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Today we are going to talk about one of my favorite things to do on saxophone—vibrato techniques.
Saxophone vibrato is an incredibly powerful musical effect to master because it provides a rich, pleasant listening experience to your audience (and yourself) by emulating vibrato in the human singing voice.
Vibrato can be very tricky to start on saxophone, to even think about, so in the rest of this article, I’m going to dive into some concepts or techniques to approach it and give some exercises to get you started.
The exercises I want to show you here are insanely powerful, I know for a fact that if you continue to practice them to build up some strength in your muscles, your vibrato will be come very beautiful.
They are designed first to get the vibrato going and then to control it.
So let’s get started.
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What is Vibrato?
Vibrato is the musical effect caused by regular, pulsating change in the pitch of a musical note. Vibrato describes two things—the extent of pitch variation and the rate at which that pitch is varied.
Vibrato is often accompanied by synschronous, pulsating changes in loudness and timbre in such a way as to provide a pleasing richness to tone. It is difficult to achieve a variation in pitch without getting a variation in volume and timbre.
Both variations will often be achieved at the same time.
Saxophone vibrato is an immitation of singing vibrato.
The extent of vibrato for solo singers is usually less than a semitone (100 cents) either side of the note, that of singers in a choir is typically narrower at less than a tenth of a semitone (10 cents) either side.
By way of comparison, the extent of vibrato for a saxophone is, generally, less than half a seminote either side.
Why Use Saxophone Vibrato?
There has been raging debate for years whether we should even use vibrato on saxophone. Bret Pimentel summarizes both sides of this debate succintly in his website.
We use vibrato on saxophone to soften notes—by caressing the tone, if you like. The idea is to make notes, especially long notes, less harsh and more pleasant to listen to.
If you are holding out a long note, with no vibrato on it, it just sounds abrasive. It sort of just sits there and honks at you.
It is not a pretty sound.
When you out vibrato in it, it just caresses the long note and makes it sound way more melodic. I love to describe vibrato with the word caressing because it implies gentleness, not harshness.
The 5 Saxophone Vibrato Techniques
There are several techniques of producing vibrato on saxophone. Here is the most comprehensive list, most of which translate to the equivalent technique as used by vocalists:
- Saxophone Jaw Vibrato
- Saxophone Tongue Vibrato
- Saxophone Lip Vibrato
- Saxophone Diaphragm Vibrato
- Saxophone Larynx / Vocal Chord Vibrato
#1 — Saxophone Jaw Vibrato
Most wind instruments tends to use a jaw vibrato as opposed to a diaphragm vibrato. In fact, this is the approach favored by jazz players
So how do we do it on saxophone?
The vibrato with the jaw on the saxophone, we need to gently move the lower jaw quickly up and down to manipulate the pitch and volume created by your embouchure over a note.
This technique requires a bit more gentleness than the others to produce the same effect. You need to move your lower jaw up and down just slightly.
The Saxophone Jaw Vibrato Exercise
Let’s go over an exercise so you learn how to do this properly.
- Say the syllable “ya” repeatedly, “Ya-ya-ya-ya…”. Notice how much your jaw moves when you say that. You may not be able to see anything, and that’s actually good, because you don’t want so much motion because that will make it not sound so good.
- Start you metronome at 60. Start off with quarter notes. It locks in your timing and it’s going to help you a lot with the vibrato exercise.
- Pick a note on your saxophone. G, for instance, and blow a long note on your saxophone. This is the note you want to exercise blowing with jaw vibrato.
- Now blow the long note while saying the “ya, ya, ya…” sound. Match that to your metronome. Synchronize the “ya” sound, and the subsequent change in pitch, to your metronome at 60 perfectly. Keep doing this until you get the hang of it.
- Sub-divide the quarter none first into eigths and then into sixteenths. Continue synchronizing that “ya” sound to your metronome. You should now be blowing the long G and saying “ya-ya-ya, ya-ya-ya” for every eighth note and then at every sixteenth note “ya-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya, …”.
As you progress with the exercise, you may not be able to see anything but there is a slight movement up and down with your lower jaw.
But your long note will come out with a perfectly timed saxophone jaw vibrato.
That’s a basic progression exercise that you can do with a metronome. Start up with quarter notes and then keep sub-diving until you start to get a pronounced vibrato.
Could you go faster than sixteenth notes?
Absolutely. But you will feel it getting a little bit too fast for vibratos beyond a certain point. For the purposes of an exercise and learning how to control it, why not.
You have to feel and hear the small beats because that’s how you are going to move your jaw.
