube and bow, the bari has enough bends and this is one less bend to deal with. This is especially true for Conns. Paul can be seen playing this way here. Joe also used to hold down the E♭ key like a flute player, use bis B♭ and favor side C, even in lines!
Paul showed me a way to improve low notes based on the idea that "great embouchures don't move." Start by articulating descending fifths in the low register while maintaining a loose embouchure and constant air support. Repeat through all of the dynamics. After getting those to feel good, you keep the same feeling and play the whole horn that way, even playing palm keys like low B♭. Paul's exercise is especially effective after learning Lew's and Ray's. Proper voicing is a prerequisite to proper articulation and together they make a powerful combo.
After talking through Paul's setup, he left me with one last piece of wisdom: "Some cats can play funk gigs but not whole notes."
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