Types of Saxophone Vibrato
I find the most useful form of vibrato for the saxophone is called jaw vibrato. This involves moving the jaw down and up repeatedly to create oscillations in the pitch of the note, as if saying “yah yah yah yah yah….” This is different to flute which involves diaphragm vibrato, in which the loudness of the tone oscillates rather than the pitch.
The aim of this exercise is for you to be able to control the rate and depth of the oscillations. To achieve this control, it’s necessary to start extremely slowly, in fact so slowly it’s not really a vibrato, in the same way that a drummer learns to perfect a roll by starting very, very slowly and gradually building up speed. This takes a long time as it is very important to get the first stage as even as possible (it should be done over a period of weeks rather than days).
Initially you must be able to hold a reasonably steady note without any wobble as with the long note exercise. In the very first stages you should not be thinking of a vibrato at all: basically you are just bending the note down and up as smoothly as possible.
- Start a metronome at 60 bpm.
- Play B (1st finger left hand lower register)
- Over a count of 4, slacken your jaw so that the note flattens by approximately half a semitone.
- Over a count of 4, raise your jaw until the note is back at pitch
- Stop the note.
N.B. You should try to get the lowering and raising as smooth as possible, imagine a sine wave:
It is very tempting to raise the note at a faster rate than lowering it, keep thinking of the sine wave and make sure you do not close your throat.
- Continue on all the notes downwards and upwards from the B as with the long note exercise. Depending on the note and your lung capacity, you could do one or more cycles per note, make sure you count 4 down and 4 up.
Raise the speed gradually (eg 1 or 2 bpm) each day. When you get to 120 bpm, set the metronome back to 60 bpm and count 2 down and 2 up. When you get to 120 bpm again set it back to 60 bpm and count 1 down and 1 up. By the time your note bending sounds more like a vibrato, you should be in complete control of the speed.
When to use Vibrato
Traditionally saxophone sections in a big band used vibrato (sometimes at matched tempi) when playing a chord, and no vibrato when playing a unison. In modern music it is more dependent on style and taste. Vibrato can be used on unisons, but only if a looser sound is needed.
When playing solo it is entirely up to the player to use vibrato or not. Sometimes it can be effective to play a note with no vib, then add it just at the end of the note (as with some singers).
To help with this try the transition exercise here.
Vibrato and Tuning
When applying saxophone vibrato, the note is lowered then raised. It may be raised slightly higher than the original pitch, but usually the largest shift in pitch is the downwards. This has the effect of making the average pitch of the note lower. Although the use of vibrato can mask poor intonation to a certain degree, you may want to take into account this averaging of the pitch downwards when tuning. One solution is to use a generally more relaxed embouchure when playing without vibrato, which would allow you to raise as well as lower the note from the starting point and keep the same average pitch.
One side effect of the exercise is that you will get very good at bending notes, as the first stage is basically a note bending exercise. Once you have mastered control over vibrato, go back to the very slow tempo and develop the exercise into a note bending exercise by bending the note as far down as possible, with some notes this can be as much as a major 3rd or 4th.
The Saxophone players vibrato database: compare the greats.
This is based only on a sample or two of each player, so may not be at all accurate or consistent. If anyone wants to add to the knowledge here and has the means to reasonably accurately time a player’s vibrato, please let me know. VPS = vibratos per second.
|John Coltrane||3.7||Naima 1959||.|
|John Coltrane||4.9||Naima 1966||.|
|Sidney Bechet||7.4||Petite Fleur 1951||.|
|King Curtis||5.7||Hungover 1966||.|
|Kenny G||6.0||Songbird 1986||.|
|Dexter Gordon||4.3||Shadow of Your Smile||.|
|Coleman Hawkins||5.6||April in Paris 1947||.|
|Johnny Hodges||5.7||I Got it Bad 1961||.|
|Charlie Parker||5||My Old Flame 1947||.|
|Eugene Rousseau||5.7||Concerto (Dubois) 1972||.|
|David Sanborn||5.9||Carly’s Song||.|
Practising these vibrato rates
Most players may have a specific speed of vibrato that is not based on a certain number of vibratos per beat, but merely an overall speed of vibrato that is not relate to the tempo of the tune. There are exceptions but these are often contrived (for example the Glenn Miller orchestra achieved a specific section sound by synchronsing the vibratos to a set number of vibratos per beat.)
