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Sax Vibrato

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This Online Lesson is (c) 2001 , Ryan Fraser. All right reserved. NO COMMERCIAL DISTRIBUTION.

Important Disclaimer

Vibrato is extremely tricky to teach and learn without "being in the flesh". This is one of those topics where it is very, very helpful to have some private instruction. Your teacher will be able to listen to what you are doing, and help you adapt accordingly!

I want you to close your eyes for a minute, and imagine that its New Year's Eve. You and your loved one are dancing, sipping champaigne, and wearing expensive clothes which clash with your cheap noise maker, party hats, and most of the decor. Everybody is counting down to midnight, and suddenly, there it is in all its glory - everybody is singing along to the "once-a-year" tune, Aulde Ange Syne.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, you think to your saxophone-playing-self, "How did Guy Lombardo get his sax section to make that really really wonky (but good) sound?". The answer, my friend, is that they had one of the biggest, widest, saw-through-your lip vibratos ever used. And (for them at least), it sounded *fan*tas*tic*!

It is very hard to describe vibrato without actually playing it for you. Take a listen to the following audio samples:

As you can hear, in the first sample, the player has a very pure, clean sound. In the second sample, the player adds some warmth to the sound by making regular oscillating changes in the pitch.

Whew - sounds complicated, doesn't it!?

Fortunately, saxophone vibrato is not nearly as complicated as it might seem. Since vibrato is little more than regular changes in pitch, it is actually a very simple thing to do, once you get the hang of it. Ever seen a violin player madly shaking their finger over the neck of the instrument? Yup, that's how they do vibrato. As you might guess, simply shaking your saxophone is NOT the best approach to get vibrato.

There are basically three ways for saxophone players to get vibrato, but normally we only use one of those three choices:

  • Diaphragm Vibrato. By "puffing" (try a good Santa Clause 'ho ho ho') with your diaphragm, you can get some pitch variation in your sound. The difficulty with this method is that it also greatly changes the volume of your sound as well as the pitch. It works, but doesn't sound very smooth.
  • Throat Vibrato. Again, you puff air, but this time do it mainly by using your throat muscles. This has much the same effect as diaphragm vibrato, but you also loose some tone control. (Remember, tone is largely controlled by the shape of the throat and oral cavity.
  • Jaw Vibrato. This is the standard method of obtaining vibrato on the saxophone. You use your jaw in an up and down motion similar to saying 'yeahyeahyeahyeahyeah'. This method gives maximum pitch varition, with little else being altered.
How to start training yourself to do vibrato
Before you can do any sort of usable vibrato, you must first learn to make regular, controlled motions with your jaw. This isn't likely to involve many muscles that you have used this way on a regular basis before, so be patient, it will take a while. Before we begin, I want you do look at the following diagram:

square, triangle, and sine wave examples

The examples shown above are examples of wave patterns. Square waves have sudden changes between their high (peak) points and low (trough) points. Triangle waves consist of sudden changes, mixed with more gradual changes, but the exact position of their peaks and troughs are immediately obvious. In a Sine wave the transition is smooth - there are no sudden changes. Ideally, vibrato should resemble the sine wave - smooth and even. This however, takes some time.

Your teeth are designed primarily for chewing (a darn good thing, too, if you ask me!) As a result, odds are that at your first attempt at vibrato, your jaw is going to desparately want to imitiate what it does while you are chewing. Unfortunately, most people chew with their jaw moving up and down in a motion which is an awfully like a triangle or square wave. Let's face facts - you're not going to get through that steak if you are chewing like a sine wave, are you?! Like all other things involving saxophone (and life!) you're going to have to do some retraining of your muscles.

Many people suggest that you begin working on vibrato by saying "yeahyeahyeahyeah". Take just your mouthpiece and your neckpipe, and try to blow a steady stream of air while moving your jaw as if you were saying this phrase. Don't worry if you loose your sound, or it changes drastically - what we are looking for is to warm up and train your face muscles. Now, slow down, and try it so that your jaw takes about one second to go down, and one second to go up. Put your metronome at 60, and alternate up and down motions on every beat. When you've got that down, try to make the transition between up and down as smooth as possible. Feeling comfy? Great! Lets speed things up.

Turn your metronome up to 70, then 80, then 90, etc. etc. etc. Eventually, you want to get about 5 or 6 full up-and-down motions per second. This is fast, and it can take a few days to get up to this speed. Concentrate on making it even. You will find that you will end up making the size of the motions quite small by the time you reach higher speeds. This is good - if you look in a mirror, you will know that you are on the right track once almost no jaw motion is visible in your face, and you can still hear yourself playing vibrato.

A quick note on the differences between Classical and Jazz vibrato

If you one listens to a Jazz and Classical saxophonists playing with vibrato, you would immediately notice that the jazz player uses a different style of vibrato than a classical player. As a general rule (but not *always* true), Classical players will use a steady, even vibrato, which starts at the beginning of each note. In fact, the closer to our sine wave diagram, the better. The jazz player, on the other hand, uses something different. Their vibrato is used selectively, and generally will have a delayed onset. When he or she starts the vibrato, it will be very wide, and quickly get faster and narrower, and often disappears completely before the note has finished. If you were to draw it, it might look something like this:

Picture of Jazz vibrato.

Other sources for Vibrato Information

There are a number of other places (besides your teacher) to look for information on how to use vibrato. I strongly suggest starting by listening to a number of players of a variety of instruments in a variety of styles. Let your ear be your guide. Different circumstances call for different widths and speeds of vibrato. More importantly, you can hear what good vibrato sounds like, and what it can do for you musically.

I also highly reccommend reading the vibrato chapter from Larry Teal's "The Art of Saxophone Playing". In the meantime, good luck and keep practicing!


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