We all do 'do, re, mi,' but you have got to find the other notes yourself
Monthly Archives: November 2012
Having opted for the the harness from Neotech over the standard neckstrap I really struggled keeping the saxophone at the right height. You can see my earlier post on Strap or Harness here. Having persevered with it for almost 4 month, finally, I worked out the problem. These harnesses have to be strapped very close to the body to prevent the straps from sliding over your shoulders with the weight of the sax. I did this and it all worked perfectly but the sax stays too close for my comfort. Now I’m not good enough to be swinging my sax around but I suspect this would be very hard to do with a harness or at least this one from Neotech. So, I decided to contact the very nice people I bought this from (John Wyatt Woodwind and Brass) and fortunately they were very accommodating even though it was well past the date for any reasonable return policy. They offered me an alternative the JazzLab “SaxHolder” Saxophone Strap. I must admit I was expecting this to be a bit of a novelty item, so I approached with causation when it arrived. Oh and I agreed with the shop that I’d only return the original harness if the Sax holder was better.
The first thing you notice is it’s not going to just fit into any old bag. It is made of metal and plastic which curves to fit over your shoulders and it doesn’t fold flat like a strap or harness. But it does fold to roughly half the length you see on the photo. Once out of the cloth bag, you simply fold it out in one smooth action and voila it just sits on your shoulders. Then comes the clever bit I think. There’s an adjustable telescopic support which extends to sit somewhere comfortable on your stomach. This keeps your saxophone slightly in front of the bod without you having to hold out it out infront of you with your thumb. Genius! Then it’s a case of sliding the plastic hook onto the ring onteh sax and adjusting the nifty height adjustment thing till you have it where you want it.
Once the sax was in place it was an awesome experience. There’s no pressure on your thumb where I usually try to hold it up, and there’s a lot of room to manoeuvre. You can really hold it away from you unlike the harness. I had read that the little arm support that rest on the stomach can be a bit awkward, and yes, I did find it a little odd for a few minutes, but then forgot all about it. That’t the thing about this Saxholder, you simply forget it’s there.
My only reservation now is it still feels like it could just fall off your shoulders but this is probably physiological, because I’m used to the straps going all the way around the body and the idea trusting these shoulder supports staying there with just the weight of the sax takes a little time to get used to. Having said that this really is a great device and I just can’t see me going back. I would highly recommend it especially to a beginner sax player like me who has enough things to worry about without the constant neck, shoulder, back and finger ache from holding a saxophone in the right position for anything longer than 20 minutes.
Some of my musical friends kept talking about the importance of the embouchure when playing the sax but it is like so many things in life from having your own kids to tooth ache – no description in the world is going to come close to the reality. I was taught by my teacher what I have since come to know as the classical single lip embouchure. This is where you put your top teeth straight on to the top of the mouthpiece. Then wrap your bottom lip over the bottom teeth to make a cushion and bring that up to the bottom of the reed to make the seal.
The most important thing to remember is that the reed must be allowed to fully vibrate at all times – this means you need to make sure your top teeth and bottom lip ( curled over the bottom teeth) are both clear of the front part of the reed that is free to move. But if you swallow too much of that mouthpiece you won’t be able to play the higher notes very well or at all. For anyone interested in a more scientific process for finding this sweet spot, the best approach I found during my research was to slide a piece of paper between the reed and the mouthpiece till it stops moving, then mark the reed where the paper stops. This is where your top teeth and bottom lips should be.
Another and a harder thing to achieve for me was applying the right amount of pressure from the bottom lip to make a good seal without, again, restricting the movement of that reed. This is where my embouchure troubles began. I suspect like most beginners to the saxophone, I was less concerned with the perfect embouchure and more interested in getting through my exercises. I was having enough trouble with plenty of other ‘issues’ like going from a C to a D without sounding like I’d switched instruments, a reed that was soaking wet after 2 minutes of playing, a sore bottom thumb from holding up the sax (I’ve solved this one since – post to follow.) and of course running out of air before the end of the bar. All this meant I was clinging onto that mouthpiece like my life depended on it and with all the expected consequences. A very painful sound and an even more painful bottom lip, where I’d been biting it with my bottom teeth against the reed – ouch! So what were my options?
