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This guide is about another saxophone technique–how to smear, slide or bend notes on the saxophone.
Bending notes is an interesting technique because it is something that some beginner players do too often, accidentally. It also happens to be one of those techniques that most advanced players really want to learn how to do properly.
The thing about bending notes is that you have to try not to do it all the time and instead carefully pick the times to do it. That’s really the secret to making it a functional part of your playing.
In order to do a bend on the saxophone, the process that I use is really a simple four steps. You have to hear the bend with the aid of an instrument such a piano, sing the bend away from your horn noticing what going on with your tongue, throat, lips, sing the bend through the horn, as awful as it sounds and then finally imitate this to bend the note.
How to do bends is a concept that a lot of saxophonists struggle with for many years. Let’s dive into the 4-steps you need to bend notes properly on saxophone.
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How to Smear, Slide or Bend Notes on the Saxophone in 4 Simple Steps
First of all, I’ve spent quite some time on this topic, and I couldn’t get my head around what people were on about—what they were explaining when they talked about the tongue then the throat.
Now, to be honest with you, how to bend notes applies not only to the saxophone but to other brass instruments as well.
I like to treat the saxophone as a brass instrument even if it has a cane reed because when we play brass instruments, we try to expand what we can do with the instrument. We play soft and loud pedal tones, all types of lip techniques and crazy types of things. On the saxophones we have the overtones, the harmonics, etc. where we are going against the horn is kinda built in a sense.
The way I’ll show you how to do this basically draws from my experience playing the trumpet for, probably, over a decade and a half.
For bends (and for altissimo), you want to use this concept of voicing on saxophone. This is the gist of the 4-step process I want to take you through.
I never read Donald Sinta’s book until just recently. But I’ve heard more and more people talking about it. I’ve developed my bending technique over years and years of playing brass instruments.
So if we, for instance, take a simple G with the octave key on tenor, and we want to bend it down a half step, here’s what to do.
Instead of just telling you what to do with your jaw, I want you to follow this process.
Step #1 — Listen to the Note
The first thing you want to do is hear the pitch.
You need to go to a piano, or if you don’t have a piano, you quickly either get your tuner (if you have a tuner that plays the pitch), put it on and have it play the pitch, or just quickly play on the instrument.
In this case, we need to play F on piano or G with the octave on tenor sax (or a D on alto) as a long tone.
The idea here is to get the tone in your head. You want to “hear” the note in your head.
Next, play the half step on your instrument. In our case that will be an E on the piano, a G-flat (or F-sharp) on the tenor sax or a D-flat (or C-sharp) on alto sax.
You want to hear that half step interval. You want that stuck in your head.
Step #2 — Sing the Note Away from the Horn
The next thing you want to do is you want to sing it away from the horn.
You don’t have to be good at singing. Heck! You might even hate the sound of your singing voice. This is not important.
Some people can’t stand their singing voices. Should that stop you from singing? Of course, no. It shouldn’t.
Aside from that though, get in the habit of singing the stuff that you want to play, and need to play. You’ll find out sooner than later that it’s really important.
What you need to make sure is that you sing the note as accurately as you can as one long continuous note with the half step in the middle.
In our case, that would be a G-G-flat-G.
There is a point to this…
As you sing the note, you want to notice how your embouchure changes as you bend the note into and out of the half-note. Specifically, pay attention to what your throat, tongue, and lips are doing.
I’m going to say that the change in embouchure is different for everybody. Although, not very very much different, but the way I like you to teach is by imitating nature.
What’s natural for you.
So sing that again and really pay attention to your embouchure. That’s the whole point because that is what will carry over into the rest of the exercise.
Note what goes on with your tongue and throat.
Step #3 — Sing the Note Through the Horn
The next step is to sing through the horn.
A lot of people tend to skip this crucial step but I really find that this helps students a lot, it also helps me a lot when I’m doing these types of exercises or harmonics.
You need to be able to replicate what you’re hearing in your head and you’ve got to imitate what you’re naturally doing with your embouchure.
So don’t skip it.
Just like we did in the previous stage but through the horn. The note into the bent note and out into the note again.
In our case, this will the G-G-flat-G sequence again. So finger only the G this time and sing through the horn.
This will probably sound awful. Don’t worry. The important thing is that it will help you figure out the embouchure.
Step #4 — Bend the Note
Next, you’ll sing the note and go immediately into playing it imitating what you did when you sang it.
Switch back and forth between the sang bent note and the actually blown bent note. This is how you practice a bent note embouchure.
In our case, we’ll alternate be between singing the G-G-flat-G smooth sequence through the horn and blowing the G and imitating the sung embouchure.
With just a few alternations, you should start to slowly pick up the core of the bent note sound.
It’s interesting that when singing the sequence through the horn you might get a bit more resistance. Probably because you are singing it to the core of each pitch. But that’s nothing to worry about.
In fact, this is a great exercise to practice your singing.
And there you go.
That’s how you do a half-step bend.
It’s a little more challenging to do bends that are more than a half step, especially on the low range of the horn, but this core 4-step process holds.
In the higher range of the horn, it’s a lot easier. The higher you play, the more give or leeway you have with bends. This is true for all brass instruments.
When you’re getting into the upper harmonics, the notes are that much closer. It’s just physics, it’s just the way it’s designed. You’ll find that, especially for a brass instrument, there’re so many different fingerings you can use for high C.
In fact, when you get into the altissimo range of the saxophone, if you are not hearing the pitch, you could basically do any fingering and get the note to come out. It just won’t be in tune and you won’t really be able to get the core of the pitch.
So you have to be able to hear it and sing it before you play it.
I hope that helps.