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Thread: Why Do We Make Fun of Saxophone Players

  1. Why Do We Make Fun of Saxophone Players

    Why do we bash saxophone players? Especially in concert band, many times the euph/bari part is scored along with the tenor sax to give extra texture, especially on a counter-melody. I rely on the tenor sax player in my community band to blend and bring out these parts as indicated.

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by iiipopes View Post
    Why do we bash saxophone players?
    Short answer? Frustration.

    Now, let me preface the long answer by saying that a good saxophonist in a concert band is worth their weight in gold. With that said, there are a few factors that often lead low brass feeling frustrated by saxophones in the concert band:

    Tuning: Of the woodwinds, the saxes often have the worst tuning issues. Between being a unified body (no joint to adjust in the middle of the keywork) and all the tone holes having pads (limiting the adjustments possible with fingerings), more of the burden of playing the saxophone in tune falls on the saxophonist's ear, air, and embouchure. In the amateur music world, this can mean that certain players tune very well while others have little ability to correct the pitch of the instrument.

    In addition, the tuning tendencies of the saxophone do not line up with those of the euphonium. When a sax plays a note sharp that our instrument wants to play flat, it is that much tougher to match their pitch.

    Different musical backgrounds: A significant number of saxophonists come to the concert band with a primarily big band background. Where a low brass player has a primarily concert band background, this can lead to mismatches in rhythmic and dynamic interpretation, articulations, and sound concept that are frustrating.

    One of the key factors in being able to play together in an ensemble is being able to predict how others are going to interpret the music and match them. When a "jazzer" comes into the mix on classical repertoire, they can feel like a wild card to the players around them. Often times, the jazzer is a saxophonist. (Other times it can be a trumpeter, trombonist, or percussionist.)

    This issue also informs the two below.

    Blend: Acoustically, the saxophone can be a challenging instrument to blend with. The complex overtone structure and distinctive timbre mean that a low brass player can only go so far in blending with a saxophone. This is opposed to combinations like horn and euphonium, where the tone colors are so close that blending is easy, or euphonium and clarinet at the unison, where the overtone structures align in a way that allows the euphoniumist to blend without the other player doing much to help.

    To achieve the blended sound expected in much concert band literature, the saxophonist has to manage his own tone color in partnership with the brass player. Good concert band saxophonists are very attuned to this and can make unison and octave doublings very easy for the brass. Bad concert band saxophonists, especially those coming from a jazz background, don't moderate their sound, leading the brass to feel like they're being played over.

    Adaptability: In the average concert band, the saxophone sees fewer lines and parts written explicitly for them than just about any other instrument. While most instruments (including euphoniums) have to deal with the dreaded "string part" in transcriptions, the saxophone is so often used as a coloring or doubling instrument that they get comparatively little idiomatic music in the concert band. As such, they are required to be endlessly adaptable and aware of their role in the ensemble at all times. Combine this with the acoustic distinctiveness of the saxophone timbre, and even a good saxophone player can very easily appear to be playing insensitively in the concert band.

    When players come from the jazz band tradition, this adaptability can be a completely foreign concept, since the jazz band saxophone has one of the most strongly defined roles in the group. Ensemble listening is a skill like any other; it takes time and coaching to build.

    Frequency of interaction: Musically, the low brass in the concert band will be asked to tune to and blend with saxophones more frequently than any other group in the woodwinds. They are the primary woodwind resident of the pitch range we call home, so we run into them frequently. Surely, some low brass frustration with the saxes comes simply from having to deal with them so often. If we had to blend and tune with the flutes more than half the time, low brass players would probably be a little frustrated with them too.

    What does all of this mean? Being a saxophonist in the concert band is hard. While low brass players might like to vent about those darn saxes, it would be more productive to understand the issue and approach our woodwind counterparts with some sympathy for being dealt one of the toughest roles in the concert band. And, if you have good musical partners in the saxophone section, appreciate how lucky you are.
    Last edited by adrian_quince; 11-04-2017 at 03:26 AM. Reason: Edited for clarity.
    Adrian L. Quince
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  3. #3
    Nicely formatted response, Adrian, and well thought out!

