Saxophone Playing | Low Notes!

4th July 2020

We’ve all been there, a quick look at the music and “oh great, the composer has written a phrase starting on low Bb with a dynamic of pp, what joy!” or words to that affect! We know getting low notes to speak easily and clearly on the Sax can be a bit of a challenge so we tasked Alastair Penman with creating this video/blog to help…

Why Are They Hard Work?

It helps to first understand why low notes are harder to produce cleanly and quietly than ‘normal’ notes further up the instrument. With the usual caveats about regular practice and making sure your instrument is airtight and playing without leaks, there are also some technical reasons why they can seem harder.

It’s all about the physics of course! Very simply the column of air you create when your are blowing down the saxophone will always come out of the first open hole it can. When you’re playing an open C# all the air can escape at the top of the tube, near where it’s produced. However, when you play a bottom Bb, the vibrating column of air needs to get all the way down the instrument and out the bell. In fact it comes up and down multiple times before being emitted. Thus, that air needs more support and speed of production.

What Can You Do?

  1. SUPPORT THE AIR: So, we do that by using our stomach muscles to push the diaphragm upwards to squeeze the air out of our lungs. By gently tensing your stomach muscles it will support the pressure that the diaphragm then exerts on your lungs pushing all the air out fully and quickly.
  2. EMBOUCHURE CONTROL: If you’re worried already about low notes you’ll find your embouchure tends to tense and squeeze making the low notes jump up. Sound familiar? What you need to work on is persuading yourself low notes are easy and to keep the embouchure nice and relaxed. You can use the exercise in the video (04:45) using a double lip embouchure to train yourself to remove tension from the bottom teeth biting up.
  3. THINK ABOUT THROAT POSITION: Sometimes we tend to look down at our Sax with our sling being too low. That tends to close off the throat as our forehead points slightly down, tucking the chin in. Think of the sensation of yawning to help open up your throat. Why not try practicing with your head lifted up deliberately (08:00) and see how that opens up your throat. Try that compared to looking down and you’ll see what it does to the sound!

So, keep supporting your stomach muscles, keep your embouchure and shoulders relaxed and finally keep your throat as open as possible whist you’re playing.

If you’re following all of the above and STILL finding it hard work, it might be that you have a small leak on your Saxophone which is letting the air escape. Why not get it checked with an appointment with our Woodwind Technicians.

It could also be that your mouthpiece/reed set-up is not quite right. If you’d like any advice on this please get in touch accordingly and one of our single reed experts will be happy to help advise.

More About Alastair Penman

Hailed as a “pioneering instrumentalist and writer” and praised for his “surpassingly beautiful music” and “undoubtedly brilliant mind”, British saxophonist Alastair Penman is a dynamic and versatile performer and composer, presenting contemporary music in new and exciting ways. Having earned masters’ degrees in both Information and Computer Engineering (University of Cambridge) and Saxophone Performance (Royal Northern College of Music), Alastair has a strong interest in the fusion of live saxophone performance with electronic effects, backings, and enhancements to create often previously undiscovered sound-worlds. 

Although classically trained, Alastair enjoys exploring many musical worlds; such influences can be heard in his compositions and performances, which often transcend genre definition.

As an educator Alastair teaches saxophone at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and has been a guest tutor for the National Youth Wind Orchestra of Great Britain and Benslow Music.  Alastair’s YouTube Channel, Saxophone Resources, has received over 1.25 million views.

Alastair also has limited availability for 1-2-1 online Sax lessons. Just get in touch via his website for more info.