Vibrato is one of the most important, divisive, and uniquely personal parts of many musicians’ expressive palate. As saxophonists, our instrument lives in many different musical styles and within each of those musical worlds, the way we use (or DON’T use) vibrato says a whole lot about how we understand the music. There is not one ‘right’ way to approach vibrato, and personally many of my heroes of the saxophone (in all musical styles) certainly did not all sound the same or use their vibrato the same; much of this is a personal choice as to what you think sounds good or again, what fits the music.
This article is a compilation of what my teachers have taught me, what some of my idols and closest professional saxophonists do or teach, and what has worked for me. I’m going to try and go through and briefly touch on the styles of concert/classical saxophone, jazz, and then commercial styles of music. Since this is a short article and not a book, I’m going to try to keep it to the basics and broad concepts in each style, as well as things you can teach beginners or those who are having some trouble finding their comfort zone!
Before I really dive into the nuts and bolts of ways to approach the vibrato in each musical style, I want to make sure I mention that before even attempting to add vibrato in ones playing you must first be able to play notes through the range of the instrument with a great tone, at all/most dynamic levels, and in tune. If any of those three facets are missing, adding vibrato on top of those existing problems will make matters worse and harder to fix. In short, don’t add vibrato until you can play with a great controlled sound and in tune with drones consistently!
How to produce vibrato on the saxophone
For those out there who are completely new to vibrato, let’s first go over how to physically produce it. Starting with a great embouchure is vital, so let’s briefly hit that first. A great saxophone embouchure has the top teeth resting on top of the mouthpiece, the lower lip over the lower teeth in a cushioning/not over stretched way and the corners of the mouth firmly around the sides of the mouthpiece creating the feeling of a rubber band or drawstring around the mouthpiece and reed in a way that feels equally supported all around. Any excess biting into the reed, horizontal pressure pinching the reed, or not enough firmness around the mouthpiece and reed will cause problems that will be very difficult to overcome when attempting vibrato.
Once our great embouchure is in place, we can now look into adding vibrato. The general concept is vibrato on the saxophone generally comes from the lower jaw moving in a controlled, measured way just enough to cause waves in the pitch we are producing. When it’s comfortable and done right, vibrato should feel easy and natural and should never feel forced or tense. It takes very little movement of the jaw to create any change in the pitch, almost like you are doing nothing at all. There are other types of vibrato like diaphragm, throat, and even lip vibrato, but by far the easiest to control and hone on saxophone comes from the slight changes of pressure on the reed from moving the jaw.
Although I’ll have more examples below, the first thing to try when using vibrato is while using a metronome, try controlling pulsations of vibrato while maintaining the pitch center of the note for iterations of 1, 2, 3 and 4 over a slow tempo like quarter note = 60, moving it up a bit if you’d like as you get used to it. (1, 2, and 4 equate to quarter note, eighth notes, eighth triplets and sixteenth notes).
At first, you will likely notice that the pitch goes sharp and very flat as you will just be getting used to the motion and moving your jaw, causing the reed to pinch too much and then the embouchure to relax too much on the reed. Work on it a little bit each day and try to tighten the waves using less jaw motion and always remember to focus on the pitch of the note NOT the vibrato. (I’m probably going to say that a lot more in this article…)
Of any of the styles, I have found the most differing opinions on vibrato in classical saxophone. I believe this is because the playing style in this genre has really changed very recently and is still evolving rapidly today in a profoundly different way than 50 years ago, 25 years ago, even 5-10 years ago!
Marcel Mule, Donald Sinta, Eugene Rousseau, Kenneth Tse, Claude Delangle, Jean-Yves Fourmeau, Timothy McAllister and Otis Murphy were my biggest influences when I was learning how to approach concert saxophone. If you listened to recordings of all of them, do they all use their vibrato the same way? Not even close! But do they all sound great? Yes! Yet, these days the super stars like the gentlemen mentioned above as well as Vincent David, Chirstian Wirth, and many others tend to be more in the vibrato range I will discuss below and which I think is a great baseline to find which vibrato works for you.
I had the great opportunity to spend a week studying in France in 2006 with one of my idols Jean-Yves Fourmeau at the Annecy Classic Festival in Annecy, France. He introduced me to the very simple, but effective vibrato exercise that I described above briefly and have used from that point forward. To reiterate the main point above, the pitch center is the most important thing of all, not the vibrato (there it is again!).
