There is no mystery about how to get a beautiful sound on soprano sax.
So, if you’ve read through Parts 1 and 2 of this series, you know where we are now and how we got here. We’ve taken a particular path to try to identify what a “beautiful soprano sound” is to each of us, as different as they may be one to the other.
Remember that the goal is a certain beauty, a certain real quality of sound: a ‘voice” that sings with the tone and quality we are seeking.
We’re utilizing words, as imprecise as they may be, to try to identify qualities of sound. We are using whatever metaphors or comparisons or juxtapositions we can find to accomplish that, and we are not allowing ourselves to be self-conscious about doing it, either.
We are not being judgmental about our own ability to articulate these complex things and we expect to wrestle with the words and concepts a bit. But you will find out that it is an easy path to take. The hardest part is ‘to begin”. After that, it has its own momentum and it unfolds quite quickly.
You may well ask, then what?
Good question. I will attempt to answer it by using an example of how a particular effort might unfold.
So, there is a player who has thought about this subject as it relates to him or her, and now has put together some thoughts on “the sound” that has the beauty being sought. Here are those ideas:
“I don’t like a bright sound with a lot of “bite” to it. It needs to have some, maybe a lot of depth; round, not pointed or sharp. “Blue” more than “red”; maybe “purple?”. Not an oboe , nasal sound, but not an alto sound either. It should sound like a soprano in all the registers, but not a cartoon version of a soprano, if you know what I mean. To be beautiful to me, it shouldn’t sound like I’m working hard to play it; it should have a certain effortlessness in the voice, a certain gentleness. I don’t want to sound like Zoot Sims on soprano, but it should “feel” as smooth as his playing feels to me.”
- That’s a lot of information to work from, and it asks as many questions as it answers too.
And, so, we begin.
I interpret his statements to mean he wants to achieve a sound that is vibrant. It will have some edge to it, especially in the middle and higher, but not a dramatic increase in higher partials from the lower half of the horn. It should maintain a recognizable ‘wholeness” regardless of where on the horn he is playing. It should not lack higher partials in the sound, even down low, but the higher partials should emanate from the low notes and not overtake the tone.
The statements about ease of play (effortlessness) tells me something else about how I think this player plays. I suspect he wants to put a modest amount of air into the horn, as opposed to someone who wants to pour air into the soprano. This is an important point, and will become part of the ensuing communication we will be having.
Here are a few of the questions I would ask, based upon what I have read and what I believe to be the significance of those things:
- What soprano sax do you play?
- What mouthpiece are you using?
- What reed brand and strength?
- What is NOT happening now, based on the things you’ve told me?
Those would be my first questions. I’m sure you noticed that I did not ask about how hard he blows the soprano. There is a reason for that: it’s too soon to ask, and I’ll tell you why.
The answers to the 4 questions above will tell me a lot more about this particular player and will give me more insight into HOW he plays now. It may be a little information but it might be a lot. I never know.
But I will, ultimately, get around to the question of how hard he blows or, better yet, how hard he WANTS to blow.
The reason for that is this: all other things being equal, I will set up two mouthpieces completely differently if one player blows really hard and likes that, and another wants to blow more modestly.
And “tip size” has almost nothing to do with it. Literally, almost nothing.
Surprised? Unconvinced? Skeptical?
So was I when I began to discover what was ‘really” at work. But that was a long time ago and we’re not there anymore.
It was first an epiphany that happened the first time I played Steve Lacy’s legendary “#12 Otto Link Tone Edge”. One note, actually and the soprano world shifted on its axis for me.
We are now at the shallow end of the pool as we begin to focus in on some specific things about what the player wants, what he is experiencing now and we’re doing this so we can determine the best path or paths to take to achieve the desired results.
As often as that may mean a new mouthpiece, it just as often means rebalancing the player’s current mouthpiece. Which path is chosen is always determined by which is the simplest for the player.
At this point in the process of getting a beautiful soprano sound, we are close to “knowing” what needs to happen in terms of equipment and player. What we don’t “know” quite yet is, which path is the most elegant. I use that word ‘elegant” in its mathematical sense, meaning simplest, purest, most direct.
I’d like to conclude this chapter by saying this: all that you have read speaks to why I have never, and can never, make and sell soprano mouthpieces to dealers and shops. If I do not have a good understanding of who will be playing the mouthpiece on what horn and with what goal, I can’t make that piece. It’s not interesting to me, it’s no fun and it certainly is of no use to anybody who wants to get somewhere on playing the soprano saxophone.
Next up: Applying what I’ve learned from the player.