Part 1: Setting the Record Straight about Soprano Saxophone

The soprano saxophone has developed quite a reputation in its short lifetime, and not all of it is good. It’s time to set the record straight about the supposed “Devil’s Horn” and to counter the incredible amount of misinformation and, frankly, bad information that’s been put out there by people who don’t know much about the soprano saxophone. More about that bad information and the people who spread it around later. Right now, I’d like to tell you what I know about the soprano saxophone and about playing soprano sax. I’d like to tell you what I think about soprano saxophone and, most importantly, how and why I’ve come to think those things. And I’d like to provide a solid foundation of information and knowledge for anybody that plays, wants to play or is trying to play soprano saxophone.

These are things that you might learn over a lifetime of playing soprano sax, but, then again, you might not. There are any number of musicians that play soprano but don’t know very much about it. Often, they are one of the sources for the “bad information” I mentioned earlier. So, having a soprano sax and knowing what to do with your fingers does not make someone a soprano saxophonist. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have all these horror stories about the soprano. So, let me begin.

The Soprano Sax is Not A Beast

The most important thing to know is this fact: the soprano saxophone is not harder to play than the other saxophones.

When you learn to play any saxophone, the beginning is, well, challenging. The first sounds we make are usually not very pretty. We’ve all experienced the awful squawks and squeaks, the notes that refuse to come out, the sounds that seem to emanate from out of nowhere. But that all faded as we developed the basic skills of tone production, and we didn’t decide that the alto or tenor sax was a beast. We got beyond the obstacles that were in our way: leaky horns, bad reeds, poor technique, lack of practice. If you recall your elementary school band lessons, you may remember that the music teacher could very often identify the cause of your immediate problem, even from 20 feet away, just by hearing the sound you made. The teacher could do that because the sources of those problems are well known and easy to identify, especially after you’ve seen or heard them a few dozen ( or hundred) times.

But it is rare for a player to play soprano sax as their first saxophone. Band music is written for alto, tenor and baritone sax and that is what is required in school bands. So, the soprano is neglected.

By the time a player comes to the soprano sax, they’ve usually had some real success on another sax. And, the fingerings are the same, so….., what could be bad?

What The Heck?

Now, it gets interesting. A player with some success on alto or tenor picks up a soprano and starts to play. First thing they hear is some very out of tune notes, out of tune, all over the place: sharp up high, flat down low.  Now, they can play their alto in tune, so the problem must be the soprano sax itself. Wrong, but they don’t know that it’s a wrong assumption. And the old wife’s tale starts again: the soprano is a beast to play.

Reality Check

Some important facts, at this point:

  • The soprano is a lot smaller than the other saxes.
  • The soprano is usually the first straight sax they’ve ever played.
  • The soprano mouthpiece is a lot smaller than an alto mouthpiece.

Combined, they tell us that the soprano is different, but not that it is difficult.

When a player goes from alto to tenor, they learn to make adjustments to their embouchure and to their air column, their oral cavity, how their hands fall on the bigger sax, and more things like that.

Well, there are real adjustments that must be made to play soprano. They are not difficult; they are just different.