Smartphones and apps have become part of our everyday lives, and help us do things all throughout the day. Whether it’s apps for the kitchen, working out, navigating, or shopping, these apps have become a cheap and sometimes free replacement to many tools and devices we used to have to purchase separately at much greater cost.
Even practicing saxophone can be made easier with apps and in this article I’d like to share with you 5 of my favorite apps that I use in and out of the practice room everyday.
For those that don’t want to read the details…
I’m always telling my students to practice with a metronome. It is an essential tool for all musicians, and just about every lesson and exercise I teach requires students to use a metronome or some other form of rhythmic accompaniment.
Metronomes (in the old days)
When I was a student in the 90’s I remember buying my first metronome. At the time there were 3 types available. There was a very cheap one that made a very annoying and not very loud beeping sound for around $10. Then there was a middle of the road option which had more of a click sound, required a 9 volt battery and cost around $35. And finally, there was the expensive option, that I couldn’t afford. I can’t tell you what that one did, but I know it cost over $50.
I chose the $35 metronome, and practiced with that thing a few hours a day for years. Usually, I could never quite hear the click well enough over the sound of my saxophone playing though.
It’s also important that all students practice with a tuner to develop their ability to play in tune.
Tuners (in the old days)
Back in the 90’s I bought my first tuner at the suggestion/order of one of my teachers. I remember it cost me about $65. It was pretty big and bulky, and would always get turned on by accident in my bag, so when I needed to use it, the battery was usually dead.
Best Metronome/Tuner App
Today, apps on my smartphone have replaced both of these devices. I’ve tried many metronome and tuner apps over the years, but recently have come across an app that I love called Tonal Energy.
Tonal Energy is a great metronome and unbelievable tuner in one app and only costs $3.99 on the Apple app store. It’s also available for Android.
Since it’s on my smartphone, I use either headphones or speakers to amplify the click sound so that it is plenty loud when practicing. It’s very important to be able to hear the metronome loud and clear over the sound of one’s instrument.
The actual sound of the click is very important to me. I don’t like practicing with unnatural sounding clicks. The Tonal Energy app has a nice selection of click sounds to choose from. You can do just about anything you would ever think of needing to be able to do with a metronome with this app, and it appears to do many things that no one in the world will ever need.
Despite being very versatile, it’s not complicated to use if you’re just looking for a simple click. I have no use for setting my metronome to 7/17 with an accent on the 2nd and 5th beats, but if that’s something you need to do,Tonal Energy has you covered.
As a tuner, this app is easily the most feature rich I’ve seen. I love the visual interface that gives me a ton of information about my pitch even in my peripheral vision. One of the coolest features is customizing the app for the instrument you are playing. This can be done by transposition (so you see the played note displayed rather than the heard note) and/or by instrument sound, so you can hear the note played to you by a quality sample of the chosen instrument.
I have mine set up for tenor sax so when I preview notes I hear them played by a tenor saxophone sample and the note displayed is the same as the one I’m fingering on my horn. You can visualize the notes on a piano keyboard, pitch wheel or even as a stringed instrument.
Another amazing feature that I’ve recently discovered while messing around with Tonal Energy is the ability to use the camera while practicing. Why would I want this you ask?
I use the camera function to simultaneously check my tuning while watching my embouchure. I always encourage students to practice in front of a mirror. Now, with the Tonal Energy app you can do so while visually analyzing the information the app is showing you. You have to try it out to see what I mean.
There are many other features. Too many to mention here. When you buy the app, you’ll see. It takes a while to discover all you can do with it. I’m still finding new tricks all the time.
I can’t think of a better value for 4 bucks for any musician.
This app is for anyone who wants to make transcribing easier and faster. There is a guy who posted videos of himself playing every solo from Hank Mobley’s album Soul Station from memory and in every key! Yes, all 12 keys every solo from memory in 1 take! I am not kidding.
See for yourself here:
Joe Graziosi – Soul Station Album All 12 Keys
He said he used the Anytune Pro app to do it and it took him a year of practicing an hour a day. I of course bought it immediately and sure enough, the app is great.
Transcribing (in the old days)
In the old days we used to use reel to reel machines for transcribing because they had a button that would slow the speed down to half.
Problem with that is that you needed access to a reel to reel machine, and you needed to transfer your recordings to those tapes. On top of that, when the recording slowed down 50% it also dropped the sound an octave making the recording very muddy and weird.
We would also use cassette tapes and you would get pretty nimble at pressing stop, rewind, stop, play at the exact amount of time necessary to go back the length of a measure or two.
Needless to say, transcribing back then was a chore that I avoided.
Today, there are many apps that will adjust the speed of recordings slower (or faster) without changing the pitch. They will also loop sections of a recording for you. Anytune Pro is the best app I have used for this purpose and at a mere $14.99 on the app store it’s worth every penny.
In order to use the app with an mp3 file, you must own it, meaning it can’t be something you stream from a Spotify (or other service) subscription. If you are going to be transcribing a solo or anything else from a recording you should be willing to throw down .99 cents to purchase it if you haven’t already bought a hard copy.