If you wanted to practice a vibrato at the same speed as any of the above players, you can do a simple calculation to find the metronome tempo required to convert the vibrato per second rate to vibratos per beat
- VPS = vibratos per second
- VPB = vibratos per beat
- BPM = beats per minutes (ie how to set your metronome)
The formula is (VPS /4) x 60. This gives the BPM for your metronome so you can practice 4 vibratos per beat.
For those not good at maths (like me) here is an example to get you started:
To practise the same rate of vibrato as John Coltrane on Naima (1959), first we consider the vibrato rate per second, in this case 3.7 VPS. Theoretically we could set our metronome to 60BPM and practise 3.7 VPB because 60 BPM = 1 beat per second). However 3.7 vibs per beat would be very difficult to play along with a metronome so to make life easy we want to know the BPM for the same vibrato rate, but exactly 4 vibratos per beat. This is much easier to practise (nice!).
So we use the formula (VPS /4) x 60:
- Divide 3.7 by 4 which gives us 0.925.
- Now multiply that by 60 which = 56 (rounded up, ie close enough for jazz!).
So to practice the 3.7 VPS we set the metronome to 56 BPM and play 4 vibratos per beat.
Please bear in mind this is purely for reference and ease of practice so you needn’t be too exact. It is rare for a player to play an exact number of vibratos per beat, however this can be a useful way to practise and gauge the rate.
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Saxophone Vibrato Technique: The Definitive Guide
Today we are going to talk about one of my favorite things to do on saxophone—vibrato techniques.
Saxophone vibrato is an incredibly powerful musical effect to master because it provides a rich, pleasant listening experience to your audience (and yourself) by emulating vibrato in the human singing voice.
Vibrato can be very tricky to start on saxophone, to even think about, so in the rest of this article, I'm going to dive into some concepts or techniques to approach it and give some exercises to get you started.
The exercises I want to show you here are insanely powerful, I know for a fact that if you continue to practice them to build up some strength in your muscles, your vibrato will be come very beautiful.
They are designed first to get the vibrato going and then to control it.
So let's get started.
What is Vibrato?
Vibrato is the musical effect caused by regular, pulsating change in the pitch of a musical note. Vibrato describes two things—the extent of pitch variation and the rate at which that pitch is varied.
Vibrato is often accompanied by synschronous, pulsating changes in loudness and timbre in such a way as to provide a pleasing richness to tone. It is difficult to achieve a variation in pitch without getting a variation in volume and timbre.
Both variations will often be achieved at the same time.
Saxophone vibrato is an immitation of singing vibrato.
The extent of vibrato for solo singers is usually less than a semitone (100 cents) either side of the note, that of singers in a choir is typically narrower at less than a tenth of a semitone (10 cents) either side.
By way of comparison, the extent of vibrato for a saxophone is, generally, less than half a seminote either side.
Why Use Saxophone Vibrato?
There has been raging debate for years whether we should even use vibrato on saxophone. Bret Pimentel summarizes both sides of this debate succintly in his website.
We use vibrato on saxophone to soften notes—by caressing the tone, if you like. The idea is to make notes, especially long notes, less harsh and more pleasant to listen to.
If you are holding out a long note, with no vibrato on it, it just sounds abrasive. It sort of just sits there and honks at you.
It is not a pretty sound.
When you out vibrato in it, it just caresses the long note and makes it sound way more melodic. I love to describe vibrato with the word caressing because it implies gentleness, not harshness.