The double lip embouchure – hide those teeth
This is where in addition to curling your bottom lip over the bottom teeth, you also curl the top lip over the top teeth. So you look like someone whose’s forgotten to put in their false teeth and don’t want you to see their gums. The result is both top and bottom teeth are cushioned by lips. The theory is with this arrangement, it would be very painful to bite against the top lip hence you don’t bite and the reed is free to move and the sound is sweet…I can confirm that for me this method just left me with both lips shredded. But don’t let me put you off, I hear it worked like a dream for that John Coltrane bloke.
The no embouchure embouchure
This is pretty much as it’s written on the tin. You basically put the mouthpiece in your mouth without any premeditated lip manipulation. The thing goes in and you put your lips comfortably over it like it was a big straw. I kind of found myself automatically defaulting to this when I started to go down the register to the dreaded L O W Bb. It started with me increasingly having to loosen my bottom lip to hit that low note until it finally popped out and out came the sound with it. It is worth noting that I’d been playing for about 4 months at this point and may be it would’t have worked as well without those months of strain and pain.
There’s clearly a of benefit to this as there’s no better way to give plenty of space for the reed. But I find it much harder to play the higher notes like this. From my travels online the most convincing explanation and the reason I’m keen to persevere comes from Jerry Bergonzi.
So where am I at with all this? I still basically use a single lip embouchure but am happy to let it slide out for the low notes and tuck under and tighten up for the higher register. My bottom lip doesn’t hurt so much now. The most important thing I’ve learnt is that if you just keep playing, your mouth, lips and teeth all seem to take care of themselves and find the best position to get the job done. But what is getting the job done? Right now it’s getting all the low notes and the high notes out in time to get through my exercises and short pieces. But soon I know I’m going to want that alto to sound like a saxophone – I will then need to continue to evolve my embouchure and the best way to do that is to keep playing and experimenting
A great thing about having a teacher is hopefully they’ve already narrowed down the endless list of books available for beginners. So ok, you are restricted by the books that agree with their teaching style, but then, hopefully you picked a teacher who matches your learning ways. I was first offered the Absolute Beginners: Alto Saxophone by my teacher as it was very detailed in the set-up process and the explanation on hold and posture etc.. It is a great book for a beginner, but I wasn’t too keen on the musical content. Whilst I’m a complete beginner to the sax, I have got some background in music and it was clear I was going to run out of this book fairly soon. It takes a few lessons for a teacher to understand how musical you are and how quickly you learn. So we decided to switch to Learn as You Play: Saxophone by Peter Wastall which I must say is the one for me and seems a standard favourite of my teacher too.
It does’t dwell too much on the set-up, posture or hold sections, or rather if it did, I have skimmed through those pages without noticing. It is clearly aimed at someone learning with a teacher. If you are teaching yourself, you’d need to have a reasonable amount of musical knowledge to understand the concepts. It does go through everything step by step, but covers some complex ideas in just a few sentences – in almost a reference style.
I love the way the exercises build up to a more significant piece in quite a clever way to introduce the specific theme being taught. The pieces themselves are a little archaic and unrecognisable to me. I’m guessing this has something to do with the copyright having expired on some of these old tunes. On the plus side, this means you have to play the dots. I find knowing the tune can really interfere with learning to read music especially the timing.
Having played the piano (not to any great standard) and the guitar (to a slightly better standard) where all notes are roughly made equal (as in the mechanics of playing one note or another is pretty much the same) you don’t think about having to learn to play a specific note like a low b. A saxophone on the other hand is a completely different animal. Every note is a law onto itself and you need to give it it’s own space and practice like hell. The exercises in this book have been designed to get you used to this idea bringing a lot of method to this madness.
Personally it takes me a week to get through each stage which is only a couple of pages. As so much of it is about getting a clean sound (did I mention Embouchure) and being able to follow the music while you play, it is worth nailing each section before forging ahead.
Having arrived for my first sax lesson the thing that immediately struck me was the strap or rather the harness my teacher was wearing. This looked very comfortable with two straps that came over from the back of the shoulders and met in the middle of the chest where there was one of those trigger hooks, like the ones used for clipping keys to your jeans. This all looked a lot more balanced and a less painful alternative to my classic loop strap that just went round the neck.
