Shhhhhhh!!!!!!! Too loud. Quieter, please.
Do you know how to play softly? As in piano, pianissimo, pianississimo? Being able to play at a piano dynamic is molto importante.
Of course, it’s the spectrum of dynamic possibility that makes music so exciting. The instrument named for its ability to express the entire range, the piano, of more formally, the pianoforte, is a dynamic colossus! ppppp to fffff. All bases covered.
The saxophone can do this too. We are pretty good at the loud part. But soft playing that reels the listener in? Not so much.
Once I played the second movement of the Creston Sonata for Fred Hemke. He said something like, ‘Could you please play that again, quietly.’ And—hélas—I really couldn’t. Opportunity lost. I kept studying. Listening to other saxophonists, I was envious. The power of their piano playing was incredible. Just HOW were they doing it?
Now, is it just me, or is quiet playing one of those topics that is easily pointed out or identified, but never properly explained?
La réponse est facile. The words are easy but the physical requirements can be challenging, depending on your life experience.
Quizzical Student: “Life experience?”
Teacher Nods: “Mais oui. You need to be able to engage your abdominal muscles, also known as your “six-pack”, mostly known as your ABS.”
Student Clarifies: “So by life experience you mean exercise. Exercise that allows you to strengthen the abs.”
Impressed Teacher: “You Got It, Pontiac. Lifting weights. Martial arts. Pilates. Yoga. Swimming. Gymnastics. Running. Stretching. Moving your body to strengthen your core.”
“In addition to exercising, you need to be able to tap into a feeling. You need to be able to feel your abdominal support. And especially your lower abdominal support. The muscles that help you play quietly are Down There.
Slightly Worried Student begins to sweat.
Placid Teacher smiles reassuringly.
WARNING! The next part may turn your cheeks pink with embarrassment. Which is, perhaps, why this topic is rarely discussed.
The real key to playing quietly is engaging or pressing or tensing or exerting (choose your own verb) the lower abdominal muscles. Let’s keep it easy: Think of the area of engagement as the territory that starts below your belly button and extends all the way down to your pubic bone. And yes, this includes the perineum or pelvic floor muscles. Pulling in or holding here allows you to control and maintain quiet notes.
So. There are only two things you need to do to play softly.
1.Exert the lower abdominal muscles.
2.Use less air.
The difficulty arises from the fact that most teachers stress using less air. Well, yes. But that’s actually pretty easy. The critical part, the manoeuvre that clinches the deal, or clenches, in this case, is the support required by muscles that shall not be named out loud! (By some.)
Practising decrescendos on long tones is very helpful and does work the abs. But abdominal muscles strengthened through exercise do better.
DON’T let your posture collapse.
DON’T tense up your embouchure.
It’s quite an art to set your posture, keep your embouchure relaxed, exert your abdominal muscles and blow a small amount of air into the mouthpiece.
Easy intellectually, but challenging physically.
Playing softly is a physical challenge.
You need to feel the control on the inside and then…hold on.
Please note: Some changes were made to this post. Thanks to Juan Munoz, MD for his helpful clarifications.