The 5 Saxophone Vibrato Techniques
There are several techniques of producing vibrato on saxophone. Here is the most comprehensive list, most of which translate to the equivalent technique as used by vocalists:
- Saxophone Jaw Vibrato
- Saxophone Tongue Vibrato
- Saxophone Lip Vibrato
- Saxophone Diaphragm Vibrato
- Saxophone Larynx / Vocal Chord Vibrato
#1 — Saxophone Jaw Vibrato
Most wind instruments tends to use a jaw vibrato as opposed to a diaphragm vibrato. In fact, this is the approach favored by jazz players
So how do we do it on saxophone?
The vibrato with the jaw on the saxophone, we need to gently move the lower jaw quickly up and down to manipulate the pitch and volume created by your embouchure over a note.
This technique requires a bit more gentleness than the others to produce the same effect. You need to move your lower jaw up and down just slightly.
The Saxophone Jaw Vibrato Exercise
Let's go over an exercise so you learn how to do this properly.
- Say the syllable "ya" repeatedly, "Ya-ya-ya-ya...". Notice how much your jaw moves when you say that.You may not be able to see anything, and that's actually good, because you don't want so much motion because that will make it not sound so good.
- Start you metronome at 60. Start off with quarter notes. It locks in your timing and it's going to help you a lot with the vibrato exercise.
- Pick a note on your saxophone. G, for instance, and blow a long note on your saxophone. This is the note you want to exercise blowing with jaw vibrato.
- Now blow the long note while saying the "ya, ya, ya..." sound. Match that to your metronome. Synchronize the "ya" sound, and the subsequent change in pitch, to your metronome at 60 perfectly. Keep doing this until you get the hang of it.
- Sub-divide the quarter none first into eigths and then into sixteenths. Continue synchronizing that "ya" sound to your metronome. You should now be blowing the long G and saying "ya-ya-ya, ya-ya-ya" for every eighth note and then at every sixteenth note "ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya, ...".
As you progress with the exercise, you may not be able to see anything but there is a slight movement up and down with your lower jaw.
But your long note will come out with a perfectly timed saxophone jaw vibrato.
That's a basic progression exercise that you can do with a metronome. Start up with quarter notes and then keep sub-diving until you start to get a pronounced vibrato.
Could you go faster than sixteenth notes?
Absolutely. But you will feel it getting a little bit too fast for vibratos beyond a certain point. For the purposes of an exercise and learning how to control it, why not.
You have to feel and hear the small beats because that's how you are going to move your jaw.
Another thing I'd like to mention here, think about the style of music that you like to play, and what a "normal sounding" beat of vibrato in that style. If you for example bring that sixteenth into jazz, it won't sound authentic.
So, listen to your favorite players and listen for the vibrato and use that to guide you through the exercise. Emulate then in doing your own vibrato.
And there you have it. You've made it through the saxophone jaw vibrato.
#2 — Saxophone Tongue Vibrato
This technique is all about tongue movement. What we are trying to do is make a flat or steady airstream and turn it into a wavy airstream using tounging technique.
The saxophone vibrato is tongued.
This concept is really easy and it produces a fairly subtle vibrato.
To vibrato with tonguing on the saxophone, move the hump backward and forward towards the reed, over the note, without completely closing off the reed.
The Saxophone Tongue Vibrato Exercise
This concept is even easier to teach and it works quite well.
- Say the syllables "doy" and "yoy" repeatedly, "doy-yoy-yoy...". Pay close attention to what your tongue is doing while you say this word. You will notice that when you say that word, the tongue humps backward and forward when you vocalize the word.
- Put a finger in your mouth as you say these syllables repetitively, if you need to. This is the exact motion we are aiming for to create a vibrato.
- Start your metronome. Just like with the jaw vibrato exercise, one of the best way to practice a vibrato is with a metronome.
- Pick a long note and blow it on your saxophone while saying the syllables repetitively that note. The "D" in "doy-yoy-yoy..." attacks the note and the "oy" create a vibrato of the note. Another word that will, more or less, achieve the same effect is "Wow-wow-wow...". You can use either of these two words and you'll still end up with the same results—a subtle tounging saxophone vibrato.
