Now that summer is here, (at least in the south of France) my schedule has become even more busy than usual. I’m lucky enough to have gigs playing the saxophone most days of the week. Add to that the arrival of our daughter 10 months ago, and finding time to practice becomes a major challenge.
I can’t complain though. When I lived in New York, I was much more busy throughout the year. A typical day involved waking up at 6:30, taking the subway to teach music all morning and afternoon at the various schools I taught in, then spending the evening in rehearsals or gigs. I had almost no days off, as I couldn’t afford them. I somehow forced myself to practice the saxophone for at least an hour and a half everyday. I did this despite being exhausted most of the time and living in an apartment building with lots of exhausted neighbors, some of whom I’m sure, hated me for it.
These were extreme circumstances, but when you are striving to survive as a professional saxophone player in New York City, you had better be in the shed, as we call the practice room, everyday.
Now that I live in the south of France, I have a much more leisurely life and certainly less economic pressure to run around like a maniac trying to make ends meet. That said, I still have to force myself (some days) to practice for that hour and a half minimum.
I remember a long time ago, during my summer breaks from music school, I had a summer job that kept me very busy. I was also taking private saxophone lessons at home on Long Island from Mark Gatz, who was a great saxophone player and teacher. During one of my lessons, I told Mark that I didn’t have time to practice because of my job. He told me “you have to make time”.
So I did.
Turns out, you can always make time for something you want to do. Just like going to the gym, we can very easily find excuses not to do it, but we are almost always glad we did after a workout or practice session. Practicing music is like exercising in many other ways as well. For example, it’s much better to do a short 15 minute work out every day than to go to the gym for an hour once every 4 days.
Let me share with you some of the strategies I have used to get myself in the shed despite all the good excuses not to practice.
1. Build a shed (literally)
One major excuse I have used in the past and have heard from students is “I can’t practice because it will bother others.” If your practice space is within earshot of neighbors or family members you may not want to disturb them with endless scales, long tones, altissimo notes and other repetitive loud saxophone playing. The ultimate solution is to have a practice space dedicated to playing saxophone, that minimizes what others hear.
In the apartment building where I live now, I have a storage room in the basement which I have had soundproofed. This allows me to practice down there any time, day or night. The entire cost of doing this was around $1000 (less than 10 square meters). It is not completely sound proof, but no sound escapes out to where the neighbors can hear. I could have spent more if needed to reduce the sound that escapes. For me this investment has been invaluable. Having a place dedicated to the saxophone and with no distractions is the ideal situation for practicing, and removes many of the excuses not to practice. Playing in my saxophone cave is one of the pleasures I look forward to every day.
If you can build your own saxophone shed in your home, yard, or somewhere in your apartment building, do it. I’m no expert on these things, but I will gladly offer whatever advice I can to anyone interested.
I have heard of musicians doing this in large closets in their city apartments. This may not allow you to play in the middle of the night, but could certainly eliminate complaints from neighbors during normal waking hours.
I’d love to hear about your creative practice rooms in the comments section.
2. Do you have a car?
I used to run a New Horizons wind ensemble for retirees in New York City. One of my students who played the saxophone told me he practiced in his car which was always parked on the street. At the time I thought this was a bit strange, but was glad he managed to find a place to practice.
A few years later, I had moved to a new apartment where I could not practice at any time of day. I remembered my former student and tried out the car practice shed thing. This turned out to be a great mobile practice room for alto saxophone or smaller instruments. I would drive out to a nice secluded spot, and just sit in the driver’s seat with my alto between my legs and go for it.
Practicing in your car is certainly not ideal, since your physical position will be restricted, but with some creative seat adjustment you can be quite comfortable. Obviously, don’t practice with the engine on and you have to accommodate for very hot or cold weather.
3. Ask around
If you can’t practice at home and the car thing won’t work for you, there are almost always alternative options available. As a long time music teacher, I have always had access to the facilities at the schools I taught at for practicing. You might be able to practice at the office where you work after hours, or at your church, school or other community center. If none of these options are available, there may be a music studio near where you live that rents out practice rooms. Think of it as a gym membership for practicing saxophone.
I have also practiced in the park, the forest, on the beach in winter, on top of a parking garage, on the banks of the Seine in Paris, and various hotel rooms.
Let us know about alternative practice locations you have used in the comments below.
4. Got 15 minutes?
You don’t need to dedicate an hour and a half minimum each day like I try to do. Set your goal at 15 minutes or half an hour to start with. Everyone can find 15 minutes a day no matter what. Your neighbors and family can also tolerate 15 minutes of saxophone playing so that solves the no practice space issue temporarily at least.
You may think that having only 15 minutes to play is not enough to make any real progress. Not true. If you were learning the Pentatonic Foundation Course for example and dedicated 15 minutes a day, after a month you will have practiced your saxophone for almost 8 hours. Working steadily in this manner will surely get you results. Your progress would also also be much faster than if you could only manage to practice for one 60 minute session every 4 days.
Those 15 minute sessions would undoubtedly grow longer and longer as you progressed. The better we get on the saxophone, the more fun it is to play.
5. Think Long Term
I remember reading a New York Times OpEd written by Pat Riley, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, and later the New York Knicks. I forget the details of the article, but I remember a quote he used in it. “It’s not the destination that matters, but the journey.”
Saxophone playing or any other instrument, is a long term project. Whether you are just starting out, or have been playing for many years like me, there is no end to the learning process. I am not practicing every day with the goal of one day being good enough so that I don’t have to practice. Every time I learn something new, I move on to the next thing. There is an inexhaustible supply of things to practice and learn.
As with exercise, we practice to keep ourselves in shape, maintain our flexibility and endurance, and improve our abilities over time. Our results are much better if we practice/exercise a little each day over the course months and years, than if we only manage to go through short spurts of activity.
It’s like when you buy a gym membership, and go for the first week, and then stop. Maybe it’s just me that does that?
If you’ve gotten into learning the sax, or gotten back into playing, don’t let it become like my past cancelled gym memberships. Play everyday even if it’s only for a very short time.