Jay Mason-saxophone and woodwind artist

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SCSBOA Winter Conference 2009, Cole Conservatory of Music-Updated 1/2013

Seating order of the saxophone section

The normal seating arrangement of a big band sax section, as viewed from the front:

1st Tenor          2nd Alto          1st Alto          2nd Tenor      Baritone

-Generally, writers and publishers supply parts for this instrumentation.  While you can add more players, that does tend to upset the balance that the composer/arranger intended. 

-Avoid doubling the lead alto chair.  You need a solid, stable center of pitch and style there.  Two or more players is not a good way to make a bigger sound on that chair.  To avoid pitch, style, and rhythmic conflicts, you would need to have two or more really great players there.  If you have those, you will be better served by putting one on lead and the other(s) on 2nd alto. 

-If your saxophone players don't double on flute or clarinet well, or at all, don't despair!  Of course, DO encourage them to learn these instruments if at all possible.  A more expeditious solution that works quite well:  have some of your flute or clarinet players from the wind ensemble or orchestra become members of the jazz ensemble.  This will allow your band to play much more literature than they otherwise could, and you will expose more players to jazz performance than the 'usual suspects' of the jazz ensemble.  If you try this, have these players sit on one side or the other of the section, i.e. to the right of the 1st Tenor or left of the Baritone. Hopefully, you will be able to convince some, or all, of your saxophone players to begin doubling.  They can get started with some tips from you, and very likely if they are studying with a private teacher that person will already double on one or several instruments and can help them.  While I am always willing to help my students learn their doubles if they are open to it, I often suggest the following:  find a good teacher for whom the flute or clarinet is their principal instrument, and study with THEM.  Most of the top doublers I've known did this in one form another, with each double they play well.  A great source of teachers:  your local University music department.  Talk to the professors who teach flute and clarinet and ask for a recommendation.  Many of these young players will be happy to work with your saxophonists!  And don't forget to look right under your nose:  the first chair players in your orchestra or wind ensemble sections often will be a great source for help and/or recommendations for teachers.   

What Each Player Does, And What Kind Of Player Should Be Sitting There

1st Alto:  Leads the section.  The person needs to be a strong player, with excellent intonation, and a strong sound that can keep up with the lead Trombone and lead Trumpet players.  Something I hear a lot is a lead player with “chops” who has a weak sound, i.e. the player who read the best at auditions, and played their prepared material the best. If it comes down to a choice between a player with a great sound and style, who made a few mistakes on sight reading and prepped material, and one who nailed those tunes but has a weak sound and style issues, pick the first player for this chair.   Improvisation skills will often be required on this chair, but again, sound, style and confidence should prevail.  You can always pass an improv solo written on the lead chair to another saxophonist if this person can't quite handle it.  1st Alto often doubles on Soprano Saxophone.  If your 1st player does not there will be charts that you will not be able to play, so encourage your saxophone players to learn the soprano.  

2nd Alto:  Actually, this is one of the most difficult positions in a big band.  If this player cannot match the style, time, and intonation of the 1st Alto, you will have problems.  At the very least, they must be willing to follow the lead player and be taught how to do this!  Many times section intonation issues can be traced to problems between these two players, as can blend and time/style inconsitencies.  A great 2nd player will shelve their ego and “mimic” the style and phrasing of the lead player perfectly. 

1st Tenor:  Often considered the “jazz” chair in the section, so improvisation skills will be required.  This player needs to have enough confidence to stand up and perform when soloing, and then be able to sit down and follow the lead player in section work.  1st Tenor also is often written in duets or trios with a trumpet or other saxophones. 

2nd Tenor:  Some of the wackiest, most difficult parts end up on this chair.  A special skill that is important here is the ability to play softly, on the lower register of the horn.  If you want to entertain yourself and the band sometime, ask this player to play an excerpt from a great saxophone soli.  You will be amazed at the musical acrobatics that end up on this chair!! 

Baritone:  This is a multi-role player’s job.  The Baritone plays with the saxophones, the trombones, and on its own.  A mistake that is often made by teachers is to put their 5th best player on this part.  Ideally, put your best SOUNDING baritone player here.   Many arrangers write the same part for the bari as they do for the Lead Alto, with the other chord tones distributed through the rest of the section.  So your bari player needs to be a “low lead alto” kind of player.  Players who are hesitant or who tend to drag will cause problems here.  Keep in mind that this instruments wants to speak a little later than the smaller alto, but your player is being asked to line up with the lead alto (!).  A timid player will hurt the time feel in the section.  