- Sub-divide your vibrato tempo to pick up the pace of your vibrato.
The idea of this exercise is to manipulate the airstream going into the saxophone when blowing a note by manipulating your tonguing with the word. So repeat it until you develop control and fluency over the vibrato.
The more you practice , the more control you have over the motion of your tongue, the faster (or slower) you can move it to manipulate the vibrato.
It's that simple.
#5 — Saxophone Lip Vibrato
This is the most subtle form of vibrato and it is achieved by minute movements of the lips. You use your lips to control the pitch of the sound.
The Saxophone Lip Vibrato Exercise
- Pick a long note. I'll play a G. Start playing your note.
- Place your finger over your chin. Move it up and down as you play a G. Your finger will move your lower lip up and down to create a vibrato. This just to help you get the right lip motion going. In the next step you need to repeat this movement without a finger on your chin. The faster you move your finger up and down the chin, the faster the lip vibrato gets. Have a little experiment with your finger, pulll it down the long way to see how it affects pitch then pull just slightly and see how that compares.
- Start your metronome. Just like with the previous exercise, one of the best way to practice a vibrato is with a metronome.
- Now, loosen and then tighten your lower lip gently (without the aid of your finger on your chin) as you play the long G. Make this as even as you can. Repeat this to create the vibrato.
- Sub-divide your vibrato tempo to pick up the pace of your vibrato.
Remember that if you want an even vibrato, you need to be able to play smoothly, with no bumps in the sound, and with a nice even vibrato. Of course, it takes quite a bit of practice to get some consistency going, that's what the exercise is for. Use it.
Eventually you want subtelty, that it what sounds really really good to the listener. If you have a huge warping vibrato you'll sound like some old 30's record that's warped.
#3 — Saxophone Diaphragm Vibrato
A diapragm vibrato is mostly used by flute players.
On the saxophone, the vibrato is made from the mouth, unlike other instruments, where they choose to make vibratos from the diapragm, as I mentioned about the flute above.
On saxophone, I find that the best way to do it is with the mouth.
Bouncing the diaphragm is the most pronounced form of vibrato. This is similar to the feeling of quickly inhaling and exhaling.
#4 — Saxophone Larynx / Vocal Chord Vibrato
A feeling of vibrating in the larynx area or more exactly, the vocal cords which is used by vocalists.
When (Where) to Use Saxophone Vibrato
The best time to use vibrato when you are holding a note is right at the end. Don't start a vibrato when you start a long note right away. Hold the note out for a bit, and then add the vibrato as the note is tapering off.
But this is purely an artistic choice. It gives a really beautiful sound. This is my personal artistic interpretation on when and where to use vibrato.
The important thing is to learn how to control your muscles with the vibrato so it comes out pleasantly. And then once you have it under control, then you can start to choose how, when and where you want to use it.
Thanks for reading I hope you found this helpful, useful and informative.
The saxophone sound is a sound with vibrato. To quote studio saxophonist Walt Levinsky, “A saxophonist who doesn’t believe in vibrato is like a painter who doesn’t believe in blue.” The correct production and judicious use of this expressive device will enhance the saxophonist’s tonal palette.
PRODUCTION: Undoubtedly the best method to learn vibrato is by imitation. Many students are introduced to vibrato by listening carefully to a good saxophone tone, preferably produced by the teacher. Recordings of many fine saxophonists are also available, although this approach is less effective. The most common way to produce a saxophone vibrato is by moving the jaw down and then up as though saying the syllable “vah-vah.” This jaw motion will be almost unnoticeable visibly although initially it may feel like a large physical gesture. Some slight change of pitch below (but not above) may be produced. More important will be the relatively great change in the intensity of the air.
