Soprano saxes are a very misunderstood instrument. They are also one of the better selling instruments in my family’s store as we really know sopranos and specifically know how to help people pick the right soprano for them. I talk to people all the time helping them choose the right soprano sax for them. In fact, we joke around the shop about instituting an automated phone system specifically to address the common soprano related issues for customers in a “dial by number” type of solution… “If you are getting a gurgle on low F, E & D, press one now…”
While that would be fun to setup (I am already imagining setting up the “if you are calling for a sopranino sax, press 9 – and then having that number route to a psychiatrist office – just kidding), I thought I could be more helpful with a blog post on it. So, here we go!
Why is soprano sax so hard to play?
The notion that soprano sax is actually harder to play than other saxophones & instruments is a common misconception. The problem is that players make assumptions about soprano sax that leads them in to trouble every time. There are a few simple steps that I use to help people understand these issues and choose the right soprano for them. The first is to understand the player’s intended approach to how they will play their soprano.
The Casual Soprano Approach
This is the most common approach in my opinion. This is where players approach their soprano with the idea of:
“I play alto/tenor, therefore I can play soprano“.
This is like saying: “I ride a bicycle, therefore I can drive a motorcycle“.
This assumption leads to players who buy a soprano and do not practice their soprano. This is what I refer to as the “Casual Soprano” approach.
In reality, while this approach is not the wisest, it is the most common due to the fact that soprano by its nature a secondark instrument for most players. The player does not have as much use for a soprano so practicing it is not the highest on their priority list.
The Real Soprano Approach
This is where a player understands that soprano saxes are still a separate, unique instrument that requires the same attention and practice to stay proficient on as any other instrument or saxophone.
From a musical standpoint, this is the correct way of approaching any instrument.
So Which Player Are You?
The easiest way to choose a soprano is to first identify what style of player you are going to be. Be honest. If you KNOW that you are going to be the casual soprano player, pay attention.
If you know you are going to be the “casual” soprano player, then get a soprano sax that has a bore concept more in line with whatever type of bore concept you use on whatever your primary practiced instrument is. So if you play on a Yanagisawa alto as your primary instrument, get a soprano that is more in line with that bore. This does not mean you have to go and shell out the money for the Yanagisawa (though it is a great horn!). This simply means get something in a soprano that fits that style.
This will help you immensely. Also, get a soprano mouthpiece that is more in line with your primary instrument’s mouthpiece. Same goes for reed, ligature, etc… basically, get what you are already comfortable with.
So what about the player who practices regularly? This player gets more liberty in their choice as now they can purchase a soprano based more on the SOUND rather than the comfort.
So What Sopranos & Styles Work Best?
This next part is obviously going to be based more in a personal opinion (mine), so I will say that up front. For the sake of this part of the article, I will focus on styles of soprano that I have available through my family’s company (www.kesslermusic.com).
This style of soprano was made most popular obviously by Selmer Paris, but it is also the style of sound and performance that we chose for our Kessler Custom sopranos. This design features a tighter bore that gives a more focused tone… one that if you could see it physically come out of the horn, would come of out as a cylinder of compressed tone that hits you with everything in the chest.
This style of soprano is made most popular by Yanagisawa & Yamaha and in lower cost sopranos, can be found on the Antigua sopranos. This design concept is a little more open in its bore and gives a broader more open tone.
Pros & Cons of Each Style
The Japanese style of design is simply “easier” for most players. Plainly put, it feels more like an alto sax as far as breath support & resistance is concerned. So for many of the “casual” soprano players, the Japanese style is the easier fit with little effort.
The exception to that is anyone who is already playing a French style bored instrument for their primary instrument. So if you are playing on a Selmer, Kessler Custom, or any other French based bore design for your primary, you will lean a little more towards the French design on soprano.
Proof in this concept is my father Chuck Kessler. He doesn’t actively practice any instrument at this point, but he plays saxophones & other woodwind instruments all day long as we are preparing them for shipping to customers and quality control checking the tons of repairs going across the bench. So he is almost the perfect example of the “casual” player.
He will perform on a soprano 2-3 times a year in church. When he grabs a soprano to play, he grabs an Antigua as it is simply easier for him to play without much effort or practice ahead of time. He still prefers the TONE of the French based bores (our Kessler Custom models for example) but he isn’t going to practice so he grabs the Antigua.
With the French based bores, you will get a more focused, “core” tone out of the horn. These need to be played correctly and practiced in order to stay fluent on.
On our own Kessler Custom sopranos, we designed our “Performance Series” models to use the French style bore, but opted for a lighter weight “single post to body” construction to help the horn’s ease of response. This is so that we could give a player who wanted a great quality, lower cost soprano, the benefit of the focused tone of the French bore but make it a little easier to play due to the lighter construction. This is why our Performance Series sopranos are our BEST selling soprano in our store regardless of price or brand. (click here to view Performance Series soprano)
General Advice for Playing Soprano…
Here is the best advice that I can give anyone when it comes to modern soprano sax playing. RELAX. The biggest problem is that many players tend to pinch and play too tight on their embouchure. While this is good advice for any sax player, it is of critical importance on modern soprano.
Modern sopranos are DESIGNED to play with the mouthpiece pushed on covering roughly 90% of the cork. That’s basically pushed on until it can’t be pushed on further. Then you play relaxed and play it like a tenor. This will give you that richer, lush soprano sax sound that seems so elusive.
The other issue here is intonation and response. Soprano is a small enough embouchure that if you only push on covering 60-70% of the cork, you will be flat but can get a single tuning note up to pitch with a simple extra pressure on the embouchure. All of a sudden, the tuning note is in tune, but your octaves will be all off and there will be a gurgle in the lower end of the horn – all problems that people will THINK are a problem with the sax, when in reality, it is the player.
So push on till it won’t go on any further and relax. You (and anyone listening) will be glad you did!