Blend, Pitch, and Tonal Concept

-The saxophone is often compared to the human voice in terms of its expressiveness and ability to be both a solo and choral voice.  This is what you should strive for in your section-the lead is often the melodic voice, with the rest of the section harmonized below it. A common problem is an inner voice player that plays louder than the lead player, especially 2nd tenor players that can’t play the lower notes softly and easily.  If your lead player has a weak sound, the other players will have to play softly and weakly too in order for the balance to work, which will compromise the entire group.  What usually happens is the other players bury the lead alto.  Again, that chair must have a big sound!!

-Ideally, the 2nd Alto, 1st & 2nd Tenor players will be able to play as loud as the lead, but then will back off to allow the melodic line to be the dominant voice.  If you have a weak player on one of the inner chairs, you may end up with a “hole” in the blend. Baritone players need to be able to keep up with the trombones, AND blend with the saxophones.  If you are playing a funk or rock chart, this person will need to be strong and, sometimes, fearless (see above).  

-Take time to work out tuning between intervals.  Often, I hear sections (indeed, entire bands) tuning on an ‘A’ or ‘Bb’. This is important, but don’t stop there:  have the players tune on a chord. Have the baritone play the root, 2nd Tenor on a 5th, 1st Tenor on a 3rd, 2nd alto on a root, Lead Alto on a 7th, as one example.  Point out things like the 3rd needing to be somewhat flat, 5th a little high, and so on.  Another great way to get them to really listen-play open 5ths.  Switch the players around-if they were playing the 3rd, now they play the 5th.  Does the tuning sound as good?  What do they need to do to fix it if not?  Once they have heard and experienced how great it feels to be in tune, few players want to go back to their old, non-existent concept.  Remember how great it felt when you discovered this?  It is worth all the time you need to spend to help them understand and hear intonation. 

-The best sections have a “sound”.  This comes from the players all having a similar tonal concept.  If, for example, the 2nd alto plays softer than the lead and 1st tenor, but with a brighter sound, you have a problem.  An overly dark section (going for the same tonal concept as they would use in a concert band section) will get buried by the brass section in a big band.   

-Great saxophone sections to listen to: 

Duke Ellington, especially later recordings such as “The Great Paris Concerts”

Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, of which a growing number of examples are available on YouTube

Count Basie and his orchestra;  if you own one recording, make sure you have “Atomic Basie”. 

Modern bands: Maria Schneider, John Fedchock Big Band, Bob Mintzer Big Band, The Big Phat Band

Equipment: Horns, Mouthpieces, Ligatures, and Reeds

-Find the best saxophone/woodwind technician in your town, and court that person shamelessly.  When first meeting a new student I always play their saxophone.  Often it is VERY badly out of adjustment, and leaking terribly.  Getting the instrument working at its best is critical to YOUR success as a band leader, let alone your student's progress.  On several occasions I have picked up a student's Yamaha Custom Z or Selmer Mark VI (yes, some of the kids do have horns of this level) and could NOT play the instrument.  Some of the lesser models and brands actually do play really well when they are in adjustment.  As you know all too well, the charts can be quite difficult when everything is working, so insist that they play on well-maintained saxophones and doubles. 

-When a student wants to upgrade a horn, find a saxophone pro in your area and have them go with the student and parents to pick one out.  DO NOT buy a horn because of the name or without the assistance of teacher or another pro or semi pro player.  Every maker has produced stunning examples, but each instrument is a little different-many are handmade.  Just one example:  some players are naturally bright, and some dark, and there are brighter and darker Selmers, Yamahas, Cannonballs, etc.  Pairing a naturally dark player with a dark horn might be perfect for classical playing, but not jazz.  Paying a teacher or pro to help pick out a great horn that matches the player, or reaches a good compromise for a variety of styles, can save a lot of aggravation for them, and you, later. 

-If your saxophonists are doublers, make sure they have a good stand for the saxophone and for the doubles.  Hamilton, K&M and several others all make excellent combination stands that will hold a saxophone and one or more doubles.  Its a good idea for them to own a saxophone stand, whether the student is a doubler or not, as it prevents things like laying the horn down (key damage, other people not seeing it and stepping on it, etc). 

-Mouthpieces and reeds are critical, very personal pieces of gear for your students.  Most likely the stock mouthpieces that come with a new or rental horn (yes, even the very, very best saxophones) will not cut it in a big band-they're just too dark.  If a given student is already producing a big, strong sound with no major pitch problems, one thing you can do is send the student to a mouthpiece refacer, who will clean up the little imperfections in the mouthpiece and make it even better.

