Crossing the break (or not) on saxophone

March 17, 2011

Much has been made of “the break” on clarinet—the point at which the chalumeau register and throat tones cross over to the clarion register—but all modern woodwind instruments have at least one break in their “standard” ranges. The saxophone has exactly one (ignoring the altissimo range), between the second C-sharp and the second D.

From an acoustical perspective, that point is the division between the fundamental pitches and the first overtone. When playing a lower-register note, the air column’s vibration is at its simplest. The pitch is determined by the effective length of the saxophone, which depends on which toneholes the player opens or closes. In the upper register, the air column is manipulated into vibrating twice as fast (by changing the airstream and/or opening a register vent), and a sound an octave higher is produced.

This means that there is, technically, some overlap between the registers shown above, which really are based on one specific set of “standard” fingerings. The fingerings for low B-flat, B, C, and C-sharp can be used to produce sounds in the second overtone, and the fingerings for high D through F-sharp can likewise produce sounds at the fundamental. In theory, this should mean an overlap of over a fifth:

If you’ve experimented with those fingerings, you know that they don’t work quite as expected in practice. The low B-flat fingering with the octave key added, for example doesn’t sound great, and neither does the high F-sharp fingering with no octave key. But with some experimentation, a few usable alternative fingerings can be found within this range.

Here are a couple of examples from the saxophone movement of Sy Brandon’s Divertissement for multiple woodwinds and piano.

example 1

In example 1, the excerpted passage stays entirely in the lower register, with the exception of one note, D. The D is a “long-tube” note, meaning that most of the toneholes are closed and the effective length of the tube is long. It is immediately surrounded by the notes C-sharp and B, which are short-tube notes. The short-tube notes tend to be free-blowing, clear, and flexible, while the long-tube D tends to be more resistant and stuffy, especially if you are adding the low B key (and you should) to compensate for the D’s built-in sharpness. Here’s what it sounds like:

The D doesn’t sound the same as the notes around it. It’s duller and more muted. I can make the standard fingering work if necessary (good breath support and voicing are key), but I think the better part of valor is discretion, and it makes sense to me to avoid crossing the break here if possible. After a little experimenting, I picked an alternate fingering that keeps me in the fundamental register, and works reasonably well technically:

The tone produced with this fingering is a much better match for the surrounding notes, and contributes to a smoother line.

Your ears should of course be your guide, but I did find this visual comparison revealing. The D stands out significantly in the first waveform, and virtually disappears into the C-sharp in the second.

using standard D fingering
using alternate D fingering

In a second example from later in the movement, there is an occurrence of the opposite problem:

Here, there is only one note, C-sharp, that, using standard fingerings, belongs to the fundamental register. This free-blowing short-tube note is likely to blare out a little:

This alternate fingering works quite well, and, though it does not technically put the C-sharp in the upper register (despite the octave key), it does bring the C-sharp in line with the surrounding D’s tone-wise. Note that some saxophonists are initially put off by what they perceive as an airiness or fuzziness about this fingering; I find that effect to be significantly less perceptible from a few feet away, and less jarring than the blare of the “open” C-sharp. Eugene Rousseau considers this fingering essential enough that he includes it in his beginning saxophone method.

Here’s how it sounds:

In the recording, I am using the low B key for pitch correction on the D, and I hold it down through the C-sharp without detrimental effect.

I have a small handful of these alternate fingerings that I use on a fairly regular basis. I think that they are somewhat instrument-specific, though, and are best discovered through trial and error on your own horn. If you like, you can use the Fingering diagram builder to create charts of your favorites.


  1. Michael

    The long C# fingering is also useful in both examples. I don’t use it that often, but I’m willing to bet that if you were to use it in the first case, the wavelength would probably be wider on the leading tone, than on the tonic. Since we want to stress the lower note while ascending from one half-step to the next, it would make sense musically.

    The most troubling aspect of the long C# fingering for most French school players is the fact that is plays too sharp on many modern instruments. Using LSK1 as your octave vent instead of the octave key fixes this pitch problem.


Leave a comment

Commenting policy