saxophone

LEARNING THE SAXOPHONE

Learning to play the saxophone and progressing with it is all about practice; getting into the right habits at the start and following (at least until you find your own voice) those that have come before; emulating and playing like those saxophonists you admire is a great way to learn.

The saxophone is mainly a jazz and blues instrument and these two disciplines are mostly about self expression and improvisation. But before you can get up there on stage there are many things to learn first.

After buying the saxophone and learning where the fingers go, next will come scales, and there are a lot of them. If all you want to play is blues then the 12 blues scales are a must; but just improvising in a blues scale becomes limiting after a short while. Although it may sound good to you, others who listen will wander off after a while because just playing in the blues scale becomes monotonous.

Knowing the progressions and all the scales and chords means you can be very versatile, so learning the major and minor scales first is best, then the Dorian scales which are used in jazz a lot. Eventually you will know all the scales and practice them every day for at least an hour.

Long notes are important. Doing long notes for 20 minutes or so helps to toughen up the embouchure for strength of sound. Play one note for one long breath and hold the tone firm. Take a breath then play another note and hold the tone steady. You can play all 8 notes of the c major scale doing this and that will be enough for one day, and you should feel it too around your mouth, perhaps enough to stop playing for the day. Don't overdo it; just do what you feel comfortable doing then stop.

Playing long notes and using a different scale every day helps you to learn the scales. When you become proficient at scales you can then put patterns into your practice. There are plenty of books in the music shops to help with learning patterns.

If you listen to the jazz greats playing you will hear them put patterns into their playing.

Always keep your fingers lightly touching the keys, this will help you to play faster. If you get into the habit of lifting your fingers away from the keys as you are playing this will slow you down, and be very hard to put right years later when you get good.

If you find your valves sticking then place a cigarette paper under the leather pad and close for a few moments, this should cure it.

If the read is too hard or is not playing as it should then using a razor or sharp craft knife to gently scrape the part of the read your lip sits on will make it easier to play and sometimes prolong the life of the read by closing up the air holes in it.

When playing for awhile you may find your teeth becoming sensitive after resting on the mouthpiece. This usually happens with metal mouthpieces. The cure is to use a rubber pad bought from a music store that is stuck onto the mouthpiece so that your upper teeth are protected from the vibration of the mouthpiece.

There are many different mouthpieces that alter the sound of your playing. Some make it brighter; some make it sound more earthy.

You of course will have to play as many as you can to find the right one for you. Some of them can be really expensive. The plastic mouthpiece that comes with the saxophone is all you will really need until you become very proficient at playing.

Busking can be daunting the first time you go out alone, but if you have learnt enough pieces of music well enough you will find people will stop, listen and applaud, and give you some money too. Tunnels and underpasses in the town or city where a lot of people pass through are great places to enhance your sound and make it bigger by bouncing off the walls. Picking the right spot can make a big difference. Playing with someone can make the whole experience fun and enjoyable and gives you a chance to take a break when you need one. Busking is an invaluable experience because it puts you in front of an audience, and this invariably gives you feed-back, some good and some not so wanted. Try not to use too much vibrato in your playing, it becomes stale very quickly, and people will come up to you and say you sound like an old crooner.

When you start getting better you may be asked to do gigs in cafes, clubs, bookshops and etc. Only do this if you feel confident you can play for the full set. But sometimes only experience will let you know that.

When you're busking you have people walking by, but in a cafe etc you will have a captive audience. Big difference.

Practice, practice, practice, is what will get you there, the more the better. You may not become a great player, but with enough practice you will play great.

 PRACTICING THE SAXOPHONE

So, you've been practicing for a long time and everyone knows it because the sound of a saxophone is very penetrating and it can even pass through solid walls and your neighbours will either love it or hate it. Then one day your girlfriend or wife jumps up and down on your saxophone and renders it useless. Or maybe your husband or boyfriend buries it in concrete, or your father hides it away forever, or your brother fills it full of glue. Anyway, you get the idea. The repeated sound of a saxophone in a confined space can drive anyone crazy listening to it day after day.

So off you go to get another one and you find a nice family who want to sell a saxophone, both adults working and the son or daughter has had enough of practicing.

You walk away with a nearly new sax for a lot less than its new price and its better than the one you just lost that got smashed to bits.

You're happy. But it doesn't last long. You realize the same thing will happen again unless you can cut the noise of your sax playing right down somehow.

Soundproofing one of the bedrooms or the kitchen is not really an option unless you live alone, and it doesn't really stop the sound from carrying anyway. So down to the shed at the bottom of the garden it is then, if you have one and everyone breathes a sigh of relief.

Playing the sax really can upset people when the same sounds are repeated over and over again, day after day.

But there are plenty of things you can do: there are schools and universities that hold night classes that will get you out of the house for two hours of good playing, and you can learn a lot that way being with others, and usually the class will be run by someone who knows how to play, and often at the end of the year there will be a gig for all to invite friends, family and public to come along and see you play.

Having to find somewhere to practice where you don't bother anyone will happen sooner or later and always after the threatening letters come, and most certainly after the environmental health become involved or the police have been called and your playing has now become a nuisance. So what do you do? Playing in a field or woods is OK until it rains, and in winter it can be too cold or the snow is too deep to leave the house.

For adults, playing under a motorway can be one option, or anywhere you can find that is sheltered and away from people.

Driving to a mountain top is good when it's dry. There are bags you can slip over the sax that muffle the sound, but these are cumbersome and not much fun. Practicing when everyone is out or at work is an option, but there will usually be someone hearing it, and most usually it will be the one who has complained about it to the authorities. Moving home every six months is another option, but that doesn't always work: the new neighbours may dislike the noise even more than the last ones did.

Hiring a room at a school or college can be an option, but they do close for weekends and holidays. The park is also a place to go, but again, only when it is dry, unless there's a bandstand you can use.

Musicians tend to play wherever they can, the lucky ones can play at home, the others have to keep finding places to play and practice where they don't bother people so much they get asked to stop or move on.

Over the years, as you go from place to place playing, you meet many interesting people who will compliment you and tell you not to give up. Sometimes you will wonder why you began all this. What could have possessed you to take up the sax in the first place? Maybe it might have been better to have played the keyboard instead; at least the sound can be turned right down on them.

And then you will find yourself one day in a place playing, and everything will come together for you, and your playing will sound amazing, and you'll know that all the years of hard practice was all just for this moment.

end of part 4