Gimme Some Lovin': my story as a classical tenor saxophonist

Adolphe Sax's original design for the saxophone included many different versions and variations, and while we do have literature that includes bass and sopranino and maybe even contrabass and soprillo, saxophones are most popularly seen in a quartet variety of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.

Almost every beginning student starts on alto: its design is compact enough for younger students to hold and it seems easy enough to produce a sound when players are first starting out. Then there is soprano, which is usually not explored until students reach upper-level high school material; however, it seems when soprano is called for in a piece, every saxophonist tries to jump at the opportunity to play it due to the uniqueness of the instrument and its soloist tendencies within band literature. Baritone…well, everyone loves baritone because, just like soprano, it looks a bit different from alto and tenor, and it has access to that sweet low range that everyone is clamoring to hear. Play a low A on baritone at a healthy volume, and I guarantee every student and adult will flash a quick, youthful grin because the sound is unlike much of anything within the ensemble.

And then there’s tenor. No solos like on soprano (or even alto for that matter). It looks like an alto but is slightly bigger, but it’s not big enough to have the curb appeal of baritone. Play a low note on a tenor, and the bari player will look at you funny, play the same note and then go lower, as if saying: “anything you can do, I can do better”. The band parts can seem at times like an afterthought, where you’re always paired with the euphonium, maybe the trombone and horn, but never on the "good" parts. And, perhaps worse of all, the tenor can have an extremely unwieldy sound that can make band director’s heads roll. Simply put, the tenor seems to be sort of the awkward sibling in the setting of four saxophones.

And it really shouldn’t be because the instrument has so much potential for equal greatness among the quartet! As a saxophonist, I actually grew up playing tenor more than alto. I switched to tenor is seventh grade and played it all the way through my very first semester of college until I was able to obtain a professional model alto. I know what it’s like to play all those band parts. I know what it’s like to play far too loud and receive the “you’re way too loud and not important here” hand from the band director. But I also know how cool concert tenor saxophone repertoire can be, how important the instrument is in the jazz community, and most importantly, how great the instrument can sound when played well.

In high school, I had the opportunity to study with a saxophonist and woodwind player named Wayne Leechford. I think I’ve told Wayne this before, but those lessons and quartet coachings were really the primary reason I decided to pursue music. I thought what he did was the coolest thing, and as I got closer to graduation, I realized there wasn’t really anything else that I really wanted to do. Wayne was hugely influential in my continued relationship with the tenor saxophone. He studied with renowned tenor virtuoso James Houlik, and therefore, introduced me to much of that solo repertoire throughout our lessons. I believe Houlik’s sound and control on the horn is very much a standard for the tenor saxophone still to this day, but there certainly are others worth checking out, including Matt Levy of PRISM Quartet, Stephen Pollack, and Niels Bijl.

The tenor does have its fair share of awkward and annoying tendencies. As aforementioned, it can certainly be unwieldy when first played. It can be loud, and it can squeak and chirp quite a bit. For a classical setup, I certainly recommend using a strong enough reed (size 3.0 or higher) on at least a Selmer Paris S80 C*. There are many other mouthpieces on the market, and if the C* isn’t your cup of tea, you should check out the Selmer S90 line-up or Vandoren Optimum and T-series mouthpieces, all of which are excellent. I myself play on a less-common classical mouthpiece made by Selmer Paris called the SD20, which features a smaller round chamber similar to that of the older Soloist mouthpieces.

For jazz, there’s a much larger variety of mouthpieces available, especially for tenor so it’s hard to offer a blanket suggestion, but I like the metal Otto Links and hard rubber Vandoren jazz mouthpieces.

Once the reed and mouthpiece are determined, you should approach practicing and playing tenor the same way you would any of the saxophones. Right off the bat, I would recommend starting each day with long-tone and vibrato exercises and really begin listening to and dissecting your personal sound by making sure the low, middle, and upper registers are as similar in timbre as possible. Tenor can have a beefier sound compared to alto, and at times it should sound akin to a cello in terms of warmth of sound. Scales are also important, and in addition to improving technical mechanics, a steady, progressive scale routine will allow you to begin aligning those sounds on the horn as well.

Once you’ve gone through your warm-up routine and scales, it’s time to begin exploring repertoire. There’s actually quite a bit of tenor repertoire, although perhaps not as much as there is for alto and soprano. Below are a few suggestions on where to start, but please remember there really is a lot out there:

Solo repertoire:

“Poem” by Walter Hartley

“The Upward Stream” by Russell Peck

“Sonata for Tenor Saxophone and Piano” by James DiPasquale

“Music for Tenor Saxophone and Piano” by M. William Karlins

“Concerto for Tenor Saxophone” by Robert Ward

“Hard” by Christian Lauba

“Diversions for Tenor Saxophone” by Morton Gould

“Chant Premier” by Marcel Mihalovici

Orchestral excerpts:

“Bolero” by Maurice Ravel

“Lieutenant Kijé”, “Romeo and Juliet”, and “Alexander Nevsky” by Sergei Prokofiev

I’ve been in school for quite a while and have had the opportunity to explore some of the most amazing saxophone repertoire for alto saxophone. However, to this day I still find time to play the tenor, particularly in a classical setting. I’m currently working on some very cool solo tenor repertoire, and I also get to do it every time Mirasol has a rehearsal. When I pick up my tenor, I get to revisit the challenge of producing that warm and broad tone that is so ingrained in my ear, and I delight in the fact that I get to play this very instrument. As saxophonists, I think we have a love for our instrument as whole, including all of its variations, but I would encourage everyone to find time to give this instrument a little more lovin’ - you might come to adore the instrument in much the same way as I do today!

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Photos by Brianne Butterworth/Sebastian Serrano Ayala.  Artwork by Pat Maines.
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