Another thing I’d like to mention here, think about the style of music that you like to play, and what a “normal sounding” beat of vibrato in that style. If you for example bring that sixteenth into jazz, it won’t sound authentic.
So, listen to your favorite players and listen for the vibrato and use that to guide you through the exercise. Emulate then in doing your own vibrato.
And there you have it. You’ve made it through the saxophone jaw vibrato.
#2 — Saxophone Tongue Vibrato
This technique is all about tongue movement. What we are trying to do is make a flat or steady airstream and turn it into a wavy airstream using tounging technique.
The saxophone vibrato is tongued.
This concept is really easy and it produces a fairly subtle vibrato.
To vibrato with tonguing on the saxophone, move the hump backward and forward towards the reed, over the note, without completely closing off the reed.
The Saxophone Tongue Vibrato Exercise
This concept is even easier to teach and it works quite well.
- Say the syllables “doy” and “yoy” repeatedly, “doy-yoy-yoy…". Pay close attention to what your tongue is doing while you say this word. You will notice that when you say that word, the tongue humps backward and forward when you vocalize the word.
- Put a finger in your mouth as you say these syllables repetitively, if you need to. This is the exact motion we are aiming for to create a vibrato.
- Start your metronome. Just like with the jaw vibrato exercise, one of the best way to practice a vibrato is with a metronome.
- Pick a long note and blow it on your saxophone while saying the syllables repetitively that note. The “D” in “doy-yoy-yoy…” attacks the note and the “oy” create a vibrato of the note. Another word that will, more or less, achieve the same effect is “Wow-wow-wow…”. You can use either of these two words and you’ll still end up with the same results—a subtle tounging saxophone vibrato.
- Sub-divide your vibrato tempo to pick up the pace of your vibrato.
The idea of this exercise is to manipulate the airstream going into the saxophone when blowing a note by manipulating your tonguing with the word. So repeat it until you develop control and fluency over the vibrato.
The more you practice , the more control you have over the motion of your tongue, the faster (or slower) you can move it to manipulate the vibrato.
It’s that simple.
#5 — Saxophone Lip Vibrato
This is the most subtle form of vibrato and it is achieved by minute movements of the lips. You use your lips to control the pitch of the sound.
The Saxophone Lip Vibrato Exercise
- Pick a long note. I’ll play a G. Start playing your note.
- Place your finger over your chin. Move it up and down as you play a G. Your finger will move your lower lip up and down to create a vibrato. This just to help you get the right lip motion going. In the next step you need to repeat this movement without a finger on your chin. The faster you move your finger up and down the chin, the faster the lip vibrato gets. Have a little experiment with your finger, pulll it down the long way to see how it affects pitch then pull just slightly and see how that compares.
- Start your metronome. Just like with the previous exercise, one of the best way to practice a vibrato is with a metronome.
- Now, loosen and then tighten your lower lip gently (without the aid of your finger on your chin) as you play the long G. Make this as even as you can. Repeat this to create the vibrato.
- Sub-divide your vibrato tempo to pick up the pace of your vibrato.
Remember that if you want an even vibrato, you need to be able to play smoothly, with no bumps in the sound, and with a nice even vibrato. Of course, it takes quite a bit of practice to get some consistency going, that’s what the exercise is for. Use it.
Eventually you want subtelty, that it what sounds really really good to the listener. If you have a huge warping vibrato you’ll sound like some old 30’s record that’s warped.
#3 — Saxophone Diaphragm Vibrato
A diapragm vibrato is mostly used by flute players.
On the saxophone, the vibrato is made from the mouth, unlike other instruments, where they choose to make vibratos from the diapragm, as I mentioned about the flute above.
On saxophone, I find that the best way to do it is with the mouth.
Bouncing the diaphragm is the most pronounced form of vibrato. This is similar to the feeling of quickly inhaling and exhaling.
#4 — Saxophone Larynx / Vocal Chord Vibrato
A feeling of vibrating in the larynx area or more exactly, the vocal cords which is used by vocalists.
When (Where) to Use Saxophone Vibrato
The best time to use vibrato when you are holding a note is right at the end. Don’t start a vibrato when you start a long note right away. Hold the note out for a bit, and then add the vibrato as the note is tapering off.
But this is purely an artistic choice. It gives a really beautiful sound. This is my personal artistic interpretation on when and where to use vibrato.
The important thing is to learn how to control your muscles with the vibrato so it comes out pleasantly. And then once you have it under control, then you can start to choose how, when and where you want to use it.
Thanks for reading I hope you found this helpful, useful and informative.