Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Can You Double And Still Be A Great Soprano Saxophonist?

Saxophonists often inquire how I’m able to play certain extended techniques on the soprano--whether it’s multiphonics, slap-tonguing, or playing in the altissimo register (Right now, my practical rage in C4 and my extreme range is Eb 4, reed permitting).

Now if I had to give a one-word answer as to how I’m able to do these things, I would have to say “flexibility.” Which leads to the discussion of whether of not you can be a great soprano saxophonist even if you play it as a double.

Steve Lacy once said during an interview: “There's a lot more flexibility with a soft reed, so you can go much higher. A hard reed is limited. After you reach a certain point, the door is closed.” I feel this addresses the fundamental problem with playing the soprano saxophone as a double. The set-ups that doublers play on soprano are often too big for the instrument.

As I see it, if you play the soprano using a set-up that’s comparable to a much larger horn, you’re not dealing with the soprano on it’s own terms. It’s being treated as an extension of a much larger horn, and not as a separate entity.

When I first switched from the tenor saxophone to the soprano, I was amazed at how loud I was able to play. I remember attending various late-night New York City jam sessions and recall being able to play louder than some of the trumpet players. Though intrigued by my newfound power and superhuman strength, I did find that my sound was very lacking. I often felt the limitations that many said would be apparent upon choosing to make the soprano sax my primary instrument.

Two of the most noticeable limitations were my inability to play high and my inability to play low.

It’s difficult to play high without flexibility. The word flexibility actually means “easily bent or shaped.” For something to be easily bent or shaped, first of all, it must be soft. Which do you think would be more fun to play with and will inspire more creative thoughts—clay putty or a hard clay pot?

The same principle can apply to reeds and how they affect sound production. Softer reeds offer a few advantages. One, because the softness of the reed allows it to vibrate more, it allows you to produce a sound richer in harmonics. And two, it allows more room for sound and pitch manipulation, which are mandatory if one chooses to play notes belonging to what Steve Lacy refers to as the “stratosphere.” If all of your effort is going into getting the reed to vibrate, than that leaves little room for anything else, except for basic sound production. Also note that controlling the high register isn’t just about embouchure control, but oral cavity manipulation, too—speeding up and control the airflow by changing the position of the tongue.

Now, as far as playing in the lower register of the soprano, the one thing you don’t want to do it treat it as a throw away register. The soprano is unique in that even in its extreme low register it is still in practical range as far as laying in the cut of the chord or of the melody or melodic line. Therefore, when playing down below, you don’t want to play a reed that only allows you to “honk” the note out, or only get a sound that’s abrasive and/or harsh. Having a lower register that’s in tune, with a warm and breathy sub-tone is one the hallmarks of having great sound control on the soprano.

From my own experience, I’m finding that the longer I play the soprano, the more I long for the kind of flexibility that will allow me to be as expressive on soprano as I was on tenor saxophone—being able to play low as well as high, delicate as well as harsh, soft as well as loud. And much to my surprise, I’m finding that more my chops develop, the less stiffness I actually need from a reed, causing me to actually come down in reed size. And this, however, contradicts the resistance-training approach practiced by many who believe that the stronger you get, the more resistance you need, or stiffer reed.

I’ve found that the stronger I get, the more I’m better able to handle the increased amount of vibration that comes from moving down in reed strength. And, consequently, this is what gives me the flexibility to play many of the extended techniques mentioned earlier, along with increase sound projection.

Let me just conclude saying that, ultimately, how good or accomplished someone becomes on the soprano or any instrument for that matter, lies in their talent, dedication and artistic vision. Without these three things, you can play an instrument exclusively until the cows come home, and it won’t automatically put you ahead of the game.


  1. I agree with all of what you have said, but I would also like to add that treating soprano as a 'double' may be the source of many problems. In my personal experience, embouchure wise, it's much easier to work your way down a family of instruments than to work your way up. If you intend to play soprano, alto, and tenor, you should be spending a higher proportion of your time playing soprano than the other two instruments.

    Many people have difficulty playing soprano because they're tenor or alto specialists. As a result, they'll have a fairly easy time playing until they get up into the palm keys. For many saxophonists, the quick fix will include increased tension in the embouchure, rather than faster air and a higher tongue position, which needs to be developed over time.

    From a classical standpoint, many musicians don't take the time to really learn soprano because much of the repertoire is written for alto.

    Perhaps if we had a more balanced body of work for the soprano, and didn't have to rely so heavily on abstract contemporary music and transcriptions of oboe, flute, and violin literature (in fairly unfriendly keys), soprano would approach equal footing with alto. Soprano saxophonists should support modern composers by commissioning new works for their instrument.

    Michael McConnell

  2. Great points, I totally agree. One question about the Steve Lacy/reeds comments. Didn't he use a mpc with an opening of 12 or something? That seems pretty huge and i'm wondering how that might have effected his affinity for soft reeds.

    Great blog, i'm working my way back through older posts as I enjoy the new ones. Thanks!

    Andrew D. Meyer


Search This Blog

Blog Archive