Dr. Brian Utley

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Take the Soprano Challenge

by Dr. Brian R. Utley
Assistant Professor of Music
SFA School of Music
[email protected]


The soprano saxophone can produce one of the most beautiful tone colors of any wind instrument, with its strident upper register, its thick and reedy low register, and it smooth mid-range. Some have likened its timbre to the oboe and English horn, while others have likened it to that of the piccolo trumpet. While initial attempts at this beautiful sound may prove less than desirable, one should not shy away from allowing a student to learn the soprano saxophone. Since many standard works in the wind literature call for this instrument either as a soloist (Lincolnshire Posy comes immediately to mind) or as simply another color in the woodwind section, they would be incomplete without one.

Some questions that have been raised to me include: “What player do I put on soprano saxophone…my best alto saxophonist? a clarinet player? an oboist?” “How does playing the soprano saxophone differ from playing the other members of the saxophone family?” “What kinds of exercises exist for the soprano saxophone?” In this article, I will attempt to answer many of these questions and more.

The “Switch” to Soprano Saxophone:
Conventional wisdom tells us that your best alto saxophone player should be the one to make the switch to soprano saxophone, and usually, this holds true. The change from alto to soprano is not as great as it may be from tenor or baritone to soprano. Nevertheless, your chosen player should have very solid fundamentals of playing the horn: air, embouchure, technique, vibrato, etc.

I have also heard suggestions that an oboe player could relatively easily pick up the soprano saxophone because of similarities in air, embouchure, and timbre. I might be a bit hesitant to try this unless the oboe player has experience with another member of the saxophone family. However, if an oboe player can double relatively well on the saxophone, then this would also be a viable option.

Finally, it is important to remember that the “switch” to soprano will rarely be a permanent one, simply because the repertoire does not dictate it. Out of every ten band pieces commonly played, only one or two may have soprano saxophone parts, and some of these may not even be integral parts (in other words, they may just double other high woodwind passages). However, utilizing a good player on the soprano saxophone will enhance the overall timbre of the woodwind section.

While fast air is as necessary on the soprano saxophone as it is on other instruments, one will use less air than on a bigger horn. You may find that you take in smaller breaths, and much as an oboe player would, work exhalation into the regular breathing technique. Because one may not be able to expend all of the breath while playing, it is easy for the air to get “backed up,” and thus the need to exhale in order to rid the lungs of old air.

The soprano saxophone embouchure will necessarily be a bit more focused than that of the other instruments, simply because the mouthpiece is so much smaller. However, this focus should not translate into “biting.” The embouchure should still be thought of as forward with downward pressure; the corners must be focused inward and the upper lip must be actively engaged. Avoid too much pressure with the jaw/bottom teeth.

One of the most notorious characteristics of the soprano saxophone is that it plays “out of tune,” and perhaps you have discovered firsthand that intonation on this instrument can be a bit troublesome. Because of the reduced size of the tube itself, intonation will be much less forgiving, and unfortunately there is no magic trick to playing in tune. Extended work with a tuner is certainly advisable, as is working in small groups such as a saxophone quartet. We are listening for a different timbre and range as well, and this is sometimes a hurdle particularly for a youngster.

Depending on the equipment, some of the intonation tendencies observed on the alto saxophone can also be found on soprano. For example, the “open” C# fingering may be quite flat; try adding the third finger of the right hand along with the octave key to raise this pitch. The fourth line D may be quite sharp; try adding the low B key to bring this down. Lastly, the palm keys, depending on how much the student is “biting,” may be quite sharp. Again, the trick is using a more focused embouchure and free air and avoiding the tendency to bite; this will help these notes speak freely and be much closer to pitch.

I cannot overemphasize the need for quality equipment. A superior instrument, mouthpiece, and reed are crucial for success on the soprano saxophone. Selmer and Yamaha both make fine instruments, and while their top-of-the-line models may be expensive, the investment will be worth it. A Selmer C* mouthpiece would be a wise choice as well. (In fact, a good mouthpiece alone will make a clear difference even on an inferior instrument.) While equipment will not make all the difference, the overall pitch and tone color will clearly be better than that of lesser instruments.

Most horns now come with two necks: a straight one and a slightly curved one. The curved neck will often make the “feel” of the horn resemble that of the alto or tenor, though the straight neck, with some practice, will begin to feel natural as well. A neck strap is also advisable as this will alleviate some of the pressure that might be experienced by the weight of the horn resting on the right-hand thumb.

There are no specific exercises for the soprano saxophone that I would not also recommend for other saxophones. Mouthpiece exercises are of utmost importance; the soprano saxophone mouthpiece should blow at a concert c2. (You can find an article about mouthpiece exercises here.) Long tones and scales are necessary too. Exercises from the Rubank Methods, the Ferling etudes, or Voxman’s Selected Studies would provide excellent study, and early repertoire may include some of the many Baroque transcriptions available.

Some Final Thoughts:
Do not be afraid to offer the challenge of playing this instrument to one of your top students. Most saxophonists are very enthusiastic about playing the soprano saxophone, even if only for a piece or two during any given semester. This is an instrument that has been gaining in popularity for the past decade or so, and has become more frequently used in many of the newer works being written. In addition, the solo repertoire for the instrument is burgeoning, and works for all levels of players are continuing to appear. The SATB saxophone quartet repertoire is also very rich and performing in this setting will improve everyone’s playing dramatically. Finally, while the jazz aspect of this instrument has not been discussed here, there would be many practical uses of the soprano saxophone in a jazz band or jazz combo.

Good luck!


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