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Teaching Saxophone Vibrato

Andrew J. Allen | September 2013

   Few things sound as wonderful as a saxophone solo played with a beautiful, full sound with good intonation and vibrato. Of the factors of good sound production, vibrato may be the most mysterious. Here are some tips and tricks for developing a pleasing vibrato.

When to Teach Vibrato
    Beginning saxophonists should not be introduced to vibrato immediately. It is better to give them time to develop basic playing skills. Vibrato ought to be just an ornament to an already firmly-established, well-supported sound, and students should be a year or two into the study of the instrument with foundational knowledge of proper embouchure, hand position, breath support, and a good sound before venturing into this area.

Use Jaw Vibrato
    Saxophonists produce vibrato by using the jaw as a hinge to make very small up and down motions in the front of the embouchure. This type of vibrato produces an extremely slight dip in pitch caused by the miniscule downward motion of the lower jaw. The best way to help students visualize this is to have them imagine a tiny piece of chewing gum between the front teeth. Their goal is to chew the chewing gum so subtly that no one else notices, which is similar to the physical motion required for a jaw vibrato.
    All too often, when left to their own devices or given insufficient guidance, saxophone students will teach themselves to produce vibrato incorrectly. Many, after hearing someone else play vibrato, will arrive at something resembling a diaphragm vibrato. This method works quite well on the flute but not the saxophone. Vibrato produced in this manner is wild, rough, and uncontrollable. If a student’s vibrato is uneven or varied in dynamics (sounding huh-huh-huh), it may be this type. Check the student’s embouchre for movement. There should be a tiny bit of motion, but if there is none, the student is probably attempting to produce vibrato from the abdomen.
    Another technique to avoid is hand vibrato, as used by some brass players, in which the instrument is very slightly moved back and forth with the fingers. Many trumpet players use this method, but on the saxophone it produces a wild vibrato in which young players can lose embouchure control and potentially injure themselves. The jaw vibrato is most easily controllable by saxophonists and is universally considered, in this day and time, to be the only appropriate method.

Exaggerate Vibrato at First
    Young saxophonists may find some physical resistance to the introduction of vibrato from their embouchure, as the motion will be unfamiliar after a year or two of learning to play without jaw movement. This can most easily be overcome by exaggerating the movement. When the technique is first introduced, students should hold a written G4, then pull the lower jaw away from the bottom of the reed while keeping everything else in place and retaining a proper, sealed embouchure. This should result in a noticeable flattening of the pitch.
    Then have students play the same note at its normal pitch, lower it substantially, and then return to the original pitch, using the same jaw motion, while keeping the embouchure set. Any deforming of the embouchure indicates too much movement, even at this exaggerated stage. Be sure students are not biting the mouthpiece after the return to pitch; tension can creep into the embouchure while moving the jaw. After students can successfully lower the pitch and come back up, see if they can do it in time, making four exaggerated yaw-sound cycles of pitch-dip and return, each on a beat at q = 60.

Work Slowly with a Metronome
    When students have command of this basic, overexaggerated physical ability, the slow, deliberate process of refining it into a usable skill begins. After they can do one yaw per beat, challenge students to get through two per beat at a slower metronome marking). Eighth notes at q = 45 may be a good starting point. From there, slowly increase the tempo. Once saxophonists can yaw eighth-notes at about 80 beats per minute, turn the metronome back down and have them perform sixteenth-note yaws starting the metronome at 40, trying to peak around four pulses per beat at 72. It will take several weeks, if not months, to get to this point.
    Slowly, as saxophonists speed up, the rough edge of the yaws will start to turn into something substantially smoother and more pleasing. Encourage this by dissuading students from playing the rough yaw after sixteenths are introduced, aiming instead for a smooth ya-ya-ya-ya sound. Also, the amount of pitch dip should lessen greatly as the tempo speeds up; in the final product, the vibrato should never actually be perceived as a flattening of the note, but, rather, as a warm, spinning addition to the basic sound. The extremes are merely necessary for the initial development of the technique.

Experiment with Different Tempos
    Students should be encouraged to play with many different tempos and subdivisions of the beat. Although anything more than sixteenths at a tempo of 76 beats per minute would be approaching too fast of a vibrato speed for what is currently in style, students should be able to take slower or faster and wider or shallower approaches to the technique. In addition, to further develop flexibility, after the technique is initially well-learned, students should experiment with different subdivisions (staying within the same frequency parameters). For instance, if a student is looking for a maximum speed of sixteenths at 72-76 beats per minute, he could also practice triplets up to 96-102 beats per minute. Other subdivisions, such as quintuplets, should also be practiced at appropriate tempos.
    Vibrato should sound regular and well-controlled, but not metronomic. Producing four vibrations per beat at slower tempos is a fine goal for students just becoming comfortable with the technique, however, for truly beautiful, pleasing use by older students, variety and flexibility are the keys. An always-constant vibrato at one tempo can quickly take a technique meant to add life and variety to the saxophone’s sound and turn it into an extraordinarily boring thing.

When to Use Vibrato
    Vibrato should not be used at all times and in all places. In band pieces it should be at the band director’s discretion. In solo playing, a good rule of thumb is to use it for note durations of a quarter note or longer, but different pieces will dictate different styles, speed, and intensity. Discretion and forethought are important in any musical situation.
    Vibrato should considered the icing on the cake; it can add an extra layer of musicality and expression to a beautiful saxophone sound but will do nothing for a poor tone. Listening to master players of the instrument, such as Donald Sinta, Clifford Leaman, Timothy McAllister, Joseph Lulloff, Taimur Sullivan, or Otis Murphy, is necessary for any young saxophonist to understand not just vibrato, but all of the foundations of an excellent sound and technique.