Saxophone players spend a lot of time trying to improve their sound, but the next step is learning to blend well with others. I like to compare it to a baseball team. You can have a great hitter or pitcher that performs really well as an individual, but team sports require playing together for the overall best of the entire team.
Let's assume you are getting a good sound but your sax section at school doesn't seem to sound very good when playing together. How do you blend better? It requires a team spirit. You have to start thinking as a team and playing as a team.
Listening is the most important part of blending with others. You have to listen to each other, phrase with the other players, start and end notes together, and make sure you can hear all the parts. If all you can hear is the alto part, the altos might be playing too loud, or the tenor and baritone saxophone players might not be filling those big saxophones up with enough air.
The first thing most people will notice when trying to blend with others is pitch. If you are out of tune, you will stick out and not contribute to the section sounding its best. A tuner is a great friend for a sax player trying to play in tune. There are many instrument tuners available today that are small, inexpensive and either clip onto the saxophone or have a small clip on microphone that you can use at home and at band rehearsals.
If you don't own a tuner, chances are you have never really taken pitch seriously and need to get one. Playing in tune is so important that you should never practice without at least checking to make sure you are in tune before you start. I am always concerned about pitch! If you want to blend as a section, first get everyone in tune.
The next topic would be playing together. If you don't know the song and are playing wrong rhythms, you will stick out like a sore thumb. Once you have everyone playing the same notes and rhythms, you can use those ears and listen to make sure you are phrasing together. Phrasing covers topics like when you breathe, tonguing and slurring, accents, long or short notes and dynamics in loud and soft sections.
If the music is marked soft and everyone else is honking, you might want to make a suggestion that we all need to try and play softer there. Blending is a difficult game if some of your section is not listening at all. Everyone needs to develop a team concept and learn to work together.
The most basic concept of sound is a pyramid. Blending a saxophone section in concert band requires a good bottom first. Too often we have the weakest players on those big saxophones. You need a good bari sax player that is a team player—concerned with getting a good tone, playing in tune, and learning the music really well.
Getting some sectional time is very helpful. You can't develop a section sound without section time. If your band doesn't have regular sectionals, try setting up some time outside the regular school schedule. Set up in a circle so you can better listen to one another, and listen for every part. A great sax section doesn't happen by accident—it takes desire and hard work.
Depending on the group and style of music, you may need to look into some equipment changes. A new sax player in a jazz band might need to look into a jazz mouthpiece to get more volume and a little more edge. Concert band often requires a darker sound and you might find a classical sax reed, or harder reed strength will make for a much better blend with that section.
It all starts with listening and learning to work as a team. There is no accident or surprise in award-winning groups or Baseball teams. Be your best and play for the team.
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Los Angeles based freelance saxophonist Greg Vail is among the most versatile woodwind players on the west coast. His work in jazz, pop and contemporary gospel music spans over 30-years. Greg maintains an active digital presence at www.gregvail.com
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