With this in mind, Mr. Fourmeau (and others I have studied with) suggested to think about the vibrato going both above the pitch and below, so that the center of the waves of your vibrato is always the perfectly in-tune center of the note, not somewhere above or below the note, making the note with vibrato sound just as in tune to the ear as a note held with no vibrato at all. The range he suggested to practice the vibrato pulsations in quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets and sixteenths and was at the lower end, quarter note=76-84/88 as a baseline as I mentioned above. The sixteenth pulsation in that range is the speed where most saxophone players play on average. Of course, there are times where a slower or faster vibrato is appropriate, but that range serves as the status quo you can always go and be comfortable in. Here’s a graph of what I mean my above a below the note:
Vibrato is something to add to your practice routine as an inclusion to long tones and work with tuning on drones. It helps me a lot to tune with a droned pitch both with and without vibrato and make sure that both sound equally in tune and as pretty as I can make it in all dynamic levels.
With basics out of the way, let’s get into some more complexities on the subject. There is plenty of debate as to how much vibrato to use and when is it appropriate in playing concert music written for or transcribed for saxophone. A lot of the time the saxophonist has to make an artistic decision about that for her/himself. In general, I like to point to what my professor at Indiana University Otis Murphy told me about using vibrato: vibrato enhances and energizes the sound, and so it tends to be best used to help us project the sound, to highlight important parts of the phrase, and is frequently used when the dynamic is anywhere from mf and up.
My thoughts here don’t mean vibrato can’t be used in pp passages, or you can’t use it in unimportant parts of the phrases. What I have found in my playing career is that sometimes NOT using vibrato in some places or parts of the phrase makes the notes where you use vibrato way more effective. Lets take an example from the famous Creston sonata, in movement II:
Look at measures 10-14 starting with the Bb on the and of beat three in measure 10 and ending with the half note Eb at the end of measure 14. Try playing this passage both with vibrato on every note longer than a sixteenth note and then totally without vibrato on any note and record it. Make notes of what you like and don’t like about each example. Then, try playing it using vibrato where you think it’s needed or where you don’t, which for some of you means just changing a few things from one of the early takes. Listen to that and see what you think.
*For myself, I’d likely use vibrato on the Bb quarter note on beat 4 in measure 11, F on beat 2 and G on beat 4 in measure 13, and a slight amount of vibrato on the F on beat one then just a touch of vibrato on the Eb on the and of beat 2. Everywhere else, I like a pure, unadorned tone. Again, this is just my opinion and even in the heat of performance I may do something totally different! Being flexible is important as well!
The exercise above highlights what I’m trying to get across about vibrato- it is something that is extremely personal and can really define how you want to execute or express that music the way you hear it in your head. It takes a long time or lifetime of study and listening back to yourself to find out exactly what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to experiment!
A couple more things to consider before moving on to jazz vibrato style is speed of the vibrato matching the tempo of the piece. Most times, slowing the vibrato on a slow lyrical passage and speeding it up when playing a fast rhythmic piece or especially when in front of a large ensemble playing a concerto is tasteful and musical (or necessary…). Again, this takes your own reflection and study of what works and what doesn’t. It is your artistic decision of when to start or stop vibrato even within a note!
Generally, starting vibrato right on the start of a note where you were going to vibrate is preferred, but there are definitely times where holding off and starting it later sounds great. An example could be when a note has a large crescendo under it- straight tone feels and sounds quieter at the start of the note and once you open into vibrato, it immediately feels and sounds louder. The same is true when a note has a large decrescendo, most famously in Bizet’s orchestra transcription of “The Old Castle” the saxophone has a middle C to F on the top line which the saxophone player decrescendos to end the movement. It is chillingly musical in my opinion to start the note big with singing vibrato and once it starts to lose energy and volume dial it back until it is a straight tone, beautiful pp at the end. I could go on all day with things like this, but in the end this is all a personal artistic decision!
One final note here is just like we will talk about the next segment covering jazz and commercial music vibrato choices, it is important that you listen not only to your favorite classical saxophonists, but also all kinds of instrumental soloists to get an idea of the sound and vibrato style you would like to emulate yourself. I know for me personally, listening to string players solo playing had a big impact on that way I approach it on saxophone.
