Getting started

saxophone playing mermaid statue

Photo by Afromelkhorn

When I say religion I don’t mean the obsessive devotional part, which incidentally is up to you, but I’m talking about the other part. The part that is the main reason I am actually not religious. I’m of course talking about the belief part that goes hand in hand with the faith part. The thing is when you start to learn the saxophone and it sounds like you are doing something you really should’t to next door’s cat, the only thing that makes you think, not today, nor tomorrow, but someday before I am dead I’m going to sound like like bloody Parker himself is pure faith. So you get yourself a practice which you repeat religiously and if there’s a god somewhere you know you’ll get there.

There’s a whole bunch of things to consider in your practice depending on the time you have and where you are at with your sax. These can include working on tone, ear training, scales, arpeggios, improvisation and so on. As I mentioned in my last post, my main concern right now, the things that really drive me mad are not being agile enough (embouchure and fingers) to play all the notes on my alto with any consistency and the sound. On top of this I want to tackle all the major scales and 7th arpeggios so I can start to improvise as soon as possible. So I figured a couple of months on scales and arpeggios should sort out all my immediate worries.

I’m managing about 4 hours of practice a week at the moment. Which based on Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours to virtuoso will take me quite a long time. The way I’ve designed my practice session, if I only do a short session then I only get to do the boring bits. If I want to have fun then I need to extend my practice session. I tried doing it the other way round so you don’t have to.

10 mins long notes

5 mins alternate fingering

15 mins Major scales

10 mins major 7th arpeggios

Remaining time on Jazz standards of my choosing.

As I mentioned in my last post, I do most of my practice now using the exercises from the book Creative Saxophone Workbook. But there are many other books and free resources online you can find.

For the long notes I’m pretty much playing the chromatic scale from the bottom to the top, holding each note for about 2 bars at a slow tempo. Then I switch to classical arpeggios (first, third and fifth) across two octaves. I have been told by my teacher to stay away from vibrato and other sound effects as it confuses your sound as a beginner. The hardest part is to get a clean long note sound without doing anything to the pitch. So practice that.

For the alternative fingering practice I’m working on the 3 alternatives for the B and C for now.

For the major scales and arpeggios, I’m sticking to just 4 keys, starting with C,F,B flat and E flat. This order is taken from the Circle of fifth which makes it much easier to remember and progress. It will all make more sense when I write that post. The plan is, when I feel comfortable with the first key C in a week or two, I will drop it from my routine and include the next in the Circle of Fifths which is A flat. Then in another week or two I will drop the F and include the D flat. I will continue till I’ve learn all 12.

I only play tunes when I have the time. So at a minimum I get the important practice done, and If I have more time I get to have some fun with some standards. Which help me with reading music, rhythm and the structure of these timeless classics. So far I can play or rather I’m familiar with The girl from Ipanema, Favourite things, Autumn Leaves, and Easy living.

So that’s me. I would ask you to tell me about your practice sessions, but by the time this blog get’s a readership I’ll be bloody brilliant. So don’t bother. Just kidding! I’d love to hear what you have to say at all times

Keep the faith!

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.

perfect lips never mind the embouchure


The single lip embouchure

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

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