SPEED: The recommended vibrato speed is four undulations (or “vahs”) at quarter-note equals 80. This is a very satisfactory vibrato speed but a player may choose to use it as a reference point from which occasionally to create a faster or slower vibrato. Sometimes an inexperienced player will have difficulty producing four undulations to the beat. A simple solution is to have the player produce three “vahs” at quarter-note equals 80. As soon as this is comfortable, the player can usually move to four “vahs” with little trouble. The important concern at this point is not the number of undulations but rather the feeling of moving the jaw smoothly and evenly. It’s crucial that the air stream remain constant; some young saxophonists forget to supply a large quantity of warm air when they add vibrato to a good basic “straight” sound. An excellent exercise to correct this problem is to practice turning the vibrato on and off. Using the metronome set at 80, select a sustained mezzo-forte pitch in the middle register, perhaps fourth-line F. Play the pitch for four beats without vibrato and then four beats with vibrato for four measures; don’t articulate except to begin the sustained pitch. Listen closely to make certain that the quality of the basic sound doesn’t change when the vibrato is added. Continue the exercise by reversing the procedure: i.e., begin the pitch with vibrato for four counts and thenplay four beats without vibrato. As the saxophonist progresses, other registers and other dynamic levels should be used.
AMPLITUDE: Although the speed of the vibrato should remain relatively constant at all dynamic levels and in all registers, the width oramplitude of the vibrato does change in conjunction with the volume. Stated simply, the more sound, the deeper the vibrato; the less sound, the narrower the vibrato. A wide vibrato will help a forte note to gain richness and power but it will cause a piano note to sound wobbly and unfocused. On the other hand, a narrow vibrato (or none at all) is appropriate for a pianissimo note but will add nothing to a fortissimo sound.
USE: Vibrato is best used judiciously; it loses much of its effect when used constantly. Vibrato will often give life to a long note but if used with a series of short notes will make the sound seem unsteady. Eugene Rousseau, in the second volume of his Saxophone Method(published by Kjos), provides a chart listing various circumstances in which the use of vibrato may or may not be appropriate. Assorted situations, including solo passages, tutti sections, and unison with other instruments, are commented upon. It’s important to note that vibrato should not be used on every note. Vibrato can enrich and enhance a good basic tone; it can also be a detriment and must therefore be used wisely. For the same reasons that the best approach to learn vibrato is by imitation, the best way to determine when vibrato should be used is by listening to performances by excellent saxophonists. Their music making will provide the guidelines for the most expressive use of the important to a clear and beautiful tone.
Thomas Liley, D. Mus., Yamaha Artist/Clinician
Woodwind Faculty, Joliet Junior College
Saxophone Vibrato: Exercises and Insights for Jazz and Classical Performers
by Jonathan Yanik
Vibrato is one of the most important, divisive, and uniquely personal parts of many musicians’ expressive palate. As saxophonists, our instrument lives in many different musical styles and within each of those musical worlds, the way we use (or DON’T use) vibrato says a whole lot about how we understand the music. There is not one ‘right’ way to approach vibrato, and personally many of my heroes of the saxophone (in all musical styles) certainly did not all sound the same or use their vibrato the same; much of this is a personal choice as to what you think sounds good or again, what fits the music.
This article is a compilation of what my teachers have taught me, what some of my idols and closest professional saxophonists do or teach, and what has worked for me. I’m going to try and go through and briefly touch on the styles of concert/classical saxophone, jazz, and then commercial styles of music. Since this is a short article and not a book, I’m going to try to keep it to the basics and broad concepts in each style, as well as things you can teach beginners or those who are having some trouble finding their comfort zone!
Before I really dive into the nuts and bolts of ways to approach the vibrato in each musical style, I want to make sure I mention that before even attempting to add vibrato in ones playing you must first be able to play notes through the range of the instrument with a great tone, at all/most dynamic levels, and in tune. If any of those three facets are missing, adding vibrato on top of those existing problems will make matters worse and harder to fix. In short, don’t add vibrato until you can play with a great controlled sound and in tune with drones consistently!
