Serving two Masters
a demanding task for the Obedient Reed

(adapted from my Saxophone Course - Lesson 1)

  1. How the Saxophone works
  2. The second Resonator
  3. Experiment
  4. PAVE your way to a Superior Tone
  5. Getting started

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OR 1 - How the Saxophone works

The saxophone has a reed that, when made to vibrate , beats against the mouthpiece opening ('window'). This alternately opens and closes the mouthpiece which in turn sets up a vibrating air column in the resonator (the brass part) of the saxophone.

Here is a diagram of the vibration of the low Bb in a straight soprano saxophone :


(All figures in this Course are diagrams. They are intended to explain concepts, not to show instruments, waves, anatomies, etc. realistically.)

When the player lifts one finger, a key pad opens. This reduces the wave length of the vibrating air column and raises the pitch of the sound. As the vibration of the air column changes, the vibration of the reed also changes instantly.


This is an essential point.
Although the reed starts and maintains the energy of the vibration, the resonator determines the wavelength and frequency.

The saxophone operates therefore under the principle of resonator control, combined with an obedient reed.

Whenever the resonator is shortened or lengthened, the vibrating air column changes its frequency, and the reed changes its vibration in sympathy with it.

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OR 2 - The second Resonator

Once this is understood, the next point is inevitable.
For what provides the energy to start and maintain the reed's vibration ? The air flow from the human body.


By blowing on the saxophone a second resonator is automatically connected to the system. This is the cavity within the body, consisting of the interconnected.

  • mouth
  • throat
  • trachea
  • and lungs

Sound waves travel in all directions, regardless of the direction of air flow. Therefore the reed sets up vibrations in both resonators, the saxophone and the human body.

Both resonators send out their own vibrations to the reed. The reed, trying to serve both masters, combines the two directives into one average vibration, which is spread through both resonators.

This point was experimentally proven by the late Dr. Peter Clinch.   ('Oral tract fluctuations in clarinet and saxophone performance : An acoustical analysis' - Ph.D thesis, Monash University, Melbourne, 1980)

sax0104.gif Clinch installed :
  1. one sensor in the saxophone resonator
  2. one sensor on the reed
  3. and one sensor in the mouth of the player.

Wave frequency and shape were identical for all three sensors at all times.

When the (professional) player deliberately adapted a twisted poor playing position, the wave quality of all three sensors deteriorated markedly and identically.

When the player sat in a 'good' playing position the wave shapes improved instantly.

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OR 3 - Experiment

Let us conduct a simple experiment on the saxophone.

  1. Play on your instrument one tone, the low G for example.

  2. Now sing through the mouthpiece the same tone ("daaaaa", a full sound) while maintaining the G fingering on the saxophone.

  3. Then, under continued singing of the low G, change the fingering down to F, E, and D. Then up through E, F, G, A, to B, and finally back to A and G.

What did you notice during this exercise ?
While both singing and fingering the low G you can feel a strong vibration through your body.
As soon as the fingering moves away from the G the body vibration reduces considerably. When it comes back to the G it increases again.

What happens ?
When the saxophone resonator is in phase with the tone produced by your body the sound waves (vibrations) are amplified.

In saxophone playing you aim to do the opposite to what you did in the experiment.
You must bring the body resonator in phase with the saxophone resonator.

No matter how good the instrument is, if the body sends out poor vibrations to the reed the overall sound will deteriorate. The body resonator then acts as a mute, it muffles the sound and reduces its quality.

If on the other hand the body resonator sends out the same or even better quality vibrations to the reed than the saxophone, the sound quality will be enhanced.
The tone will be in focus, amplified and projected forward.

The incorporation of tone, colour and feeling are elements exclusively produced by the body resonator.

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OR 4 - PAVE your way to a Superior Sound

A good tone requires therefore a well developed body resonator.
A good instrument, mouth piece and reed all can contribute to tone quality. But without a good body resonator the best accessories money can buy will not produce a good tone.

To develop a good body resonator one must work on four aspects.

Posture - Air support (breathing) - Voicing - Embouchure

A good posture is essential.
The body resonator must not be twisted, contracted or blocked. It must be stretched, but relaxed.

The body resonator must also be fully inflated.
This is achieved by good breathing and air support.

The pitch changes from note to note represent changes of wave length and frequency in the resonator. On the saxophone this is easily done by opening or closing key pads.
With the body this is (fortunately) not possible.
The body resonator therefore varies its shape from note to note to accommodate the shape (nodes and 'anti-nodes') of the wave form. This is referred to as voicing.

This is an essential part of the Saxophone Course. You will follow a series of tone and overtone exercises to develop flexibility and control of your oral tract over a wide pitch range (including the altissimo register) of your instrument.

The word embouchure is derived from the word 'bouche' which means 'mouth' in French. Embouchure means the placement of lips and facial muscles around the mouth piece of the instrument.
The embouchure connects the two resonators into one vibrating system. It does this near the critical point, the reed, where the vibrations of both resonators are combined.
The embouchure can therefore make or break the overall sound.

We will deal with all above elements in detail in the Saxophone Course.

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OR 5 - Getting started

While you are making up your mind, or are waiting for the Saxophone Course you just ordered to arrive in your mailbox, try this simple exercise to get you started.

The first objective on your way to a good tone is to get to know each tone on your instrument as a personal friend. Each tone is different. Some boom out with ease, others are stuffy and need a real effort to bring them to life.
Start by playing the C major scale over the lower register only. Do not use the tongue, always slur from one note to the next.

Play the notes of the scale slurred very slowly in groups of 2 notes.

(Clarinet or Piano sounds are used for all Audios. The Sax sounds on Midi are just too awful to listen to.)

Audio 1.1 : Alto - Tenor

Sustain the first note (of each combinantion of 2) until it sounds as good as you can possibly make it, then start the next note while maintaining the same tone quality you achieved for the first note. Sustain the second note about twice as long as the first one.

While playing :

  • Sing the note in your mind.

  • Imagine the tone centre gradually moving down in your body (from chest to tummy) as you descend from G to low C, and gradually moving up (from chest to throat) as you ascend from G the middle C.
    Obviously the tone centre cannot possibly move below the tips of your lungs, but you can imagine it does. This is called organic imagery, a technique widely used by professional singers and also dealt with in the Saxophone Course.

  • Listen to the tone you produce (not to the note in your mind).

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Copyright © 2004 Michael Furstner (Jazclass). All rights reserved.