The internet is a wonderful thing but can bear double-edged sword. Along with all the wonderful information at our fingertips, we also find a lot of misinformation. How can you tell which is which? Very often you can’t – but if someone is giving advice on how to play the saxophone, but are not offering any sound clips of their own playing, then I consider that raises a bit of a red flag.
Other times people talk about what works for them, i.e. they are giving a very subjective opinion that is presented as a universal saxophone truth.
When it comes to information about saxophones and mouthpieces it’s not so easy to tell whether someone actually knows what they are talking about, or whether they are just regurgitating something they read on a forum post without any clue as to the veracity of the source.
Many myths can seem very convincing, for example the idea that a saxophone made from more resonant metal will sound better. This idea is based on what we think we know about acoustics, and how a quality piano, violin or guitar made from superior materials will resonate batter. And so they will, because a resonant body is one of the main factors involved in their sound production and amplification. But a little learning is a dangerous thing: a woodwind instrument’s sound is NOT based on a resonating body, it is based on a completely different principle of a vibrating air column within the body. More on this below.
This is one of the biggest myths. Of course, it makes a difference – if you don’t have a ligature on your mouthpiece it will not sound the same as when you do have one.
Seriously though, a ligature is designed purely to hold the reed securely onto the mouthpiece, so the only way that it makes a difference is whether it is doing that properly or not. If the ligature is broken, not working correctly or designed for a different mouthpiece then it will not be working as it should and so it may of course sound different – but only because it isn’t fitting well, not because the ligature per se has a different sound. Sometimes a mouthpiece can have a concave or convex table and in that case certain ligatures may not hold the reed so well and the same applies. However there is no such thing as a ligatures that “sounds better” than another one. Read more (with videos)
This is one of the biggest myths out there. We know that you can pay a lot of money for violins, guitars, drums etc. made from different (expensive) materials and the sound will be different due to the resonance of those materials. However the acoustics of a saxophone (or other woodwind) is different. It is the vibrating air column inside the instrument that is the crucial factor, the wall or body of the instrument is merely there to contain that air column and does not vibrate or resonate in any significant way. However, the shape and dimensions of the body are crucial.
You could argue that therefore there may a be a slight difference if the property of material itself causes a difference in the internal geometry, for example where the toneholes are extruded from the body, different materials may form differently around the template and therefore create a different turbulence of the air column.
Some manufacturers will claim that different materials “resonate” differently, and we may believe this because it seems common sense that this is the case with those other instruments, however this is mostly just marketing hype.
Read more (with videos)
To a large extent the same applies to mouthpieces (although density of material can have an effect on sound when the tip is less thick). There could be some subconscious reason people may think metal would be brighter because it looks brighter. Or perhaps this is one of those myths that stems from band directors’ misconceptions. Imagine a band class of beginners, all of whom have the stock hard rubber beginner mouthpiece. One of them buys a metal mouthpiece that happens to be bright because it has a narrow chamber and high baffle and sticks out like a sore thumb. Band director (who knows very little about saxophones) blames the metal.
What makes a mouthpiece bright is very often the baffle or chamber size.
Many beginners are given this advice, which is the big sister of “get the best saxophone/mouthpiece you can afford” with the implication that the more you pay the better quality you will get. Well, for a start, quality can be very subjective. Of course there are objectively inferior instruments that are built very badly, but don’t be fooled by thinking there is some magic “best sound quality.”
These assumptions might have been true in days gone by, but these days it’s very easy to pay between $5 and $150 for a ligature without there actually being any difference in “quality” apart from the aesthetics maybe. You can also pay over $1000 for a mouthpiece that doesn’t sound (to you or your audience) any better than a $80 mouthpiece.
So how does a beginner know what to get if they want the best? This is very good question which is very difficult to answer. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything was as simple as paying more and getting something better? All I can say is maybe trust a good teacher, and don’t trust anyone trying to sell you something expensive.
This could be quite a controversial statement but is based on research by Dr. Edward Pillinger who was probably the first academic expert acoustician to use an artificial embouchure for testing. This simulated the windpipe, oral cavity and lips, each of which could be controlled remotely. He found that minute differences in placement and/or pressure of the lips could make a huge difference to the tone. However the volume and surface of the simulated oral cavity did not. In that case why do so many people think the oral cavity does affect the tone? Perhaps adjusting the volume inside your mouth is causing adjustments to the lips, which in turn are the only factor involved in the tone production.
At the time this was very controversial, but when leading players and acoustic scientists were invited to witness the experiment they had to concede that the findings did back up Dr. Pillinger’s theories.
At one time it was the “go to” instrument for professionals, perhaps due to its revolutionary ergonomics (which were actually introduced on previous models) or a very aggressive marketing and sponsorship campaign by Selmer. There’s no denying that MKVIs can sound great, though quality of sound is very subjective and many people prefer other brands.
Why are they so expensive then? Even though today there are many saxophones that many people believe have surpassed the MKVI in sound, intonation and ergonomics, the MKVI was probably the most common instrument played by the greats of what people think of as a golden era of jazz, from the mid 50s through the 60s, and so the MKVI has been enticed a new breed of saxophone collectors which in turn hikes the prices.
Given that after world war II there would have been a lot of spent (or unspent) cartridge shells lying around in France just begging to be recycled into saxophones, it’s reasonable to understand how this particular myth arose. Even if it was true, there is no reason for those instruments to sound any better (see above). However according to Wikipedia (the source of all reliable knowledge), although the brass used was a particular alloy called cartridge brass, Selmer’s general manager Jerome Selmer has confirmed that Mark VIs were never manufactured from recycled shell casings.
To date there haven’t seemed to be any top level professional quality saxophones coming out of China. Unlike saxophones from Taiwan, Chinese instruments have a reputation for hastily put together “saxophone shaped objects,” a hangover from the older brands such as Parrot and Lark which would bend under your fingers. These days however, although still very cheap the build quality has improved to such an extent that if you know what you are looking for there are some good instruments from China, even well established brands are outsourcing keyword or even entire saxophones. However the fact that there are now some really top quality flutes (Dhi Zao) being made in China leads me to believe that it’s only a matter of time before saxophones follow suit. Perhaps it is due to the enduring stigma that no manufacturer has made anything top level, but I’m sure there will be a top level Chinese saxophone soon.
Beginners do tend to start on very soft reeds, which is probably because for the first few weeks of playing the amount of pressure required to create a stable tone might otherwise cause too much pain beneath the lower lip, however there is no need to think of it like weight lifting and have to “build up” to extremely hard reeds. In fact once you are able to play harder reeds, it can actually be a detriment because although hard reeds can make high notes and the altissimo range easier to produce, it’s often at the expense of low notes and reduced dynamics.
At one stage I was playing #4 Rico reeds and harder, but then realised that with softer reeds I could get a much more versatile sound, however I found it difficult to reach the higher notes and to get a lot of power and loudness needed for some genres. The answer was to work on air support and breath control. In fact paradoxically it seemed that playing softer reeds was more difficult, but with enough work on tone production and breathing it’s actually possible to get a much better range, tone and dynamic range using medium soft reeds.
Some of these opinions may be a bit controversial, please feel free to debate on our international discussion forum, CafeSaxophone.
If you have any myths of your own, feel free to add a comment below.