Bending Notes on the Saxophone

A great sax player has mastered the art of bending and shaping  their notes to express what they want to convey.  It might be a mood, attitude or emotion.  There is no doubt that bending notes adds excitement and emotion to a solo.  Bending notes on the saxophone is one of the coolest things that you can learn to do.  All the great jazz and R&B saxophone players bend there notes in some way.  Usually, the most expressive players and the ones who convey the most emotion and feeling in their playing are the ones who really manipulate and shape their sound the most.

For me, it’s similar to being a great reader or storyteller.  The worst thing you can do while reading a story to a child is to just have a monotone voice that drones on throughout the story……..never changing.  That’s a great way to get a child to fall asleep fast but a horrible way to keep their interest and attention.  You will find that the best storytellers are those that manipulate different aspects of their voice while reading.  They talk slower or faster.  They talk higher for a women’s voice or lower for a man’s voice.  They try to match the sound and style of the way they are speaking with the character that is saying it.  If the story is happy…..they sound happy.  If it sad, they sound sad.  If it is stressful they speak urgently and with some anxiety in their voice.  You will find a ton of volume changes while they read to help them convey different emotions to the listener. They might whisper and the child will lean forward to hear.  They might yell and the child will jump back startled.  All these elements are brought together to tell a story in a rich and expressive way.  I find that the great sax players use these same techniques to convey a story to their audience. The best ones use many different techniques to create a mood or  emotion.

One of the most common is the bending of notes on the saxophone.  In this video, I am showing you the technique I use to bend notes by just using your tongue and throat.  Many players will  learn how to bend notes by dropping their bottom jaw early on in their development.  The technique I am using here is a bit more nebulous and hard to define.  As I have taught over the last 10 years I have found this to be one of the hardest elements to teach to a student.  The problem is teaching in such a way that the student understands what I am saying and how to implement it without actually being able to see and experience the movement or action.  The other problem is trying to understand what is going on within the students throat and tongue position.  Many times a student is unaware of what is happening or is even mistaken about what is happening inside their own body.

This video is in response to a great player on the internet who sent me an email asking me to go into further depth about this bending with your throat concept.  He is an amazing player but has never been able to bend notes without using his embouchure and was very curious about the method I use to do this.

I try my best in this video to show you how I can bend the tenor mouthpiece pitch down while I blow by “voicing” the note lower.  I explain in the video how I am not knowledgeable at all about the medical terms for what I am describing (and I’m not so sure it would help students even if I was) but I try my best to describe what is going on inside my throat and mouth.  You can see first hand the affect that this manipulation has on the mouthpiece pitch as well as the sound of the tenor sax as a whole.

Learning this concept has huge benefits.  It helps with expression but it also helps with intonation in a great way.  If you have certain notes that are sharp or a top register that is sharp then you can very easily use this concept to bring the pitch down without using your embouchure at all.  This frees up your embouchure for vibrato and other tonal aspects that you might want to manipulate.

I hope you enjoy the video and find it useful.  If you have any comments or questions I would love to hear them.  I would also love to hear any teaching concepts or illustrations on this subject that you use or have heard.  I love hearing new ideas so that I can become an even better teacher!  (Feel free to enlighten me on any medical terminology also)     Thanks,   Steve

I also have a longer 32 minute full length lesson on this subject “The Art of Bending Notes Lesson” if you are interested in hearing more on this subject.

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site

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