The saxophone sound is a sound with vibrato. To quote studio saxophonist Walt Levinsky, “A saxophonist who doesn’t believe in vibrato is like a painter who doesn’t believe in blue.”  The correct production and judicious use of this expressive device will enhance the saxophonist’s tonal palette.

            PRODUCTION:  Undoubtedly the best method to learn vibrato is by imitation.  Many students are introduced to vibrato by listening carefully to a good saxophone tone, preferably produced by the teacher.  Recordings of many fine saxophonists are also available, although this approach is less effective.  The most common way to produce a saxophone vibrato is by moving the jaw down and then up as though saying the syllable “vah-vah.”  This jaw motion will be almost unnoticeable visibly although initially it may feel like a large physical gesture.  Some slight change of pitch below (but not above) may be produced.  More important will be the relatively great change in the intensity of the air.

            SPEED:  The recommended vibrato speed is four undulations (or “vahs”) at quarter-note equals 80.  This is a very satisfactory vibrato speed but a player may choose to use it as a reference point from which occasionally to create a faster or slower vibrato.  Sometimes an inexperienced player will have difficulty producing four undulations to the beat.  A simple solution is to have the player produce three “vahs” at quarter-note equals 80.  As soon as this is comfortable, the player can usually move to four “vahs” with little trouble.  The important concern at this point is not the number of undulations but rather the feeling of moving the jaw smoothly and evenly.  It’s crucial that the air stream remain constant; some young saxophonists forget to supply a large quantity of warm air when they add vibrato to a good basic “straight” sound.  An excellent exercise to correct this problem is to practice turning the vibrato on and off.  Using the metronome set at 80, select a sustained mezzo-forte pitch in the middle register, perhaps fourth-line F.  Play the pitch for four beats without vibrato and then four beats with vibrato for four measures; don’t articulate except to begin the sustained pitch.  Listen closely to make certain that the quality of the basic sound doesn’t change when the vibrato is added.  Continue the exercise by reversing the procedure:  i.e., begin the pitch with vibrato for four counts and thenplay four beats without vibrato.  As the saxophonist progresses, other registers and other dynamic levels should be used.

            AMPLITUDE:  Although the speed of the vibrato should remain relatively constant at all dynamic levels and in all registers, the width oramplitude of the vibrato does change in conjunction with the volume.  Stated simply, the more sound, the deeper the vibrato; the less sound, the narrower the vibrato.  A wide vibrato will help a forte note to gain richness and power but it will cause a piano note to sound wobbly and unfocused.  On the other hand, a narrow vibrato (or none at all) is appropriate for a pianissimo note but will add nothing to a fortissimo sound. 

            USE:  Vibrato is best used judiciously; it loses much of its effect when used constantly.  Vibrato will often give life to a long note but if used with a series of short notes will make the sound seem unsteady.  Eugene Rousseau, in the second volume of his Saxophone Method(published by Kjos), provides a chart listing various circumstances in which the use of vibrato may or may not be appropriate.  Assorted situations, including solo passages, tutti sections, and unison with other instruments, are commented upon.  It’s important to note that vibrato should not be used on every note.  Vibrato can enrich and enhance a good basic tone; it can also be a detriment and must therefore be used wisely.  For the same reasons that the best approach to learn vibrato is by imitation, the best way to determine when vibrato should be used is by listening to performances by excellent saxophonists.  Their music making will provide the guidelines for the most expressive use of the important to a clear and beautiful tone.

Thomas Liley, D. Mus., Yamaha Artist/Clinician
Woodwind Faculty, Joliet Junior College