Doubling on the Soprano

by Dave Liebman

The soprano is officially considered to be part of the saxophone family, but to be honest through there are some obvious similarities to the other members of this esteemed club, playing the soprano is another matter altogether.

The first difference with the other saxophones is obvious but shouldn’t be underestimated. We hold the soprano straight out, seemingly like a clarinet, but alas, it is NOT a clarinet. One must be careful not to use a clarinet embouchure, meaning the more or less 45 degree angle that the licorice stick is normally held at (notwithstanding an occasional lift up in the air). Positioning incorrectly inhibits the vibrational capacity of the reed. This also leads to the most common problem I observe in students which is holding the horn pointing down towards the floor and lowering the neck to accommodate that position. This places unnecessary strain and tension on the all important vocal cords in the laryngeal area. It might look hip but in reality it puts the player at a disadvantage towards producing a tone that isn’t pinched. We must keep that area as free and loose as possible for anatomical reasons I describe in my book on the subject “Developing A Personal Saxophone Sound” and demonstrate on the DVD, “The Complete Guide To Saxophone Sound Production.”

The biggest musical challenges playing the sop are about tone production and intonation, problems primarily caused by the small bore size. The body of the soprano is conical like the other saxophones except at the very onset of the flaring out it is extremely narrow. This means that an immense volume of air is being pushed through a very small space leaving little room for error. The same is true of the soprano mouthpiece which is much smaller than tenor or alto. These factors necessitate the need for a very focused and controlled air stream that takes a lot of practice to internalize. The well-known soprano problem of intonation, especially in the high register, is worse than the other saxophones because the speed and intensity of the air stream is magnified to such a degree. The high notes on the sop are in the range of sound where the pitches are produced by very fast oscillations. (If the A below middle C is 440 cycles, double that number for the next A and again for the higher A above the staff giving you an idea of the speed of vibrations in that range.) As far as playing in the altissimo register, that is a separate issue on its own.

Another point is that the other saxophones use more of the entire torso when playing, meaning a natural emphasis felt from the neck down to the waistline. With the soprano, although we still have to breathe deeply using the abdomen area as on all the saxophones, more intensity is felt in the upper torso, much like a trumpet. In fact, in some ways the soprano might be considered closer to the trumpet than the other saxophones.

Along with the challenges there is the joy of the soprano’s immediacy of sound as well as the transposition being so close to true concert pitch, making true unisons quite common as compared to the other saxes. As soon as air enters the soprano responds and is especially sonorous in the beautiful low register of the horn. One can really control the amount and speed of air for very positive timbral results. The other saxophones by their construction have some degree of lag time, especially in the lower register.

The red zone of the soprano is the left hand octave and palm keys. As mentioned these pitches are very high up register-wise and the problem of thinness and harshness of sound becomes quite challenging. This is true of all the saxophones but it is most vivid on the soprano because you cannot hide. As one of my mates described it: The sound in the high register is like….”a pet store on fire!!”

What to do? The same exercises that I teach on any saxophone (coming from saxophone master teacher Joe Allard) have to be especially practiced on the soprano…..overtone production, matching of tone color and pitch, even air control, etc., are necessary items to be practiced. I can’t stress enough the practice of overtones in order to overcome the thinness of sound in the red zone.

Fledgling doublers might not want to hear the following. Playing the soprano at a high level is a job in itself and much like the flute, demands everyday attention. Those of you familiar with my career might remember when I put the tenor and flute away for fifteen years to concentrate on the soprano. It comes down to what level of expertise one is seeking. To play a tune or two or a written part on the soprano is one thing. To try and develop a sound that is yours is another deal altogether. Successful doublers have historically had different styles on the soprano than their main horns, which is a good thing. I know that for me this is true.

The masters of the horn are of course Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy, Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. There are some great avant-garde players who have stretched the palette of sound possibilities, maybe even more on soprano than other saxophones…Evan Parker, John Butcher, Michel Donado are a few.

I wish you the best with the fish horn.

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