Sam Newsome

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



Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Lower Register: The Most Neglected Part of the Horn


The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument.
- Steve Lacy


BENEFITS OF PRACTICING THESE EXERCISES
  • Increased sound control in the lower register
  • Increased dexterity in the lower register
  • Increased breath support
  • Increased ability to play at different dynamic levels in the lower register


I’ve often expressed to students the importance of the developing the lower register of the soprano. There’s a tendency to only play in the instrument’s high and middle registers. This is understandable being that they’re the most comfortable parts of the instrument to play in--not to mention that they’re the most practical ranges on the other saxes.

However, on the soprano, the low Bb to low F is actually in the practical range, too, similar to the Bb trumpet. Not to mention that saxophonists often the approach instrument from a non-soprano perspective, causing us to lack the vision to tap into the things that makes the instrument unique.

Three reasons why developing the lower register of the soprano is so important:

1.     You can extend practical range, given you more notes to work with.
2.     You can play in the same transposed range as the other saxophones, particular the alto and tenor. 
3.     You can play with more fluidity in the darkest and warmest part of the instruments


Most saxophonists don’t play melodies using notes below the low F (or F1), which makes sense on the larger saxes. The tenor saxophone, for instance, transposes up a major 9th. That means if you play an F1 on the instrument, it will sound as a concert Eb one octave below—which definitely gets into the muddy range of the piano. And this especially holds true for the bari sax, which transposes an octave and a 6th;  therefore, if you play an F1 on the bari sax, it will sound a concert Ab two octaves below, which is even muddier. However, on the soprano sax, if you play an F1 it will sound the Eb1, which still in the practical range since it’s a minor 3rd above middle C.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Here’s an except from the book, Conversations, where Steve Lacy gives his view on the bottom register of the soprano:
The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument. I must be the only one that’s really opened up the bottom. I’m waiting for somebody else to really have founded something downstairs. That’s perhaps the most interesting part of the horn, the most beautiful part, it’s most pleasant part.

I agree with Lacy in that the bottom is “the most interesting part of the horn.” I’m not so sure it’s the “most beautiful part,” but definitely the warmest and most neglected, second only to the altissimo. In general, this area of the saxophone is not considered part of the instrument's practical range, as I’ve stated earlier--which is understandable with the larger members of the saxophone family; melodies and lines played on those instruments in the lower register tend to sound muddy. On the soprano, however, this “neglected area” has a lot more melodic possibilities.

Let's look at how to tackle this neglected area: 

Suggestion/Exercise #1: I suggest starting with practicing melodies and your musical ideas, using only the notes between Bb1 (low Bb) - Bb2. You’ll need to practice this way for a few weeks to really see results. It's uncomfortable in the beginning, but after a few days you will start to make the necessary embouchure, breathing, and aural adjustment, that will make it feel more natural.

Suggestion/Exercise #2: Another thing I like to do is practice Charlie Parker's tune "Now's the Time" in the key of Eb concert. When I transpose it to the soprano’s key, the melody is right in the very bottom of the horn.


When practicing “Now’s the Time” in this key, here are a few things to pay attention to:

  1. The lower register tends to be sharper than the middle, so make sure you practice it with a tuner.
  2. Aim for the same evenness and clarity that you would have if you played it on the tenor sax and octave above. Look at it from a soprano perspective.

One Lacy tune that I recommend, if you’re looking for an exercise to strengthen your lower register control as well as a cool tune to play is “Blues for Aida”. I’ve heard Lacy play this tune in solo and duo settings with pianist Mal Waldron, a long-time Lacy collaborator. And like most of his compositions, it will pretty much work in any context. This tune is in concert Bb minor, which is C minor in the key of the soprano.  The melodic range of the tune extends from low C to middle C on the soprano.


Blues for Aida

Soprano sax





This tune is loosely based on a five note Japanese scale called the miyako-bushi as shown in Example 1.  This is the scale on which many of the traditional Japanese tunes are built—particularly ones written for the koto.

This scale has a sound that’s very identifiable, exotic and soulful—similar to the blues. The difference being that in the  “blues scale” the essential notes are #9, #11, and b7, whereas the blues notes in the “miyako-bushi” are b9 and b13.



Example 1:  The miyako-bushi pentatonic scale

As shown in Example 1, this penta-tonic is very different from the major and minor penta-tonics found in most Western, Asian, and West African music. You’ll find that the main differences occur between the 1st and 2nd tones, and the 4th and 5th, both spanning the interval of a ½ step. 


EXERCISES

Lower Register Studies 1 – 4: The following four (4) exercises focuses on developing the lower register. Each exercise should be practiced using the suggested articulations.



Suggested articulations:



Exercise #1


Exercise #2




Exercise #3




Exercise #4





Here are a few things to keep in mind when practicing these exercises:
  •  Playing these at softer volumes forces you to play with better breath support.
  • Notes in this register tend to be on the sharp side.
  • The notes will often sound very harsh, so try to aim for a middle register smoothness.
  •  It’s good to imagine you’re playing the oboe or trumpet, it will raise your standard for what is an acceptable sound.
  • Aim for the same fluidity that you would in the other registers.                                     

Let me know how they work out. I'm curious to know.

Best!



2 comments:

  1. Another great post, Sam! I like the exercises and will have to try them. I do a lot of low end work with trichords and also work on using my lower leg to bend the low Bb note downward. Thanks for posting the transcription of "Blues for Aida"; it's one of my favorite Lacy songs, and I wish more people could hear it. Finally, thanks for reminding me that I need to delve more deeply into Japanese scales. I'm a big fan of shakuhachi music and ideas. Yusef Lateef included a number of Japanese scales in his "Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns". I need to spend some time with them. Best, Heath

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Heath, Nice to hear from you. And thanks for reading. C
    opies of my book are coming soon. I have not forgotten about you. Best! - S

    ReplyDelete

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