Playing Tenor in a Sax Quartet

Mozart reportedly said his favorite chair when playing string quartets was viola (the 3rd instrument down, just like tenor in a saxophone quartet) because he was in the "middle of everything." Each instrument in a sax quartet has its own special problems and challenges, in addition to all of the problems common to playing musically on the saxophone. While audiences are most often more aware of the outer voices (soprano and baritone), a weak tenor player can make the whole group sound bad. The entire ensemble will sound 'muddy' if the tenor player is not at the top of his or her form.

  • Clean Rhythmic Playing. To avoid muddiness, a tenor player should try to play extremely precise rhythms. While the audiences' attention may be on the instrument with the 'melody', our playing can detract from the whole if it is not performed pristinely.
  • Clean Articulations. Good attention to the way we start and end notes is equally important for the same reasons as precise rhythmic playing.
  • Intonation. The tenor chair often is asked to play the major third in a chord. In order to sound 'in tune', the major third must be played significantly lower (approximately 15 cents lower!) than if it were the tonic root. In other words, if you were playing an 'e' in a C major chord if would need to be played much lower than if you were to play the same 'e' in an E major chord in the key of E major. It is important to be able to lower the third without changing the timbre (tone color) of the note while changing pitch.
  • Balance. Sometimes a chord can sound out of tune because of a balance problem. Not all the notes of a chord should be the same volume. Also, it is very important to study the score to know when to bring out a solo in the tenor part and when to add to the texture of the music as a 'felt, but not necessarily heard' background part.
  • Duets within a quartet. The tenor is often called upon to double the soprano part at the octave, or otherwise play a duet with any of the other players of the ensemble. This takes special attention to balance and the ability to match phrasing and tone color with your partner.

Here's an unrelated tip. When on tour, we usually fly to concerts. It is very important to carry the saxophones on board with you. Almost every time we have been forced to check an instrument, it has been damaged! (The exception is when we fly in smaller 'commuter airplanes' with no room in the cabin. The airlines let you hand carry your horn to the planes, then pick them up at plane side as you exit.) The best way to get a tenor on board is to get the smallest case you can find. —Steve Rosenthal