Why are 'low notes' so difficult?
Many of us find the 'low notes' on the saxophone to be quite difficult to play. I have worked on this area with several students recently, so I thought I'd bring together some of the key ideas in one place.
Differences between players' saxes and mouthpieces affects the music they produce, as do the physical differences in the shape of your mouth and throat. This means that some people will find the lower notes easy to produce, but in this blog, I'm going to talk about some of the strategies that everyone can apply to improve the sound they make.
Try incorporating these ideas into your practice. Some of them might even provide instant results!
So, what do I mean by 'low notes'? Here, we are really talking about sounding a low C#, C, B and Bb (or even A on a Baritone Sax). Often, these notes are not played by beginners, and are introduced a little later as they develop their repertoires.
In this blog I am primarily focusing beyond the physical struggle of getting your fingers in the correct place and more about blowing the notes successfully. But first, a little mention on the physical demands:
Reaching the buttons
The first difficulty can be the physical struggle of reaching the keys. Often students express their surprise that it is such a stretch to a Bb, when the other buttons are so easily in reach of your fingers or palms.
The little-finger keys are actually quite well located... as long as you have got adult sized hands. For children and others with smaller hands, it can be a difficult to apply the pressure to press the keys, and often players try to support their fingers by rolling their wrist or hands downwards, or even their whole arm. This is not ideal, because it can make it very hard to fluently move to other notes, and it can even cause a contortion of the upper body, affecting your airflow.
You may require some physical strength and flexibility to reach the low keys, but as with all physical tasks it is important to exercise to build strength and to keep a proper form to your hands to avoid discomfort or injury.
Avoid using an iron grip with your other fingers - if you use excessive force to keep the other keys down, your hand will tire more quickly and you'll struggle to transition swiftly between notes. Always use the minimum strength required.
Practise in front of a mirror, make sure that you aren't moving your other fingers or hand out of place, and that you aren't twisting your left arm/shoulder.
Practise little and often, and stop if your finger muscles ache. Build your low notes into your warm-up routine.
Practise low notes by running scales down into them and up again (developing fluency), and also by playing long notes (developing strength).
Hitting the notes
The lower notes on a saxophone are created by vibrating a longer column of air than with higher notes, and this requires more energy in your exhalation. In the middle range of your instrument, there is a pleasant balance of notes which require a moderate amount of energy to produce, and only a moderate amount of control to make them sound nice.
In the low register, you need less control to make a sound but you need more energy, and this can be a challenge for beginners or children with smaller lungs. You will need lots of control too, to keep your tuning and dynamics (volume) as you desire.
By the way, your mouthpiece can affect the difficulty of sounding your low notes. My jazz mouthpieces are less forgiving in the lower register but my classical Selmer S80 C* mouthpiece allows me to achieve them much more easily. You can read more about mouthpiece selection in my previous blog post here.
So, how do you get your 'low notes' to sound?
1. Support the air with your stronger muscles
Your lungs are not a muscle, but they are surrounded by muscles. You have muscles between your ribs, which are less useful for music; and you have a diaphragm below the lungs. This is a thin but strong muscle, which is much easier to control and provides much more power.
Non-musicians often try to breathe only using the inter-rib muscles, which causes your shoulders to go up and down a bit. These are not the only ones we want to use for music.
To learn how to use your diaphragm, lie on your back and place a book on your torso, on your navel. Breathe in and the book rises; breathe out and it lowers. Your shoulders stay still. You are using your diaphragm to lift the book as you breathe.
...you can stand up now!
Good use of the diaphragm can support your notes all the way from low to high. Practise diaphragmatic breathing away from your instrument at first.
When breathing in:
Keep your shoulders relaxed, not hunched. Keep your chest up
Drop your jaw and keep your throat open (like beginning a yawn)
Push out your stomach and back muscles
Expand your 'tummy' quickly as you inhale
Do not lift your shoulders (they will raise slightly as the air flows in - this is normal).
When blowing out:
Maintain an open throat (like when you yawn)
Form the syllable "Hoooooo", without actually making a sound, while you exhale.
Keep your cheeks firm to ensure an open throat and air that comes from the bottom of the lungs.
Push the stomach and lower back muscles out while exhaling.
Remember that good wind players have strong diaphragm muscles and are pressing outwards throughout their playing.
2. Control your embouchure
If you are nervous about hitting low notes, you are probably going to tense up. I already mentioned keeping shoulders, hands and torso relaxed - but you must also have a controlled tension in your mouth. If you tighten your embouchure you can cause the low note to jump up an octave or even more. This can be done to awesome effect (like 20 seconds into this video) but you certainly don't want to do it by surprise!
When practising, concentrate on getting the right tension of lip whilst playing long notes. This might be a little looser than the top register, or with a slightly lower jaw to open your throat more, but be careful not to go too slack. Being slack can make you sound like a foghorn, ruin your intonation (tuning) and make it hard to flow up to higher notes again.
Whatever happens, remember that the tension comes from your lip muscles, not your teeth. Lip tension provides way better control. If you practise for a while and feel bite marks in your lower lip, you have been biting!
3. Direct the airflow
If you stand up when practising, then good! It allows you better diaphragm control. However, sometimes people have a music stand set quite low, which lowers their chin towards the chest when playing and restricts the airflow through the throat. Try yawning with your chin right down, then again with your head level, and you'll feel the difference.
To address this, adjust your music stand higher and raise your sling so that you can keep your throat open when playing.
Bringing it all together
As with all learning, if you try to do everything at once your brain gets overloaded.
This is called cognitive load theory and teachers are all aware of it. But as learners we can overwhelm ourselves without realising.
I have suggested three things here to improve your tone:
Use your stomach muscles
Control your embouchure
Direct your airflow
Practise these, but focus on one thing at a time. Do not try to do them all at once. Also, do not be frustrated if you stat to mess one thing up when you were focusing on another. The important thing is to be reflective, focused and patient with yourself... and ask for feedback from your teacher!
I'd love to know how you get on.