Artist Karen Hatzigeorgiou has posted some charming public domain images of woodwind instruments at her website, like this lovely clarinet. The others are in a similar pen-and-ink (or is it some kind of etching?) style.
The information on this page is intended for beginning and intermediate players, including woodwind doublers who already play another instrument. Here are some rules of thumb:
- Get the advice of a good teacher, preferably one that doesn’t get a sales commission from a music store. It’s okay to ask advice before starting lessons. A good teacher wants you to have a good, working instrument.
- In fact, be very skeptical of anything you are told by music store salespeople. My students frequently begin lessons with poor, non-working woodwind instruments that were highly recommended by the guitar player working behind the counter. Ask the salesperson to demonstrate the instrument. If they can’t do it, there’s little reason to take their recommendations.
- The most important consideration for a beginner’s instrument is its condition. Woodwind instruments use pads made of leather, skin, or cork that MUST seal properly. Poorly adjusted instruments are one of the top causes of frustration in beginning players. Don’t waste your time fighting with a leaking instrument. Cosmetic flaws like worn or scratched finish or small dents (except in vital spots such as a flute’s headjoint or saxophone’s neck) do not necessarily affect an instrument’s playability, but may be warning signs of larger problems. It is possible to buy a non-working instrument and have a good technician restore it to playable condition, but it would be a good idea to get their appraisal of the instrument before you buy it.
- Don’t buy musical instruments from department stores, megastores, or warehouse stores. These temptingly cheap instruments are made from inferior materials and are almost always in poor adjustment. Good repair shops won’t even work on them because they tend to break under the normal strains of routine maintenance.
Hindemith’s father, Robert, was a manual laborer and amateur zither player, who, despite a necessarily tight budget, saw that Paul and his siblings received musical training. Robert Hindemith raised his children with strict discipline, especially in terms of their music education. He took them to the local opera house, often on foot, and quizzed them on the way home, rewarding unsatisfactory answers with spankings. Later, Herr Hindemith organized his children into the Frankfurt Children’s Trio. Guy Rickards suggests that it was “despite” this “exploitative” upbringing that Paul and his brother Rudolf both went on to successful musical careers.
Roland Kirk was born in 1935. As an infant, he was blinded, possibly by negligent medical care. He attended the Ohio State School for the blind, where he played in the school band. At the age of sixteen, he led a dance band that performed around the Midwest. It was also at age sixteen that he got the idea to play more than one instrument at once, an innovation he claimed to have received in a dream. He acquired a battery of instruments, including such oddities as the stritch and manzello (obsolete cousins of the saxophone), and set about mastering them individually and in combination.
Kirk recorded as early as 1956, but got little attention until 1960, when critics began to accuse him of gimmickry. Kirk maintained that his unorthodox techniques were born of musical expression rather than cheap showmanship, and his following began to increase.
In 1970, he added “Rahsaan” to his name, having been prompted to do so by another dream.
Once the favorite son of his native New Orleans, as well as his many adopted European hometowns, Bechet’s recordings are now too often overlooked. Bechet, born in 1897, was a true virtuoso of the clarinet, and played a major part in establishing the instrument’s role in Dixieland and early jazz. His pioneering use of the soprano saxophone set a precedent that would come to fruition in a later generation of saxophonists. Bechet’s penchant for unusual instruments is documented in a few surviving recordings on the bass saxophone and the sarrusophone, instruments as nearly obsolete in Bechet’s day as in our own.
But Bechet’s genius transcended his choice of instrument. His abilities may even have rivaled his contemporary, and sometime bandmate, Louis Armstrong. The eminent Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet upheld Bechet as “the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow.” Ansermet would no doubt be disappointed to find his prediction has been disproved.
Seminal Early Concert Soloists
Marcel Mule: Le Patron of the Saxophone (Clarinet Classics, compilation 1996)
Marcel Mule: Le Patron of the Saxophone: Encore! (Clarinet Classics, compilation 2000)
These compilations also feature recordings by the Mule Saxophone Quartet.
Kreisler of the Saxophone (Clarinet Classics, compilation [year?])
Regrettably, recorded performances by Sigurd Rascher and Cecil Leeson are not currently in print. Important out-of-print recordings include Sigurd Rascher Plays the Saxophone, volumes I and II, formerly published by Grand Award, and The Art of Cecil Leeson, volumes I-VII, formerly available on the Enchante label.
The neglected saxophone
Despite the saxophone’s widespread acceptance in jazz and popular music styles, its acknowledgment as a viable solo instrument in classical music has been slow. Few composers have included it in orchestral scores. Only in recent years have conservatories and university music departments begun to recognize the saxophone on a somewhat equal footing with, say, the flute, the piano, or the violin.
Perhaps this neglect was a lingering byproduct of the instrument’s chronology. After all, by the time of its invention by Adolphe Sax in the 1840’s, the instrumentation of the modern orchestra was already becoming somewhat standardized. Maybe the inattention had something to do with the saxophone’s longstanding reputation as a “jazzy horn” and association with burlesque1. Or maybe the upsurge in amateur interest since the 1920’s had spawned too many inferior saxophonists for anyone to take the instrument seriously2.
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.
Importance of appropriate materials
Choosing the right method books and materials—or choosing not to use them—can be a deciding factor in a beginning saxophone student’s success. A student assigned page after page of boring finger exercises will lose interest quickly, but a student given only “fun” assignments may fall behind in development of sound technique.