The Art of Articulation

In my very first day as guest saxophonist for the Boston Symphony, in 1976, I met Harry Shapiro, the Assistant Personnel Manager, and former horn player under Koussevitzky (Mr. Shapiro was still working for the New World Symphony and Boston Symphony/Tanglewood in various capacities in his 90's), who greeted me with: " 'Ta,' the first syllable we ever learn, and the one we never use." To some it might have been a provocative statement, but to me it was a thoughtful one, affirming the idea, that there is more than one way to begin a sound as an instrumentalist. It was the beginning of a long discussion and friendship. Articulation involves the choice of consonants and vowels, forming the syllables and words that allow us to express ourselves as performing artists. That is the Art of Articulation.

Jazz players have been verbalizing articulations in scat singing forever. I remember Louis Armstrong scat singing on TV when I was a boy, and then hearing him say the same words through his trumpet. I can still scat (or verbalize) the words (syllables) Harold Wright said through his clarinet when he recorded the Mozart Concerto with the Boston Symphony 20 plus years ago. I've watched B B King and classical violinist Itzhak Perlman 'mouthing' the syllables as they played their instruments. I knew they were verbalizing what they said through their guitar and violin, respectively. These are all different instrumentalists, but all speak (or spoke) the same language. They are, and we are, all, poets, who must choose our own words. Flutists can literally say any word through their head joint, unimpeded. As a saxophonist, I must concern myself with the 'resultant' articulation as translated through the reed and mouthpiece. For instance, 'ta' is a very 'plosive' syllable (think of explosive). When a band director asks a young person to say 'ta' it is so he/she can be sure the young student is actually using the tongue, rather than the throat or roof of mouth. 'Ta' or 'Tut' in general, is not an artistic way, long term to begin or end a note. The followup is then important. Many band directors suggest da, dou, tou, etc., to teach the students that the way we touch the reed is an Art.

There are many syllables that are viable, and artistic, helping us develop a musical vocabulary. 'Da,' 'na,' and 'la' are progressively less plosive syllables that allow for the reed to be touched in different ways, just as a brush stroke on a painting. The choice of the vowel sound that follows can help create a bright color(ee, long o), medium(ah), dark(ou), and also affect pitch, when used thoughtfully, for the better. ' Lou' is a great syllable for a low note on baritone saxophone. No articulation (no tongue) is also an occasional very effective articulation, especially in soft playing. High notes, produce a different resultant articulation than another register, when the same syllable is uttered. For instance, try saying 'da' on high D. It will sound harder than on a low F. So, then, we must find a syllable that is lighter if we wish to make both sound similar. I have a little saying: 'To play all the notes the same, we must learn to play all the notes differently; and, conversely, to play all notes differently, we must learn to play all the notes the same.' This little Zen-like phrase saying allows my students and I the key to finding the minute differences in performance, to control our words.

Also, in just the past few years I have discovered a wonderful 'magic' syllable 'thou,' which allows the tongue to stay very close to the reed, and when repeated quickly, offers the opportunity to single tongue lightly and rapidly, with a resultant sound that would be verbalized by a non-saxophonist as 'da.'

I have discussed the beginning and middle of the sounds. But what about the end of the note? Endings can be controlled just as artistically. Endings are important! We don't end notes with a 't' just to stop it; we can control the end of a note with a breath release, most often used in classical music (without 'closing the throat'), or a tongue ending, often heard in bebop playing at the ends of phrases. However, air release or tongue endings are not exclusive to one or the other genre. ('Be-bop' is by the way, the most obvious verbalization of that actual articulation. Some might call it 'da-dunt.') In classical music, in recent years, I have discovered that a light 'n' at the end of a short note, combined with air control offers very good control over short rapid notes, such as scalar passages in Ibert, at a tempo faster than quarter note at 120 beats per minute.

My students and I have developed charts for practicing different ways to articulate specific notes, registers,lengths, colors and dynamics. We discuss specific articulation in various spots, and they have each developed their own way of communicating. I love learning different syllables, and hearing different interpretations. I encourage all of you to use your tonal imagination. ' Listen on the other side of the saxophone,'as my teacher Joe Allard used to say. And, discover your own voice.

Copyright © 2011 by Kenneth Radnofsky. All Right Reserved. Used by permission.

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