    I have been lucky enough to play in an ensemble where the sax players were concert-band oriented. There was little reason to poke fun at them (no more than there is for any instrument one might choose). And they surely were a nice supplement to the low-middle sonority at times. I'm rewinding my mental tapes and can't think of the saxes being a problem for intonation either.

    One has to assume that orchestral musicians might make jokes about either saxophone OR euphonium players. In either case it's an instrument that is not part of the normal tonal spectrum, for better or worse.

    This makes me think about the cello players in the U.S. Air Force Band. Cello is a much more "high-brow" instrument than euphonium or sax by reputation, but in a concert band they could also have blending and intonation problems. Now and then there would be a little verbal scuffle between cello and euphonium players. After one such, Brian Bowman wanted to tweak at them a little. He bought tee shirts for the cellists that said W.E.S.A. - Wooden Euphonium Society of America.
    Dave Werden (ASCAP)
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  4. #4
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    I like the WESA T-shirt idea. I suspect the cellists never wore them though.

    I remember Fred Dart telling me about his time in the Air Force Band. It was during the Col. George Howard era. Fred said it was Col. Howard who added the cellos to the band. Fred said he really didn't care for the cellos as "they stole all the good solos". I love the sound of the cello - but in orchestras.
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  5. #5
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    Adrian has it right. Let me add a bit of emphasis and a little more direct insight ...

    I played saxophone for over 15 years -- from its being my very first instrument in 6th grade until I stopped playing in graduate school. I was "classically" trained (in part by a Masters student at Eastman), but also trained to a lesser degree by a local jazz musician. I was good at it (competitions, juries, etc.), both as an individual and in groups.

    Here's my primary answer to the original question: Tuning, intonation, and tone quality. (Uh ... what more do you want from an instrument?)

    The saxophone is a VERY easy instrument to learn to play. It's even easier than baritone (yes, i know: hard to believe). You put the reed on, you blow into it, and you push buttons to change the pitch. Sounds come out, and they're more or less correct. You're up and running as a sax player in a couple of days. The embouchure is MUCH less demanding than that of the clarinet or flute (which have very similar button arrangements).

    It's that "more or less" part that's the major problem. There's an old saxophone joke that the difference between a saxophone and a lawn mower is that you can tune a lawnmower. It's funny because it's true. How DO you affect the tuning/intonation of a saxophone? Two ways: (1) buy an expensive instrument that has excellent intonation, and/or (2) control it completely through your embouchure. You'll notice that when ensembles tune, the sax players will often pull out their mouthpieces a bit or push them in a bit. How much do you think that actually affects the pitch? Right. Now things like clarinets and flutes (not to mention the double reeds) have much the same problem, but (possibly because of the more dramatic conical bore?) in saxophones it's very pronounced.

    Student level saxophones typically really suck in terms of pitch and intonation. Saxophone players in the schools (who are mostly taking lessons from a school "music teacher" who is almost never a saxophonist) are never taught how to play in tune uniformly, and their instruments are not helping them. Later in life, these people end up in community bands. They do not know how to play in tune, and they usually don't know what "in tune" means because they've never trained their ears to do it.

    When I showed up for my first lesson (at about age 13 in the early 60s -- before some of the really good saxophones were manufactured) with my Eastman guy, I saw that he had masking tape all over his instrument. Why? "It's the only way to get it to play basically in tune."

    The saxophone is a very easy instrument to learn to play. It is a VERY VERY difficult instrument to learn to play in tune and with good tone production. In the family, the baritone is generally the best of lot in terms of tone quality, pitch, intonation, and tone quality. I don't know why this is.

    In the past year I've gone from one community band where the saxophone section was dreadful to another where the section is actually good. What's the difference? Better (more expensive) instruments and better training and musicianship. But that's quite unusual for a saxophone section in community band. Quite unusual. In general, amateur saxophone players who show up in community bands have significantly poorer equipment and are just not as good musicians as most of the rest of the players. It's their culture.