-For students who are just moving up to jazz and are looking for a mouthpiece to use, here are some recommendations, listed from a close facing to a more open facing (more on this in a moment):

Altos:  Vandoren A6S, A6M; Meyer 5, 6, or 7 with a medium chamber; Beechler (hard rubber) 5, 6, or 7

Tenors: Vandoren V16 (rubber) T7, T8; V16 metal T55 or T75; Otto Link hard rubber or metal 7, 8 or 7*or 8*; Berg Larsen hard rubber or metal 100/0, 110/0

Baritone:  Vandoren V16 B7 or B9; Otto Link rubber or metal, 6, 7, or 8; RPC hard rubber, Berg Larsen hard rubber 105/2 or 110/2

This is not a comprehensive list.  The main point is to find something that works well for the player!!


As I’ve listed the mouthpieces above, the smaller number corresponds to a smaller tip opening, the distance between the reed and the curved opening on the mouthpiece.  The bigger this distance, the softer reed you will need to make the mouthpiece play, and so as the openings get smaller, you’ll need a harder reed.  A harder reed usually means a darker, more controlled sound, and therefore a “small” or “closed” mouthpiece (small opening) is a good choice for a beginning player, since they require less control.  A lot of band directors suggest that their students to play on radically open mouthpiece, based on the idea of 'more power'.  These are often purchased because they get a “huge” sound, but it comes at the price of control and intonation.  Another issue with very open mouthpieces is lack of response in the low registers. 


Metal mouthpieces guarantee nothing!!  Some of the most robust tenor sounds among pros are created with hard rubber mouthpieces.  Do not recommend metal mouthpieces just to get a “brighter” or a “jazz”sound.  The player must go and try a number of mouthpieces, preferably with a teacher or pro saxophonist, and find what works for that player.  Often players, especially alto players, who go for a metal setup at this stage of their development lose the core of their sound.  Most stores will allow you a trial period, and I would recommend dealing with one that does this. In general (very general) a student moving into playing jazz and big band music who has done well in concert band will do best on a more open, hard rubber mouthpiece that plays well with 2 ½ or 3 reeds. 


Again, a personal choice.  Students should be encouraged to try different brands and types and see what works well.  Most important, is making certain that the ligature fits their mouthpiece of choice.  Some suggestions: Vandoren Optimum ligatures; BG Tradition ligatures, Francois Luis Ligatures, and if you can find them, Harrison or Harrison copy ligatures.  Usually the more of the ligature that contacts the reed, the darker and less responsive the reed will be.  Sometimes the simple ligatures that come with the horns are the best, if they fit.  You will see pro players occassionally using a ligature that's too large, with paper or some such placed between the lig and the mouthpiece to 'make it fit'.  Usually that's a trial idea, NOT a permanent solution.  Even worse is a ligature that is so small that it won't go all the way into the proper position.  This stifles the vibrations of the reed or just doesn't allow the reed to stay in position.  


For some reason the students get the idea that a harder reed means they are improving.  Not so!!  The numbers are similar to the mouthpieces, i.e. the bigger number is harder to play and more resitant.  If you observe a professional sax section you’ll see a lot of #2 ½ and #3 reeds in use for jazz playing.  Important point:  most classical saxophone setups are CLOSER mouthpieces.  A popular classical setup is the Vandoren AL3, with a lot players liking the Vandoren “Blue Box” #3 or #3 ½ reeds to play with it.  For jazz, those same players will often move up to a mouthpiece like a Vandoren A6S or Meyer 7 with a #2 ½ or #3 reed.  A student will be working VERY hard to get a big sound in a jazz band with a closed setup, such as the AL3, and a hard reed. In fact, it is far easier to play in a concert band on a jazz setup, using darker sounding reeds, than to go the other way!

I use Vandoren reeds exclusively on all my saxophones and clarinets.  If you are interested in my setup on any of my instruments, feel free to email me:  saxflyr@cox.net.  Or you can find me on Facebook and send a personal message or post a question. 

Doubles-More Info!

-Your lead alto player should plan to play soprano saxophone if at all possible.  If this can’t be done, when looking at a chart that calls for soprano sax, check to see if it has an optional alto part to use in place of the soprano…many do. 

