What is vibrato?
Carl Seashore, in his In Search of Beauty in Music, defines “good” vibrato as “a pulsation of pitch usually accompanied by synchronous pulsations of loudness and timbre, of such extent and rate as to give a pleasing flexibility, tenderness, and richness to the tone.”
Debate over saxophone vibrato
Saxophone vibrato is a controversial topic for several reasons. In fact, some have questioned whether vibrato should be used at all. Paul Berler, in a 1996 Saxophone Journal article, notes that wind instrumentalists have only made serious study of vibrato in the last century. Robert Luckey points out in a 1983 article in Woodwind, Brass, & Percussion that “prominent saxophone teachers have equated their instrument with the human voice,” and that, since vibrato is accepted as a natural embellishment of the human voice, it should be accepted as a natural part of the saxophone tone.
Several methods of producing vibrato are available to the saxophonist. The most comprehensive list is given by David Liebman:
Bouncing the diaphragm is the most pronounced form of vibrato. This is similar to the feeling of quickly inhaling and exhaling…
A feeling of vibrating in the larynx area or more exactly, the vocal cords which is used by vocalists.
Moving the jaw in a quick up and down motion which dramatically effects the pitch, and volume, was favored by the jazz players of earlier eras as well as certain dance band styles such as Guy Lombardo.
Backward and forward movement of the hump portion of the tongue towards the soft palate produces a peculiar and fairly subtle vibrato.
The most subtle form is achieved by minute movements of the lips.
Larry Teal points out that the jaw vibrato is the type used by the majority of professional performers, and most sources likewise conclude that jaw vibrato is the method that generally produces the most satisfactory results.
An important variable of saxophone vibrato is the rate of pulsation. Luckey suggests a rate of 300-400 undulations per minute for soprano and alto saxophone, or 260-360 for tenor and baritone. Teal does not specify different rates for different instruments, but says that four pulsations per beat at a metronome marking of 80-84-equivalent to 320-336 pulses per minute-is the “going rate” (in 1963). He comments that a saxophonist should be able to produce vibrato anywhere from 240 to 360 pulses per minute for a reasonable amount of time without fatigue.
Berler’s article indicates that during vibrato pitch travels downward from the initial pitch and returns to that point, never rising above the initial pitch. Most sources seem to agree, although, according to Anthony Ciccarelli, at least two notable saxophone teachers have opposed this view. Alfred Gallodoro reportedly wrote:
In producing the vibrato, start the tone on the correct pitch and vary the pitch upward from the basic pitch, then back down again. A vibrato produced by varying pitch below the basic pitch will make your playing sound flat.
Sigurd Rascher is quoted by Ciccarelli as saying that the saxophone “should be tuned slightly sharp; then, when actually playing with vibrato, the tone is allowed to dip a little to exactly where it is wanted.”
Different styles of vibrato are used in different types of saxophone music. According to Dr. Keith R. Young:
A classical vibrato usually starts at the beginning of a note and is generally more controlled, faster, and narrower. Jazz vibrato varies from slow to fast but often commences after the note is sustained. The difference in vibrato styles is evident whenever a student uses jazz vibrato in a wind ensemble or plays a jazz ballad with a controlled, classical vibrato.
According to Luckey, the saxophone student is ready to begin study of the vibrato when he or she meets several requirements: first, the ability to play the full range of the instrument with good tone quality; second, the embouchure is well developed with a balance of firmness and relaxedness; and third, abdominal breath support is strong and habitual.
Most writings on saxophone vibrato suggest using a model syllable to approximate the correct jaw movement for jaw vibrato. The most commonly recommended is “wah,” but Kenneth Fischer prefers “vah” because it better isolates the jaw movement and eliminates undue tension.
Writers on the topic agree that vibrato should be practiced evenly at first, with a certain number of pulses to each beat of the metronome (usually set to about 60, gradually building speed). However, they also agree that vibrato in performance should not be tied to tempo. Many also explain that vibrato may vary in rate during performance according to the performer’s interpretation.
Larry Teal’s The Art of Saxophone Playing contains several exercises for practicing vibrato. These cover the full range of the instrument, including leaps of large intervals and a dynamic range of pianissimo to fortissimo. They also deal with issues of alternating long, vibrato-enhanced notes with faster, technical passages.
The modern concert saxophonist should use a fairly fast, controlled jaw vibrato. The vibrato should begin immediately and should continue for the duration of the note. The rate of vibrato should not be tied to tempo. Pitch should, in most cases, dip below the centered pitch and then return, although some difference of opinion exists.
Vibrato should ultimately be no more than an element of the overall saxophone sound, adding color and expression without becoming a distraction to the listener.
Berler, Paul. “Basic Saxophone Skills: Vibrato,” Saxophone Journal 21, no. 2 (September/October 1996): 14-15.
Berler, Paul. “Colors in Sound: Vibrato,” Saxophone Journal 23, no. 6 (July/August 1999): 30-31.
Ciccarelli, Anthony Joseph. A Study of Vibrato as Applied to Clarinet and Saxophone Performance. London: University Microfilms International, 1970.
Fischer, Kenneth. “Saxophone Playing Techniques,” Saxophone Journal 16, no. 4 (January/February 1992): 41-42.
Liebman, David. Developing a Personal Saxophone Sound. Medfield, Mass: Dorn, 1989.
Teal, Larry. The Art of Saxophone Playing. Miami: Summy-Birchard, 1963.
Young, Keith R. “Saxophone Versatility,” The Instrumentalist 51, no. 4 (November 1996): 50-56.