How to Develop a Classical Saxophone Sound

Perhaps the most captivating thing about a great classical saxophone performance is a player’s tone quality. A clear, beautiful, and consistent tone is something we all strive for, but how do you start to develop this if you are new to the classical style of playing? Learn more with this article by Dr. Todd Oxford (Associate Professor of Saxophone and Chamber Music at the Texas State University School of Music, TX, USA).
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Go to the Source

As with learning most things, the best first step is to go to the source. And with classical saxophone, that means taking time to research the Master Players who founded the classical saxophone performance tradition. The two founding classical saxophone artists:

As a teenager, I was introduced to Marcel Mule’s recordings through a private instructor. Mule’s sound and performance style became the foundation of my early tone concept. Later, I was exposed to the playing of:

Marcel Mule: “Le Maître”

It’s interesting to note that Marcel Mule was the first classical player to experiment with vibrato on the saxophone. Early in his career, he played with no vibrato. After hearing vibrato used in jazz music, he began to apply the technique in his classical playing after being asked by an orchestral conductor to vibrate. Vibrato became one of the many hallmarks of Mule’s playing. The vibrato technique as an expressive element in the sound has become a cornerstone of the classical saxophone tone quality and performance tradition.

There are numerous recordings available of both Mule and Raschèr. It’s exciting to hear the differences in their concept of sound, musical interpretation, and overall performing technique.

To develop a traditional classical tone quality concept, you don’t need to be limited by listening to only saxophone recordings. The “pure” classical saxophone sound is inspired by instruments of the symphony orchestra and the human voice. Students interested in exploring the classical saxophone sound should also absorb influences by world-class recordings of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and opera artists examples of a controlled “pure” classical tone. Listening to other great classical performers is not only inspiring, but we can assimilate a concept of what the classical sound tradition is so we can then begin to apply it on our own instrument.

Daniel Deffayet.

Getting the Right Gear

To develop a pure tone, it’s imperative to make sure you have quality equipment. The player must have a horn that:

  1. seals properly,
  2. responds evenly in all registers,
  3. plays with richness and evenness of tone quality, and
  4. impeccable intonation.

Additionally, it’s essential to have a quality/free-blowing mouthpiece that’s not too closed or too open and reeds with heart allowing for maximum richness of tone quality. Ultimately, the goal is to have a horn and mouthpiece setup that gives you the freedom to create the tone quality you have in your head and won’t unnaturally color your sound.

If you’re a young player, it’s always a good idea to take advice from your teacher or local saxophone specialist when choosing a setup to make sure you’re on the right track.

Tone Development

A great classical sound comes from excellent control of the embouchure, the area of the throat, and the airstream. There are many ways to play and teach classical saxophone; however, I prefer a relaxed embouchure approach (set but not tight), allowing for maximum vibration and resonance of the reed.

We must learn to get out of our own way physically and allow the air to flow. We are all familiar with long tone exercises and their benefits. These are essential daily warm-up techniques to achieve a classical sound with a rich mixture of overtones (lows, middles, and highs) and a definite focus on consistency (evenness) of tone over the full range of the saxophone.

The successful performance attitude and tradition for classical wind instrument playing are always to maintain awareness of achieving your richest possible classical sound when working on long tones and strive for a pure and even tone on each note in all registers. To develop a great classical sound on the saxophone, you will need consistent control over every aspect of each note: the richness of tone, intonation, evenness of tone quality, attacks, and releases.

Breath Control

Although we breathe all day, every day without thinking about it, when applying the concepts of inhalation and exhalation to saxophone performance, we need to concentrate on taking full breaths instead of shallow and learn to control the exhalation process in a relaxed, not forced manner.

Rather than forcing the air out pushing with the abdominal muscles (which can lead to a constricted/closed throat), it’s better to relax and allow the air to flow (with a continuous and supported airspeed) for a more consistently free and open tone. Great breath control and a relaxed/open throat capable of changing position are important for voicing a consistent classical tone on saxophone.

Jean-Marie Londeix.


As your saxophone skills develop, it’s important to be aware that the technique of playing should be allowed to serve the tone quality, musical line, and musical style. Although it’s common to fall into the trap of thinking of tone and technique as two separate aspects, world-class artists achieve consistent/even tone quality throughout their technical practice.

It’s easy to work on long tones and focus on sound but then lose awareness of these elements when concentrating on fingerings in technical passages. Tone quality, musical artistry, style, and technique need to be completely intertwined.

For this reason, one of my favorite exercises is to combine the above concepts by playing the full-range chromatic scale. The player can practice the entire instrument’s range using chromatic fingerings for F# and A# while keeping the tone consistent throughout all registers.

I like to teach beginner students the chromatic scale as soon as possible to assist in developing this concept. Once there is a certain consistency of tone control on the instrument in the middle register, the student may then progress toward applying that evenness of tone to all registers.

The chromatic scale also gives the student an excellent opportunity to iron out any finger technique glitches. Strive to be constantly aware of fingers and sound evenness over difficult technical transitions such as the break (between middle c and octave d), the palm keys, and the lower register C-Bb. Incorporating chromatic alternative fingerings is a great technical tool while maintaining consistency/evenness of tone quality.

Start simply. Remember, this chromatic exercise is about connecting your tone and technique. Begin by playing at a tempo where you can master both, even if that is in whole notes or half notes. Progress in speed as you are able with the ultimate goal of playing the chromatic scale over the entire range fluently in both technique and tone.

In my own practice, I play chromatic scales every day. To get my technique moving, I spend time burning up and down chromatic scales, but never at the expense of tone quality!!

In interviews, Marcel Mule often talked about “la sonorité” — the quality of the tone. In my opinion, that concept combined with masterful musical style/interpretation and the ability to play the musical line with great emotion was the hallmark of Mule’s artistry. He had an incredible technique but never at the expense of a beautiful sound. That is the nirvana that we all ought to be striving for as classical saxophonists.

Suggested Listening:

  • Marcel Mule Saxophone Quartet.
  • Marcel Mule’s solo albums: re-released on the Clarinet Classics label.
  • Sigurd Raschèr.
  • Jean-Marie Londeix.
  • Daniel Deffayet.
  • Harvey Pittel’s recordings on Crystal and Mark Record Labels.
  • Donald Sinta.
  • Frederick Hemke.
  • Eugene Rousseau.
  • Todd Oxford’s recordings on the Equilibrium/Soundset and Mark Record Labels.

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