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Could You Just Add Another Key To Make It Do…….?

18 Jul

Could You Just Add Another Key To Make It Do…….? The Evolution of Saxophone Keywork


Nobody is exactly certain when Adolphe Sax produced the first example of the instrument which bears his name. The patents were granted in 1846, and an article written by Sax’s close friend, Hector Berlioz, in 1842 describes the instrument in great detail for “Journal Des Debatsâ€, a Paris magazine. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that Sax had working examples of the saxophone that he was showing to friends and potential customers as early as 1840, and this date is generally accepted as the official “birthday†of the saxophone. What we don’t know much about is the evolution of the keywork and mechanism.

In 1842, Sax moved to Paris, then considered the musical center of the world, in order to promote his new instrument. The saxophone apparently had achieved a degree of standardization by 1844, or at least enough for Hector Berlioz to include a dedicated saxophone part in his choral composition Chant Sacre. 1844 also marked the introduction of the instrument to the general public through its inclusion in the Paris Industrial Exhibition. By 1845, Sax was rewriting military band arrangements with the oboe, bassoon, and French horn parts all replaced by saxophones keyed in both Bb and Eb. Sax believed that by replacing these instruments with saxophones, the military bands would achieve a more “homogenous†sound. On February 14, 1847, a saxophone school was created in Paris. The school was set up at a military band school known as Gymnase Musical. The saxophone continued to gain acceptance, and in 1858, Adolphe Sax himself was appointed Professor of Saxophone at the Paris Conservatory. All of the instruments were, of course, constructed by Sax himself, and there was almost no variation in the keywork or mechanism. The horns were keyed from low B to high Eb, but very significantly, Sax taught his students that the saxophone had a four octave range! The instruments Sax (the only source) produced used double octave keys, and lacked many of the features commonly found on saxophones today, such as an articulated G#, a forked F#, the “one and one†Bb, the front F key, and other improvements that found their way onto later versions of the saxophone.

The first patent issued to Sax reached the end of its twenty year life in 1866, and almost immediately, other companies began producing saxophones and making improvements. One of the earliest improvements, which soon found universal acceptance on all saxophones, was the introduction by the Millereau Company of a “forked†F#, which greatly facilitated the production of that note while retaining the basic playing position for the three “main†fingers of the right hand. While not technically a keywork or mechanism improvement, in 1868, Gautrot, Pierre, Louis, and Company introduced a system that kept the surface of the pads flat in order to provide a better seal.

Prior to this time, saxophone pads were of “purse†style construction, with a leather bag of appropriate size for the key cup filled with sawdust and stitched shut. These early pads were far too soft and their pneumatic qualities were sorely lacking, and the new system of Gautrot, Pierre, Louis, and Company was a giant leap forward toward solving a serious problem. Pads would go through many evolutionary stages and false starts before we obtained the product in common use today. In 1881, Adolphe Sax filed another series of patent documents with improvements to the saxophone that he hoped would give him an edge over the rapidly expanding number of competitors.

In addition to renewing his original patents, Sax’s 1881 patent called for an extension of the saxophone bell to allow keywork down to written low Bb, and for the extension of keywork up the body tube to allow the production of high F# and high G. The extension of the range of the saxophone unfortunately required the addition of two more octave keys in order to produce these notes reliably, bringing the total of octave key touches to be operated by the left thumb to four! The Association Des Ouvriers brought us closer to the modern configuration of the saxophone in 1886 with the introduction of the right hand chromatic C key (up until then it was sorta hard to trill from B to C!) and the “one and one†Bb system for the first fingers of the right and left hands. In 1887, Des Ouvriers produced a somewhat functional articulated G# key, and their system was significantly improved by Evette and Schaeffer so that the G# key can be held down automatically while any finger of the left hand is used. In conjunction with this improvement, Evette and Schaeffer perfected the forked F# system to the form which is still in use today.

The multiple octave keys found on the early saxophones, although an acoustic necessity, was a great impediment to smooth execution. This situation was finally resolved in 1888 with the invention of the automatic octave key by Lecomte. This mechanism, which is basically the one most saxophones use today, uses two separate octave vents, one on the neck (for notes A2 – F3) and one on the body (for notes Db2 – Ab2) controlled by a single key touch.

