Friday, July 1, 2011

Getting Started With Long Tones

I published the first online version of this article in 1998, and I’m pretty sure it was the first tutorial on this important aspect of sound production to appear on the web. Over the years I’ve received emails from all over the world from folks telling me this approach got them started on long tones, and thanking me for improving their sound! THAT’S pretty damn cool, and it still makes my day every time I get one of these notes.

What follows is more or less a reprint of the original article, but with an expanded introduction.

If you give this a shot and it helps with your sound (it will!), I’d love to hear from you...

You only need to work on long tones if you’d like to have a good sound. It’s about that simple!

I avoided them for as long as I could. I had no idea how to practice them, and the few times I half-heartedly gave them a shot, they felt like a waste of time — shouldn’t I be working on cool licks and impressive, finger-busting patterns in my limited practice time instead?

Unfortunately, whenever I’d ask a killer player how they got that great sound (“What mouthpiece are you using?”, “What are your reeds?”, “What’s that ligature you got?”), they’d say “Play long tones.” Even then, I resisted.

What finally forced me to hunker down and get serious about them was a Downbeat interview with Johnny Griffin, where he talked about how he worked on ... long tones. I love his sound, and I know it sounds silly, but somehow it had never occurred to me that an older cat like Johnny Griffin would’ve shed long tones! I just assumed he was born with that sound!

I wanted to get serious about them, but I’d never seen any instructional materials on how to “practice” long tones — I had cabinets full of books telling me what to play on a ii-V7-I progression, and how to use this or that pattern — but nothing that dealt with long tones!

Clueless, I just started blowing notes and holding them, and resolved that I was going to try this for a couple of weeks, no matter how boring and unfun and possibly pointless the exercise seemed to be.

At first, it was boring. However, after a while I started to realize that working with long tones made me hear things in my playing I hadn’t noticed before, and forced me to address a number of playing habits I’d been unaware of. It turned out the long tones were about a lot more than just honking on a note: if you’re doing them correctly, you can work on many aspects of your playing — and they should never be boring!

After a while, I figured out an approach to long tones that worked for me. And, for the first time in my life as a saxophonist, folks started to compliment me on my sound!

Here are my suggestions for someone getting started with long tones...

When you’re playing long tones, you should strive for a full, resonant sound that has a consistent timbre (tone quality) throughout the range of the horn. In other words, your palm key notes (high D, Eb, E, and F) should be just as rich and full (and in tune!) as your low C or Bb.

You’ll start out by playing a low C. But wait! Before you play, you should think about your inhalation.

Fill your lungs from the bottom up!Fill your lungs from the bottom of your diaphragm up. If you’re not sure how to inhale properly, try saying the word “hot” backwards: that is, breath in while saying hot (but don’t get your vocal cords involved). For many folks, this “inverted hot” will result in a “lower” breath, rather than an incomplete breath higher in your lungs. Again, remember to fill your lungs on this inhalation.

Don’t raise your shoulders as you’re taking in air — this is often a clue that you’re not breathing from the bottom of your diaphragm (it is, however, normal for the shoulders to raise slightly at the very end of a full inhalation).

Don’t “stab” the note.Once you’ve taken in a full breath, you’re ready to play the low C. Almost! Before you start, think about your attack of the note: it should not be explosive; the note should come out strong without being “stabbed.” At the same time, the note should sound immediately when you start it: there shouldn’t be a lag after you tongue the note, with the note suddenly popping into place after a moment or two.

You want a strong, consistent tone quality.Then, while you’re blowing the note, think about your tone quality. You want a strong, consistent, in tune timbre. You should be putting out a solid block of sound; if you were to visualize it, it might look like this:

You don’t want your sound to look like this:

If your tone is “wobbly” as you’re producing long tones, then long tones are your friend! Doing them diligently for a few weeks will build up your diaphragm and “bulk up” your sound, getting rid of the wobbles.

In the days before amplification, tenormen like Coleman Hawkins, the grand-daddy of the tenor, or Ben Webster, or Dexter Gordon, had to have a sound big enough to allow them to solo over a big band and have their horn cut through the background clutter and fill the room. That’s what you are striving for with these long tone studies. Try to imagine filling the room with your sound — think of it as being a warm, almost liquid presence.

Fill your room with sound, but don’t overblow.At the same time, don’t overblow. This ain’t honking! Find a good natural volume level that will give you a full, warm, resonant sound, without feeling like you’re going to pop a vein! You should feel comfortable while you’re blowing.

Did you know that you can be “in focus” or “out of focus” on your saxophone? When you’re in focus, your tone will be strong, consistent, and in tune, and you won’t change your embouchure much from the low end to the high end of the horn.

A tuner can help you “focus” your sound.One important tool to help you find the focus of your sax is a tuner. When you know you’re in tune, you can concentrate on your embouchure and breath support, and eventually playing in tune will become a habit: your horn will just “feel right” when you’re in focus and in tune.

You should be relaxed!The last thing you need to be aware of while you’re blowing the note is your stance and posture. (I practice standing up, because that’s how I typically perform, and I want to mimic my performance conditions as much as possible when I practice.) You should be relaxed. Your fingers should curl to the keys without grabbing the horn in a death grip, and your shoulders should be down and relaxed as well. Do an “inventory” of your body while you’re playing, and make sure that nowhere, from your head to your feet, are you tight and clenched — that’s just a waste of energy, and you want to devote as much energy as possible to your playing.

Be especially careful not to tighten up as you reach the end of your exhalation. Keep on blowing until you can no longer maintain a good, strong sound. Don’t turn it into a life or death struggle where you scrunch up your shoulders and try to squeeze every last molecule of air into your horn, sounding at the end like a dying seal!

As you practice long tones, you will naturally be able to play each tone for a longer and longer time, as you develop your diaphragm and embouchure.

Okay, you are finally ready to play that low C:

To summarize...

While you’re playing it, here’s a reminder of what you should keep in mind:
  • Inhalation: fill your lungs from the bottom up (the “inverted hot”), and don’t raise your shoulders.
  • Attack: don’t stab the note to make it sound, but do make sure that it starts immediately.
  • Tone Quality: you want a solid block of strong, consistent, room-filling sound, but don’t overblow.
  • Focus & Intonation: Use a tuner to make sure you’re in tune, and to help you find the right focus for your horn.
  • Stance & Posture: Keep your body relaxed, including your fingers and your shoulders, and do an inventory to make sure there’s no tension anywhere else in your body.
  • Release of the Note: Play until you can no longer maintain focus and a good sound, and don’t tense up at the end of the note.

You can see why long tones shouldn’t be boring: there’s plenty to keep track of while you’re playing them!

After you play the low C a couple of times, each time trying to improve your tone quality and focus, you’re ready to move up a fourth to F. You’ll keep on moving up in fourths through the range of your horn, playing each note several times. The entire series looks like this:

Try to maintain the same focus & tone quality for each note.Now, this is very important: each time you move to a new note, try to keep the same timbre and warmth of the previous note. (And, of course, check each note on the tuner.) For example, when you move up to the F from C, you should strive to duplicate the strength, focus, and timbre of the C. You should also, of course, keep track of all of the items (inhalation, attack, etc.) listed above.

Enjoy your sound!Finally, as you’re blowing these notes, enjoy your sound! The sound of the saxophone is a beautiful thing — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say to me, after hearing that I’m a saxophonist, “Oh, the saxophone! That’s my favorite instrument!” When you’re developing your abilities as a jazz saxophonist, you’re making yourself a part of an incredible legacy. That’s an elevating and inspiring pursuit....