Saxophones Part 3 – Mouthpieces and Vintage Instruments

Mouthpiece Selection

I’m going to veer off from my normal postings with this entry.  No other woodwind instrument has the ability to change its sound as much as the saxophone.  Something never before mentioned in any orchestration text is the wide array of mouthpiece choices available to saxophonists.  Most professional saxophonists will have several different mouthpieces available to them.  These range from a jazz mouthpiece (often made of metal) to a “legit” mouthpiece (always of hard rubber).  Overlooked by many saxophonists is the traditional “round chambered” mouthpiece.  This is the style of mouthpiece that Adolph Sax designed for the instrument, and the one that gives the saxophone a warm and sweet sound.

Just as a composer writing for percussion is able to choose which mallets are appropriate for the instrument, so too, I feel that the bandestrator should have the choice of saxophone mouthpiece.  The following chart will give three mouthpiece choices and the approximate desired sound.  Note that mouthpiece choices for Piccolo, Sopranino, Bass, and Contrabass may be limited.

Jazz mouthpiece Loud, brash, aggressive
Standard mouthpiece Medium, reedy
Round-chamber mouthpiece Soft, sweet, lyrical

Asking a saxophonist to change their mouthpiece in the middle of a work is theoretically possible, but will elicit the grumbles of performers.  It will involve changing reeds and ligatures and there is the remote possibility of something going wrong in the transfer.  However, if you are writing with the sound of a round-chamber mouthpiece in mind, and at some point you require the sound of a jazz mouthpiece, then the performer is obliged to change the mouthpiece no questions asked.

For the first time in over a century, saxophonists now have the ability to use exact copies of Adolphe Sax mouthpieces.

Modern vs. Vintage Instruments

Vintage saxophones, those made prior to the 1940s, are of a very different design than modern instruments.  Original saxophones had a pure parabolic shape to their bore.  That is, their bore did not expand in a pure cone.  Modern instruments abandoned this more difficult shape in favor of a pure cone.  The other difference is that modern instruments have considerably better ergonomics in the keywork design particularly in the design of the pinky keys.  Many performers and composers prefer the sound of these older instruments over modern ones.  Vintage instruments are more desirable for classical solo work.

Vintage Altos and Tenors are easy to find and are usually very good instruments, especially those made by Conn and Buescher.  C Tenors and C Sopranos (except for those made by the AquilaSax company) and F Altos are always of vintage make.  Vintage Baritones and Basses may not have full modern keywork, namely keywork up to a high F.  These instruments usually only go to high E-flat.  No vintage Baritone descends to a low A.  Vintage Sopranos and Sopraninos are sometimes of questionable intonation, but many are exquisite instruments.

Use of vintage versus modern instruments is probably outside of the realm of what a bandestrator can command.


Saxophones – Introduction




With the saxophone, we enter a realm of knowns and unknowns.  We all know the sound of the saxophone, or at least we think we do.

           “The only sounds that can give any idea of the saxophone’s delicious half-tints and its suggestions of fading twilight are the diminuendo and piano of the cantors in the Russian Imperial Chapel, those wonderful singers who must make the good Lord envious of Tsar Nicholas.”

             This was Hector Berlioz’s first impression upon hearing the sound of Adolph Sax playing his new invention.  Are we listening to a different instrument today than Berlioz heard?

The simple answer to that question is yes.  The saxophone of the 19th century is not quite the same that we see today.  Berlioz formulated his opinions based upon hearing a Bass Saxophone in C, and indeed, the saxophone was first conceived as a low voiced instrument.  I had the great privilege of hearing a recording of a 19th century Bass Saxophone in C (though not made by Sax himself, but an exact copy), and I can now attest that Berlioz heard a very different sound, and it is indeed priestly.  Does this sound still exist?  Can we resurrect it from the dead?  What is the role of the saxophone in that band anyway?

The original sound of Sax.

We’ve lived with this instrument for over 150 years, and I still attest that bandestrators don’t know what they are doing with it.  It has never been accepted into the orchestra, which means that every orchestration text every written slights this instrument, and some even malign it.  I both love and play the instrument, but have a very different feel for the instrument than most.  I hope some of my insights prove valuable.



B-flat Piccolo Saxophone (Soprillo)

E-flat Sopranino Saxophone

C Soprano Saxophone

B-flat Soprano Saxophone

G Mezzo-Soprano Saxophone

F Alto Saxophone

E-flat Alto Saxophone

C Tenor Saxophone

B-flat Tenor Saxophone

E-flat Baritone Saxophone

B-flat Bass Saxophone

E-flat Contrabass Saxophone

B-flat Subcontrabass Saxophone

Clarinets Part 4 – Clarinet Technique

Clarinet Technique

            The modern clarinet and the modern clarinetist have some of the most advanced technique in the wind world.  All members of the clarinet family have identical technique (except for some Contra-Altos and Contrabasses which possess simplified keywork).  All clarinets descend to at least a written low E (and the lower clarinets all have at least a semi-tone below this).  As for upward range, soprano instruments and lower (except the Contras) should be able to ascend to a written high C (three octaves above middle C), though the practicality of this note might be questioned.  The sopranino instruments are best if kept to the G below this high C (four ledger lines above the treble clef), though a few semi-tones higher may be possible.  Unfortunately, I cannot vouch for the upper range of the small Piccolo Clarinet, but suffice to say it is probably not possible for them to reach even this high G.