Simultaneously, Lecomte also resolved another great technique issue with the introduction of the first ever rollers on the low Eb and low C keys. Through out the history of the saxophone, instrument designers have frequently offered changes in the mechanism in the hope of facilitating technically difficult passages. In addition to the improvements previously cited in this article, a variety of different solutions have been attempted, the vast majority of which ultimately fell from favor. These include the G# trill key; the “forked†Eb key; and the high C/D trill key.

In 1899, Paul Evette introduced a new key mechanism that was truly a “game changerâ€: the front F key. Not only did this mechanism allow the player to easily execute the two highest notes on the saxophones of that era, it greatly facilitated the players ability to execute arpeggios between high C and either high E or high F. This key would later become an integral part of the performance of the altissimo register, which was most uncommon at the time.

Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, saxophone manufacturers continued to offer instruments with a range which extended beyond the normal low Bb through high F. The extension of the range to low A found acceptance by baritone players but was rejected by tenor and alto players, who believed that the necessary extension of the bell added far too much additional weight which upset the balance of the instrument in its normal playing position. During the 1960’s, the Selmer company attempted to resurrect this concept by offering a low A version of their popular Mark VI alto saxophone. Production ceased after less than two hundred examples were built, in spite of the excellent playing characteristics of the instrument. The players of the day judged the instrument to be simply “too differentâ€.

Adolphe Sax himself had pioneered the extension of the saxophones range through his 1881 patent, which described keywork for high F# and high G. The high F# key became an option for several manufacturers during the 1930’s, and by the 1950’s it was commonly seen as an addition (at extra expense to the buyer) on Selmer saxophones. In 1977, Selmer made this key standard on Mark VII alto and tenor saxophones. It is now seen on virtually all saxophones manufactured today. It is worth noting that there is a mistaken belief among some players that the high F# key causes response problems, particularly on the notes low B and Bb. This myth has become so pervasive that some manufacturers now offer a “high F# key delete†option as a special order on their saxophones.

Acceptance of the high G key, which was also advocated by Adolphe Sax in his 1881 patent was slower, and until around 2005 was confined mainly to soprano saxophones. The lack of a high G option being offered by most manufacturers is easily explained by the fact that the required location of the high G tone hole required that the body tube be lengthened slightly and the neck being shortened proportionally, necessitating new and different tooling. I was involved in the design and manufacturing of saxophones with a high G key, and we made the decision to include the high G key as standard equipment, thus eliminating the need for different tooling for versions “with†and versions “withoutâ€.

Of course, not all the mechanism changes seen during the evolution of the saxophone were intended to resolve fingering issues. From the very beginning, it was recognized that the upper register of the saxophone was problematic with regard to both pitch and response. This is easily explained by the fact that the notes above C#2 are all overtones, which are produced by having the octave mechanism destroy the fundamental pitch and allow the first overtone to become dominant. The problem that has always existed is that there are twelve semitones in the chromatic scale and for optimum results, twelve independent vents would be required. Needless to say, this would be a mechanical nightmare, and twelve individual key touches would never be easily manipulated by mere mortals! The very first saxophones had two independent octave keys which were operated by the left thumb. Each key controlled a limited range of notes, and since only two vents were used where twelve would be required, the position of the vents had to be compromised. Adolphe Sax recognized this problem early on, and his patent of 1881 sought to resolve the problem through the addition of two additional octave keys, bringing the total to four. Keep in mind that each of these keys was independent, so the required finger technique became increasingly complex. With the adoption of the automatic octave key invented by Lecomte in 1888 with its very convenient single key touch, saxophone manufacturers reverted to two vents, and any increase in that number was very rarely seen until the late 1930’s, when the C. G. Conn company introduced the very radical model 28M “Constellation†alto, which was designed by Santy Runyon. The 28M broke a considerable amount of new ground in many areas, including keywork geometry, construction materials, and the first ever “mass produced†three vent octave system controlled by a single key touch. The octave mechanism was the key feature promoted in the advertising for this model, which promised an end to the notoriously stuffy fourth line D. There were two vents on the body tube which worked in conjunction with each other, and another vent located on the neck which opened when the body vents were closed. The system worked remarkably well, but the 28M was not a success simply because many features that it offered were simply too radical for the times. When I was a student of Santy Runyon in the 1990’s, we discussed the 28M in great detail. Santy told me that the lack of acceptance of the many innovations on this instrument was one of the very greatest disappointments of his long career. I was shocked to learn that Santy did not own an example of the 28M, and that he told me he had not seen one in almost fifty years. I was extremely pleased and honored to be able to present Santy with a 28M from my personal saxophone collection (I owned two) and to have him demonstrate the many capabilities of this unique design.Similar multi-vent systems were used in the 1930’s by Allen Loomis for the C. G Conn Company and by Edward Powell. Neither of these was commercially successful.

