Saxophone - Lesson 9

  1. What is Organic Imagery ?
  2. The Moving Tone Centre
  3. Oral Tract Shape
  4. Tone Projection
  5. Breathing
  6. Tongue shape and Vowels
  7. Posture
  8. Long Tone Exercises - Ave Maria
  9. Practice Material

    Practice Studio

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

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SAX 9.1 - What is Organic Imagery ?

Richard Miller explains about singing technique that ".... conscious control of most of the muscles surrounding the oral tract is impossible, but consciousness of certain kinds of co-ordination which produce muscle control is possible."

Such co-ordination is achieved by visualising certain images in the mind.
Leyerle calls this process of oral tract manipulation by means of images in the mind Organic Imagery.

Organic Imagery is a vocal technique, but it applies equally well to the saxophone and other wind instrument.
The technique of Organic imagery can also be applied to other types of body actions such as breathing and posture.

The relation between a certain image and the reaction that image induces is a very personal one. What works for one person need not be successful for the next. (This is very much the case when teaching for example correct lip movement and co-ordination for the flute embouchure.)

Also a certain image can be useful for getting the right co-ordination started, once this co-ordination is established it often becomes directly associated with the specific tone it produces (or other effect it creates), and the "organic image" is no longer necessary.

In this Lesson I outline some interesting Organic Imageries which are worth trying out.
Once you understand the concept you may perhaps discover some imageries yourself that help to improve your playing.

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SAX 9.2 - The Moving Tone Centre

Perhaps the most well known example of Organic Imagery in singing is the moving centre of tone vibration.
We have applied this imagery of a moving tone centre already in Lesson 1 for voicing the notes in the lower range of the saxophone.
This imagery can be extended upwards to the highest notes.

  1. Many vocalists imagine the tone centre for higher notes to ascend through the roof of the mouth, behind the eyes, then forward, upward and out through the forehead.

  2. Others imagine the tone centre to go out through the back of the head, then follow the top of the scull, and then forward and up.

  3. A third group of vocalists uses the above two imageries simultaneously.

But be careful with these images. Reaching mentally upward for a high note may raise your larynx which keeps you locked in the Chest Register.
To avoid this combine above images with a yawn.

For higher notes I imagine rising with the upper part of the head above the tone centre, then I blow down on the note.


This (I believe) achieves two important oral tract movements :

  1. the image of my ascending head lifts the soft palate

  2. the image of blowing down drops the larynx down (as in the yawn).

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SAX 9.3 - Oral Tract Shape

sax0903.gif There are various Organic Imageries that help you to keep the upper part of the oral tract wide open.

One is to imagine a horizontal line or string in your throat very close to the back wall of the pharynx.

Now imagine the path of the tone vibration to come up from the lower larynx, going behind the horizontal line, then strongly projected forward and out through the mouth.

This imagery pushes the back pharynx wall backwards as far as it can go.

A slightly more complex variation is to imagine a triangle in your throat.

The three points of this triangle are close to, but do not touch :

  • the soft palate,

  • the back wall of the pharynx and

  • the base of the larynx.

Now imagine the path of the tone to go up and behind these three points, then projected forward and out through the mouth.


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SAX 9.4 - Tone Projection

Forward projection of the tone is an important aspect of good saxophone playing.
Organic Imagery can help here too.

When practising, especially all tone exercises, imagine aiming at, and reaching with each tone, the most distant top corner in the room or hall you are in.


If you are used to playing in a small room, find a bigger room or hall where you can practise from time to time.

Or go somewhere out in the country and have a practice session there. Now that is a humbling experience, I can tell you !
But don't let this intimidate you, look at it as a challenge.

Recently I saw an interview on TV of a prominent (I believe English) clarinet player (Unfortunately I did not write down his name).

He explained that he imagined each and every note he produces to be a permanent creation that travels infinitely and at the speed of sound through space to all galaxies in the Universe.
It is difficult to think of a more powerful image to get your mind and body off their butt a do a hell of a job on each tone you play.


These and similar images induce the mind and body to spend a great effort at creating tones that are centred and in focus like a laser beam. The end result : excellent tone projection.

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SAX 9.5 - Breathing

My favourite Organic Imagery relates to breathing. It is used by many classical singers and can be very effective in saxophone playing.

The concept is extremely simple :

while blowing a tone : imagine breathing IN

This applies especially to long notes.

Usually you can think "breathing in" over the whole length of the tone.

When you play the long tones of Tone Exercise 4 and Tone Exercise 5 which require dynamics from soft - to loud - back to soft :

  • think "breathing in" over the softer parts

  • and think "breathing out" over the loud section in the middle.


The use of this Organic Imagery produces three important benefits :

  1. You will learn to use your breath more economically, and produce more tone from the same breath.

  2. the "breathing in" image helps to keep the lower rib cage and surrounding muscles (and as a result the body resonator) expanded. An important point discussed in Lesson 4.

  3. the "breathing in" image creates the awareness that the tone is produced through acoustic manipulation within the body not simply by blowing out air*.
    This notion also contributes to the sense of meditation when playing music (see Course Introduction).

The famous experiment of the opera diva singing at fortissimo level, without moving a candle flame held in front of her mouth confirms the validity of this way of thinking.

