Voicing and the Saxophone

Voicing will be referred to differently depending on the saxophonist you ask. Many wholly embrace voicing and a few will refute it. Nonetheless, we all voice, no matter what we happen to call it. Voicing is an essential element of saxophone technique. Playing through the entire range, the saxophonist should not have to alter his embouchure, but instead compensate with the oral cavity to produce an even and consistent tone. Building this skill takes a lot of persistent practice. Some exercises may be mastered in hours and other may take several weeks.

Let’s begin by saying the following aloud; notice how the tongue changes position for each vowel: aaaaaaaaa-ahhhhhhhhhhhh-eeeeeeeeeeeee-iiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-ohhhhhhhhhh-ooooooooooo-uuuuuuuuuu. Whistling provides a great example of the ways the tongue can direct air inside the oral cavity.

Obviously you’ve been talking for years, so these positions are natural to you. The tongue has a similar function while voicing on the saxophone. As a beginner, most saxophonists struggle with the low notes and high notes. They eventually discover the change in tongue position needed for these notes to speak clearly. This is the concept of voicing.


We use pitch-bending exercises to gain voicing flexibility. Start with only the mouthpiece and reed and sustain a concert A, then bend the pitch up and down. Remember to manipulate the oral cavity, not the embouchure. Work with a tuner or a piano to develop a concrete range. With practice the pitch becomes very flexible and you can play songs with small ranges. Now apply this exercise to the entire saxophone by playing a front “F” and bending the pitch of this note. Start with a half step and gradually expand the interval as you gain greater mastery of the exercise. With time and practice you should be able to bend the pitch nearly an octave. This control and flexibility takes time to develop. If there are problems dropping the pitch large intervals, the oral cavity may need to be more open. Play a G# with the octave key and try to get out the note an octave below by opening the jaw and oral cavity. If this is incredibly difficult, the oral cavity needs to open up. Make sure you have lots of space between your back molars.


The overtone series is most apparent on brass instruments, but the saxophone shares the same acoustical properties. Fingering one note (the fundamental or 1st partial), the player can play the pitch up an octave (2nd partial), a perfect fifth above that (3rd partial), two octaves above the fingered note, and so on.


Play a low “F”. Sustain this note and then use a “kuh” or “kah” sound in the back of the throat to jump the octave without the octave key. The note changes from the first partial to the second partial. The oral cavity manipulates the air stream to produce the upper note, doing the work of the octave key. Hold the upper pitch as long as possible and work on establishing this tongue position in muscle memory. Gradually work this exercise up and down from the low “F”. It becomes more difficult as the bottom note gets higher and lower. If you have difficulty with lower notes, play the 2nd partial on a note that is easy, then finger down through the partials to the pitch. As you work to extend the 2nd partials upward make sure that you don’t bit into the reed, this hinders the vibration and makes it more difficult. Now do it backwards. Start on the 2nd partial with the “kuh” attack and then relax the muscles to drop into the fundamental.

To develop your tone, practice matching the 2nd partial to the regular fingering, specifically for the short tube notes (middle Bb, B, C, C#). Strive to get the thick dark sound of the overtone when playing in the low-middle range of the horn. Doing this exercise will help you match the timbre of these notes with the dark sound of middle D, D# and E.

To begin the third partial play the second partial on low “F” and then switch to the low “Bb” fingering. While working on the third partial don’t forget to continue with second partial drills. When you feel confident in the third partial, add the fourth partial in the same manner. Voice the octave key “Bb” on a low “Eb” fingering and sustain while switching to a low “Bb” fingering. Over time work up to the 8th partial, 3 octaves above the fundamental.

For a new challenge, play tunes using the overtones. This bugle call is often used because the whole thing is played over a low “Bb” fingering.


At this point, a player is familiar enough with voicing to begin exploring the use of altissimo fingers. Success altissimo range requires the control and precision attained through voicing exercises.