Unfortunately I don’t have as much time to sit down and practice for as long as I used to, and I believe this rings true with many other professionals. Between other jobs, gigs, commitments, and all of life’s demands, it can be tough to sit down with the horn every day and transcribe a new chorus of John Coltrane. I’ve found much of my time on the horn to be maintenance imperative to keeping up tone, facility, and comfort on the instrument. Here are a few exercises that I’ve found to be effective ways to use twenty minutes of practice time when that’s all that life will allow…
1) The Hinge
I like to start on our middle C as the ‘hinge point’, as the exercise requires you to play all the intervals pivoting around C. Start with half-steps in both directions (C – B, C – Db), then whole steps in both directions (C – Bb, C – D), minor thirds (C-A, C – Eb), and so on until you’ve reached the full range of the horn. I would recommend doing this exercise with a drone holding C as a constant pitch so you can hear and feel what each interval sounds like against the pitch you’re ‘hinging’ around. This will keep your intonation honest as you move back and forth to the C. The app ‘Scale Master’ is great for this. Practice this slowly, whole notes at 60 bpm.
2) Overtone Matching
As many of us know the saxophone is a far from perfectly tuned instrument. A concept that really turned me into a true believer of the benefits of overtone practice is as follows: The tone holes in the saxophone are far from perfectly engineered and adversely affect intonation and the natural tone quality of the instrument. When you play a low Bb (with all the tone holes covered), you are essentially removing the imperfections of the tone holes and playing the saxophone in its original and complete ‘one-piece-of-tubing’ state. For more information on overtones, I would recommend Sigurd Rasher’s book Top Tones for the Saxophone.
So with this in mind – why not apply the sound and resonance of the notes in the overtone series to the way you play notes with regular fingerings?
Finger a low Bb, and using your vocal chords, sound a middle Bb one octave higher. This is an overtone. Now play middle Bb with the normal fingering and try to match the sound and resonance of the overtone you just played. Alternate back and forth from the normal Bb fingering to the overtone starting with half notes, then quarter notes, and then eighth notes. Now move up to the next overtone from the low Bb (F, an octave and a fifth above). Match this sound to the normal F fingering and alternate back and forth. Work your way up the rest of the Bb overtone series (pictured below). This same exercise can be applied to the overtone series from low B, C, and Db.
The objective of this exercise is to help you internalize pitch and improve the quality of your sound by matching the (potentially flawed) fingerings to the saxophone’s natural overtone series.
3) Overtone Control – Playing Melodies
As I was working through Top Tones for the Saxophone, my teacher would always tell me I didn’t truly have command over the overtones until I could play Reveille (that famous military bugle song) solely with the overtone series. While fingering low Bb, use your vocal chords to hop between the notes of Reveille – it’s all based on one triad since it is traditionally played on a bugle (which is designed on one overtone series). As you get more comfortable with this try and play the melody in rhythm and increase the tempo.
This exercise keeps your vocal chords honest by forcing you to sound and center the pitch as a vocalist would; making you less reliant on the keys to play in tune. This same concept can be applied to playing scales or other melodies.
4) Triad Pairs with a Metronome
Triad pairings are a great technical and mental exercise that have a lot of practical applications in improvisation. By pairing certain triads together you can give the scale they are rooted in added shape and dimension. Definitely use a metronome with these – I love the app ‘Metronomics’. The first weaves together two major triads a whole step apart, (as illustrated below, C and D), which gives you the notes contained in a C Lydian scale (with the exception of B). Note: the major third of D (F#) is the #11 of C.
The second weaves together two minor triads a whole step apart, (as illustrated below, C minor and D minor), which gives you the notes contained in a C Dorian scale (with the exception of Bb).
Increase the tempo as you get the hang of it and of course, practice them in twelve keys. More on triad pairings here.
5) Scales in half steps
Pretty simple exercise to get you through all the major scales and the full range of the horn. Play an ascending scale and then transpose up a half step for the descending scale, and continue through the full range. Once you get to the top reverse: play a descending scale and transpose down a half step for the ascending scale.
These are the exercises (in order of priority) that I have found to keep me in shape and best maintain my sound, intonation, and, most importantly, comfort on the horn. I try to hit each one at least briefly on those days I only have twenty minutes to practice. I hope some of them work for you as well!