How to produce vibrato on the saxophone
For those out there who are completely new to vibrato, let’s first go over how to physically produce it. Starting with a great embouchure is vital, so let’s briefly hit that first. A great saxophone embouchure has the top teeth resting on top of the mouthpiece, the lower lip over the lower teeth in a cushioning/not over stretched way and the corners of the mouth firmly around the sides of the mouthpiece creating the feeling of a rubber band or drawstring around the mouthpiece and reed in a way that feels equally supported all around. Any excess biting into the reed, horizontal pressure pinching the reed, or not enough firmness around the mouthpiece and reed will cause problems that will be very difficult to overcome when attempting vibrato.
Once our great embouchure is in place, we can now look into adding vibrato. The general concept is vibrato on the saxophone generally comes from the lower jaw moving in a controlled, measured way just enough to cause waves in the pitch we are producing. When it’s comfortable and done right, vibrato should feel easy and natural and should never feel forced or tense. It takes very little movement of the jaw to create any change in the pitch, almost like you are doing nothing at all. There are other types of vibrato like diaphragm, throat, and even lip vibrato, but by far the easiest to control and hone on saxophone comes from the slight changes of pressure on the reed from moving the jaw.
"As saxophonists, our instrument lives in many different musical styles and within each of those musical worlds, the way we use (or don't use) vibrato says a whole lot about how we understand the music." - Jonathan Yanik
Although I’ll have more examples below, the first thing to try when using vibrato is while using a metronome, try controlling pulsations of vibrato while maintaining the pitch center of the note for iterations of 1, 2, 3 and 4 over a slow tempo like quarter note = 60, moving it up a bit if you’d like as you get used to it. (1, 2, and 4 equate to quarter note, eighth notes, eighth triplets and sixteenth notes).
At first, you will likely notice that the pitch goes sharp and very flat as you will just be getting used to the motion and moving your jaw, causing the reed to pinch too much and then the embouchure to relax too much on the reed. Work on it a little bit each day and try to tighten the waves using less jaw motion and always remember to focus on the pitch of the note NOT the vibrato. (I’m probably going to say that a lot more in this article…)
Of any of the styles, I have found the most differing opinions on vibrato in classical saxophone. I believe this is because the playing style in this genre has really changed very recently and is still evolving rapidly today in a profoundly different way than 50 years ago, 25 years ago, even 5-10 years ago!
Marcel Mule, Donald Sinta, Eugene Rousseau, Kenneth Tse, Claude Delangle, Jean-Yves Fourmeau, Timothy McAllister and Otis Murphy were my biggest influences when I was learning how to approach concert saxophone. If you listened to recordings of all of them, do they all use their vibrato the same way? Not even close! But do they all sound great? Yes! Yet, these days the super stars like the gentlemen mentioned above as well as Vincent David, Chirstian Wirth, and many others tend to be more in the vibrato range I will discuss below and which I think is a great baseline to find which vibrato works for you.
I had the great opportunity to spend a week studying in France in 2006 with one of my idols Jean-Yves Fourmeau at the Annecy Classic Festival in Annecy, France. He introduced me to the very simple, but effective vibrato exercise that I described above briefly and have used from that point forward. To reiterate the main point above, the pitch center is the most important thing of all, not the vibrato (there it is again!).
With this in mind, Mr. Fourmeau (and others I have studied with) suggested to think about the vibrato going both above the pitch and below, so that the center of the waves of your vibrato is always the perfectly in-tune center of the note, not somewhere above or below the note, making the note with vibrato sound just as in tune to the ear as a note held with no vibrato at all. The range he suggested to practice the vibrato pulsations in quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets and sixteenths and was at the lower end, quarter note=76-84/88 as a baseline as I mentioned above. The sixteenth pulsation in that range is the speed where most saxophone players play on average. Of course, there are times where a slower or faster vibrato is appropriate, but that range serves as the status quo you can always go and be comfortable in. Here’s a graph of what I mean my above a below the note:
Vibrato is something to add to your practice routine as an inclusion to long tones and work with tuning on drones. It helps me a lot to tune with a droned pitch both with and without vibrato and make sure that both sound equally in tune and as pretty as I can make it in all dynamic levels.
