Eric Daniel and Friends's Blog

"Brand new day baby, brand nu soul"

Where do you fit in?

Posted by ericdanielandfriends on May 13, 2009

Photo by Valentina Cinelli

Photo by Valentina Cinelli


Saxophone players are very often called upon to play in sectional type situations.

The most common situation used to be the standard 5 voice sax section comprised of two altos, two tenors and a Bari sax used in a big band which was in turn  comprised of a four voice trumpet section, a four voice trombone section and a rhythm section made up of bass, drums, piano, and guitar.

Nowadays however, due to new economic and musical realities, sax sections tend to be smaller or non-existent. Saxophones tend to be used not in sax sections but in “horn sections” of various sizes ranging from two horns (usually a trumpet and an alto or tenor sax) to larger five or six horn configurations.

The principles of section playing are basically the same in all these situations, with only slight changes or additional considerations when moving from the smaller horn section conception to the larger full big band five voice situation. In big band playing the “lead” alto conception becomes an important factor as well as the particular roles the inner voice players must understand as well.

There are several factors you must consider to become a good section player:


In whatever section situation you may find yourself called upon to perform, an element vital to your performance will be concentration. Assuming you have arrived at a reasonable level of instrumental proficiency, concentration on your role in the section will be the next most critical factor to your success as a section player.

A sax section, or horn section is really great to listen to when it’s TIGHT and IN TUNE.
So, it’s up to you do keep on top of the situation and give 100% towards achieving this all important end result. Naturally, the more proficient everyone in the section is, the better your chances of sounding good together will be. However, a section of only fairly proficient players who are working as a team and concentrating on getting a good, in tune and COMPACT section sound will come off sounding much better than 4 or 5 “hotshots” each trying to get noticed by trying to out blow each other, hanging over longer on notes and not listening to each other! No contest!

Where do you fit in?

There are two basics “positions” you can play in a section. You are either the “lead” player or you are a supporting, inner parts player, which is just as important.

Lead alto playing

If you are playing lead alto, it’s up to you to decide the interpretation of the phrases which come up in the arrangement you are playing. I’m talking about : how long to hold out the notes, the amount of accent to apply to notes, the rhythmic “feel” to give to the phrases, creating dynamics (crescendos, diminuendos, sforzandos, and the like), and decisions about articulation which may be ambiguous or not indicated at all in the written parts.
Here is where all your listening and analysis of various styles of music will pay off. You must interpret the arrangement in the manner most suited to the overall prevailing style, which will be evident to you if you’ve done your listening “homework”.

If something is unclear to you or there is a difference of interpretation going on within the section, you, as spokesman for the sax section, are expected to clear it up by respectfully asking the composer or arranger of the “chart” to explain how he would like the phrase in question to be played.

Differences of opinion about any aspect of the section’s performance coming from within the section or between the sax section and any another section should be worked out in a friendly, open-minded and diplomatic way. It’s very important to try to maintain a smooth, teamwork oriented working relationship within the section and in the musical unit as a whole. It’s much more fun and much, much better for Saxophone Survival!

Inner parts playing

Playing inner harmony parts within the sax section requires paying close attention to how
the 1st (lead) alto is phrasing. If you have trouble hearing the lead player, you are probably
playing too loud. Play under the lead player and match his phrasing, length of notes, and
type of vibrato (when harmonized only, NEVER use vibrato on unison passages). Keep your
ears open for unison situations between you and members of the trumpet or trombone sec-
tion as well. Use the keyboard as a reliable intonation reference as you play but be flexible
when playing moving unison lines with guitars as they are often loaded with “effects” such
as “chorus” and “finger-bends”. You must be 100 per cent alert to your musical surroundings
at all times.

If, instead of a full sax section, you find yourself playing in a small horn section, follow the 1st trumpet’s phrasing. If the phrasing is inconsistent or unclear, by all means ask the lead player how he intends to phrase the passage in question. Always be open-minded and friendly when discussing interpretation with sectionmates . After all, everyone wants the music and the group to sound great.

Think teamwork! When the music sounds good everybody benefits.


Intonation problems can ruin the sound of any musical ensemble so
tune-up before you begin rehearsals, practice sessions, lessons, gigs, etc.

Tune up again after you and your horn are nice an warmed up.

A good chromatic tuner will fit into your instrument case and is an excellent investment!
(A great way of checking yourself, I mean, if you’re not part of the solution, you are probably part of the problem.)
During performances try to lock onto a solid pitch reference such as a keyboard while pla-

When playing unison passages with other instruments, use a “straight” (i.e. “no vibrato”) sound and try to lock onto the prevailing intonation of the moment.
Playing in tune is an essential element for any good performance but is absolutely vital in creating a strong section sound. It requires constant vigilance and concentration…keep your ears open to what’s going on around you.

Keep it tight!

“Tightness” happens when the section members are all playing with the same “time and stylistic” concept, sometimes referred to as being “in the groove”, or “in the pocket”.
There is also extreme attention being paid to articulation, dynamics, phrasing, and breathing. (Make a *habit of being conscious of these “details”.)

Sections and section players that become “tight” are often called as a unit for touring and/or recording work.

Team up with the best trumpet and trombone players you can stand for this kind of thing. (I meant to say the best ones you can find…really!)

Saxophone Survival requires “tight” section playing!

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

Eric Daniel plays sax and flute and is the ringleader of Eric Daniel & Friends. Their CD “Old Sax Nu Soul” is on the Quatro Miglio Quality Music label and can be purchased online from iTunes Store and

His new book “The Saxophone Survival Kit, A Guide for Aspiring Professional Saxophonists…or just anyone!” can be ordered or downloaded here:

Follow Me on Twitter!


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