Now that we’ve covered a lot of the basics and foundations for vibrato in general and also how to go about it in concert saxophone playing, it’s time to discuss how to use vibrato in a jazz setting.
There have been a lot of changes in the way jazz music was performed over the 20th century, and vibrato usage was a big part of the way the music sounded. Listening to early saxophone artists like Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and others you will notice they use a lot more vibrato than later influential saxophonists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and especially contemporary players. This is important to know as saxophone players so that we can do our best to adapt to what style of music we are playing the same as classical players change their style going from baroque to romantic, classical era to modern.
In the big band music of the 20s into the 40s, using vibrato and having the whole section of 5 saxophone players match vibrato was the sound of the music. Check out recordings of the orchestras of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller from the 20s-40s era and listen to how wide and persistent the vibrato of the sax section was.
It really helped create a projecting almost string-like role in these orchestras, and so as saxophone players playing in big band in school or elsewhere who covers this music, it is important that you listen to these recordings and adjust your vibrato accordingly, by widening the waves and perhaps speeding it up a touch. The quintessential example of lead alto playing from this era has to be Johnny Hodges, he was a master of weaving in vibrato and bends in a singing way. Again, the most important part is imitating by listening!
In modern jazz from the bebop era on, vibrato became less and less important to the sound of the saxophone as many of the great solo saxophone players started playing jazz in the combo setting as opposed to the domination of the big band in the 20s-40s. In addition to Parker and Coltrane some of the great saxophone players of the late 40s-60s/70s include Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, and Dexter Gordon just to name a few.
Listening to these great players, you will notice they are quite selective in their vibrato usage, and generally don’t use it much save for shaping notes on long ballade melodies or using it a bit at the very end of notes to give it a bit of a shimmer. The vibrato tends to be wider than classical vibrato and slower in general. I’m repeating myself a lot here, but listening and transcribing every nuance of these great players solos is the best way to understand and digest what they are doing and give you the tools to fit the style yourself. Some modern jazz artists to check out from the 70s on include Michael Brecker, Kenny Garrett, Chris Potter, Branford Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Joshua Redman and many many more.
With all the ways to check out music these days, it’s easy to find the players you prefer and want to imitate, but if you are new to jazz music, it’s always advised that when you start transcribing or imitating the music that you start with the guys from the early eras of jazz, most notably Charlie Parker so that you understand the language of the music and how jazz improvisation is based in voice leading and music theory. Starting with Chris Potter might be fun, but without the knowledge of the early music, you will not know how to adapt on gigs other than modern combos!
Contemporary/Pop saxophone playing
As we know, saxophone is a very versatile and exciting instrument in many styles, and still to this day in 2016 you can hear saxophone used on the pop radio. The pop sound and vibrato are similar to jazz, but tend to be brighter and heavier on vibrato (excluding early jazz) than the normal jazz style. In fact, I’ve found that most guys on commercial tracks for pop artists or for smooth jazz tend to have a pretty similar pulsation rate to classical saxophonists albeit it on the slower end of classical players and noticeably wider, like jazz vibrato.
Some of the defining pop/smooth jazz saxophonists to check out include Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Gerald Albright, Kenny G, and Lenny Pickett (Tower of Power, SNL) among many others. The sound and vibrato of these players has to fit with the louder electronic instruments and produced sounds of the studio and large concert venues, and using vibrato again propels the sound giving it an edge that is mostly necessary to sing above the rest of the band, similar to its usage in all the other styles.
As we all grow as musicians, we will all make our own musical decisions about what we think sounds great and how we want to color/shape our music with or without vibrato. Although there is much more detail we could go into on all the subjects and musical style difference for vibrato discussed above, I hope that you find some things to take away from this whether it’s for your own playing or for giving exercises to your students. I want to stress again that having a great sound and knowledge of how to adjust your pitch to be in tune is essential before adding vibrato to ones playing. Adding vibrato onto the end of long tones and/or pitch drone exercises is a valuable and necessary part of the practice routine in order to have such a command of it that it happens naturally without need for conscious thought. Have fun making music with beautiful vibrato!