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Selectors' choice: Saxophone

6 years ago

With so many wonderful pieces to choose from in our new Saxophone syllabus, we asked our two selectors, Beverley Calland and Melanie Henry, and syllabus moderator Chris Swann, to pick some of their favourites. (Pieces are for Eb as well as Bb saxophones, unless indicated.)

Grade 1 - Chris Swann

List A (Alto/Baritone)
Elgar: Land of Hope and Glory

A great example of Elgar’s ceremonial side, this piece works well on the saxophone. (It comes from Up-Grade! for Alto Saxophone, Grades 1-2, which is on the syllabus for both these grades.) Big contrasts suit the dynamic range of the instrument and opportunities for phrase shaping are obvious and rewarding. Tone needs to be fully sustained with note lengths being ‘trimmed’ by the tongue – the repeated notes being slightly more separated for definition. Listen carefully to the pairs of quavers so that hurrying is avoided and keep an ear on the volume so that it builds in a heroic and expressive way.

List B
Rob Buckland: Saxi-Taxi

Taken from Time Travels for Saxophone (set on Grades 1 to 3), Saxi-Taxi shows what a variety of style and character you can find in the syllabus. The rhythmically busy piano part, with syncopations and driving quavers, gives the soloist a firm base to project the more straightforward melodic line – with bounce. There are also moments in the solo line when weak beats can be firmly pushed. Articulation is important and note lengths should be thought about and then played consistently. Sort out the recurring figure of an isolated staccato note followed by three slurred quavers (first found in bar 2) early on. The excitement needs to be controlled in terms of volume – and save the final surge for the concluding repeated note flourish.

Grade 2 – Chris Swann

List A
Schubert: Who is Sylvia?

Time Travels is also the source for this lovely piece from the master of song writing, which transfers to the saxophone beautifully. Much can be made of thoughtful rhythmic emphasis here with the second crotchet beat of many bars needing to be less forthright than the first. Thinking of the first entry, say the title of the piece and then follow the shaping of your spoken voice on the saxophone. Better still sing it! The music is fairly straightforward technically but a couple of high Ds have to be negotiated. Keep the hand shape cupped and use the correct knuckle, dropping the hand down on the key rather than resorting to an awkward sideways movement. Use lots of melodic shaping and dynamics but most of all keep it simple.

List B
Aubrey Beswick: Farewell for a Fox

This is taken from Repertoire Explorer for Alto or Tenor Saxophone (set on Grades 1 to 3) and offers a chance to prove how the saxophone can be lyrical, warm and expressive. The melodic line lies nicely under the fingers and there is plenty of subtle detail to observe, such as the tenuto markings (bars 14 and 18). Dynamic rise and fall is crucial to emotional rise and fall here – encourage the practice of graded changes to help pupils deepen their perception of breath control and listening. Take breaths without feeling hurried by slightly shortening the tied notes so that you arrive on time at the start of each new phrase. As for the rest of the piece, as long as it’s accurate and steady in pulse you can simply enjoy the sight of an examiner struggling to maintain composure as the music washes over him or her!

Grade 3 – Melanie Henry

List B
Coward: My Horse has Cast a Shoe

I love this delightful song by the playwright, composer and actor Noël Coward. Taken from an operetta called Pacific 1860, it features in Time Pieces for Eb or Bb Saxophone, Vol. 1 (set on Grades 1 to 3). The piece is written in two contrasting sections. The first is witty, while the second is more wistful and lyrical. Experiment with changes in mood and tone to emphasise the difference. Students should take care with phrasing, breathing and clarity of articulation, imagining that they are ‘singing’ the words and telling a story.

List C
James Rae: Spinnaker Jig or Pot Luck

A great new offering from James Rae is 36 More Modern Studies. This book features in all grades and is a very useful volume for teachers and pupils. Spinnaker Jig is a fast jaunty piece that requires light, clear articulation, a variety of dynamics and lots of accents. Practise everything slurred first to understand the shape of the phrase and then add the staccato articulation. Pot Luck is a cool swing number with an appealing laid-back melody. Take care not to rush and exaggerate the accents. Both studies are written in a comfortable range and sound impressive.