With a little encouragement from my teacher I decided to buy one and within a week I had ordered the Neotech harness from Amazon shown below. But before you go rushing into buy one there’s a few things to point out. Yes, it is a lot better than my neck cruncher and even more comfortable on the shoulders than the one my teacher was wearing, with additional soft padding under the shoulder straps. It even looks robust and durable. But, there are a couple of things I’m not fond of.
First, there’s the hefty price tag. At nearly £30 it’s not cheap, but I’m starting to realise that most of the kit for a sax is very expensive for what it is, probably due to the low quantities they make. The next issue which is a biggie for me is the position. I have never managed to keep the straps from sliding over the shoulders with the weight of the sax. The result is my alto keeps slipping below the ideal height for playing (keeping a good straight back). While this may seem like a major designs flaw, I am not so sure. The fact is as a beginner, seems you can never be too sure about anything. Is it your reed or your embouchure, is your strap too lose or your thumb too week to hold up the weight of the sax. So I have decided to give it another couple of months before concluding. I will report back. One thing I can say is that a harness that avoids the neck is a whole lot better for your neck and back
I had my first music teacher when I was learning to play the cello at the age of 12. I was with her for 3 years, I passed a few exams and played in the school orchestra. The last teacher I had was around 4 years ago, when a friend decided to buy me some saxophone lessons as a present. The lessons were in this guy’s tiny kitchen in a small upstairs flat. I thought it best not to ask about the neighbours. He was charging me £25 an hour, so I figured it was his problem. But I wasn’t getting the practice between lesson and it was an expensive way to practice scales. I stopped after the 5 lesson taster.
Having recently decided to revisit and make a commitment to the saxophone, there was no question of not having a teacher. Sure you can teach yourself just about anything from origami to brain surgery these days with a lot of spare time and the internet, but I felt the sax wasn’t one of them. You only have to look at the thing to realise it’s going to take a decent teacher and a lot of patience and practice.
The internet is crammed full of detailed instructions on how to find your ideal music teacher, and I’d like to say I did my research, short listed half a dozen teachers, went and heard them play, talked to their students, heard them play and checked their certificates from the Royal College of Music. But no, I didn’t have the time to do any of this, and I’m guessing neither do you.
So here’s a slightly easier albeit less comprehensive approach that kind of worked for me. I say kind of because I’m not sure if there really is the perfect teacher. It’s a moving target, you can only know if they are right for you right now.
It is worth mentioning at this point that my search was conducted entirely using the internet. I did of course ask my friends first for a personal recommendation, but unlike piano and guitar teachers, sax teachers are a rarer breed.
I would advice you to get the following straight before starting your search
Who do you need? ‘I want the best!!’ is probably not going to help, for reasons I’ll go into. I took a more pragmatic view, which considered all the practical considerations like how good they need to be to teach me as a complete beginner. Do I want a great saxophonist or a good teacher. Do I like someone who has a structured approach to teaching or someone who’s a little ‘jazzy’ in their methods. Do I want someone who’s heavy on the theory or someone who prefers to teach by ear and feel. Personally I decided I needed someone who could teach first, but who could also blow that horn well enough to make me want to keep coming back. I love playing music by ear, but this time I really wanted to read those dots. I am also someone who could definitely benefit from more than a little structure.
What style of music do you want to play? Ok so there are dozens of different styles you could be playing, but to my mind there are just two things you need to concern yourself about. Do you want to play jazz or don’t you. In my case, I got to this point through listening to blues, funk, jazz and latin music. So it was pretty clear my teacher had to be into Jazz. The other side to this very simplistic coin is classical and rock music and I think it requires a different kind of teacher.
When do you want your lesson? When can you have the lesson. Most teachers are booked up in the evening and weekends. So being able to have a lesson in the day would put you in good position to negotiate. If a teacher doesn’t do office ours, then you know they are teaching music as a second job. Not necessarily a bad thing, but something to note. I’m lucky to be able to have mine on a mid morning in the week.
What are your intentions? How long do you want to stay with the same teacher – Like any relationship, it is better to take things one step at a time, especially if you are a complete beginner learning to play the saxophone. Are you confident you are going to stick with it no matter what? Or are you just checking to see if it really is for you.
