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The Easy Move from Alto Sax

The Easy Move from Alto Sax | September 2012

The transition from alto saxophone to tenor, baritone, or soprano is fairly easy, and for bands with an abundance of altos, this offers an opportunity for improved balance. Here are some tips for easing the transition between saxophones.

From L-R: tenor, bass (obscured by tenor player), contrabass, soprano, baritone, soprillo, alto. (Photo courtesy of the National Saxophone Choir of Great Britain)

   All too often, improper equipment results in unnecessary difficulties for saxophonists switching to another member of the family. While any good-quality instrument will serve a young musician well, great care should be taken with the mouthpiece and reed combination. Many saxophonists will produce their best sound with a mouthpiece of medium tip opening, facing, and chamber, and with a medium-strength reed; a 3 works for almost all middle and high schoolers with nearly any saxophone. Sometimes adjustments must be made, but this guideline works most of the time. Avoid using jazz mouthpieces in concert band, saxophone quartets, or solo classical playing.
   One other important piece of equipment is the neckstrap. Some of them will not work for every size of saxophone. Students should be able to adjust the neckstrap so that the mouthpiece enters the mouth directly, without unnatural contortions of posture, and so that the student will not be supporting the weight of the saxophone with the hands.

Tone Production
   Most problems that will arise from switching will be in producing a good sound. Any needed adjustments to the embouchure can be found quickly and by playing on the mouthpiece alone. This is an easy way for a student to learn what the best embouchure and air speed combination will be for the new instrument. They should match the mouthpiece to a reference pitch. A soprano saxophone mouthpiece, played correctly, should sound a concert D#6, alto a B5, tenor an Ab5, and baritone a D5. It should be noted that the student’s embouchure for the new instrument should not be that far removed from the one used for their previous saxophone. If students are doing something drastically different to achieve the desired results, guidance may be in order.


   The soprano, used often in saxophone quartets but rarely in concert band and jazz ensemble works, is usually the least familiar to both young saxophonists and directors. When it is called for, however, it usually has an extremely important part, and soprano players definitely need to play with a good sound.
   The most common mistake when switching to soprano is taking in far too much mouthpiece. This will result in a harsh, strident, and uncontrolled tone. On soprano, a player new to the instrument should take in less than feels necessary and then add a bit more if needed. It will be nearly impossible to play the correct pitch on the mouthpiece if it is too far in the mouth.
   Always use a neckstrap with the soprano; this will alleviate a bit of the strain on the right hand and wrist. Avoid playing the instrument at the same angle as the clarinet; the soprano sax mouthpiece should enter the mouth at approximately the same angle as the alto or tenor mouthpiece. Students should avoid wrapping the right thumb around the back of the instrument.

   Surprisingly, students have quite a few problems switching to tenor from alto. This frequently is caused by the slightly larger size of the instrument. Recently, a colleague asked me for help with a student who had recently switched to tenor. Despite all appearances of a correct embouchure, the student was unable to produce a proper sound. I found that the young saxophonist was unknowingly bumping the left-hand side-keys open, most likely because he was unfamiliar with the size of the tenor. Once this was called to the student’s attention, the problem vanished.
   Students switching from alto will need to take in a bit more mouthpiece than they expect. If they start squeaking or have a harsher sound, they have gone too far and should back off a bit.

   The largest problem in switching to the baritone saxophone is the sheer size of the instrument. Smaller students may wish to try a harness instead of a neckstrap. Directors should make sure that students are not resting the saxophone on the floor or their feet while playing. All of the warnings about bumping keys apply to the baritone sax as well.
   Although I have seen some students take in too much baritone mouthpiece, it is a rare sight; students usually take in far too little mouthpiece. As with the tenor, students should take in more than they feel is correct, and if squeaks or a harsh sound occur, they will know that they have gone too far.
   A second concern with the baritone is the amount of air required to produce a large, beautiful sound. Students tend to tense up when playing this instrument. To prevent this, have students perform long tones, beginning on a written G4, crescendoing for four beats then decrescendoing for four beats, all with a large, beautiful sound. Have them do this, descending by half-steps, until they reach the lowest note on the instrument.

   Although the alto is the most common saxophone among students, some students start on tenor and have never played another size. As with alto players switching to soprano, the most common problem has to do with embouchure formation and the amount of mouthpiece taken. Students should work toward producing a B5 on the mouthpiece.
The full saxophone family, from sopranino through contrabass, spans nearly the range of a piano. One saxophonist, with the proper guidance and a few concentrated techniques, can gain fluidity and comfort on any of them in a very brief amount of time.