Since the tuning and voicing problems with the saxophone get worse as pitch increases, several similar systems have been employed with varying degrees of success in an attempt to tame the troublesome left hand upper register. Beginning in the 1920’s, a mechanical connection was made between the octave key mechanism and the C pad (the small one) of the upper stack. When the octave key was depressed, the mechanism would partially close the C pad, which would lower the pitch of the note. The use of this type of compensating mechanism allowed designers to change the location and increase the diameter of the palm keys (D3 – F3) and reduce some on the thin and shrill tone that had been associated with those notes, as well as to bring them more into tune. This system is commonly seen on soprano saxophones, and during the 1920’s was employed by Martin on some alto models. It later evolved into the “doughnut†pad commonly seen today, which is often used in conjunction with a pronounced “step†in the body tube diameter. As an alternative to lowering the C pad, some manufacturers (most notably Selmer on the Series III alto and Saxgourmet on the Voodoo Rex alto) employ an entirely different tone hole dedicated to providing the necessary pitch and voicing adjustments. This mechanism is of necessity much more complex, but is adjustable to a far greater degree. Yet another option for resolving this issue is the inclusion of a “speaker key†which is a part of the upper stack B key mechanism, and has its own unique and dedicated tone hole. This system has the advantage of requiring no additional springs or moving parts, and if properly designed allows greater venting for the upper notes, substantially improving voicing and pitch.

When Adolphe Sax was instructing his students at the Paris Conservatory, he taught that the saxophone had a four octave range, even though the instrument was only keyed to F above the staff. The higher tones were achieved through the use of cross vented fingerings and the manipulation of the players oral cavity. Then, as now, the study of the altissimo range was a lengthy, difficult, and often extremely frustrating. Until Sigurd Rascher published Top Tones for the Saxophone in 1941, there was virtually no teaching or study material available on the subject. The altissimo register was very rarely heard because very, very few players were capable of producing it. There were certainly no attempts to produce an “altissimo friendly†saxophone. In 1949, Earl Gillespie, then employed as a designer for the Martin Company, proposed a system in which a hollow tube was installed in the B key on the upper stack (a similar vent is found on the corresponding location on the bass clarinet) and used in conjunction with a very specific bore taper configuration. Gillespie’s patent application states that “Any saxophone completely embodying the principles of this invention will have a natural range of 41 consecutive chromatic semi-tones extending from B in the great octave to d in the four line octave inclusive†and provides a fingering chart for these notes. Gillespie contended that the vent tube produced sympathetic vibrations which eased the production of the upper tones. I can find no record that this instrument was ever actually produced. During the 1990’s, the Selmer Company began producing an optional mechanism for the Super Action 80 Series II alto which had a dedicated key operated by the left thumb which stabilized the note G3 when it was produced by opening the front F key only. This system worked quite well, but I always considered it to be quite an extravagance to have such an elaborate mechanism dedicated to the improvement of one note only. Beginning in 2005, my company designed and produced a saxophone with four octave vents, including a separate “dedicated altissimo†octave mechanism. This instrument is still in production, and we have continued our research in this area. In late 2014, we expect to introduce a popular priced saxophone with a dedicated altissimo mechanism. The quest for the perfect saxophone mechanism continues, and hopefully the future holds many improvements which will facilitate the enjoyment and usage of the instrument we all know and love!

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