Ever since I started teaching saxophone in 1992, I often had the opportunity to work the baritone saxophone with some of my students that were playing it in concert bands, chamber groups, etc. During this time of teaching and performing I have acquired some knowledge (always learning…). Furthermore, I have had help from great classical baritone players as Damien Royannais (I had my instruction with by him at the Conservatoire of Limoges) and Eric Devallon, comments from my main professors, my saxophone quartet colleagues (SAX 3+1 saxophone quartet) other saxophonists and musicians (clarinet/bass clarinet players, tubists, etc.), and also with the patience of my students. Now I would like to share some of my experience with all of you.
Initially you might not be really interested on this instrument (I would be surprised at that, because this big instrument doesn’t go unnoticed) but I believe that at least one year of practice is really beneficial during a saxophone player studies. A well-planned practice of the baritone saxophone can help you improve basic skills like breathing control, embouchure also becoming aware of your body posture.
Playing the baritone saxophone is a good indicator of how important it is to have a good airflow and to know how to manage that air. To improve on these skills you must frequently practice long tones with hairpins (if you haven´t already…) progressively increasing their length. When blowing, use warm air (like blowing breath on a mirror) focusing a good air column from your diaphragm. If you are also able to control the opening of your throat and also visualize the back of your neck as a resonant element, this will allow you to achieve a richer sound.
Practicing natural overtones (easier in the baritone than treble saxophones) is also a great exercice for air column control and richness of sound. Also, the management of your throat will be of great help when you decide to start working on your altissimo.
Considering your embouchure, if you bite too much you will have problems with articulation, sound, intonation, etc. To play good baritone you will need a very flexible embouchure for a troubleless emission, articulation and also to be able to find timber richness in all of the registers.
In my opinion, the best moment to start playing the baritone saxophone is during adolescence, when the trunk and arms lengthen and widen and the physical resistance increases. The length of the tube (more than 2.20 meters) and its weight (around 6 kilos, depending on brands and models) are things to take into consideration.
With such a big instrument it is very important to become aware of the body’s balance and relaxation. You must stand firm (but not rigid!) your feet and legs well planted on the ground with a straight back without contracting the thorax. Find a well-balanced body posture with your baritone saxophone strapped on. Pay attention to your back posture specially when you play seated, otherwise you lumbar area will suffer.
Avoid practicing for too long during the first weeks. Your body needs some time to adapt to the characteristics of the baritone saxophone and to discover new sensations. Do it gently and without tiring.
The work on the instrument should start in the classroom under the supervision of your teacher. You´ll have plenty of time to show your schoolmates how many notes per second (which are many…) you can do. It´s better to start impressing them playing with a wide and rich sound, good vibrato, good tuning (especially in the high register), light tonguing … the fast notes will eventually come.
Outside the classroom, the harmony-band is the best place to practice the baritone saxophone. The harmony-band’s repertoire is usually quite accessible technically for this instrument and this will allow you to make a more playful approach to the baritone.
Maybe you´ll discover that you feel comfortable playing in the harmonic and rhythmic section. Even choosing to play baritone in a saxophone quartet could not be an accident or an imposed option but your preferred one. Who knows?
I recommend taking the first steps with closed mouthpieces, not too hard reeds and ligatures that allow you playing comfortably. The sound amplitude of the baritone saxophone works against its lightness. You´ll be asked to have a light sound without giving up on amplitude.
Pick a comfortable harness instead of the usual neckstrap. The harness distributes the weight of the baritone saxophone better down your back. It will prevent fatigue and, eventually, possible neck injuries.
From my point of view, I would start working on technically affordable baritone saxophone repertoire (studies and works). So, you will first address the sound production and quality to improve later the domain of articulation and it´s variety.
There’s not a lot of original repertoire neither a specific methodology in this context, but you can play these works for baritone saxophone that I recommend: 18 by Joan Arnau Pàmies, Sherow Mustery Bar by Xavier Parlant, 2ème Solo de concert op. 77 by Jean-Baptiste Singelée, Sonate op. 6 by Garland Anderson. You can also play with the baritone works for alto saxophone you already know. This works out very nicely, for exemple: Aria (Bozza), Poème (Perrin), Sonatine (Guillou), Chanson et passepied (Rueff), Sonata (Telemann/Londeix), etc.
You can find two books of Baroque works in “Editions Bar & Co”, with baritone saxophone transcriptions of original works for cello, viola da gamba and other instruments. If not, you can transcribe yourself the works for cello, bassoon or euphonium that you like when you listen to your schoolmates at the auditions … Why not?
LET´S DO IT THEN!
English revision: Nacho Gascón, saxophone professor at the ESMUC (Barcelona)