Ballpoint pens: essential or obsolete? In the olden days they were everywhere: at the dentist’s office, the automobile repair shop, heck, they even had a box at the reception desk of your hotel. Yes—je suis désolé—my travelling style is more Holiday Inn than George V. (Perhaps, instead of pens, they provide their worthy patrons with small bottles of Champagne!) While a taste of expensive fizz would be lovely, I’d rather—gasp—get the pen. Every saxophonist needs at least one ballpoint pen. Use it to make a ring on your cork. This small tuning mark will indicate exactly where the mouthpiece should be positioned.
How To Do It
First, warm up for a couple of minutes. Place your electronic tuner on the stand in front of you. The best pitch for tuning is A440, also known as concert A. If you are playing alto saxophone, prepare to sound F-sharp with the octave key. If you are playing tenor saxophone, prepare to sound middle B.
Turn sideways to avoid looking at the tuner. Play your note at a mezzo forte dynamic level. Slowly turn back to check the tuner, but only after you have established a smooth and steady sound.
Based on the reading, adjust your mouthpiece accordingly. If the indicator needle leans left, your sound is flat and you must twist the mouthpiece further onto the cork. If the needle leans right, your sound is sharp and you must twist the mouthpiece off so that more cork is visible.
Keep adjusting until you can play concert A perfectly in tune. When you are successful, the needle will lie in the middle of the display screen, registering zero (0) on the cent spectrum. Sustain the pitch, and a bright green light will signal your tuning triumph.
Let’s get a confirmation of that vibration!
Pry those eyes away and turn sideways once more. Play your note at mezzo forte, then turn back slowly to check the tuner. If the light is green and the needle is positioned in the centre of the spectrum, life is good. This second check should confirm that the note is in tune. This means you have correctly determined the best position for your mouthpiece. This sliver of cork next to the base of the mouthpiece shall now be known as—THE SWEET SPOT.
Use your fabulous ballpoint pen to make a ring around the cork, tracing around the mouthpiece. Now every time you get ready to play, you can twist your mouthpiece on so that the bottom lines up with the ring around the cork. This is an excellent way to ensure that you are able to play most notes in tune.
Because you are starting at THE SWEET SPOT! And nothing is sweeter than the sound of a saxophone playing in tune!
Skeptical Student: “Hold up. Why do I have to avoid looking at the tuner when I begin the note?”
Sympathetic Teacher: “It may seem drastic or unnecessary, but if your eyes are fixated on the indicator needle as you begin the note, the results will be unreliable. The reading will be skewed.”
Clever Student: “Oh, like bad science?”
Impressed Teacher: “Yes! Hoping to be in tune, you may unconsciously make subtle embouchure changes to ensure that the needle lands directly in the centre of the spectrum. Put slightly differently, the desire of your eyes and ears (to see and hear the note in tune) will override your physical control of the embouchure. After even the tiniest fragment of sound, your facial muscles will either tense up or release to force the note to sound the way you want it to.
Dubious Student: “Yeah, I get it, tensing or loosening facial muscles wrecks the embouchure position, but “So What” the note will be in tune, right?
Assured Teacher: “Yessiree Bob, at that moment the note will be in tune. BUT—here’s the clincher—no other note, or concert A for that matter, will be in tune when you begin practising with your regular embouchure.
When using a tuner, two things have to happen.
1. YOUR EMBOUCHURE MUST STAY IN THE SAME POSITION.
2. YOU MUST USE YOUR REGULAR EMBOUCHURE.
This is the only way to get an accurate reading that will improve your intonation in common, everyday playing situations.
Adjust your mouthpiece, not your embouchure, and the intonation angels will sing your praises!
“Ha—llelujah, Ha—llelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Halle—lu—jah!”