HOW MUCH?!!! – you need to have an idea of what you can afford. You can pay between £15 to £30 for 30mins to 45mins. At the lower end you are not going to get someone that is hugely experienced, many music students tend to offer cheap lessons. I was lucky to find someone at the lower price bracket who was also a good teacher even though a less experienced player. Suits me right now
Getting this stuff clear in your head and preferably on paper can save a load of time, especially when searching online where you may need to filter out a lot of potential candidates to something more manageable.
Google ‘saxophone teacher’ (Search “Saxophone teacher [Town/City]. Remember to also set the location on your Google page for even more localised results.
Teacher Directories/Databases – At first you’ll notice the dozen or so ‘comprehensive’ music teacher directories that promise the world. These can be on the whole annoying with terrible search functions and even worse navigation. They either provide too few options to filter and you end up with a list of teachers in the entire county, or too many advanced filtering options that doesn’t return anyone, unless you live in a big city. If you find a couple that match your criteria then add them to the short list. Some of these sites will charge you a fee to contact a teacher. Others will charge the teacher to register with the site. The rest relies on advertising to keep them going. Personally I didn’t find any of these useful enough to recommend. Thought you need to go through the first couple to get your list together.
Personal websites. If you are lucky you’ll see a few personal sites set up by the teacher. These tend not to be the best looking sites you’ll ever see, but what do you expect from a busy musician and teacher. I found mine through their site. It really helped make the connection. With a lot of these you’ll find a bunch of links to their performance videos and other background material which will really save you a lot of time. It is worth mentioning that many teachers don’t have their own site – which is a real shame. So don’t rely too much on this. But if you get lucky then add any teachers you find to your short list.
Google Facebook – It is very hard to use the FB search function. Typing ‘sax teacher london‘ returned useless results for me. So here’s a trick. Cut and paste this into Google replacing [location] with your town >>> (site:www.facebook.com saxophone teacher [location]) . Go through the first page of results and see if there’s anyone that grabs you and put them on the list. The good thing about Facebook is you can get a bit more info about the teacher – how many people have liked their page. See some of the updates and conversations they’ve had as well as pictures and sometimes performance video. Anything that helps you get an idea of the person is very useful.
Filter your short list.
Once you have a handful of potential candidates (If you have any more than this then you are extremely lucky or live in New Orleans, in which case I’m wasting your time), you can move to the next step
My space – Shocking I know, but there are still a lot of old musicians with profiles on myspace with videos and pictures. Worth a check
Youtube – if they are at all playing locally then you should find them or their band here. When I was helping a friend find a piano teacher we turned down several after seeing them play on YouTube
Twitter – It may not help you know how good they are as a teacher, but finding their ramblings on twitter may reveal a whole lot about their personality. If you are lucky you may even see them mentioned or even thanked by a student. By the way it’s not worth using Twitter to search for teachers. Twitter is time based and there’s only a very slim chance you’ll see a tweet from a teacher promoting their services at the precise time you are looking
Multi talented teachers aka those teaching several often unrelated instruments. Personally I wanted a teacher who was passionate about the saxophone and the style of music they played more than how experienced they were. So unless the other instruments they taught were the Tenor, Soprano or the Bass sax they were out of my list.
Make the call arrange a trial lesson
When you are down to a couple of candidates, then it’s time to make that call and have a chat. Remember to go through your list of criteria, but most importantly check you can get on. If you like them, then you usually get a chance to have a trial lesson at a reduced rate or even free. If you really have a few teachers you’d like to try out, then I’d recommend asking for a free trial – many would say yes if you explain.
The trial lesson
Remember this is not really a chance to learn as much as find out who you would be learning from and how. Do you like them? Do they instil confidence? Get them to play something and don’t be shy about asking them to play something you really like (Worth having this prepped beforehand). Then they will ask you you to play. If you are a complete beginner then you are probably going to struggle at this point, but thats the point. A lot of people give up the sax because they just can’t get a sound out. A good teacher should be able to get a sound out of you by the end of the trial.
Don’t be pressured into committing to them then and there unless you are absolutely sure they are the one.
A lot of people find it difficult to say no to a teacher once they’ve started, especially if the teacher is a nice person. My advice is to book a taster package of about half dozen lessons which many teachers will offer at a discounted rate. This will give you enough time to check them out. Any less time and you may not be giving yourself a proper chance to get the sound enough to know if it’s for you.
Wow and this was meant to be a short post. I would love to here from you if you have any other nifty ideas for finding a teacher online.