A relatively new-kid-on-the block as instruments go, the saxophone was invented less than 200 years ago! Here is a short sampling of facts about this versatile instrument:
1. While typically constructed of brass, the saxophone is actually a member of the woodwind family. The sax earns this classification because of the way sound is produced: a player’s embouchure creates an airtight seal over the mouthpiece, vibrating a single reed in the manner of a clarinet. Brass instruments, by contrast, are played by buzzing one’s lips on the rim of the mouthpiece.
Among the canon of typical modern orchestral woodwinds, clarinets are the only reed instruments with cylindrical bores; meaning that the empty space inside the instrument remains the same diameter through the whole length of the tube. Related reed instruments including saxophones, oboes, English horns and bassoons are all conical-bored; they are narrow at the top end, widening out to a much larger bell opening. The sound of a conical instrument, like a sax or bassoon is composed, of both odd and even harmonics, which is why normal fingerings overblow one octave higher for these instruments. As the clarinet is basically a cylindrical pipe closed on only one end (the mouthpiece as it is being played), the wavelength produced changes, and the even-numbered harmonics will not be present in the sound. This means that lowest notes on your clarinet will overblow at the twelfth – a low E becomes a middle-register B natural when the register key is applied, etc.
2. Each register of the clarinet’s range has its own name.
Woodwind “doubling,” or performing on multiple members of the single reed, flute or double reed family, is a fairly common practice. From an arranger’s standpoint, utilizing players who can double on multiple woodwinds vastly expands the available stylistic and timbral palette available, especially when there can only be a finite number of players in an ensemble. It may seem a bit unfair, but doubling is even expected in certain musical subcultures. For example, a member of the sax section in a jazz big band is often expected to pick up a clarinet or flute for portions of a number. In some cases they may be asked to cover a whole song on the alternate instrument. When a woodwind specialist works in a musical theater pit orchestra situation, their music will sometimes call for the use of not only clarinets, flutes and saxes but oboe, english horn or bassoon as well. If an artist is already skilled at one woodwind, it is often the case that more “Tips for Woodwind Doublers”…
It could be argued that all facts about the bassoon are little-known facts. That being said, most of them would also be pretty boring so I thought I’d focus on “facts” instead. The quotation marks mean we can have some fun while we learn!
“Fact” #1: The bassoon is not an oboe.
You’d be amazed by how many times I’ve been asked, “You play the oboe, right?” The oboe and the bassoon are both in the double reed family and we do sit near each other in the orchestra, but they are, in fact, different instruments! All musicians who are already aware of the subtle differences between more “10 Little-Known Bassoon “facts””…