What A Saxophone Looks Like: A Lesson for Stock Photographers

Earlier this week, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association posted an image that was supposed to spread the word about Music in Our Schools Month and celebrate all the benefits a high-quality music education has to offer.

Unfortunately, whoever was responsible for the image did not get a high-quality music education.

Girl plays saxophone without a mouthpiece

For those of you unfamiliar with the intricacies of the saxophone: it requires a mouthpiece to make sound. The girl depicted in the photo is playing a saxophone without a mouthpiece, and is therefore making soft whooshing sounds, or, if we’re lucky, fart noises.

A quick time out for the pedants: yes, she is also playing with the incorrect hand position. I don’t care about this as much. I pretty much expect my stock photography to have sax players with their hands in the wrong place, just as I expect my TSA agents to guess that my tenor saxophone is a flute as I go through security. The photo at least depicts fingers on keys, which ought to be worth something.

The post was deleted a few hours later, but the TCTA’s embarrassment lives on. It gave me an idea, though. Why is it so hard to take an accurate picture of a saxophone? In the age of Google, is it so difficult to find a few pictures of real players you can model things off of?

So, stock photo industry, you’ve now learned that a saxophone needs a mouthpiece. Here are a few more lessons about everybody’s favorite instrument to photograph in backlit smoke.

1. A Sax Mouthpiece Needs a Ligature.

Stock photos of saxophone players without ligatures
Screen shot of search results from Thinkstock.

Sound is vibration, and every instrument creates sound via something vibrating: on a guitar, it’s the strings. On a brass instrument like trumpet, it’s the player’s lips. And on a saxophone, it’s the reed.

What the ligature does is hold the reed firmly on the mouthpiece in order to give it a sturdy base from which to vibrate. Without a ligature, you have no reed, and you therefore have no sound.

This might seem like nitpicking. I don’t think it is. If you were creating stock photography of a car, for example, you wouldn’t photograph it without tires. Without tires, we would still recognize it as a car, but an incomplete car, a car that doesn’t tell the entire story of what a car is. And when artists like Surly Amy take pleasure in revising her paintings to make them more scientifically accurate, the least a photographer could do is slap a ligature on a saxophone.

I’m not as worried about whether or not the saxophone has a reed. For one, that detail is harder to spot. But more importantly it’s because if I was, I’d be a hypocrite.

Master's recital picture
Photo by Andy LaViolette. If you live in the DFW area, you’ll have him take your picture if you know what’s best for you.

This is a photo from a shoot I did for my master’s recital, and you can plainly see that there is no reed on that mouthpiece. Reeds are expensive, I was going to be outside where the elements could warp the wood, and there was the chance I could chip the reed from all the moving around I was going to do. So I left it off. You can too. Or you can buy a really cheap reed and go from there.

2. The Reed Goes On the Bottom.

Stock photos of saxophone players with upside-down mouthpieces
Screen shot of search results from Thinkstock.

When I started band in sixth grade, we were instructed not to put our instruments together until the first day of class. I broke that rule (who wouldn’t?) and put my clarinet together so I could figure it out on my own. I followed the instructions in my band method book, but still managed to put the mouthpiece on with the reed facing upward. Then I played. The result: a screeching noise paired with an intensely ticklish sensation that started from my upper lip and spread throughout my face. It was such a terrible first try that I almost gave it up right there.

There are some reed instruments that require your upper lip to handle some vibration (oboes, bassoons, English horns), but for the most part, the reed is made for your lower lip and jaw. Here’s why: a sturdy but adjustable embouchure (mouth position) is the name of the game when you’re playing a wind instrument. Your lower lip has more padding than your upper lip, and your jaw has more space for adjustment than the top row of teeth, which are attached to your skull, which is not very good at subtle movement.

So the reed goes on the bottom. Nobody will notice if there’s a ligature and no reed, but everyone will notice if there’s a reed on an upside-down mouthpiece.

3. The Left Hand Goes on Top. The Right Hand Goes on the Bottom.

Stock photos of saxophone players holding the horns strangely
Screen shot of search results from Thinkstock.

I know I said I don’t care about hand position in stock photography, but I lied. Especially when it looks like the examples above.

If your model is going to pretend they’re playing the saxophone, they have to have their hands on the keys. This is not a matter of playing style, as if classical saxophonists are all stuffy about their finger position while rock saxophonists just kind of put their hands wherever they feel, man — no. To come back to the car analogy, you can’t drive with your feet on the dashboard, and you can’t play a saxophone with your hand on the neck/in your lap/whatever the heck that lady in the center with the backward saxophone is doing. I think she might be reinventing the instrument as we know it. She’s developing this crazy backward style of free jazz that’s gonna take the world by storm.

Like most wind instruments, the saxophone’s keys are laid out in a way that makes it impossible to play with your hands reversed. The left hand rests on palm keys that are impossible to access from the right side. Likewise, the right hand touches keys that are usually unreachable to the left hand, mostly due to a metal brace that holds the bell of the saxophone to its body. You just can’t play the saxophone with your hands reversed. It’s not gonna happen.

So have the model place their hands correctly. It’s not that hard.

Is all this too much to hope from my stock photography? Probably. But I think it’s worth saying. If photographers would just follow these guidelines, we would have many fewer social media gaffes like the TCTA’s (and my life would be a little bit less interesting).

If you’re a musician, tell us what your biggest pet peeves are with photos of your instrument in the comments!

You can purchase any of the photos included in this post from ThinkStock.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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One Comment

  1. Maybe she’s blowing air into it to clear out some saliva before playing.

    Her lips aren’t pursed, either — their puffed out. Like you’re about to blow a lot of uncontrolled air into it.

    Maybe everyone was a bit too quick to judge?

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