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Keeping the Saxophone Quartet in Tune

by SCPO Timothy E. Roberts

  • Introduction
  • Compromise Tuning
  • Conclusion



Nearly a century ago, Sir Henry Wood used a crude tuning device to check the concert A of each member of his Queen's Hall Orchestra before proceeding onto the stage. We still know that developing a keen sense of pitch relationships and getting those relationships to line up both vertically and linearly among four saxophonists is a never-ending and constantly evolving process. I remember when I was a beginning sixth-grade saxophonist and my father, himself a professional musician, incessantly screamed, "The C-sharp's flat!" from the back of the house. With the saxophone, like other wind instruments having an adjustable scale, setting out to achieve a uniform basis of pitch center and accommodating that with the pitches of other musicians in a small chamber ensemble can prove to be quite an undertaking!


Let us start our discussion of pitch uniformity at the very beginning - the initial tuning pitch of a saxophone quartet rehearsal. In many inexperienced and student quartets, the four members are often most at ease playing the alto saxophone, since they probably perform on either alto or tenor in the school band or jazz ensemble. It may therefore be best to use the alto's F# (concert A), arguably the most stable note on the most accommodating horn. Make sure that the alto player has checked the note against a standardized tuner beforehand. Many advanced student and professional quartets like the stability of tuning to a confident baritone player's low F#. The lowest voice of the quartet forms the foundation of the group's overall sound, and the intonation of chords is usually heard from the bottom up. Whichever instrument is used as the source of the tuning pitch, each member of the quartet tunes individually to the source, then the quartet tunes together as an ensemble.


When all four voices have tuned the concert A, spend some time on additional tuning exercises. First, try tuning everyone's written F# simultaneously, producing perfect fifths. Next, return to the concert A. Hold a long tone, move down a half step to the G# for a long tone, and return back up to the A. Continue this pattern diatonically down the scale (A-G#-A-F#-A-E-A, etc.), striving for a consistent blend of pitch, timbre, and balance. Hold each pitch until this perfect equilibrium is reached. Now try playing complete scales and simple melodies, with all four instruments together in unisons and octaves. Finally, there are no better tuning exercises for any quartet, student or professional, than the Bach chorales. Play the theme and bass only of these brief yet profound masterpieces and you have a puzzle. What harmonies should be put in, and what will their pitch tendencies be? Looking at Bach's solutions will never cease to astound you! Tuning each chord of the chorale individually, while trying to determine the pitch tendencies of the approaching chord provides constant intellectual and musical challenges.


Pitch Tendencies on Some Saxophones

(Note: check your own horn against this schedule. No two horns will play the same!)


Flat Notes

Alternate Fingerings

2nd line G
add chromatic F# key
2nd space A / 3rd line B
add side B flat key
3rd space C# (open)
add side C and/or...
add octave key and G key

Sharp Notes

Alternate Fingerings

low D
add low B flat (some horns)
fourth line D / fifth space E
add low B
high C#, D & E flat
add first two fingers of right hand
high E flat, E & F
leave high D (palm) key down

Compromise Tuning

Your quartet's tuning exercises, whether they take five minutes or an hour, should obviously be done at the beginning of a rehearsal to establish a pitch center. On stage at the opening of the performance, a simple A is all that is appropriate, and then only if there is a chance of drastic change in humidity or temperature between Green Room and stage. Elaborate tuning procedures in front of a paying and supportive audience demonstrates the inexperience of an ensemble that hasn't spent enough time playing together. It's an annoyance to the listener, and an indication of a lack of self-confidence from the performers.


In order for any musical ensemble to play in tune together, its members must utilize a system of "compromise" tuning (See related article, "Temperament and Tuning"). In soloistic terms, this means that an alto saxophone would tune its concert A to a fixed 440 vibrations per second. (European and some American orchestras today often tune to A =442, 444, or 445. The Queen's Hall Orchestra mentioned earlier and other small chamber orchestras at the turn of the century often tuned low, to A=435.4.) But when the alto's concert A is at 440, there's a good chance that the middle register of the (written) second line G to fourth space C will be flat, and the high register in the palm keys will probably be sharp. Tuning the relatively stable F# "compromises" the tuning over the entirety of the horn. For the ensemble, "compromising" means listening to the other musicians in your quartet and adjusting your pitch according to their needs. For example, because of the equal-tempered nature of today's wind instruments, I prefer to tune the third of a chord high and the fifth of the chord low. Do you know where your voice fits into the harmony of the piece being performed?


Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist, conductor, and composer, had his own embellishment of compromise tuning that he called expressive intonation. For instance, did you know that depending on its context, a D# might be tuned differently than an Eb? Expressive intonation is a working combination of two factors, the linear and the vertical relationships of notes. By "linear," Casals referred to the sense of melodic or harmonic direction of the individual musical line. Semitones in particular tend to be drawn slightly up or down in pitch as demanded by the musical line. In this sense, expressive intonation is an integral element of musical interpretation. The other factor - the vertical - is the necessity to be in tune with your colleagues, to hear your individual note in relation to the chord being played at the moment. Both factors are important and demand a highly responsive ear and instant adaptability.




Among the "vertical" considerations are the anchor points of octaves, fourths, and fifths. When played simultaneously, Casals said these intervals should be exact (meaning played with pure or just, rather than equal-tempered, intonation). You might know that in bar 12 of a certain movement of a certain quartet the alto has a B above the baritone's F#, creating perfect fourths (vertical). But what if the B also leads to a C in the same voice (linear)? Should you perhaps play the B a bit high to compensate? Here you must determine the degree of freedom that expressive intonation gives you at that moment.


Sometimes while adjudicating solo and ensemble competitions, I am reminded of the words of Brad Hubbard, baritone saxophonist in the New Century Saxophone Quartet. In an interview in The Wall Street Journal, he said of the saxophone, "It's an easy instrument to play badly." It's an accurate statement, and perhaps the best explanation of why it is so upsetting to listen to a saxophone quartet of four promising, talented young performers who play the saxophone in tune with itself, but who lack the developmental discipline to listen to the tuning going on around them.


Why is this? We spend the early years of our musical development trying to build on what God has given us in the way of instrumental talent. We're handed a fingering chart, so we work on our technique. Our private teacher tells us to buy the Creston Sonata, so we begrudgingly work out all the right notes, making crescendos and taking breaths where the edit marks indicate. But when we play in a quartet for the first time, the whole scenario changes. We must analyze not only our own part, but the other three parts as well. We must start processing into sound the music on our colleagues' pages. We must think in advance about what we must do to match the baritone's C# in the next measure. It's a cooperative effort, and attitudes of "My pitch is true, so match it" don't ever cut it, regardless of how technically capable any member might be. We must keep our imagination active and have certain expectations of the sounds in our ear. Similar to the "Method" school of acting, we must think ourselves into the role and enter the composer's mind. With the proper knowledge of our own and our colleagues' pitch tendencies, and the ability to correct discrepancies, we'll be well on our way to making our saxophone quartets "Instruments played brilliantly!"