With basics out of the way, let’s get into some more complexities on the subject. There is plenty of debate as to how much vibrato to use and when is it appropriate in playing concert music written for or transcribed for saxophone. A lot of the time the saxophonist has to make an artistic decision about that for her/himself. In general, I like to point to what my professor at Indiana University Otis Murphy told me about using vibrato: vibrato enhances and energizes the sound, and so it tends to be best used to help us project the sound, to highlight important parts of the phrase, and is frequently used when the dynamic is anywhere from mf and up.
My thoughts here don’t mean vibrato can’t be used in pp passages, or you can’t use it in unimportant parts of the phrases. What I have found in my playing career is that sometimes NOT using vibrato in some places or parts of the phrase makes the notes where you use vibrato way more effective. Lets take an example from the famous Creston sonata, in movement II:
Look at measures 10-14 starting with the Bb on the and of beat three in measure 10 and ending with the half note Eb at the end of measure 14. Try playing this passage both with vibrato on every note longer than a sixteenth note and then totally without vibrato on any note and record it. Make notes of what you like and don’t like about each example. Then, try playing it using vibrato where you think it’s needed or where you don’t, which for some of you means just changing a few things from one of the early takes. Listen to that and see what you think.
*For myself, I’d likely use vibrato on the Bb quarter note on beat 4 in measure 11, F on beat 2 and G on beat 4 in measure 13, and a slight amount of vibrato on the F on beat one then just a touch of vibrato on the Eb on the and of beat 2. Everywhere else, I like a pure, unadorned tone. Again, this is just my opinion and even in the heat of performance I may do something totally different! Being flexible is important as well!
The exercise above highlights what I’m trying to get across about vibrato- it is something that is extremely personal and can really define how you want to execute or express that music the way you hear it in your head. It takes a long time or lifetime of study and listening back to yourself to find out exactly what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
A couple more things to consider before moving on to jazz vibrato style is speed of the vibrato matching the tempo of the piece. Most times, slowing the vibrato on a slow lyrical passage and speeding it up when playing a fast rhythmic piece or especially when in front of a large ensemble playing a concerto is tasteful and musical (or necessary…). Again, this takes your own reflection and study of what works and what doesn’t. It is your artistic decision of when to start or stop vibrato even within a note!
"Sometimes not using vibrato in some places or parts of the phrase makes the notes where you use vibrato way more effective." - Jonathan Yanik
Generally, starting vibrato right on the start of a note where you were going to vibrate is preferred, but there are definitely times where holding off and starting it later sounds great. An example could be when a note has a large crescendo under it- straight tone feels and sounds quieter at the start of the note and once you open into vibrato, it immediately feels and sounds louder. The same is true when a note has a large decrescendo, most famously in Bizet’s orchestra transcription of “The Old Castle” the saxophone has a middle C to F on the top line which the saxophone player decrescendos to end the movement. It is chillingly musical in my opinion to start the note big with singing vibrato and once it starts to lose energy and volume dial it back until it is a straight tone, beautiful pp at the end. I could go on all day with things like this, but in the end this is all a personal artistic decision!
One final note here is just like we will talk about the next segment covering jazz and commercial music vibrato choices, it is important that you listen not only to your favorite classical saxophonists, but also all kinds of instrumental soloists to get an idea of the sound and vibrato style you would like to emulate yourself. I know for me personally, listening to string players solo playing had a big impact on that way I approach it on saxophone.
Now that we’ve covered a lot of the basics and foundations for vibrato in general and also how to go about it in concert saxophone playing, it’s time to discuss how to use vibrato in a jazz setting.
