Finding Precious Practice Time

Sometimes it seems way harder than it is to find time to practice.

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)

old-shed-s4w1_1024x1024One 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?

car saxI 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?

15 minutesOnce your practice space is sorted out, the next ingredient is motivation to get you in there and shedding (practicing).

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

keep-calm-and-think-long-termI 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.

Interested in more practice tips? Check out “Are You Practicing the Right Stuff?” 

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks.

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David says:

Thank you and good morning for an inspiring article ?? I try practice as you describe daily; Something is touch scales long tone starting late in life I feel a sense of urgency to improve Its great to look back at what you could not have done and one day hit the note or technique spot on

I’m enjoying the engagement We will continue to Shed

I leave in house empty nest My son plays tuba and trombone song horns are in the family I work in my basement

Have a great day ???

Carlos Carvajal says:

Running out of time!!!!
I started last year in July at the young age of 73 and I am determined to master the Sax.
I wish I would have started younger but had no support from parents.
Last July when I started didn’t know how to read music and had a bad musical ear.
My Sax is my friend and the keys in the piano my other friend.
I practice pretty much every day 2 hours sometime more put never less. I breakup my practice after I notice that I’m getting sloppy. Half hour at a time then go do something entirely different and come back to it. This learning schedule has worked for me over the years.
I will be 74 in February and like I said I will master the beautiful sound before it’s to late.
I thank Jay for the Pentatonic approach for this has helped me move along faster than reading notes.

Sherri Funn says:

That is encouraging Carlos to hear you have pushed past the age of 73 years. I was wishing I knew more about the quality of sound and how to obtain it and keep it. I am 57 years young. Taking Jay ‘s Pentatonic Foundation Course has opened my insights on so much lack of understanding. Thanks for your testimony,

Jay Metcalf says:

Thanks for your reply. I’m glad you are learning from my course. Keep up the good work!

Carlos M R Carneiro says:

Hi Friends, That’s only a short message of presentation.
I am just boarding Jay’s airplane. Since yesterday I am honored to share the membership with you all.
I am from Brazil but because of my job with the UN I had to frequently travel to many countries during 30 years and I only could start learning music( and saxophone) at the age of 53. I am now 69 and can play “”relatively”” well my alto and tenor( Yamaha 62III). BUT I only play reading music sheet… I”ve desperately been trying to learn to improvise or learn to play by ear but I never succeeded. I’ve even bought tons of good methods but NEVER..NEVER( I am really bad!!).
Now Jay is my last hope… And I am motivated and excited to really work hard with your lessons.
Jay, I understand what you mean by paying a one year membership in the Gym and attending only one month of classes….!! Good luck in France… I lived many years nearby..
Best, Carlos Marx

Alice Browar says:

I had to laugh when I read that others played their sax in the car. When I was first taking lessons I had a really bad student saxophone on top of just trying to get notes out. I hated the way I sounded and went into the car to practice. My teacher thought I was nuts! After all these 25 years I am so glad I found out that I’m not so odd after all.

Jean W. says:

To me the road to success is persistence. Practice is the persistence to success. Stan Getz
use to practice in the bathroom. When the neighbors complained out their windows, his
would yell “play it louder Stanley”

Jay Metcalf says:

I always tell students “if the neighbors don’t complain then you’re not practicing enough!”

Rod Guy says:

Thanks for the info and encouragement. I solved three problems with one hit, and your notes reminded me. I would take my sax/clarinet to work, and play in the park at lunchtime, weather permitting. I was shy, and embarrassed to play in front of people; playing in the park fixed that. I had little time to practice; lunchtime gave me that. Lastly, I was taught to read and play written notes only, and thought I had no ear.
Playing in the park, songs I could sing or knew well enabled me to cross that hurdle. Best of all people would stop, and say nice things. Highlight was some kids coming up, putting a five cent coin on my clarinet case and saying: “you like buskin’ mister, do ya?””
Rod Guy, Macedon, Australia

Jay Metcalf says:

Fantastic. Busking (or just playing in public) is a great way to practice performing and you can do it everyday.

