Playing Alto Sax: Not As Easy As It Looks

Why playing alto sax is a challenge for me

Last night I did something that I haven’t done in close to a year: I played alto sax at a rehearsal for a band. As a rule I am not a small horn player—despite what my five altos and two sopranos might say about me. (And I’m only counting those in gigging condition here.) My voice really is a baritone, although I am equally comfortable on tenor and bass.

Give me a small sax however, and I struggle to get a decent tone; I can’t figure out where my fingers go; my notes don’t stop and start at the right time; and I am seemingly always amazed at the amount of resistance that I encounter when blowing on them. The take away from last night’s experience is that playing alto sax is not as simple as pretending that I’m playing a shrunken bari…

Approach each voice of saxophone as if it were its own instrument, not just different sizes of the same horn

Mark-VI-Quartet, Selmer Mark VI, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax, bari saxophone, playing alto sax

Set of Selmer Mark VI saxophones. Photo by H. Kahlke Copyright 2009

This is of course really not news to me. I have only known this for what… 20 years or so…. and I’ve written numerous articles about it in this very weblog (1, 2). However, sometimes knowledge and reality sometimes come into conflict, which is what happened to me last night.

I mentioned that I had surgery during the summer. I’m having some issues with healing, so dragging a baritone around would not be conducive to my getting better. That’s why I took an alto along to last night’s rehearsal with which to play my bari part with. Let me tell you, nothing sounds odder than having an alto saxophone play the bari rhythm lines with the low brass. It just sounds wrong. Since we had no tuba last night, it was even stranger when I alone was playing on 1 & 3 to the ‘bones and euphonium on 2 & 4.

The fact that I haven’t practiced alto in months didn’t help my cause last night either. I have no alto chops ATM, so my tone is shit compared to that of my tenor, which I play weekly in another band.

When I play smaller horns I always find it more difficult to get my fingerings correct. Where exactly is my low Bb key? How about the B and C#? Why are all my fingers so bunched up together?

One of the easiest ways you can tell a sax doubler is by the way he/she starts and stops their notes. Primarily this is true of the larger horns, because the lower the horn and thus bigger the horn, the longer the body tube has to be.

In order to produce a sound you have to move the column of air through the tube. The longer the body tube, and the lower the note, the longer it takes to produce the sound.

BTW, we’re not talking about a great deal of time here, we’re talking about fractions of seconds, but nonetheless that split second means the difference between whether you start your note on time or if you come in just a “hair” late.

When I play bari, I need to start my notes just a hair earlier than I do when I play tenor. When I play bass, I have to start them even earlier than when I play bari. BTW, I am not aware that I am doing this. I do this totally subconsciously.

However, for some reason my brain is hardwired for large horns, and last night I found myself either early (makes sense) or sometimes late (makes no sense) in my note starts and stops. This was a function of not having practiced alto in months, and therefore not being familiar enough with the horn to not sound a hack.  :evil:   Interestingly enough, I can pick up a tenor or bari after having not practiced for months, and still get my timing right… Yup, playing alto sax is very different indeed… At least it is for me.

gray_ex_headThe last really big difference that I notice between the small horns and my beloved large horns is the amount of resistance that small horns have. Since I developed a neuro problem nearly 9 years ago I have become acutely aware of this, and my neurologist has me on medication to help treat the pain that playing against resistance causes. Over the years I have found that certain techniques like playing with a really open throat only help to a point. In the end, playing these little guys just makes my head feel like it’s going to explode off my shoulders.

Why? Why? Why?

When I play alto all the time I can get a really good sound, and my timing is bang-on. I know this for a fact. As recently as February at my show at the Vancouver Art Gallery I played a perfect rendition of Paul Desmond’s Take 5. However, the amount of effort it takes me to do become 100% competent on alto is at least threefold the amount it takes me on bari or tenor. Why?

Why is playing alto sax so difficult for me? This is something that I’ve always wondered about. I’ve pondered why people gravitate towards certain voices of horns, since in general terms, a sax, is a sax, is a sax. That said, those of us who play many of them know they are very different. So what is it about them that makes one harder for me to master? Shouldn’t I in theory at least, be able to be as proficient in the small horns as I am in the big ones?

Has this got something to do with the my individual make-up? Is it how I am hardwired? Is it the way that I am physically constructed right down to my lungs and diaphragm? Is it a psychological thing? Or is it perhaps a combination of a multitude of factors?

