Paul R. Coats
As a teenager I had asked an older
player how to produce vibrato. “When you play with enough emotion, it’ll
just happen naturally,” I was told. Hmmm. Yes, but how?
Vibrato is a
pulsation in the tone of pitch, volume, timbre, and/or a combination of
these three. Vibrato is produced in a different manner on various
instruments. On the violin, it is produced by wiggling the finger holding
the string against the fingerboard. The flutist pulses the diaphragm to
change the air speed.
Moving the jaw
up and down in a rhythmic motion best produces vibrato on the saxophone.
Other methods produce less than satisfactory results (giving the “nanny goat
As soon as the
student is capable of producing a nice basic tone quality (see my Tone
Production for Beginners) he should begin vibrato studies. Have the student
play a long tone, such as his low register G (concert Bb). He should lower
the jaw a far as possible and still produce the tone, about one quarter
inch. Then slowly bring the jaw up to the normal playing position. Have
the student repeat this, doing it very slowly. Let the student experiment
to see how far he can drop the jaw, and still produce a tone. The results
will sound horrible, but don’t worry. This is best practiced while everyone
else is out of the house.
vibrato is produced by starting at the normal pitch level, dipping below
pitch, and coming back up, in a cycle. So now the fun begins. Have the
student practice his scales, applying these vibrato exercises, thus killing
two birds with one stone.
teacher conducting 4/4, at 78/min, have the student play a scale, whole
notes. Drop the jaw on the first beat, bring it back up on beat two, down
on the third beat, up again on beat four: Wah-ooo-wah-ooo; (next note)
wah-ooo-wah-ooo; (next note) etc. Up and down the scale. The jaw should
move from the normal position, down about one-quarter inch, then back up.
At this speed the student is playing two pulsation per whole note. Repeat
this for about 10 minutes a day for a few days.
Now have the
student play a simple scale, such as concert Bb. With a quarter note for
each step of the scale, there should be four pulsation of the jaw for each
quarter note. Tempo should be about 60 beats/min, qt note = one beat. Jaw
movement should be as much as possible, about one-quarter inch.
“Wah-wah-wah-wah; (next pitch) wah-wah-wah-wah; (next pitch)
wah-wah-wah-wah;” etc., up and down the scale. Use a metronome! Tap the
foot! Ignore the raucous tone! Play out with a good forte volume. Grate
on Mom’s nerves. If people are not making nasty comments, it is not being
above exercise 15 minutes daily for two weeks. No faster, but the student
may practice other scales.
weeks, speed up the metronome to 66 beats/min. At this faster speed the
student will have to reduce the jaw movement a little. Repeat the exercise
on various scales for another week.
Speed up the
metronome to 72 beats/min. Reduce jaw motion to be able to play at this
faster speed. Yes, another two weeks.
Speed up the
metronome to 76 beats/min, reducing jaw motion as required. Another boring
Now up to 82
beats/min. Jaw motion should be about 1/32” by this time. It should be
sounding like vibrato.
rate” for vibrato pulsation, according to the Larry Teal “The Art of
Saxophone Playing” is from 4 pulses/beat at 78 b/m up to 4 pulses/beat at 96
scales with vibrato for two notes, no vibrato for two notes, etc. Being
able to turn vibrato on and off is an important skill.
At no time
should the student be led to believe that all music should be played with a
certain number of pulsations per beat. This is not so. The exercises above
are only for the development of the control of vibrato. Have the student
play 4 pulses/beat at 90 b/m. Repeat the same scale exercises, but now use
a tempo of 60 b/m, but use 6 pulses/beat. Repeat the scale again, but at
120 b/m. This time use 3 pulses/beat.
When playing a
lyrical part, keep the vibrato flowing, but at a pulsation rate independent
of the tempo. A slow ballad may require a slower vibrato. An intense piece
may require a faster vibrato.
high instruments, such as soprano and alto saxes, will use a slightly faster
solo vibrato than low instruments, such as baritone sax. In soli passages,
the lower members of the section should try to match the speed and depth of
vibrato of the lead player.
soli with instruments that do not use vibrato, such as clarinets, French
horns, etc., the sax section should usually play “sans vibrato”. When
playing with oboes, flutes, strings, etc., the saxes should use vibrato. If
in doubt the player should consult the section leader or band director and
mark his music accordingly.
technical passages should usually be played with no vibrato.
In jazz band (a.k.a. “big band”, or “stage band”) or theater pit
band, when playing older pieces the sax section will usually play with a
big, juicy vibrato. More modern jazz band pieces may require a “straight
tone”. In typical jazz style, a soloist may hit a long note with a straight
tone, and add just a little vibrato when tapering off at the end. (I had
been guilty of this in my classical playing in college, too much jazz
playing!) The saxophonist must learn when and how to apply vibrato to his
changing the basic tone quality (or mouthpiece/reed setup) a saxophonist may
sound classical or jazzy by simply changing the style of his vibrato. The
vibrato is so basic to the saxophone tone that this simple change will alter
the listener’s perception of the tone quality to a great degree.
In the final
result, the vibrato should blend in with the tone of the saxophonist so as
to be in intricate, inseparable part of the player’s sound.
listening to recordings by the many fine jazz players from all eras, as well
as fine classical players such as Jamal Rossi and Paul Brodie. It will help
the student to emulate fine artists, copying their tone and style. Then
soon, the student will be able to develop his own individual tone.