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!

image of mored -

From fanzinepaper

It has been a while since my last post and I can confirm this is not because I haven’t been playing. To the contrary the pain of practice has continued uninterrupted with just a few days set back from the holiday season. The main reason for my blogging absence has been the lack of content to write about in part due to the lack of progress. After the initial six months of highly charged enthusiasm, more than a few negative thoughts have started to creep into my musical psyche. The main one being the deep concern that after almost half a year of playing my alto, I still haven’t managed to master all the notes and I’m not talking about the harmonics or the altissimo range. The other just as deeply upsetting fact is that even the notes I have managed to master sound a bit…well…shit!

Nothing good can ever come out of negativity 

I figured the first thing to do in this situation is to look at the positive gains. There must be some somewhere. So here’s what I noted

  1. Well my posture was great! My back straighter than a plumb line
  2. I have learned to read music and can site read to a reasonable level
  3. I can play a few of my favourite things (jazz standards) – this makes me very happy
  4. My teacher is very happy with my progress (she knows I say to myself)


What’s not so good
So here the rub or rather the opportunity for improvement

  1. Struggling to play from the bottom B flat to the top F – 3 ways to play the same note – really?
  2. The tone is not great specially at the extreme ends
  3. Struggling to take air in at the right places. Gasping for air does not look cool
  4. A bit of a stranger to scales and arpeggios (there’s 12 majors just for starters)
  5. The above means, can’t improvise – unless I quickly learn a blues pentatonic. I’ll get my court.

There’s only the long way

There’s a helluva lot of stuff to take in when playing the sax, but the the most critical factor in the sound of a sax is not the fingering or the mouthpiece or even the saxophone. It is you. Yep there’s the secret ingredient. And getting you to produce the sound takes a whole lot of practice. Not just playing regularly but focussed and relentless attention to those things which will eventually drive your neighbours to despair, otherwise known as the long note. This basically involves playing from the bottom b flat to the top F holding down each note for at least two bars at a very slow beat. Rinse and repeat. To provide a bit of structure, on the advice of my teacher, I got the book Creative Saxophone – Techniques for intermediate saxophonists & jazz improvisers by Kellie Santin.

While you don’t need this just to practice long notes, it has everything from harmonics, alternative fingering, the altissimo range to all the scales and arpeggios to shake a stick at. It also lays out the order of scales and arpeggios based on the cycle of fifths which is a nice touch. But does’t bother to explain this rather important fact which is a real shame. I have been using this now for about 3 weeks, and the result is I’m spending about 80% of my practice sessions using this book. It has made what is otherwise a very tedious practice session into something bearable and even fun. There I said it. I will write about my typical practice session using this book at another time. But I really would recommend getting this or another one with a similar depth to sort your tone and learn all those pesky scales and arpeggios you’ll need.



Photo from Cyberslayer

In the 5 months I’ve been playing the saxophone, so far I have managed to avoid playing those pesky high notes. No not the altissimo range which are played by pure thought I think, but the ones played by the palm keys. They take you from D3 to F#3. I did try them a couple of times a few months ago when my teacher gave me some exercises, but soon decided my neighbours have enough to contend with. Besides, my mouth started to really hurt after a short time, my ears hurt worse. Recently I’ve started to murder I mean play some jazz standards and the high notes have become unavoidable. Though I must admit these old tunes are so great they are driving me to extend my range.

So here’s a quick review of what I’ve learnt about playing the high notes on the alto.

1. A harder reed can help. I’m using a Rico Jazz Select 2 Hard

2. Work your way up to the high keys from a note you can play, like a B2 (B with the octave key).

3. The mouth piece has to be far enough inside your mouth to allow the reed to vibrate fully.

4. The embouchure needs to be fairly firm but relaxed (yeah I know)
5. Mess about till you get a sound
6. Once you do get a sound, hold that note for as long as possible. The idea I believe here is to get your mouth muscles to remember how you got there.
7. Practice a lot not just on the high notes, but in general. A big drawback of being a beginner is your ‘chops’ (which I believe is the technical term) are not developed enough. If anyone know any short cuts to developing these please don’t be shy.

I would highly recommend finding a piece of music you really like that has a couple of the high notes, so you are driven by the music and enjoy the ride.

Something I still haven’t mastered is how to lose that uneasy feeling of physically loosing control of my sax when I come off the say C3 finger keys to just using the palm keys. Pressing the octave key and the palm key just feels odd like I’ve let go of the saxophone. I’m guessing this feeling will go once I’ve played up there a bit more.