Switching From Alto To Tenor Saxophone: Easy Or Hard?

The saxophone comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, the two favorites being the alto sax and the tenor sax. Frequently, saxophone players begin on alto and at some point wonder how easy it is to switch from alto to tenor saxophone.

The shared fingering system of the alto and tenor saxophone makes the transition relatively easy. Many players find the embouchure of the tenor easier than the alto. Others struggle to come up with the required air volume. Smaller players must cope with the ergonomics of the larger tenor.

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Why switch from alto to tenor sax?

While the alto saxophone produces a higher, brighter sound, the tenor saxophone produces a lower, mellower sound. Each sound can blend well with certain styles of music. 

The fingering systems of the alto and tenor sax are identical. This means that the notes read and the fingers played will remain consistent between the two instruments. 

Although all saxophones are used in jazz, the tenor tends to be used the most. The tenor saxophone has more of a midrange and can achieve a growly, jazzy tone that is great for soloing in jazz music. 

Alto to tenor: size, mouthpiece, keys

Alto to tenor: size, mouthpiece, keys

The initial challenge of switching from alto to tenor is adjusting to the increase in size of the body.

The tenor saxophone is significantly larger and heavier, so it will take the player some time to adjust their posture and build endurance to bear the added weight. 

Usually, alto saxophone players play with the instrument in front of their body with the bottom of the sax between their legs. Because it is larger, the tenor sax has to be played off to the right side and at an angle, which requires an adjusted posture. 

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The keys are slightly farther apart on the tenor than they are on alto, so the spacing of the fingers will also feel different between the instruments. 

Like the body, the mouthpiece of the tenor saxophone is also larger than alto. The larger mouthpiece and reed demand a more relaxed embouchure, which often feels weird to alto players at first.

Initially, a sax player who is accustomed to playing the alto sax may have trouble getting notes out on tenor, particularly in the lower range, due to their embouchure being too firm.

When playing a tenor saxophone, an alto sax player needs to loosen up and take a bit more of the tenor mouthpiece into their mouth to achieve a consistent sound.

Generally, with a larger instrument, more air will be required to play. The amount of air to play tenor sax is noticeably greater.

You’ll generally need to take some time for learning the proper blowing volume and pressure for the tenor sax.

Alto to tenor: pitch & transposition

Instruments within the same family can be pitched in different keys. In the saxophone family, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone share the same fingerings and names of notes, but the sounding pitches differ

The alto saxophone is pitched in Eb, while the tenor saxophone is pitched in Bb. This means that a written C for the alto saxophone actually sounds an Eb while a written C for the tenor saxophone would sound a Bb. 

Alto and tenor saxophone music are not interchangeable because of the different transpositions. The player needs to perform music specifically written for their saxophone in order to play the correct notes. 

The player will not necessarily have to do any transposing to play either instrument, but it is important to be aware that the sounding pitches differ for notes of the same letter classification.

For example, a concert Bb scale will start on G for the alto saxophone vs on a C for tenor saxophone.

Because the sounding pitches differ, tenor saxophone music will explore ranges less familiar to the alto player on the low end.

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Also, in a concert band setting, tenor saxophone will usually serve as a lower voice like the trombone, while the alto sax is grouped more often with the middle voices like the French horn.

Some player find switching to tenor easier

Some player find switching to tenor easier

As mentioned, the way the mouth forms around the mouthpiece is applied differently between the two types of saxes.

Some players prefer the loose embouchure of the tenor saxophone over the firm embouchure of the alto saxophone, and will find the tenor sax to be a better fit. 

The alto embouchure is more demanding, especially for classical playing which requires a very firm mouth, chin, and jaw.

Players who are struggling to maintain the firm embouchure and pressure for alto sax are often more naturally suited to the tenor sax. 

Alto sax also requires a high amount of breath control, while the air required for tenor sax feels more free and open. Each presents a different challenge which each individual player may find more or less difficult.

While some players find it easier to blow more freely, others may not have the natural breath capacity to keep up with the volume of air required for tenor sax

While requiring more air, the tenor demands less pressure than alto. For some players, the tenor feels more natural, and they discover they have a better tone on tenor over alto. 

Players who struggle to get a consistent, clear tone on the alto saxophone should definitely give the tenor sax a try. They may find the adjustments to be a better alternative for them as a player. 

Should a beginner start with alto or tenor?

Should a beginner start with alto or tenor?

It is most often recommended that beginners start on alto saxophone. Since players often start in their childhood, the size of the alto will make it the easier of the two to handle for smaller people. 

In general, the alto saxophone is more practical because it is more comfortable to sit and practice regardless of the age of the player.

Alto sax is also much easier on the neck due to the lighter weight – both instruments rely on the neck strap to hold their weight. 

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If you are choosing a saxophone entirely based on genre, you may consider a tenor saxophone to start if you have the physical capabilities to handle the instrument.

There are players who start on tenor simply because they prefer the sound and the instrument does not feel too large for them.

Most commonly, beginners start on alto because it allows the player to learn the fundamentals on an easier to manage instrument.

Young players especially start on alto and try the tenor after a few months of playing, potentially making the switch if appropriate. 

Reverse: switching from tenor to alto

Players who started on tenor sax can also change to alto saxophone. The ergonomics of the alto sax are more efficient, so some players prefer the playing comfort.

Keep in mind that ergonomics can vary slightly based on the manufacturer. For example, Yamaha saxophones have great ergonomics regardless of the size of the saxophone, their tenors are very playable. 

The alto saxophone can also be used in jazz, and there are prolific jazz saxophonists that favor the alto. Many double on both the tenor and alto sax.

If you’re striving for a saxophone sound like Marion Brown, Sonny Simons, Jackie McLean, or Marshall Allen, they all played alto sax. 

If you’re on a budget, an alto saxophone will cost less than a tenor saxophone of similar quality.  A Yamaha intermediate tenor sax may cost $200 more than a Yamaha intermediate alto.

Most players find it easier to transition from alto to tenor sax vs tenor to alto – although experiences vary depending on the person.

Final Words

the skills and technique developed on alto saxophone transfer well to the tenor saxophone. However, different approaches are needed to develop the tone for each instrument. 

As well as sharing fundamentals, the essential accessories for each instrument are basically the same. For both, you will need reeds, a ligature, a neck strap, and an instrument swab, although you’ll need different sizes depending on the instrument.

Eventually, you might end up becoming proficient on both instruments and switch back and forth. Professional saxophone players often learn both to make themselves more marketable. 

Photo credits:
Featured image:
– “Jazz Academy Orchestra Spring 2012 Conce” (CC BY 2.0) by woodleywonderworks
– “Festival Internacional de Jazz de Punta” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by jikatu