Robert says:

Hi Jay,
How to play with very low and and with a beautiful sound on a tenor sax? (My wife is a quite professional musician with good ears and don’t like to hear me learning sax). I don’t find in a video explaining how to play barely audible but right.
(I have an old YTS62 sax with Selmer S80 C** mouth peace and use reeds Vandoreen Jazz 2.5 or 3 or La Voz MS)

Jay Metcalf says:

Robert, unfortunately, in order to play quietly with control, you first need to develop your skills playing loudly. I suggest buying your wife a nice pair of noise cancelling headphones, and practicing in a closet or other room that deadens the sound a bit.

Cerridwen says:

Just remember, when your wife was first learning her instrument, she didn’t sound professional either. She would have hit bad notes, didn’t have rhythm, etc.

Helmut says:

On vacations and business trips I have practiced in my car, city parks, forests, corn fields, pastures, roadside resting areas, hotels rooms and vacant hotel conference rooms. Except for a single visit by a friendly forest official this has always been completely unproblematic.

Richard Cowley says:

Hello, Jay and everyone,
I am 61 yrs and after a long pause from the love of my life (other than my lady, Joan, 44yrs) since my Dad passed away in 1985 i could not touch my horns (they were my Dads really) i was somehow coerced into starting again when my Joan and my youngest took me to Liverpool to Curly Music to look at some guitars Melissa was interested in, however it was a ruse for Dad(me) to see Saxaphones, mainly Selmer as i had told them that my Dad had taught me to play on his Selmer Mk 6 tenor and alto, there was a lovely Selmer super action 80 alto, not there 10 minutes and i bought it, could not play for love nor money, now i have 6 and a Clarinet !
i have been following Jay and his videos and follow on fb, just bought a collection of material to practice with, what a journey
i practice in the shippon with the young heifers listening in on my uncles farm, though sometimes i cant hear what i am doing for mooing !
take care all

Alistair Jones says:

I practice most days and for about 2 hours and I feel band on the few sparse days that I don’t. I agree completly with your thoughts here, Jay.

I am driven to practice because I completely enjoy playing the sax and I am ambitious about getting to a certain level and activity, though I have no desire to become a professional player.

I have a demanding full-time job, lots of social and domestic responsibilities and I train 3 times a week, as a recreational triathlete. My plate is full and I often feel at the end of most week days. Yet, whenever I pick up my sax, I feel energized an motivated to play/practice.

In my previous home, I finished my basement and soundproofed a room for a home theater. It served as my “sax cave” ever since I started to learn to play the instrument. I have moved, since then and though this “new” basement is not soundproofed, it provides adequate isolation from most members of the household, when I close the door.

As I slowly and gradually improve in my playing, (I’m still developing), I find that one of the things I am able to do, to get more practice time in, is to to take my sax to work and play during an extended break – of course, I give the time back so I leave work a bit later in order to be fair. However, this scheduling has helped in more ways than one. Prior to then, I was very conscious of playing for anyone and therefore, was incredibly shy. Even when playing a duet with my teacher in class, I’d make mistakes with a piece I had rehearsed several times before because I allowed myself to be distracted and could not settle my nerves and focus. These were big roadblock for me.

I knew I needed to get over these fears because I want to play for others. I also had to learn how to “play through my mistakes” instead of coming to a dead halt when something went wrong. These are two things my teacher had a difficulty getting me to work through.

At work, I’d find a quite shaded spot in the parking lot in the summer/spring and a concourse that links two buildings during the winter/autumn. No matter where I went, people found me. Many members of staff have actually been very friendly and extremely encouraging and complimentary about my playing. Their graciousness has helped me get over the phobias tremendously. Of course, I would not practice scales at work. I had to play songs I learnt and force myself to learn new ones to not bore my “captive transient audience”. This is a good challenge to have.

As hard as it was, I learnt to not be overly critical of myself, my sound and my technique because most people don’t see/hear the issues I chose to wrestle with obsessively. As a result, I have grown in confidence and learnt to not “major in the minors”.

Yes. If you really want to play and do so well, you will and must make time to practice. Changing the environment from time to time helps.

Jay Metcalf says:

Thanks for this very helpful comment Alistair, Seems as though you can make your own blog post on this subject…



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