Saxophone - Lesson 4

  1. The Diaphragm
  2. Breathing Action
  3. Breathing Exercise
  4. When to take a Breath
  5. Correct Note Length
  6. Tone Exercise 1 - the Whole-tone scale
  7. More Major scale Practice
  8. Strolling with You
  9. Practice Material

    Practice Studio

Lesson : Intro | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | ??

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SAX 4.1 - The Diaphragm

Once the posture and embouchure are correct proper breathing can inflate the body resonator to its full capacity.
This is achieved through breathing from the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a muscular membrane that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. In its natural position the diaphragm assumes a dome shape.


By pushing the abdominal muscles around the stomach and lower back outwards the diaphragm is flattened. This creates a vacuum in the chest cavity, which is quickly filled by fresh air rushing into the expanding lungs.
When breathing in your waist line should expand all around your body (not just your stomach).

Do not suck in the air. The air will flow automatically and quickly to the low pressure area at the base of the lungs.

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SAX 4.2 - Breathing Action

A good breathing action is very similar to the breathing in Yoga exercises. The only difference is that a wind instrument player has little time to breath in and usually must do it very quickly.

Practise breathing away from the instrument, first slowly to get the proper action firmly established.

Breathing in :

  1. keep shoulders down, chest up, but both relaxed

  2. drop the jaw and keep the throat open as in a beginning yawn

  3. push out the stomach- and back-muscles

  4. then expand the lower chest.
Do not lift your shoulders. They will raise (slightly) naturally as the air flows in.
Expand the stomach quickly. The lower chest will expand naturally near the end of the stomach action.

Blowing out :

  1. maintain an open throat (yawning)

  2. voice the syllable "Hoooooo" (without using the vocal cords) while you blow, and keep the cheeks firm. (bulging cheeks distort the embouchure)

  3. keep pushing the stomach and lower back muscles out while blowing (or breathing out).
Blowing out with a "Hooooooo" action keeps the throat open and ensures that the air comes right from the bottom of the lungs.

Keep pushing out the stomach and lower back muscles while blowing out. This causes the diaphragm to gradually raise first as the air diminishes and keeps the lungs and chest expanded as long as possible.
A characteristic of all good players is that their stomach muscles are always firm and are pressing outwards throughout their playing.

Breathing this way ensures that the body resonator is inflated as much as possible all the time. This is called good air support.

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SAX 4.3 - Breathing Exercise

Practise the breathing action without the instrument, e.g. when walking.
Count with the steps of your left foot. sax002.gif

  • Step 1 : breath in quickly by expanding stomach muscles.

  • Steps 2 and 3 : hold your breath by pushing the tongue against the roof of the mouth ("du" or "tu") with the air locked behind it. You should feel the air pressing against the back of your tongue. Keep your throat open.

  • Steps 4 to 10 : breathe out slowly by releasing the tongue "Hoooooo". Keep pushing out the stomach muscles so that the air escapes in a controlled manner. Keep the throat open at all times. Keep the cheeks firm.

  • Step 11 : as Step 1 again, repeat the process.

Keep the throat open during the entire breathing cycle This is most important.
To recognise what a closed throat feels like say "a" , "o" , "ku" , "gu". These all close the throat at various points in the throat and mouth ('oral tract').

Pronouncing "Hooooo" (without using the vocal cords) keeps the throat wide open. The beginning of a "du" or "tu" action is required to close the mouth with the tongue during Steps 2 and 3.

For more good discussion on breathing technique see The art of Saxophone playing (p.33 - 36) by Larry Teal.

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SAX 4.4 - When to take a Breath

When taking a breath keep these points in mind.

  1. Always take a $10 breath, even for a 5 cent note.

    The air in your body is not only used for 'blowing' a note, but also for keeping the body resonator expanded. This produces a better quality and more resonant note.

  2. Breathe with the musical phrases, usually every 2 or 4 bars.

    Breathing causes little breaks in the flow and rhythm of the music. By breathing at musical 'commas' and 'full stops' the flow of the music is not disturbed. In fact commas and full stops are accentuated this way.

  3. When playing in a group always listen to the lead player, and breathe when he/she does. This is essential for good group performance.

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SAX 4.5 - Correct Note Length

Sustain each note with a full even tone over its full time value. (unless the dynamics of the music dictates otherwise).


The full value of a crotchet (quarter note) is from the start of one beat until the start of the next.
A minim (half note) starting on beat 1 finishes at the end of beat 2, which is the start of beat 3.
A semibreve (whole note) starting on beat 1 finishes (in 4/4 time) on the end of beat 4, which is the start of beat 1 of the next bar.

Do not taper notes like carrots.


Sustain a full tone from the beginning to the end of each note.

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SAX 4.6 - Tone Exercise 1 - the Whole-tone Scale

Tone Exercise 1 consists of slurred tone groups of the Whole-tone scale.

There are two Whole-tone scales. Each one consists of six notes, all spaced at intervals of a whole tone. Each note in the scale can function as the tonic of the scale.

The exercise covers the full range of the saxophone.
  1. Play each bar twice.

  2. Sustain the first note until its tone quality is as good as you can produce it, then move to the second note while maintaining the same quality as for note 1.

  3. Play each second note at least twice as long as the first in each group of two.

Audio 4.2 : Alto - Tenor

The Exercise centres around G (or Gb) in the middle register, and moves down, then up from that pitch.

Slur everything (use no tongue), think wu and hooooo, and breath correctly.

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SAX 4.7 - Major scale Practice

Suspend further practice of slurred tone groups for the major scales.

Instead play each scale slowly up and down over a 2 octave range.

When the upper notes of the scale go above the normal high register range of the sax turn down at the high E or F and extend the 2 octave loop from there downwards.
Play the A scale for example from low A up to the high E, then back down to low E and up again to the low A you started from.

Listen to the tone quality and volume of each note and try to maintain an even quality throughout the entire scale.
Reduce the power of the booming notes and put more energy into the dull notes.

Audio 4.3 : Alto - Tenor

Eventually all notes should have the same quality. In time they will improve together (gradually raising the horizontal blue line in the diagram).

Obviously the tone characteristic of a low note is quite different from that of a note two octaves higher. But this change in character should be a gradual process from tone to tone.

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SAX 4.8 - Strolling with You

Strolling with You is a ballad in D (sax key).
Take the same approach as for previous songs : sing in your mind, listen to the sound produced, and feel the vibrations in your body.
Keep your throat as open as you can by simulating the action of yawning.
Think about your embouchure, breathing and air support.

Continue to play the other songs of this course.

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SAX 4.9 - Practice Material

File Name



Tone Exercise 1a - slurred Whole-tone scale


Tone Exercise 1b - slurred Whole-tone scale


Strolling with You - Lead sheet


Play-a-Long - Alto, Baritone


Play-a-Long - Tenor, Soprano

Quiz 4

Test your Knowledge

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Copyright © 2002 Michael Furstner (Jazclass). All rights reserved.