Some of us have spent years pursuing the holy grail of "the perfect saxophone setup." And it is understandable. There are so many things that affect the sound of you and your saxophone. The sax, the mouthpiece, the reeds... and yes, even the ligature affect your sound.
Pretty much anybody can understand that the basic purpose for the ligature. It holds the reed against the face of the mouthpiece so that the reed vibrates properly when you play.
What is not so obvious is how (or how much) the ligature can affect the sound, for better or for worse. And the reasons for this are more complex than you might first imagine.
Your saxophone sound is created by the vibration of the reed causing resonance in the air column that you create in your saxophone when you blow. Let's take a look at some very bad artwork I did in Microsoft Paint to give a rough rendering of the function of the ligature.
As you know, the table on the mouthpiece is flat where the base of the reed sits on the mouthpiece. At the other end, it has a curve away from the reed.
When you squeeze it slightly and blow, the thin end of the reed vibrates against the moutpiece, causing a resonating air column. But the reed doesn't stay there by elfin' magic. It has to be held in place. That's were the ligature comes in. So far, so good. And so basic. We all get this.
I am a bit of a collector and I've been a real "experimenter" over the years, looking for the perfect mouthpiece and ligature combination. I've got (between tenor, alto, soprano, clarinet, hard rubber and metal moutpieces) a collection of about 30 ligatures in different configurations. They do play differently and they do sound different.
My experience with these critters and my reading and studying this over the years leads me to understand that their intention with the ligature is to come up with various ways of contacting the base of the reed, with varying tensions and firmness in various places.
Let me show you some of the different locations on the reed that my ligatures attempt to contact the reed.
Some of their intention is to try to find the perfect way to hold the reed in place. And to be honest, I have to think sometimes, they simply want to be unique. You can't rule out the possibility of coming up with a marketing gimmick. At least, reading through the literature, that is my conclusion for some of them.
Quite simply, you're changing the physics in the setup by clamping the reed in different spots. If you pluck a guitar string in the middle it sounds different than if you pluck it near the end. And if you touch the string the middle and pluck it lightly at the end you can get it to resonate at a different harmonic. Reeds and mouthpieces are the same way. Clamping that reed differently will cause it to vibrate slightly differently. I will give you different subtle changes to the sound and the feel of how it plays.
Let me throw some more bad Microsoft Paint artwork in here for you to see what I mean.
Of course these are very rough renderings of what the shape of the reed would be if you shot it with a high speed camera while you were playing it. My point is that it is easy to see how the reed could vibrate slightly differently, depending on the amount of pressure on the reed and where and how many pressure points they apply to it.
But how much difference does all of this really make in the sound? Well, let me start out by making this simple statement:
One of the things I didn’t know about me until I had been playing forever is that I could get too fixated on finding the perfect ligature. And so, I wasted a lot of time and money, missing the importance of embouchure, scales and arpeggios, listening skills and the like. Most of those ligatures now sit unused in a closet. They only "come out of the closet" for the occasional photo op or if there is some reason I have to go to a mouthpiece that needs a different size ligature than the one I am using. But I've pretty much settled on a couple different setups I use now on my tenor (my "Gatling gun" of choice). I tend to have one mouthpiece I use for live gigs and another I tend to favor for the studio.
But there are some things worth thinking about when you shop for a ligature, if you feel you need to do so. And it might actually be the case that you DO need to upgrade your ligature. So if you need one, or if you think you do, let me share some thoughts with you.
It's pretty much any sax player's wish that he or she could pick up the sax and play like greased lightening. A good solo is always awesome. But a fast solo is like a good martial arts trick. It leaves everyone in awe and almost worshipping the musician for their technical prowess. But while speed makes for an amazing technical demonstration, we sometimes miss what it takes to get there.
And one day I discovered something by accident that opened my eyes to the benefit of practicing slowly.
I'm one of those guys that tends to live a little dangerously with the level of gas in my car. But every once in a while, it catches up to me. And one day, I ran out on a 4 lane divided highway. And I had to go for a walk.
It's fascinating the things you notice about the road at a speed of three miles per hour that you just don't notice at seventy.
I had actually stumbled onto the little factoid of the length of the lines in the centre line of the highway and the length of the spaces in between. When you're driving in a car, it's easy to incorrectly estimate the size of those little suckers.
If you've already been told the numbers on these stripes and spaces, it's a little easier to imagine it as you're driving past them. But they blast by so quickly. Most people guess the lines are anywhere between 3 and 5 feet long.
If you've never been told the numbers, let me give you a little surprise. The length of the dashes on the highway are ten feet long. And the spaces - get ready for it - are thirty feet long.
I actually remember that day I was out walking. There was a break in the traffic and, since I had that little factoid in my head, I just had to test that out. So, I got out there with my size 12 clogs and paced those lines out. And then I paced the spaces out. And then I quickly moved out of the way of that semi-truck. Because unlike me, he wasn't going slow enough to appreciate the length of those lines.
But, yes. The lines are 10 feet long and the spaces are 30 feet in between.
I was finally able to get a perspective on the length of those lines, and the fact that I had missed the reality of that fact about them up until that moment. I knew it in my head. But I experienced it that time. The thing I noticed, too, is that once I gassed up and was driving again, I noticed some of the things I saw at three miles per hour in a different way at seventy. I knew what I was watching for after I had seen them at slow speed. And now I could see them. And now, I could more easily imagine those stripes as actually being 10 feet long.
When you practice a physical motion with your body, the body tends to "remember" how to do that motion. For those of us who can walk and ride a bicycle, you realize pretty quickly when you think about it that you don't think much about these things when we do them. Your body just does those things pretty much without thought.
As a matter of fact, if you hop on a bicycle after having not been on one for years, you realize how quickly you can get on it and not have to rethink how to keep that sucker upright. It just stays up. This is a phenomenon that occurs due to the brain-body connections that form through repeated cycles of activities Part of it is something called “muscle memory.”
According to all things Wikipedia, muscle memory is…
a form of “procedural memory” that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with “motor learning.” When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard,… playing a musical instrument…
And for reference, and to round out the picture, the wikipedia article references a concept called “motor learning.”
Motor learning is a change, resulting from practice or a novel experience, in the capability for responding. It often involves improving the smoothness and accuracy of movements and is obviously necessary for complicated movements such as speaking, playing the piano and climbing trees.
So practicing your wind instrument will cause changes in the brain - those changes develop in relation to the muscle movements that are involved with playing the instrument. (It seems that is the “motor learning” part. And then, as you do it more repeatedly, it starts to become more “second-nature.”)
There is a bit of a step between bad and good. Learning the basics of something makes you better. The difference between good and great is perhaps a little harder to reach. It takes work. What you might not realize, though, is that there is a real "thing" about how people who are good at playing saxophone become great at playing saxophone. A lot of it comes down to this: