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Dave Liebman on Doubling on Soprano Sax

Straight horn talk

Dave Liebman on soprano saxophone

The soprano is officially considered part of the saxophone family, but to be honest, though there are some obvious similarities with the other members of this esteemed club, playing the soprano is another matter entirely.

The first difference is apparent but shouldn’t be underestimated: We hold the soprano straight out, seemingly like a clarinet, but alas, it is not a clarinet. You must be careful not to use a clarinet embouchure, meaning the more or less 45-degree angle that the licorice stick is normally held at. Incorrect positioning inhibits the vibrational capacity of the reed. This also leads to the most common problem I observe in students, which is holding the horn pointing down toward the floor and lowering the neck to accommodate that position. This places unnecessary strain and tension on the all-important vocal cords in the laryngeal area; you must keep that area as free and loose as possible. It might look hip, but it can lead to a pinched tone.

Another point is that the other saxophones require more of the entire torso to play, meaning a natural emphasis felt from the neck down to the waistline. With the soprano, although we still have to breathe deeply, using the abdomen area as on all the saxophones, more intensity is felt in the upper torso, much like a trumpet. In fact, in some ways the soprano might be considered closer to the trumpet than to the other saxophones.

The biggest musical challenges in playing the sop relate to tone production and intonation, problems caused primarily by the horn’s small bore size. The body of the soprano is conical like the other saxophones, except that at the very onset of the flaring out it is extremely narrow. This means that an immense volume of air is being pushed through a very small space, leaving little room for error. The same is true of the soprano mouthpiece, which is much smaller than a tenor or alto mouthpiece. These factors create the need for a very focused and controlled air stream that takes a lot of practice to master. The problem of intonation, especially in the high register, is worse on soprano than on the other saxophones because the speed and intensity of the air stream is magnified to such a great degree. The high notes on the sop are in the range of sound where the pitches are produced by very fast oscillations. (As far as playing in the altissimo register, that is a separate issue.)

The red zone of the soprano is the left-hand octave and palm keys. As mentioned, these pitches are very high up register-wise, and the problem of thinness and harshness of sound becomes quite challenging. This is true of all the saxophones, but it is most severe on the soprano because you cannot hide. As one of my mates described it, the sound in the high register is like “a pet store on fire”!

What to do? The same exercises that I teach on any saxophone-coming from saxophone master teacher Joe Allard-have to be practiced with even more commitment on the soprano: Overtone production, matching of tone color and pitch, and even air control are necessary areas to focus on. I can’t stress enough the practice of overtones in order to overcome the thinness of sound in the red zone.

Fledgling doublers might not want to hear the following, but it’s the truth: Playing the soprano at a high level is a fulltime job and, much like the flute, demands attention every day. Those of you familiar with my career might remember when I put the tenor and flute away for 15 years to concentrate on the soprano. It comes down to what level of expertise you’re seeking. To play a tune or two or a written part on the soprano is one thing; to try and develop a sound that is yours is another deal altogether. Successful doublers have historically had different styles on the soprano than on their main horns, which is a good thing. I know that, for me, this is true.

Along with the challenges there is the joy of the soprano’s immediacy of sound, as well as the transposition being so close to true concert pitch, making true unisons more common when compared to the other saxes. As soon as air enters the soprano responds, and the horn is especially sonorous in its beautiful low register. You can really control the amount and speed of air for very positive timbral results. The other saxophones, because of their construction, have some degree of lag time, especially in the lower register.

As always, it’s essential to listen to the masters. For soprano sax, that means Sidney Bechet, Steve Lacy, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. And there are some great avant-garde players who have stretched the palette of sound possibilities on the instrument: Evan Parker and John Butcher are a couple.

I wish you the best with the fish horn.

Dave Liebman is a renowned saxophonist, composer and educator, and an NEA Jazz Master. Visit him online at

Originally Published