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Learn to Play Saxophone

OK, I’ve begged, borrowed or stolen one, how do I learn to play saxophone?

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It seems like a lot of people from all walks of life are thinking about learning to play the saxophone, and it’s now easier than ever due to the proliferation of reasonable quality and very inexpensive saxophones from the far east (see our buying advice). However once you have one of these, the easiest part is over, though you may not think so given the multitude of confusing choices and conflicting information you were given while trying to choose what saxophone to buy. Assuming you made a good choice and what you bought was actually a fully working saxophone, rather than one of the many “saxophone shaped objects” out there on Ebay, then your first instinct will probably be to put it in your mouth and blow. This is possibly the first hurdle to get over, but strictly speaking the order of events is to first assemble the saxophone, then put it in your mouth and blow, although some people might argue that before doing that you should get a good teacher, lest you fall into bad habits. Yeah right, as if you’re going to sit there looking at your new baby while you wait two weeks for your first saxophone lesson, so I shall tell you how to put the pieces together in a way that might result in you learning at least how to make a sound. First of all though let’s look at another important aspect of owning a musical instrument:

The best one out there…

Phill Straker (sax.co.uk)

Music Makers Saxophone Instruction DVD

Devised and presented by Pete Thomas
All profits to charity

£12.95 Add to cart

Necessary accessories

If you bought your horn from a dealer, he/she was probably making very little profit from the sale due to the competitive nature of the musical instrument business these days,however, there’s a very good chance you were conned into buying, persuaded to also buy a stand, gigbag, swab, strap, mute, padsaver, reedclipper, polish, gigdust, tuner, music stand, leaklight, key clamps, repair kit, case deodorizer, demoisturizer, cufflinks and Kenny G tee shirt. Well some of these are useful, some are not. I won’t go into great detail here as I shall be writing another page on accessories, but the priorities are:

  • a firm case (not a soft gigbag)
  • a good solid stand
  • a neckstrap
  • cork grease
  • a swab (or pullthrough) to clean the inside

Forget polish, pad treatment and most of the other stuff for now until you actually know whether you need it and can tell what is a good useful product and what is just snake oil. I almost forgot (in my modesty), to include the saxophone instruction DVD. I just happen to have been fortunate enough to be asked to make a few years ago. Some retailers in the UK include this when you but a new saxophone. You can, of course, buy it from this site.

Assembling the saxophone

Assuming you have your first lesson all booked up, it won’t do any harm to have a few quick blows on you saxophone, but it does help to know how to assemble it before playing. Hopefully the saxophone came with all it’s parts. These are:

  • The main body
  • The neck (on some sopranos this is already joined on to the body)
  • Mouthpiece
  • Reed
  • Ligature (the gizmo that clamps the reed onto the mouthpiece)

The first thing to be aware of is that some of the keywork (rods, keys etc.) can get bent. Normal light pressure is fine, but if you have to force anything then this is when things could get bent out of whack. During any of the assembly, if you are in doubt, wait until you are with the teacher,

  • Grasp the middle of the body firmly with one hand (I suggest your right hand if you are right handed, left if you are left handed)
  • Make sure that the screw at the top has been loosened to allow the neck tenon to fit into the top of the body. Note that there are usually two screws at the top. One of them has a square hole next to it which is used to hold a lyre (marching band music stand). You need the other screw
  • Holding the neck in your other hand, slide it down into the body. A slight twisting motion might help. If this is very stiff you could try a small blob of oil or cork grease, but if it really does not want to go in, don’t force it – take the saxophone back to the shop or to a good repairer.
  • Check that the loop of the (octave) key mechanism on the neck fits over the extending octave pin at the top of the body. These should end up being very close but not quite touching. The middle of the back of the neck should be lined up with the extending pin.
  • Rest the saxophone down in its case or on a stand
  • Pick up the mouthpiece and loosen the ligature
  • Wet a reed in your mouth, being very careful not to chip the very delicate thin end
  • Place the reed on the flat table of the mouthpiece with the curved end (the thin delicate bit) so that it lines up exactly with the curved tip of the mouthpiece
  • Slide the ligature over the reed, being very careful again not to damage the tip, until it is approximately halfway between the end of the shaved part of the reed and the bottom (straight thick) end
  • Tighten the ligature screws so that it is just tight enough to hold the reed so that it cannot slip around
  • Push the mouthpiece onto the cork at the end of the saxophone neck, being careful not to catch the tip of the reed on anything. You may use a twisting motion to help get the mouthpiece firmly on the neck. How far you push the mouthpiece on depends on the tuning of the saxophone, so for now don’t worry, just make sure it is covering more than half of the cork and is a firm fit.

The saxophone is now ready to play

Finally attempting to play the saxophone

Extract from DVD: First Notes

Disclaimer: This section is not meant to be a lesson in any shape or form, merely a jumpstart to getting a sound out of the instrument. Unless you get a teacher, you could well end up with some bad habits that may take longer to cure the longer you put off realtime lessons.

  • Put straphook through ring on back of saxophone
  • Place your right hand thumb under thumbrest (a few inches below the straphook)
  • Place left hand first finger on the B key – (this is the one just above the little key (see illustration)
  • Curl lower lip back over lower teeth
  • Place top teeth on top of mouthpiece about half an inch back from the tip so that the reed rests on your lower lip
  • Blow
  • Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t sound great, or, if after a while, you feel some pain in your lips (this is normal and will get better, but don’t overdo your initial practice sessions to the point where you cannot stand the pain)
  • Please don’t be sad if you cannot play a tune immediately. Some people can actually do quite well straight away, but most of us do need a little more help…
  • You did book a proper lesson didn’t you? If not at least find a good tutor book or DVD.

