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Getting The Most Out Of Practicing Intervals

Make the most out of studying intervals, thanks to Nick Mainella (Professor of Saxophone at Saint Anselm College, NH, USA), who explains the great benefit of this type of practice and how to approach it.
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When it comes to improvising or anything else on saxophone, intervals are significant. When we think about the lines we play on a single note instrument such as the saxophone, everything we play is based around interval combinations. If practicing intervals is not a daily part of your practice routine, you will soon find yourself limited by your vocabulary and limitations on the horn.

In this article, we will discuss practicing larger intervals and working them into your playing. This will give you many more options and remove the limits that so many of us feel as saxophonists.

Let’s start with my definition of a large interval. I consider anything wider than a major third to be a large jump. We all learn thirds sometime in our early development as a musician and usually practice them along with our scales.

When starting to integrate intervals that are a fourth or larger, we begin to change and open up our sound. Our playing takes on a more angular and unpredictable sound, which keeps our solos sounding more interesting and fresh.

The problem is, playing these wide intervals on saxophone is hard! But there are a few things we can do to start getting them into our vocabulary fluently and on-demand.

Many teachers will tell you to start practicing a certain interval through all 12 keys of a major scale. This is a good approach but can be intimidating and stop you before you even get started. I prefer that my students practice intervals in different key signatures.

Let’s start with something simple; the key of C Major. You’re going to practice playing each interval in a C Major scale in succession. You will start with a major second and end with an octave. It will look like this:

It is true that with this approach, we are leaving some intervals off the table. That’s ok for now. We want to get comfortable playing wide intervals, and we can always come back to the more chromatic intervals later.

This itself will be quite difficult for many saxophone players, especially in the more difficult and complicated major keys.

You’ll want to start by practicing this exercise very slowly and paying particular attention to the intervals’ sound as they get wider. Think about things like sound and intonation as you go along. Intonation between octaves is a huge issue on the saxophone. This becomes even more pronounced when we move into the palm keys, as they tend to go very sharp in most cases. The response of the low register when playing large intervals is also a concern. Pay attention to the oral cavity’s airspeed, tongue, and shape when trying to get your low notes to respond quickly and without distortion.

When played in all keys, the beauty of this exercise forces you to confront these difficult areas of the horn and develop an approach to achieving a great sound in every register. Hard work, but well worth it at the end of the day.

As you start to get better at this exercise in all keys, a whole world of other material will start to open up to you. Think about this work as a gateway into jumping around the horn with ease and working larger intervals into your soloing. You’re playing will quickly start to take on a new direction, and you will feel freer than you ever have before!

Good luck, and keep practicing!

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