There have been a lot of changes in the way jazz music was performed over the 20th century, and vibrato usage was a big part of the way the music sounded. Listening to early saxophone artists like Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and others you will notice they use a lot more vibrato than later influential saxophonists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and especially contemporary players. This is important to know as saxophone players so that we can do our best to adapt to what style of music we are playing the same as classical players change their style going from baroque to romantic, classical era to modern.
In the big band music of the 20s into the 40s, using vibrato and having the whole section of 5 saxophone players match vibrato was the sound of the music. Check out recordings of the orchestras of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller from the 20s-40s era and listen to how wide and persistent the vibrato of the sax section was.
It really helped create a projecting almost string-like role in these orchestras, and so as saxophone players playing in big band in school or elsewhere who covers this music, it is important that you listen to these recordings and adjust your vibrato accordingly, by widening the waves and perhaps speeding it up a touch. The quintessential example of lead alto playing from this era has to be Johnny Hodges, he was a master of weaving in vibrato and bends in a singing way. Again, the most important part is imitating by listening!
"Vibrato is something that is extremely personal and can really define how you want to execute or express that music the way you hear it in your head." - Jonathan Yanik
In modern jazz from the bebop era on, vibrato became less and less important to the sound of the saxophone as many of the great solo saxophone players started playing jazz in the combo setting as opposed to the domination of the big band in the 20s-40s. In addition to Parker and Coltrane some of the great saxophone players of the late 40s-60s/70s include Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Dexter Gordon just to name a few.
Listening to these great players, you will notice they are quite selective in their vibrato usage, and generally don’t use it much save for shaping notes on long ballade melodies or using it a bit at the very end of notes to give it a bit of a shimmer. The vibrato tends to be wider than classical vibrato and slower in general. I’m repeating myself a lot here, but listening and transcribing every nuance of these great players solos is the best way to understand and digest what they are doing and give you the tools to fit the style yourself. Some modern jazz artists to check out from the 70s on include Michael Brecker, Kenny Garrett, Chris Potter, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman and many many more.
With all the ways to check out music these days, it’s easy to find the players you prefer and want to imitate, but if you are new to jazz music, it’s always advised that when you start transcribing or imitating the music that you start with the guys from the early eras of jazz, most notably Charlie Parker so that you understand the language of the music and how jazz improvisation is based in voice leading and music theory. Starting with Chris Potter might be fun, but without the knowledge of the early music, you will not know how to adapt on gigs other than modern combos!
Contemporary/Pop saxophone playing
As we know, saxophone is a very versatile and exciting instrument in many styles, and still to this day in 2016 you can hear saxophone used on the pop radio. The pop sound and vibrato are similar to jazz, but tend to be brighter and heavier on vibrato (excluding early jazz) than the normal jazz style. In fact, I’ve found that most guys on commercial tracks for pop artists or for smooth jazz tend to have a pretty similar pulsation rate to classical saxophonists albeit it on the slower end of classical players and noticeably wider, like jazz vibrato.
Some of the defining pop/smooth jazz saxophonists to check out include Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Gerald Albright, Kenny G, and Lenny Pickett (Tower of Power, SNL) among many others. The sound and vibrato of these players has to fit with the louder electronic instruments and produced sounds of the studio and large concert venues, and using vibrato again propels the sound giving it an edge that is mostly necessary to sing above the rest of the band, similar to its usage in all the other styles.
As we all grow as musicians, we will all make our own musical decisions about what we think sounds great and how we want to color/shape our music with or without vibrato. Although there is much more detail we could go into on all the subjects and musical style difference for vibrato discussed above, I hope that you find some things to take away from this whether it’s for your own playing or for giving exercises to your students. I want to stress again that having a great sound and knowledge of how to adjust your pitch to be in tune is essential before adding vibrato to ones playing. Adding vibrato onto the end of long tones and/or pitch drone exercises is a valuable and necessary part of the practice routine in order to have such a command of it that it happens naturally without need for conscious thought. Have fun making music with beautiful vibrato!
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Vibrato how saxophone to on
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