Whatever the case, playing alto sax for me is one of the more challenging things I do, and quite frankly, I can’t wait to get back to playing my bari. I love its tone, depth of colour, and body-vibrating sensations.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

Juxtapose This: Sax Truck & Feather Duster

This morning I was looking through some of the newest saxophone-themed photo offerings on Flickr when I came across a couple of very interesting pics. The first is this sax truck that was photographed by program monkey in Spain.

Sax Truck

sax truck, cube van painted in graffiti style, saxophone player, Spain,

Photography by: program monkey  Source: Flickr

I can’t imagine what this sax truck would have been delivering/packing around. I don’t think it would have been saxophones. Nonetheless, the artwork on the truck is great. I love the graffiti-styled painting that wraps around the vehicle. Now how would you describe that colour to the DMV? ;)

The second saxophone-themed photo that caught my eye this morning is by thibault zuccari. I have no idea exactly how he created this beautiful piece of saxophonic art, but I simply love this feather duster-like, saxophone shape.

Feather Duster

saxophone shaped graphic, feather covered, thibo zuccari graphic design

Photography by: thibault zuccari  Source: Flickr

Looking through thibault zuccari’s photostream you see a lot of graphic designs that he has done. He is a very talented graphic designer.

Sax Truck and the feather duster are about as opposite as two saxophone designs can be. Yet juxtaposing them like this is exactly what makes them work together well, since they symbolize the world of real saxophones.

To me the feather duster sax is representative of the early 20th century French saxophones. In my saxophone stable, this sound is epitomized by the circa 1930s alto and tenor Pierrets. Their tone is soft, quiet, round, smooth, with no harsh edges. They are the embodiment of the stylized graphic feather duster that thibault zuccari has produced.

The more gaudy, colourful, and bright Sax Truck on the other hand, is more representative of the horns made in the latter half of the 20th century. These horns tend to be brash, full of overtones, and rich in their tonal colour palates when compared to their early French cousins. Again from my sax collection, the Martin Committee III bari, Medusa bari, King Zephyr tenor, Hohner alto, and Mark VI soprano are just a few examples. Pretty much any modern saxophone currently in production falls into this category as well.

Am I over thinking this? Perhaps, but then admit it, it was kinda’ fun. Wasn’t it? Sure there are lots of other interpretations you could have for these two images. If you would like to share yours, feel free to do so in a comment below. Unlike university however, no one will grade you on them though.  :twisted:

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

Sigurd Rascher Not Popular With All

We all know Sigurd Rascher as a saxophone virtuoso. He was the one the earliest, and arguably the most influential, classical saxophone player in the early part of the 20th century.

However, when he first started performing classical music on our instrument, not everyone was impressed. Take for example, the following review of his December 1939 performance at the Athenaeum in Milwaukee. This article was published in the December 8, 1939 edition of The Milwaukee Journal.

Sigurd Rascher, you got burned…

Sigurd Rascher, concert review, December 8 1939, The Milwaukee Journal, newspaper article, archival newspaper clipping,
Wow, that was harsh. There seems to be nothing about the evening that Richard Davis liked. Apparently he didn’t even like the piano player. (Guilt by association perhaps.) In any event, Mr. Davis was obviously one of those classical music purists, and didn’t like those dirty jazz instruments messing up the classical scene… Oh well… Sucked to be him I guess.   :evil:

As I was doing some background research about this concert, I happened across an interesting webpage about the Athenaeum. Apparently this impressive building was originally constructed in 1887, and has been the home of the Women’s Club of Wisconsin since its founding. Interestingly enough:

The Athenaeum, as it was christened by the organization, became the first building in the United States to be wholly owned by women. The building has fulfilled the original objective of the of the stock company, to have a building “for the purpose of promoting the best practical methods for securing the educational, industrial and social advancement of women and as a center for literary, scientific and musical culture in the city of Milwaukee.” 2 The Women’s Club of Wisconsin continues to make the Athenaeum their home to this day.


So the next time you pull out your Top Tones for the Saxophones by Sigurd Rascher, think about how pioneering the man was. Yes he was a saxophone virtuoso, and some of his students have gone on to become extremely well-known performers in their own right. However, Rascher was also one of the first people who sought to legitimize the instrument here in North America, and that would not have been an easy sell at the time.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!