The most misunderstood instrument in the band

I’ve just completed the initial composition for a new work for band (more on that later), and in the process, I made a realization.  The piece is one of the most colorful I’ve written with huge parts for every instrument.  What I came to realize is that most people think of the Baritone Saxophone in the wrong light.

As I was scoring, I kept keeping the Baritone Sax in the mid to upper range of the instrument.  And that’s when it hit me, the Baritone Sax isn’t a bass instrument as it is normally treated.  This should have been apparent from the beginning – it’s in the name of the instrument.  It’s a baritone.

This kind of came as a huge “duh moment” for me.  After all, I’m a recovering Bari player from my days in high school marching band.  When I was a player, all the parts I got were the bass line.  Mostly the tuba umm-pah parts in marches.  These parts are enough to give the instrument a bad reputation.

That bad reputation has led to bad scoring in most band music.  When was the last time you heard a piece of wind literature that had important and prominent roles for the Baritone Saxophone?

I can’t remember either.

I think my first epiphany on the true nature of the instrument came back in 2004 when I was writing my first work for band, the Adagio for Winds and Organ.  It’s a delicately scored work that resembles a Brucknerian adagio.  The piece is very late Romantic in nature until the coda.  In that coda, I feel that I found part of my true voice as a composer.  That coda features a long, extended solo for Baritone Saxophone in its highest range.

bari excerpt

The range of the above solo is really where the instrument sings.  It fits exactly into the range of a baritone singer.  Think of having the timbre of a bass singer, but the flexibility of a tenor.

That said, without the Bass Saxophone present, the Baritone provides the only reliable bass for the saxophone choir, so the instrument is forced into a role that isn’t quite the best fit for it.  In fact, this forcing into the bass range is the main reason that the modern Baritone Sax almost always has an extension to a written A (sounding C2, the same low not of the Cello).  In fact, I find that the Cello is one of the best analogs to the Baritone Sax.  Yes, it can descend into the lower register, but it sings in its upper.

This does leave an interesting problem for the standard woodwind section in the band.  If we look at the low woodwinds, we have the Bass Clarinet, the Baritone Saxophone, and 2 Bassoons.  I leave out the contra clarinets, Bass Saxophone, and Contrabassoon as they are not to be found in all ensembles.  I’ve said before that the Bassoon is not a bass instrument, but rather a tenor.  The Baritone Saxophone is more bass than the Bassoon is, but we are really only left with the Bass Clarinet as the only instrument in the woodwind section that functions wholly as a bass.  This discrepancy is why I always advocate for the use of the contra woodwinds.  They are there to free up the Bassoon, Baritone Saxophone, and Bass Clarinet to function more freely.

Take a look at this work for Baritone Sax and wind ensemble, which the composer has kindly added the score for the sax solo, and you can see how rarely the instrument, in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing with the instrument, descends into the bottom of its range.

Perhaps its time to start utilizing the Baritone Saxophone with more creativity.

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One thought on “The most misunderstood instrument in the band

  1. Pingback: Episode 3 – All About that Bass… Saxophone – Bandestration

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