Thoughts on Saxophone Quartet Playing

To have a great-sounding quartet, you must work very earnestly on tuning. Take sections apart and play with just the bari and the alto, the bari and tenor, the bari and soprano, the tenor and soprano, the alto and soprano, as many different combinations as you can stand! Break chords down and tune them. Do this a lot! After you’ve done a lot of this, it becomes less necessary, but there is no short cut. You have to pay the dues, if you want your ears to be really good. There’s nothing more beautiful than truly in-tune chords, and probably nothing more ugly than an out of tune saxophone quartet! An aside concerning tuning: if you can, find someone to play saxophone duos with. Mark Engebretson and I started playing saxophone duos together when we were students at the Conservatory in Bordeaux, France. (We often joke that Monsieur Jean-Marie Londeix was the match maker!) It was really awful at first, but we just kept at it, and now playing duos together is very rewarding. When you can play in tune as a saxophone duo, you can really play in tune! Another concern in quartet playing is balance. The soprano almost always sounds louder out front than I think it does when I’m playing, so I have learned to take it easy and put my sound inside the sounds of my colleagues. There has rarely been a case when the soprano could not be heard well enough. In a quartet, the cueing and conducting is most often done by the soprano saxophonist. The soprano saxophonist must have his or her parts so well-learned that they can be confident, first of all, that the cues are correct, and that making the cues does not disrupt their own playing. It is a challenge to do all of that and still be able to play soaring melodic lines flexibly. Whenever possible, it is wonderful for the soprano saxophonist if the alto player can play the role of timekeeper, freeing up the soprano, especially in particularly difficult passages. On the subject of the alto saxophone, I love playing alto in quartets. When I have played alto with an excellent player on soprano, I have been amazed at what a fun position it is, and how much different it is from playing soprano. Tuning is very difficult, since the alto is so often playing between G and C on the staff. A lucky soprano player has an alto player who can play gorgeous second lines to the soprano, can play gorgeous melodies lines when the alto takes the lead, and can sink completely into the texture when necessary. I am lucky to have a dream of an alto player in the Amherst Saxophone Quartet. Russ Carere and I phrase very much the same way, so we get these wonderful, rich parallel lines. He always supports me when I have a something in a difficult range, and his tuning is impeccable. Lotta Petersen, the alto player when I was a member of the Rollin’ Phones, also was a dream of an alto player. I feel very lucky to have had the good fortune to play with musicians who have the same sense of how music should go. With the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, I have the exceptional honor of playing with three musicians who have over twenty years of professional performing! Russ Carere, Steve Rosenthal, Harry Fackelman and I have brought the ASQ to our present level of quartet playing, due in large part to the years of experience we all have as chamber musicians, but also due very much to the fact that we rehearse regularly three or four times a week through out the year. —Susan Fancher