Grade 4 – Beverley Calland

List A
Elgar: Chanson de Matin

My favourite new List A piece is Elgar's Chanson de Matin. You can find it in The Classic Experience for Alto Saxophone, set at Grades 3 to 6, and Classic Experience Collection for Tenor Saxophone, set at Grades 2 to 5. I love the freedom of expression and possibilities of rubato which this beautifully lyrical piece offers the performer. The legato phrasing and the production of a lovely, warm sound are paramount but attention to the finely graded dynamics and detailed articulation will make this piece really work.

List B
Ros Stephen: A Nacht in Nyu York

My choice here comes from a fabulous new volume, Saxophone Globetrotters (set on Grades 1 to 4). The book contains styles from around the world and offers students an opportunity to learn about, listen and play a wide variety of music. Even the most reluctant of pupils couldn't fail to be inspired! A Nacht in Nyu York is influenced by klezmer. It begins very slowly and moves through three more, ever increasing changes of pace, challenging the performer to control the pulse at different speeds.

List C
Karen Street: Standby for Action!

Double Click!! is a book for solo saxophone set on Grades 1 to 5. It contains pieces from three well-known composers: Karen Street, James Rae and Chris Gumbley. The selection here is a study in a driving swing feel. Pupils will enjoy its fast pace and exuberance: finger fluency will come fairly easily as the passage work contains repetition and very few accidentals. The composer emphasises that the dynamics help to create a sense of dialogue and, again, this is easily achievable in a comfortable range.

Grade 5 – Chris Swann

List A
Bizet: Orchestral Solo (from L’arlésienne, Suite 1)

Time Pieces for Eb or Bb Saxophone, Vol. 2 is set on Grades 4 and 5 and gives the chance to play this solo from Bizet’s imaginatively scored suite. Imagine the lush sound of the strings and bask in the warmth of the lovely melody as it unfurls with classical poise and romantic expression. As always, check intonation (for example, G#s will usually be high) and don’t allow ornaments to interrupt overall flow – play them spaciously without snatching or bumping. Aim for an extra smooth legato line with possible touches of vibrato. Keep the build-up to the bar 15 climax in mind from the start. Having extracted as much passion as possible from the high C, the final bars need to fade quickly in a controlled manner. The challenge here is producing the two low Cs at a fairly quiet dynamic. It helps to imagine the breath travelling right through the instrument, past the mouthpiece and even beyond the bell with fingers placed firmly and independently of the breath. Leaving the little finger of the right hand down after the first C may help too. However, as always there is no substitute for regular, thoughtful and enthusiastic practice!

List B
Ned Bennett: An Urge to Splurge

The dictionary defines ‘to splurge’ as making ‘an ostentatious display: to show off’ and this funky Latin-American-style music gives every opportunity to do just that. (You’ll find it in The Jazz Sax Collection, set on Grades 4, 5 and 7.) Assurance, commitment and communication are essential and linked with these are accuracy, detail and rhythmic awareness. There’s a samba feel, so quavers are not swung and you need to hold the pulse steady – it’s easy to be approximate with so many rests around. A knowledge of the piano part will help. The opening unison passages followed by an independent saxophone line accompanied by an awkward little two-bar rhythmic riff (from bar 10) may be off-putting to start with, and the piano drops out for a bar here and there, which can be disconcerting. A crisp staccato is also important - remember to keep the breath going and stop the reed vibrating with a quick return to it by the tongue. For the next note to start on time and cleanly, the breath/embouchure/throat have to remain unchanged during the silence between notes. Once the technical challenges have been addressed this is a very enjoyable and very ‘saxy’ piece to have under the fingers.

Grade 6 – Melanie Henry

List A (Alto/Baritone)
Kalinnikov: Chanson triste

My favourite new List A piece for Eb saxophone is the hauntingly beautiful Chanson triste, found in Six pièces russes, Vol. 1 (set on Grades 5 and 6). This exquisite melody needs excellent tone and breath control. The melodic line is embellished with frequent grace notes that need to sound effortless. Practise without them first to ensure rhythmic accuracy and a sense of phrase. The fluid tempo and dynamic contours allow for freedom of expression – something to experiment with. Much of the piece is in the higher register so care is needed with the intonation, especially when playing softly.