Saxophone instruction DVD

We hope to answer all your saxophone questions, and hopefully pose some new ones. Below are some of the more specific questions. I hesitate to call them “FAQs” as those are very often questions that somebody with something to sell wishes had been asked, so that they can give their “pat” answer. Below are real questions asked by real people, and I will be including a few more as the queries coming flooding in.  

What saxophone should a beginner buy?

It used to be that the best student instruments were made by Yamaha and Jupiter, this is now changing and there are now many other good makes available at a very reasonable price, but you should beware: although some are extremely good, many are very bad. It is best to get a teacher or experienced player to test the saxophone before buying it. Don’t be tempted by the $9 – $200 saxophones on eBay from the far east, it may cost more to return for a refund than the saxophone is worth, even if you can get a refund. If you buy a saxophone via mail order you should take it to a good repair person to check it over and set it up to play properly.However there have recently been some extremely good saxophones from China and Taiwan, but it’s worth paying just a little bit extra to buy from an online store with a guarantee and no quibble returns policy than many of the eBay sellers. You should also expect the saxophone to need a little setting up by a repairer (same applies even to top of that range horns bought via mail order) and probably a better mouthpiece, e.g. yamaha 3C or 4C) See: Saxophone Buying Guide | Saxophone Reviews | Recommendations

How should I organise practice sessions?

It’s a good idea to practise in several short concentrated sessions rather than one long session in which your mind is wandering. Unless you can train yourself to concentrate for long periods of time, try splitting your practice sessions into three roughly equal parts:

  1. Technique (scales, arpeggios, patterns)
  2. Sound (Tone exercises)
  3. Tunes & improvisation (This can include just noodling around)

It might be useful to just do 5 or 10 minutes of each then take a break and come back to it. The important thing is to stop practising once you lose concentration: less time spent on concentrated practice is better than more time spent practising when your mind is on other things. See: How to practice

What strength reeds should I use?

This often depends on the mouthpiece. Generally a mouthpiece with a wide tip opening needs softer reeds than one with a narrow opening. Some people use harder reeds (3.5 – 5) to get a louder sound, however with practice and proper use of the diaphragm it is also possible to play loud on softer reeds, with the added advantage that you will get more flexibility of tone. Wide vibrato and note bending becomes easier. I use 2.5 reeds with a 125 RPC tenor mouthpiece. See: Saxophone Reeds

Should I put my bottom lip over my teeth?

There will be different opinions about what you are supposed to do. It would be best for you as soon as possible to get a good teacher, who can understand both the finer points of the way you wish to play/sound, as well as being able to help you adapt “correct technique” to your individual requirements based on your physical makeup. A good teacher will look at your jaw structure (eg is there an overbite or underbite?), teeth size and shape, possibly also the dimensions and position of tongue, etc. My preference is to either push the lower lip forward, or have it vertically upwards in front of the teeth (not over them) for harder and edgier styles/sound. Both of these techniques require careful building up of the lip muscles. See: Saxophone Embouchure

What is the best mouthpiece?

I believe the best mouthpieces for beginners and intermediate are Yamaha (standard) or Vandoren. Once you get to know a bit more about your set-up however it might be worth trying some vintage mouthpieces, especially if you use a vintage saxophone. The old (pre 1975) Otto Links for tenor, Selmer Soloist and New York Meyers for alto are much better than the modern ones IMO. It is also worth considering a custom mouthpiece: RPC (US) and Ed Pillinger(UK) are extremely good and not as outrageously expensive as some. See: Saxophone Mouthpieces

What is the best ligature?

Very often the one that comes with the mouthpiece. Some people think that the ligature can affect the sound. I’ve never noticed this if the ligature is working properly, though one of the flexible type ligatures will sound better than a distorted or ill fitting solid metal type. If the table is concave (or heaven forbid) convex, or if the reed is warped, then some ligatures will work better than others with those specific parameters, and may therefore give you the impression that ligature A is generally better than ligature B, or that each ligature has its own “sound” See Saxophone Ligatures and this short video

Does lacquer or plating on a saxophone affect the sound?

Probably not at all. The material a saxophone is made from has very little bearing on the character of the sound. Small changes in bore size are much more likely to affect the way that the air vibrates in the saxophone. Different materials may have a more substantial effect on the sound of the mouthpiece. See: Does Material Matter?

How do I stop pads sticking?

Unless the pad or tone hole has a serious problem, common or garden sticking pad syndrome can be cured by application of lighter fluid. Do not use talcum powder, WD 40, or any proprietary remedy, many of which are rip-offs and will only cure the symptoms temporarily, while making the problem worse in the long run. sometimes it is necessary to strengthen the spring. You can make your own tool for this: break the lead off a pencil and use it to hook the spring out and retention it, but if in doubt get a qualified repairer for this.

I was wondering if you could explain what is happening on the very last note of the Pink Panther theme the whole brass section play a kind of descending chromatic line which sounds like it sort of runs out of breath and gets quieter.

It is a downward run combined with a decrescendo that fades to practically silent in some cases. It can be a scale that fits the key or chord at the time, a chromatic scale, or just what happens to fall under your fingers. A fall can be accompanied by a slackening of the jaw but the important thing is get the decrescendo which will often end up as just breath noise. The arranger or conductor usually specifies how long the fall should be, it is written on the score as a diagonal line. The raggedness is part of the effect: being able to sustain the scale from start to fade is more important than playing it accurately, although you can hear the great Earl Bostic doing some very neat long chromatic falls on his recording of Night Train. When I have time I’ll put some examples on the saxophone effects page.
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