    Ladies, don't let your children grow up to be saxophonists -- unless you have them trained for the real rodeo just like other musicians.
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  6. Quote Originally Posted by adrian_quince View Post
    What does all of this mean? Being a saxophonist in the concert band is hard. While low brass players might like to vent about those darn saxes, it would be more productive to understand the issue and approach our woodwind counterparts with some sympathy for being dealt one of the toughest roles in the concert band. And, if you have good musical partners in the saxophone section, appreciate how lucky you are.
    Thanks. In school, having friends who played saxophone while I played brass, at a young age I became acutely aware that something as small as a pad being knocked ever so slightly out of alignment as it opened from the tone hole could have a major detriment to how the instrument played in tune. To me, saxophone is one of the easiest instruments to blow, but one of the hardest to play in good tune and tone.

  7. #7
    This is an interesting (and occasionally funny) discussion. Here's my two cents.

    After I retired and we moved to Alabama, I went thru a time when I was seriously thinking about getting an alto sax and learning how to play it, not for band work, but so I could have something as a solo instrument that I could really sing thru. I never did actually go that route; instead, I got some gospel music karaoke tracks and started working on singing thru the euph. From there I went to popular tracks, and things have reached the point where I've signed on as a contestant on next years America's Got Talent season, playing show and pop tunes to show kids that the euph can be used for this kind of music. The euph can "sing" as well as any sax.

    I have nothing to add on the subject of saxes in ensembles. Gary and Adrian are much more knowledgeable on that subject than I will ever be.

    With regard to "wooden euphoniums", by the time I reached my senior year of high school, I was desperate for some orchestral experience, so I practiced all summer with a borrowed violin, hoping to at least get good enough to sit last stand second. I sucked all the way, partly because my left thumb was weird, and I couldn't hold the instrument right. When I approached our school's instrumental music director, he put me on double-bass instead, and the left hand that couldn't hold a fiddle correctly was perfect for bass. Now, looking back, I would have advised 14-year-old myself (the first year I was in a school with an orchestra) to pick up cello in parallel with euphonium -- the best of both worlds.
    David Bjornstad

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  8. Hey all,

    Fantastic discussion. Adrian, you hit it!!! Thanks for the insight. My recent experiences have been with my community band in which I have given up trying to match pitch with the sax section (particularly the tenors). I can always predict that the solo alto saxophonist will generally be flat, the tenors will be sharp, and most of them who have worn corks don't know the "use a piece of paper" to compensate for a worn leadpipe cork trick my Dad taught me when I was young (he was a sax player from Univ. of Mich).

    In the professional wind ensemble I play in, the classically trained saxophonists are an incredible delight. We have an alto player whose solo licks have a strong Marcel Mule' tone. He blends perfectly (and in tune) with either euph or more likely with french horn and is such a delight.

    Doug
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  9. This discussion takes me back to an incident from my college days. I was walking down the hall of the music building with my trombone teacher. We passed by a couple of people with saxophone cases in the middle of a conversation.

    One sax player said, "I didn't play much over the summer and it's been tough getting my chops back in shape."

    My teacher stopped and said, "Chops! You don't need chops to play a saxophone! H#%l, I could be three days dead on a slab, you put a sax in my mouth, press down on my belly and I'd sound just like Ornette Coleman!"

    As to why we make fun of saxophone players, when was the last time you saw a euphonium player standing under an elevated train track, case open in front of them, playing Earle Hagen tunes for loose change? We use that time constructively- making sure the Domino's sign is securely attached to our car roof.

    The one group where I play with saxes has, by and large, a pretty good section. The biggest problem I have found in playing with them is their tendency to sometimes address intonation issues by widening their vibrato. That make their sound stick out even more from the rest of the group.

  10. #10
    I self-edited this because my comments were in poor taste.
    Last edited by John Morgan; 11-04-2017 at 02:00 PM.
    John Morgan
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