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SAX 9.6 - Tongue shape and Vowels

From its dramatic changes in shape for the various notes you may perhaps conclude that the tongue plays the defining role in oral tract manipulation.
Some teachers and music articles place great emphasis on manipulation of the tongue shape.
The usual method to achieve this is by simulating the various vowel sounds.

However this is only part of the story.

As soon as you gain some skill in producing Overtones it becomes very obvious that most of the control of Overtone (pitch) selection comes from the throat and rear part of the mouth rather than the agile part of the tongue.
In all my years of Overtone and Tone practice I can not remember a single instant where I had to think of what to do with my tongue.
My main mental focus is always on the throat. The best tongue position is found through (subconsciously) guidance from the ear.


sax0909.gif To appreciate how little manipulation is needed to create Overtone changes, watch an experienced guitarist produce Overtones on the guitar.

Only a very subtle and fleeting touch with a fingernail on the right spot of a vibrating open guitar string will instantly produce a clear Overtone on this instrument.

This suggests that, similarly, only a small adjustment in the throat is required (although it feels quite significant) to transform the existing fundamental vibration into an Overtone.

As an experiment : play an Overtone, then move your tongue around in the mouth without losing the Overtone pitch.

You will discover that you can move the tongue around quite significantly (on the sax more so than on the clarinet) without losing the Overtone.

You will also notice that the tongue movement can change both the pitch and character (timbre) of the tone.

Here a Table with vowel sounds for the main tongue shapes.
The various positions refer to the apex (uppermost point, not tongue tip) of the tongue shape.

Tongue ApexRearCentreFront

It can be useful to experiment with the various vowels, especially in the early stages when you are still coming to grips with all the Overtones.

However in general focus your mind and organic imagery on the throat and let the tongue shape be guided (subconsciously) by the ear.

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SAX 9.7 - Posture

Perhaps the most useful Jazz slang term I know is "cat" (or even better : "cool cat") to describe a Jazz musician.

sax0910.gif If, after all my good advice in Lesson 3, you still end up on stage a little tense and apprehensive : don't worry.

Just imagine yourself to be one of these nonchalant, fluidly moving cool cats, ready to pounce, and immediately all the joints in your body (knees, hips, shoulders and elbows) loosen up and you are 100% relaxed and ready for anything.
A great imagery to use, especially when you are tense.

A former teacher of mine describes the required relaxed body state to be just

"one point above total collapse."

This too is a useful image to bring the body in a relaxed state for a good performance.

If you are interested in improving your posture and getting more effective energy from your body, I recommend the Alexander Technique.

The Alexander technique was developed by F.Matthias Alexander from Tasmania (Australia) about a hundred years ago.
It is used by many professional musicians.

The purpose of the Alexander Technique is :

  • to unlearn the habit patterns that interfere with our overall co-ordination, ease in movement, postural balance and poise

  • to release unnecessary tension and to redirect it into useful energy

You can develop this technique by :

  1. reading about it in books by Alexander, by Wilfred Barlow ,or by Edward Maisel

  2. or following a course by one of the many qualified Alexander Technique Teachers located throughout the world.

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SAX 9.8 - Long Tone Exercises

Long tone Exercises are generally not recommended for beginning students, and I agree with that approach.
Start with these exercises after you have sufficiently developed your embouchure and breathing technique and have made a serious start on Overtone practice.

Like all the other Tone Exercises in this Course I recommend that you do them each practice session after your Overtone work out.
Rotate Exercises 1 - 5 over a period of time. Spend 1 to 2 weeks on one Tone exercise, then switch to another one.

Both Tone Exercise 4 and Tone Exercise 5 are ideally suitable to apply some of the Organic Imagery techniques explained in this lesson ( "breathing in" - "wire" or "triangle" in the throat).


Tone Exercise 4 (described by Ray Pizzi) is a great exercise for long tones covering the whole range of the saxophone. You may eventually include the altissimo tones, but wait until your Head Register is fully developed (otherwise you may harm your embouchure).
Initially take 4 bars rest between each tone, This gives you more time to recover and to focus you imagery on the next tone.

Try to maintain a constant embouchure pressure through the whole tone range (Lesson 3).


This means :

  • tighten the embouchure pressure for the low notes

  • relax the embouchure for the high notes.

Another good example of Organic Imagery

Tone Exercise 5 is a series of exercises for practice of the lowest tone on the saxophone.
Keep the embouchure firm in this low range.

sax002.gif Also in this lesson the song 'Meditation' or Ave Maria as it is better know. It was written by Charles Francois Gounod in about 1850, over a hundred years after Johan Sebastian Bach wrote his Prelude No.1 in C major on which chord progression Gounod's composition is based.

It is one of the most popular classical collaborations in music history and sound great with the piano playing the Prelude while the sax plays the Gounod melody over it. I am sure you will enjoy it.

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SAX 9.9 - Practice Material

File Name



Tone Exercises 4a - long tones


Tone Exercises 4b - long tones


Tone Exercises 5a - long low tones


Tone Exercises 5a - long low tones


Ave Maria


Ave Maria : P-a-L for Tenor and Sopr.


Ave Maria : P-a-L for Alto and Bari

Quiz 9

Test your Knowledge

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