Friday, November 30, 2012
Understanding Your Sound
Part of the challenge of playing saxophone, or any wind for that matter (though my experience lies nearly exclusively within saxophone work), includes that of not being able to hear yourself. You may read this and think, "well, I can hear myself, as I make sound when I play", but that's not exactly what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about timbre, or the quality, or color, of tone with which you play. Think of a very young student with a saxophone, and the sound that they make as they produce their first notes. Does this sound differ from that of a seasoned veteran of the saxophone, like those of the professional realm? Of course it does, as this is a pretty harsh example. More subtly, a player who is quite good in, perhaps, a high school ensemble might have a good sound, but the sound will probably be fairly standard- by this, I mean that the individual plays sax well, but does not have a unique sound. Then, there are people like Kenny G and Eric Marienthal. The two pros are incredible players, and yet their timbre is so very different. They sound so different from each other. Is one better than the other? Maybe not. Nonetheless, their sounds are different.
How can you account for these differences? How can you get a unique sound? And how can you hear yourself play?
These are all very good questions, which I hear often. Unfortunately, they're some of the hardest to answer. First off, difference in tone, often subtle, can arise from most anything. I was told from a relatively young age that I had a unique sound (which is the best compliment a saxophonist can receive), which I tend to credit my classical training for. I worked desperately hard for most of my musical life to achieve perfect pitch while playing concert and classical music. To do this, I endured years of subtle embouchure changes which amounted, in the end, to a great timbre. The specifics of classical training made an odd and unique transition to the improvisational jam blues I tend to play now. This is my reason, or at least part of the reason, why my sound is so unique. The reasons, from person to person, vary.
Real quick, I want to tell you a bit about what it means to have a unique sound. As a saxophonist, you might reach a truly great sound quality. This is a great thing, and is common among most adept players. You'll hear recordings or buskers, people playing that 'buzzy' sax sound. We all know it- it's classic sax. However, to have a unique sound is to have a great quality that differs slightly from everybody else. I've known, personally, a few skilled individuals with this gift. I can tell each one of them apart purely based on hearing them play one note. This is having a unique sound.
But how can you get a unique timbre? I can't really say. By that I mean, who am I to say? It's a lot of things, again. There's natural talent, hard work, listening to other musicians- really everything that goes to being a good musician. Inevitably, I have to say that experimentation, with your sound, is very important to this end.
The last point, how can you hear your own sound, is another toughy. Any saxophonist, or most musicians for that matter, will tell you: it's hard to hear yourself truthfully. You might easily be able identify another player's sound, but you won't easily be able to hear your own specific quality. This makes understanding certain aspects of your own growth as a musician extremely difficult and irritating. One instructor of mine suggested playing facing/against a wall, so that my sound bounces right back at me, and I hear my tone a bit more true towards how it really sounds. This works for a lot of things, like practicing vibrato, but to hear your sound quality, and to hear your unique quality, if you have it, is very difficult. The only sure-fire way is to record yourself, but you'd need some pretty expensive recording gear for that.
In the end, it really doesn't matter how you hear yourself. I mean, sure, it matters that you can hear and control your sound, but what matters most is the response to your sound of those you play to or for. If you get lots of positive feedback, then keep on doing what you're doing- it clearly works for you!