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Intonation and Pitch Techniques

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Tuning to an External Sound

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When performing with an ensemble whether large or just with piano a saxophonist is constantly adjusting pitch to match the ensemble players. However, when we practice we usually do so alone with no other sound to tune to. There are a number of ways we can learn this tuning skill. When two notes are slightly out of tune with one another they produce a ‘beat frequency’ which is a ‘wah-wah-wah’ sound. The more out of tune they are the faster and more noticeable the beat frequency will be.

Aural Perception

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Having a clear mental idea of the notes you are playing is a pre-requisite to voicing them correctly. Do not fall into the habit of ‘pressing the note button and waiting for the note to come out.’ Developing this inner ear will translate into better intonation on your saxophone.

Practising different instruments, especially more flexible ones will teach your ears to judge pitch more precisely. Singing is especially useful as it is infinitely flexible and therefore you need to know what note you are aiming for before you hit it. Sit down at a piano and practice singing intervals precisely without drifting out of tune. Unfretted string instruments (such as violin and ‘cello) will give you a spatial concept of pitch as the pitch of the note is determined by the length of string. Trumpet, like singing, requires you to think of the note you are going to play before you play it.

Pitch Bending

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Pitch bending if the process of moving a pitch higher or lower using embouchure and oral cavity rather than fingering. It is much easier to bend a note down (flat) than up (sharper). To practice, start with the higher notes such as palm keys. Play the note normally then smoothly bend it down as far as you can. Some of this can be effected with jaw pressure (the higher the pressure the sharper the note) but most of it is created in your oral cavity with your tongue. The back of the tongue should be high in the throat and the front ‘scooped’ downwards. Think of saying ‘ch’ in German or the ‘h’ at the start of ‘huge.’

A useful note to practice pitchbending on is front F. Practice bending it down watching your pitch with an electronic tuner. This note can be bent down to the concert G# and octave below. There are two main challenges in this exercise; bending down lower and making the split smooth. Eventually, you should be able to glissando smoothly from the original pitch of front F, down an octave and back up again.

Pitchbending is the means by which you can play smooth glissandi in repertoire although there you change fingering as well. To practice glissandi first practice playing a semitone but moving fingering so slowly the note glissandos. Try moving between G and F# with the octave key. To keep the glissando smooth you will need excellent air pressure and focus. Next, practice on small segments of the chromatic scale in this method but tune your oral cavity as if you were bending down. It is easier to glissando in the higher register as notes are more flexible. In repertoire, you will be able to skip some of the fingerings in between depending on the exact interval you are glissading and how much time you have.

Mouthpiece Exercises

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To check that your embouchure and oral cavity are not usually tuning too high or too low, you can play a note just on the mouthpiece of your saxophone. For an alto saxophone the tone produced should be a concert A and on a soprano saxophone it should be a concert C. Practice holding the note strong and steady without ‘wobbling’ in pitch or air support. Then practice crescendoing and decrescendoing on these notes aiming for smoothness and consistency. The tendency is usually to get sharper when getting softer and flatter when getting louder. To prevent this, think carefully about air pressure and tongue position making sure it is raised at the back when playing soft (like saying ‘ch’ in German.)

Once you are confident with your standard mouthpiece tone, try pitchbending it in either direction. An alto mouthpiece can play about between concert C and the concert C an octave below. A soprano mouthpiece can play about between concert F and the concert D an octave below. Practice glissading smoothly from one to the other. Next, practise isolating the notes at first go by playing a scale down and back up again.

Repertoire that Explores Pitch Techniques

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  • Pequena Czardas by Pedro Itturalde (glissandi and quarter tones)
  • Circus Maximus by Corigliano (glissandi)