A Perspective on the Art of Lead Alto Playing

by Corbin Andrick

Like any form of music, there is an art to performing in a saxophone section. Each individual player must perform their part as a supporting, yet solitary, instrument. The most important voices in the balance of the section are the lead alto saxophone and the baritone saxophone. The top and bottom of the section are often in octaves and provide the color and overall tone of the section. The rest of the saxes, second alto and the two tenors, must provide additional color and supportive sound to the lead alto. Each individual has different tricks to playing the book well. The lead alto player must know what it is like to play each chair and be able to direct the others in the section to balance the sound correctly.

What Sets You Apart?

A good lead alto player plays their part in time, in tune, and with a brilliant tone. A GREAT lead alto player knows the style and history of the greats that play the instrument. The lead player establishes the amount of vibrato, time feel, dynamics, and style of the section. Ultimately, the one attribute that decides a lead alto player is confidence. The lead player must look at a sheet of music and try to bring as much music out of it as possible. Notable artists of lead alto saxophone include Johnny Hodges, Jerry Dodgian, Dick Oatts, Wes Anderson, and Phil Woods.

Be Prepared

Practicing lead alto is a task that is associated with classical music; consistency. In order to be credible to the section, the lead alto player cannot miss. It is of utmost importance to be constant with inflection and dynamics in order to communicate the sound to the rest of the section. One mislead and the rest of the section will second-guess how a phrase will be played the next time. In order to be prepared for rehearsal, the lead alto player must be MORE prepared than any other member in the section. Failure to do so will result in a lack of communication in the section and each member will tune out and play in whatever way they interpret the music instead of catering to the lead part. An important trick for a budding lead alto player is to play as quietly as possible in the beginning to test if the rest of the section is listening. If they are, the rest of the section will play as quietly as possible to stay under the lead voice. If not, the lead player must assert to that individual to play softer.

The psychology behind playing lead alto is much like the lead trumpet, bass, and drums. These members of the ensemble should be the most proactive as their parts determine how the rest of the band will react. The lead alto and lead trumpet must agree on where the time lays and consistently play in that fashion. The more consistent these players are, the tighter the rest of the band will be.

Get Ready to Lead

It is also important for the lead alto to decide when the section needs to be in the background. Examples of this are backgrounds of solos, trombone/ trumpet melodies, secondary lines, or unison lines with the tenors and bari. Unison lines in the section should feature the lower sounds in the section and the alto should try to use a darker tone to match the timbre of the low instruments.

In the end, confidence and consistency is the key to a great lead alto player.

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