-Many writers think of the lead and 2nd alto as the flute doublers, the tenor players as the clarinet players, and the baritone as the bass clarinet player.   As previously mentioned, if you don’t have saxophone players who double, add in flute/clarinet players from elsewhere in your program to play those parts.  If they are a little reluctant, give them a few recordings of some of the finest jazz players who WEREN'T saxophonists to ever walk the planet:

Flute:  Hubert Laws, Jim Walker

Clarinet:  Eddie Daniels, Buddy DeFranco, Paquito DeRivera

All of these players are classically trained, GREAT jazz players on these instruments!

Remember, NOT having those parts covered will limit your choices of music!!

-If you like the charts available from bands that are currently working (i.e. the Phat Band) please note:  the writers are creating those parts for the players on those chairs.  Two examples:  my own chair in BPB calls for some pretty serious flute playing, and Charles Pillow from New York, in Maria Schneider's band is a great tenor player who also sounds amazing on oboe/English Horn, so she writes for him.  My point here is that if you want to perform some of these charts, don't hesitate to add players from your other groups to play those instruments and parts, or if the tenor chair calls for flute but your lead alto player plays flute and your tenor player doesn't, just copy those measures and move the doubling parts around.  DON'T deny your students the opportunity to play some music that you want them to just because you don't quite have the right folks in the group...make it work, and everyone benefits.  You never know, maybe one of your flute or oboe players will be inspired by this!


For questions regarding saxophone playing:

www.jaymasonmusic.com;  My email address is here;  please feel free to ask any questions you have, and I will be happy to answer them as best I can!!

www.vandojazzusa.com There’s an area on this site where Vandoren Artists can be contacted by email to answer your questions.  There are blogs too…very informative. 

www.saxontheweb.com  A forum that’s been going for years now, with hundreds of topics.  Most likely someone has asked the same question or had the same issue that you are facing, and you can find some help here. 

www.gregfishmanjazzstudios.com  Check out his articles on improvisation.  His two jazz etude books and jazz duet books feature him on alto and tenor, and he sounds great.  These are excellent resources for students who are lacking a teacher, trying to learn what a fine saxophone sound is. 

www.saxquest.com  Similar to SaxontheWeb. 

www.starsteachmusic.com  Lessons available to watch online or on iPod, often for less than $5.00!!  Players like:  Dan Higgins, Bill Liston, Sal Lozano, Bob Sheppard, and many more. 




2005 Woodwind Masterclass Notes
For the past several years I've been teaching classes on various saxophones and woodwinds, to students and groups at both the high school and college level.  Most recently I've been teaching on this subject at CSU, Long Beach, both in ensemble groups and a masterclass format.  Below is a summary of topics and, I hope, most of the questions and answers that have come up during those sessions.  If you were a student at any of these events, and especially if you asked a question, THANK YOU for participating and giving us all food for thought. 
-Develop a philosophy of playing woodwinds.  You must learn the nuances and peculiarities of each instrument, and the best way to do that is through study with a teacher on each specfic instrument.  However, there are certain things that are indigenous to all woodwinds, including the saxophone (which may be, in my opinion, the hardest woodwind to master).  These include:
1) wasted motion: fingers flying off of keys, rather than moving with them.  Also pressing them down too hard.  Fingers should move only as much as necessary, and the smoother that motion, the better.
2) The tendency to run from certain notes in a group of fast notes.  You must play evenly from note to note.  Most woodwind players tend to rush a note that changes the direction of the musical line (the lowest note, for example). 
3) Mastery of "the break".  Every woodwind has one.  Often the notes on either side of the break don't match in tone quality, but they must match for really great sound and fluid technique. 
4) How you pick up your fingers is just as important as how you put them down.  This gets back to the wasted motion problem. 
5) Mouth playing:  too many players "Play at the mouth", meaning they manipulate their airstream/tongue/throat/embochure more than they realize, often to the detriment of their sound.  Try this exercise:  play back and forth between two easy notes on your instrument, say A and B, or G and A.  While going back & forth continually, listen for the following:  are the notes even?  Do they match in tone color and are both centered the same way?  Does one sound sharp (usually the upper)? Is one accented (usually the upper)?  Now try it going across the break on your instrument;  ask the same questions.  Those things need to be worked out, on all your woodwinds!!
-It is imperative to spend time with a teacher on each specific instrument.  In doing so, you'll learn the voice of that particular instrument or group of instruments, and the things that make it different from the other instruments.  Additionally, during my own studies with flute, oboe, and clarinet teachers, I kept hearing a lot of the same "woodwind philosophy" that we discussed earlier.  Stated differently by each person, yet still the same. 

copyright 2010 Jay Mason All Rights Reserved