I find the most useful form of vibrato for the saxophone is called jaw vibrato. This involves moving the jaw down and up repeatedly to create oscillations in the pitch of the note, as if saying “yah yah yah yah yah….” This is different to flute which involves diaphragm vibrato, in which the loudness of the tone oscillates rather than the pitch.
The aim of this exercise is for you to be able to control the rate and depth of the vibrato. To achieve this control over the vibrato, it’s necessary to start with an extremely slow vibrato, in fact so slow it’s not really a vibrato, in the same way that a drummer learns to perfect a roll by starting very, very slowly and gradually building up speed. This takes a long time as it is very important to get the first stage as even as possible (it should be done over a period of weeks rather than days).
Initially you must be able to hold a reasonably steady note without any wobble as with the long note exercise. In the very first stages you should not be thinking of a vibrato at all: basically you are just bending the note down and up as smoothly as possible.
- Start a metronome at 60 bpm.
- Play B (1st finger left hand lower register)
- Over a count of 4, slacken your jaw so that the note flattens by approximately half a semitone.
- Over a count of 4, raise your jaw until the note is back at pitch
- Stop the note.
N.B. You should try to get the lowering and raising as smooth as possible, imagine a sine wave:
It is very tempting to raise the note at a faster rate than lowering it, keep thinking of the sine wave and make sure you do not close your throat.
- Continue on all the notes downwards and upwards from the B as with the long note exercise. Depending on the note and your lung capacity, you could do one or more cycles per note, make sure you count 4 down and 4 up.
Raise the speed gradually (eg 1 or 2 bpm) each day. When you get to 120 bpm, set the metronome back to 60 bpm and count 2 down and 2 up. When you get to 120 bpm again set it back to 60 bpm and count 1 down and 1 up. By the time your note bending sounds more like a vibrato, you should be in complete control of the speed.
When to use Vibrato
Traditionally saxophone sections in a big band used vibrato (sometimes at matched tempi) when playing a chord, and no vibrato when playing a unison. In modern music it is more dependent on style and taste. Vibrato can be used on unisons, but only if a looser sound is needed.
When playing solo it is entirely up to the player to use vibrato or not. Sometimes it can be effective to play a note with no vib, then add it just at the end of the note (as with some singers).
To help with this try the vibrato transition exercise here.
Vibrato and Tuning
When applying saxophone vibrato, the note is lowered then raised. This has the effect of making the average pitch of the note lower. Although the use of vibrato can mask poor intonation to a certain degree, you should take into account this averaging of the pitch downwards when tuning. One solution is to use a generally more relaxed embouchure when playing without vibrato, which would allow you to raise as well as lower the note from the starting point and keep the same average pitch.
One side effect of the exercise is that you will get very good at bending notes, as the first stage is basically a note bending exercise. Once you have mastered control over vibrato, go back to the very slow tempo and develop the exercise into a note bending exercise by bending the note as far down as possible, with some notes this can be as much as a major 3rd or 4th.
Players’ vibrato database
This is based only on a sample or two of each player, so may not be at all accurate or consistent. If anyone wants to add to the knowledge here and has the means to reasonably accurately time a player’s vibrato, please let me know. In the table below the first column is vibratos per second (vps), the second column translates that to tempo in BPM based on 4 vibratos per beat (vbp) in 4/4, the third column translates that to tempo in BPM based on 3 vibratos per beat in 4/4/, but please bear in mind this is purely for reference and ease of practice. It is rare for a player to play an exact number of vibratos per beat, however this can be a useful way to practise and gauge the rate.