The saxophone is an instrument which is not traditionally found in most orchestral works. However, as saxophonist Jason Kush points out in the following article, great opportunities do exist for saxophonists to perform in the orchestral setting. Jason talks about strategies which can help players gain access to these opportunities. He also points out some important considerations regarding etiquette, playing style, and general keys to success in an orchestral setting. Jason’s article will surely help you prepare for, and succeed in your next orchestral saxophone opportunity.
The saxophone is quite a unique instrument. Just over 150 years old, it was a late edition to the family of acoustic instruments. By the time of its invention, the standard instrumentation of the symphony orchestra had already been established. In fact, Sax invented the instrument for use with concert and field bands. The onset of jazz and other American popular music of the 20th century gave the saxophone its most widely recognized performance environment. The combination of the chameleon-like qualities of the saxophone and its relatively recent birth into the world of music has made the saxophone welcome in a variety of diverse musical situations.
Although not a regular member of the orchestra, the saxophone certainly has carved itself a niche into this genre. Grainger described the saxophone to be “un-do-withoutable,” an opinion shared with composers who included the saxophone in an orchestral setting, even if only for a single solo (as in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances). In more modern pieces, the works of today, the saxophone is thought of less as a novelty and more a colorful member of the ensemble.
Unlike the most outstanding flautist who may win an orchestral position, saxophonists will not be offered full-time positions in orchestras due to the limited use of the instrument in orchestral compositions. The question then remains, how do you come to play with an orchestra? Each orchestra will handle this question in various ways, as well each saxophonist who has played with an orchestra probably has a different story.
Occasionally, orchestras will anticipate their need for a saxophonist in the coming season. They may advertise locally (American Federation of Musicians publications) or online, then hold auditions. With a more prominent orchestra, there may be a prescreening process in which a recording is submitted. Smaller orchestras may not require prescreening and allow open auditions. Take the audition, and take it seriously! No matter how small the orchestra, you never know who may or may not show up for the audition.
In other cases, the orchestra may not anticipate the need for a saxophonist. Several months, a month, or even a couple of weeks before the performance, the orchestra manager may realize that there are saxophone parts for Rhapsody in Blue and that they should probably be covered. This is a typical scenario, and a scenario in which your reputation as a responsible person and reliable player will come into play. Your teacher or another busy saxophonist may refer you for the gig. You are expected to arrive on time, be familiar with your part and its context in the piece (like your entrance!), and wait around to play it.
The pops orchestra is often connected to or associated with the “real” orchestra, but is sometimes free-standing. This performance situation is great for the stylistically flexible saxophonist. Sometimes a saxophone section (five players) will be hired in order to have the big band sound within the orchestra. Other times it may be a reduced saxophone section or simply a part that doubles on tenor and soprano saxophone. A lot is possible here.
Contractors often hire a variety of differing players, ranging for classical-only players to clarinetists doubling on saxophone, to jazz-only players. As a flexible player, this situation can only help you rise to the top. Solo situations will arise where the conductor may want something in a controlled (classically influenced) jazz style. Another instance may be that the manager would like you to play both the tenor and soprano saxophone solos on Bolero in the first half of the program and then play a jazz tenor solo behind a vocalist in the second half of the concert. You can handle this if you are a flexible saxophonist.
The ability to play multiple instruments can help you to get one of these gigs. The orchestra may need to hire a bass clarinetist and need a soprano saxophone solo on one piece. You might be the only person in town capable of that combination. The gig is yours.
The first experience of playing with an orchestra can sometimes be an awkward situation for the saxophonist. Naturally, most will arrive to the rehearsal well prepared with regard to the accurate performance of their music. The three elements of performance that can often feel insecure (and consequently under the conductor’s scrutiny) during this first experience are time, volume, and vibrato.
A difficult issue with regard to time is the task of simultaneously watching the conductor while listening to the other members of the orchestra. Often it appears that the conductor is far ahead of the orchestra’s felt sense of pulse, but this is usually an effort to add emotive quality to the music while continuing its sense of forward motion. Another reason for this technique is to account for the considerable physical distance between the conductor and the musicians of the orchestra closest to the back of the performance space (usually brass and percussion). During a rehearsal of the Suite from Berg’s Lulu, Michael Tilson Thomas advised to me listen rather than watch, because the “groove” of the music is vitally important.
Due to its quintessential association with jazz and popular music, many conceive the saxophone to be a loud instrument.In all reality, the volume and projection of the saxophone can be dominating. In the case with Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, the saxophone replaces the viola in the small string section. This requires that the player have an extremely controlled set of low dynamics, with the ability to shape and contour the musical line within these soft dynamics. When playing in an orchestra, it’s generally best to play on the softer end of the dynamic spectrum. The conductor will surely request you to play with greater volume if they so desire.
There are several ways to decrease the chance for an awkward first rehearsal. First, it is likely that the saxophonist might only be playing on one or two pieces for the concert’s program. Arrive early to hear the orchestra rehearse a piece that doesn’t include saxophone. During this time, observe (both aurally and visually) the musicians response to the conductor’s gestures. This can vary greatly from piece to piece, but observing will give you a greater chance of anticipating and understanding these motions. Also during this time notice the acoustic qualities of the hall or rehearsal space. Try to understand the response and resonant qualities of the room. This will aid you adjustment of dynamics.
It is important to appropriately utilize a variety of vibrato styles in an orchestral setting. Often, a saxophonist can immediately feel friction with the conductor and orchestra members by using a wide and/or fast, soloistic vibrato during sections that are not intended to stand out of the texture. For example, when playing with the woodwind section, make a great effort to match the vibrato and volume. Realize that if anything, you are probably playing too loud and with too wide of a vibrato. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a straight (or straighter) tone.
In regard to solo playing, as in The Old Castle from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, vibrato is a choice that performer can more freely make. This said it is best to be open to other ideas and not find oneself in an unbreakable routine. The conductor may have no suggestions for the soloist, or they may micromanage every nuance therein. One can frequently head off these suggestions by becoming familiar with several of the major recordings of the given piece. Be able to copy each interpretation, and then through this process develop your own. Being open to new ideas, having the ability to execute them, and keeping the conductor happy are key to a great orchestral experience!