List B
Christopher Norton: Black Sheep of the Family

The Christopher Norton Concert Collection for Alto or Tenor Saxophone is a fabulous set of pieces based on traditional tunes covering a range of styles and moods – we’ve used it on Grades 4 to 6. Black Sheep of the Family is a lively gospel-style number with complex rhythms and some tricky finger work. There’s a good variety of articulation and dynamics that must be noted to understand the character of the music. There are also lots of grace notes which should be tight and accurate to maintain rhythmic drive. This piece needs great energy and enthusiasm.

Grade 7 – Beverley Calland

List B
Armando Ghidoni: Paysages...

Grade 7 List B contains several new discoveries and this one is for both Eb and Bb instruments. It’s been written for the student to explore musical expression in differing styles but within one piece. It incorporates a ballade, sicilienne, waltz and... rock! It will be fun to practise at home but enjoyable for an audience too.

List C
P. M. Dubois: Polka

Pierre Max Dubois has written more than 50 works for the saxophone, mainly inspired by Mule, Londeix, Deffayet and Daneels. This Polka is from 17 Études dansantes and any serious student should consider buying this lovely set of dances, which we’ve set on Grades 6 to 8. It includes five tangos, five waltzes, two polkas, two javas, two paso-dobles and one rumba. They all focus on an aspect of technique, using the full range of the instrument with a variety of dynamics and articulations. This composer knows how to write for the saxophone and the music is full of wit, elegance and charm.

Grade 8 – Melanie Henry

List B (Alto/Baritone)
John Carmichael: Obsession (Habanera) and Bahama Rhumba (The Caribbean)

John Carmichael’s Latin American Dances is an exciting new addition to the syllabus. The two selected dances are full of character, style and drama. They are attractive to listen to and such fun to perform. A wide range of tonal colour, sparkling articulation and nifty finger dexterity are essential. Obsession is a dark, brooding tango. The tune is rhythmically complex, yet must sound free and beguiling. The practice technique of taking out the ties will help this. Planned breaths are essential as the phrases are long. Observe all dynamic markings to aid the build-up of tension. Bahama Rhumba is frivolous and frothy. Clear, accurate articulation helps the music dance along. These dances would work beautifully in a recital programme, with Bahama Rhumba providing a wonderful encore!

List B (Soprano/Tenor)
Morton Gould: 1st or 3rd or 5th movement from Diversions

Diversions is a must for any serious tenor saxophonist – a virtuosic suite with five movements, which exploits the glorious voice of the instrument. It appears on List B for Grades 7 and 8, and at Grade 8, there’s a choice between movements 1, 3 or 5. Recitatives and Preludes opens with a solo recitative with clear jazz influence, which needs great control and a brave approach to freedom of tempo and a variety of dynamics. This leads into a fastdriving and rhythmically challenging section and it’s important to understand how this fits with the piano part. Rags and Waltzes is charming and lighter in mood. Again, rhythm is crucial and all markings should be observed to ensure a witty performance. Finally, Quicksteps and Trios is showy and impressive with excellent dialogue required between pianist and soloist. Good projection across the whole note range is needed to cut through the busy piano part.

This article was originally featured in the October 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

The new ABRSM Woodwind syllabus is available at and in booklet form. CDs of selected pieces from the Saxophone syllabus will be available in November together with individual audio downloads. The new syllabus takes effect from January 2014.

Beverley Calland was a founder member of The Fairer Sax and has played widely in orchestras, ensembles, shows and opera. She teaches saxophone and piano and has published several books.

Melanie Henry has performed and recorded as a soloist, ensemble player and orchestral musician. She teaches at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance.

Chris Swann has played with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and now combines solo performing, directing conducting and coaching. He teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music and is an ABRSM examiner.

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