Transcribing is the number 1 thing you can do to improve your musicianship.
Mike Mossman told me that when I was studying arranging with him at Queens College and I can confirm, that I have learned more from listening and transcribing music than any other source.
You won’t always need an app to transcribe, but if you want to learn complex solos, Anytune Pro will make the task much easier.
A word of advice:
When learning/transcribing solos, don’t write it down. Memorize line by line, phrase by phrase, chorus by chorus. If you want to keep a record of the solo to share with others or for future reference, write it out only after you’ve learned the whole thing from memory.
As saxophone players 2 of our primary jobs are improvising solos, and playing song melodies. When it comes to playing melodies, far too many instrumentalists rely on reading sheet music. This is precisely why I created my Pentatonic Foundation Course. When I see saxophone players on stage somewhere reading the melodies to standard popular songs it makes me cringe a bit. The iReal Pro app, when used correctly can be a fantastic tool for learning song melodies and chord changes.
Real Books (in the old days)
Way back in the dark ages before smartphones and tablets, musicians used to carry around enormous song books called The Real Book vol 1-3. These ancient tomes contained the melodies for hundreds of songs from the standard jazz repertoire along with chord changes. They were available in concert C, Eb, Bb transposition and even in bass clef and cost around $35 each.
At jam sessions around the world you could regularly see musicians burying their heads in a music stand with one or more Real Books on them while playing the same dozen or so songs.
These books posed several problems. They were very heavy to carry around and poorly bound so with heavy use, they would eventually fall apart or lose pages. They were also very poorly copied by hand making it difficult to read. The Real Books were also full of mistakes. Many of these mistakes simply became the new way those tunes got played by many musicians. Not to mention the fact that every song was written out in one particular key and so for generations, this became the “official” key of many standards.
Besides these physical limitations of the original Real Books, there was this underlying problem of musicians never actually learning any songs. Once you were equipped with a Real Book, as long as you knew how to read music, you were ready to perform any song, anywhere, anytime.
The result of this belief was a lot of very poorly played versions of standards and nothing else.
Today, we have a great app called iReal Pro that replaces these real books and improves upon them drastically. Now you can have an unlimited number of songs on your phone or tablet. These can be transposed to any key, and even played back to you as a backing track to practice with.
The biggest difference between the content of the iReal Pro app and the aforementioned physical Real Books of the old days is that on the app, there are no melodies. Many musicians (mainly horn players who have to play melodies) might consider this a big negative.
On the contrary, it’s a huge positive. This iReal Pro app encourages everyone to learn the melodies on their own. It is a fantastic practice tool when you want to practice songs in different keys and tempos, and is a great way to create your own lead sheets for original songs or arrangements/reharmonizations that can be shared easily with other musicians. It costs a measly $12.99 and there’s a forum where you can download thousands of songs to the app (chord progressions only).
Learn song melodies by ear. Use recordings of standard songs that you like and play along with them to learn and memorize the melody. If this is new to you, I recommend taking my Pentatonic Foundation Course to get started transcribing melodies using your ear.
Last on our list, but perhaps 1st in order of importance are 2 apps I have used for listening to music.
Listening to music is at least equally as important practicing music if you want to learn, improve and sound good.
Make a point of listening to music everyday. If you want to get better at playing saxophone, it’s essential that you listen to good saxophone players whose playing pleases you.
Listening to Music (in the old days)
Here’s my last reference to the old days where everything was more difficult and more expensive.
Back then, we had to purchase CDs and play them on a Compact Disc player. If you go back further, it was cassettes, and before that, vinyl records. I suppose you can go back even further to when people only had access to the radio or live performances.
The point is that nowadays it is easier and cheaper than ever to listen to whatever kind of music you want.
I used to spend $18 a pop for CDs and I had hundreds of them. In my college dorm room, we had gatherings of jazz musicians where we would take turns playing tracks we were digging at the moment. Everyone would sit around in candlelight listening intently to every note being played on a great stereo system with tower speakers.
We all carried around with us Case Logic CD carriers that held several dozen discs. We also had portable CD players that always had to be on a level surface to work correctly. Listening was a joy and passion.
Listening to Music Today
Today, for $9.99 a month, less than the cost of 1 CD, we can have access to most of the digital library of recordings that exist with a subscription to a music streaming service like Apple Music or Spotify.
Sure, not every recording is available, but for the amount you get access to it is an unbelievable value. These apps often offer free trials or even free subscriptions (with ads).
And there is always YouTube which is not so much an app, but when connected to the internet, you can access a ridiculous amount of music, much of which is not available elsewhere. Check out my YouTube playlists for suggested saxophone players to listen to.
I listen to music using a streaming app every day, and you should too. Even if you are not aiming to become a better musician, listening to music is one of those very human activities that can benefit everyone.
Please feel free to discuss these apps and any others you have found to be helpful when practicing saxohpone. Use the comments section below to write your comments.
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Interested in more tech? Check out “How to Use Headphones in the Practice Room.”