The clarinets that possess a low C extension (F Altos and professional Basses and Contrabasses) have the largest range of any woodwind at a full four octaves.

The only technique limitation on any clarinet is to so-called break.  Due to the clarinet’s physics, it does not overblow the octave, but rather the twelfth.  This leads to a curious range in between the two main registers where the fingerings can get somewhat awkward.  If you are writing for advanced players (high school and above) then you should not have to concern yourself too much with this register and its limitations as the players know how to manage it quite proficiently.

All trills and many tremolos are possible and are quite common.

One curious aspect of the clarinet’s technique that I have alluded to throughout this text is their use of vibrato.  In the United States (and in many western European countries) vibrato is not used at all on the clarinet.  This makes it the only woodwind instrument in the band to not use the technique.  Use this fact to your advantage.  Try alternating between the cool vibrato-less pale of the clarinets and the warm vibrato of the saxophones (or flutes or oboes or bassoons).  These are curious effects waiting to be explored.

Keep all this in mind and your band won’t be “as bland as B-flat.”

Clarinets Part 3 – Clarinets in the Band

Clarinets in the Band

            The clarinet family takes up the most real estate on the band stand.  The original idea in band scoring was to have the clarinets replace the orchestras’ strings, but this arrangement to my ears has never once worked.  I feel modern bandestrators should rethink this scenario.  Instead think of the clarinets as simply another choir, albeit a considerably larger one, within the woodwind section.

Over the years, many different arrangements for the clarinet section have been tried.  A section from a large band in the late 1800s might have looked like this:

1 A-flat Clarinet

2 E-flat Clarinets

24 B-flat Clarinets

2 Alto Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

We can see that this arrangement was skewed towards the higher end.  As bands evolved, the A-flat Clarinet part was dropped, but little else changed.  Then around the 1950s the Alto Clarinet and the E-flat Clarinet started to disappear, but the contra clarinets were starting to make their appearance.  By this time the section would have looked like this –

1 E-flat Clarinet

12 B-flat Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

1 Contra Clarinet (Contra-Alto or Contrabass – but not both)

This is very similar to the arrangement we have today.  Of the mighty family of clarinets, we now only see four members.

I want us to start thinking creatively though.  We have this mass of players (16 in the scenario I gave).  Why not use them in more interesting ways?  Throughout the individual instrument descriptions, I alluded to the fact that many of these instruments can and should be used in a band setting.  I hereby present a more interesting and more well-balanced clarinet section.

2 E-flat Clarinets (one possibly doubling on A-flat)

2 C Clarinets

4 B-flat Clarinets

2 A Clarinets

2 F Alto Clarinets

2 Bass Clarinets

1 Contra-Alto Clarinet

1 Contrabass Clarinet

In this arrangement, we have the same sixteen players, but as we can see the diversity is double what we had before.  We now have eight different sizes of clarinet and eight different timbral possibilities.  The mass of B-flat Clarinets is now reduced to four instruments.  This will have the added benefit for the player of now being an important part of a small group as opposed to being a neglected member of an undefined mass.  The division into parts for C, B-flat, and A instruments is a decision wholly based on bandestrational possibilities.  Our C Clarinets can carry the traditional first part while the A Clarinets can carry the traditional bottom (third or fourth part), but more importantly, each of these three groups of soprano clarinets can function as an independent group.  Think of quirky, happy passages on the Cs, while we have serious and melancholy passages played on the As.  The two E-flats and 2 Cs can team up for a high quartet just as Mahler does in his 1st Symphony (3rd movement, Klezmer sections).  The A Clarinets paired with the F Alto Clarinets can form a somber quartet of deep passion.  On the bottom end, instead of having only three players in two ranges to support the sound, we now have six players in three (or four) ranges.  This powerful low end is something I have yet to experience from a band.  Only now, with our more perfect solution, can the clarinet family even begin to approach the orchestra’s strings.  Think of dividing each part into multiple parts.  For instance, 1st and 2nd F Alto Clarinet and 1st and 2nd Bass Clarinet.  This can give far more delicate textures.  Powerful unisons can be had by having the whole section in octaves.  I am getting excited just writing this section!  The possibilities are staggering!

Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre for clarinet choir (appears to use E-Flat, B-flat, E-flat Alto, Bass, and Contrabass Clarinets).  Note, there is only one each of the Alto, Bass, and Contrabass Clarinets.  These poor three players are having to over blow to make up for the ill proportioned group.  However, the lone E-flat player is heard clearly.

Vivaldi’s Summer for clarinet octet (1 E-flat (=B-flat), 3 B-flats, 1 E-flat Alto, 2 Basses, 1 Contrabass).  See how different the balance is with a full low end.

Libertango for 2 B-flats, F Alto, and Bass.  Again note the equal balance of the parts.  This makes the 16 B-flat clarinets in the Danse Macabre video seem extraneous.

Young Person’s Guide to the Clarinet Choir – E-flat, B-flat, F Alto, E-flat Alto, Bass, and Contrabass