Everything I Know About Practicing
Today I want to show a bit of my daily practice routine. That way you can see the sort of things that I’m working on to improve my own saxophone playing.
My hope is that this helps you with some ideas for new things to practice, or just some better ways to work on the things you’re already doing.
Let’s begin with the 3 most important elements that we want to think about while practicing.
Those are sound, time, and your physical and mental state of being.
Without getting too deep on you… The big picture is that in order to practice effectively we want to be physically relaxed and mentally engaged. Producing a beautiful sound requires both of those things. Playing with solid rhythm and time feel also requires both of those things.
My Practice Routine
So in a perfect practice session we want to focus on our sound and time for every note we play while remaining physically relaxed and mentally engaged.
If we make a habit of practicing in this way, eventually it becomes second nature and part of our subconscious. That is when you’ll start to notice the effects in your performances – which is where the real payoff is right?
So let me take you through some of the things I might practice on a typical day.
I recently got introduced to this new app which I’ve been using everyday. iPractice Pro – it’s been such a fantastic tool in all my practice sessions. It’s made by a fellow saxophonist named Steffen Weber from Germany. If you play the saxophone, you better get this app, you’ll thank me later.
And since I have to mention it, this is not in any way shape or form a sponsored video. I just love the app.
It’s only available for iOS at the moment. But there are Android apps out there that do similar things – so please add the names of any Android apps you may be using in the comments below.
I like to begin by focusing on sound so naturally I’ll play some long tones.
I’ll play long tones on every note of the saxophone. I can set the app up to play a drone that I hear in my headphones. I want to match my pitch with that drone just using my ear. Notice there is no visual reference as you would find with a tuner. This is the best way to develop your ability to play in tune. As you get more advanced you’ll want to rely on your ears for intonation, not the visual display of a tuner.
I can set the app to cycle through all the notes and change after a number of seconds. Mine is set to change every 13 seconds.
Once I’ve done that, I play some overtones, once again using the drone. I like to use the clarinet sound for this but there are others to choose from.
This sound warm up helps me in so many ways. I can get physically relaxed and focus on my embouchure and air control. The slow pace helps me become mentally engaged all while working on my sound, intonation, and finger position. Even though my fingers aren’t moving, I’m trying to take that time to develop good habits with them.
By the way, the mouthpiece I’m playing on is the BetterSax Burnin’ alto mouthpiece. If you’re looking for something that has both power and warmth, can play with edge but also a clean roundness, this is the mouthpiece for you.
Next I jump into some kind of technique study. This can be scales, patterns or some bit of improvisation language that I will take through all 12 keys.
I used to practice this stuff with just a metronome, but now using this app, I can easily add chords or drones.
Let me show you what we can do.
I’m going to use a favorite pattern out of my Pentatonic Patterns for Improvisation book, but you can apply this to absolutely anything you want.
I’m going to play this pattern in my key of C lets say, so I can have the app play a C major chord along with the metronome click.
Now I love the metronome in this app. I like to set it to click on beats 2 and 4. That just feels more natural to me and can help get your time feel to be a bit more laid back and avoid the very common tendency to rush.
I can easily speed up and slow down the tempo with a simple swipe of my finger.
Here’s another feature of this app that I absolutely love…I can program it to skip a certain percentage of clicks. I normally set mine to only click 80% of the time.
This forces me to rely more on my own inner time feel rather then following the click. We don’t want to follow a click we want to establish a reliable inner click at all different tempos. This is a great tool for working on that.
I can also have the app play a sequence of chords changing after a certain number of measures and there are tons of parameters to customize this.
And if you want to download a copy of the pattern I’m playing, you can sign up for the BetterSax Shed where you’ll find this under the How to Play Pentatonic Patterns Lesson.
I can of course play that same pattern, but over a different chord quality, such as over a minor 7th chord
By practicing scales and patterns over a chord I’m again working on my intonation, but also developing my ear. In this case I’m getting used to hearing what the notes of a pentatonic scale sound like over these different chords.
I find this is a great way for horn players to get more familiar with complex harmonies.
I could have the app play any kind of chord and then practice different sounds over it.
Whenever I’m working on technique I want to be sure I’m playing at a tempo where I can stay physically relaxed, in other words not too fast.
When it comes to practicing improvisation besides taking patterns and licks through all the keys, something I find to be very helpful is to work on the keys where I’m less comfortable. So something I can do with this app which is great is choose a chord progression and just improvise over a loop.
Let’s start with a ii V I in the less common key of F# major.
I can also select from a ton of other common chord progressions like minor ii Vs, tritone substitutions, and even Coltrane Changes
So as you can see this app has endless possibilities, and I really haven’t even scratched the surface. There is still a ton of stuff I haven’t even used myself, and it’s always getting updated and improved.
I will typically spend up to an hour working on the sound warm up and technique/scale/language practice.
Practicing a Tune
Once I do that I will then work on a tune.
I like to pick one song to work on, and I’ll just play the melody for a while. First, I just want to make sure I know it very well so I’ll play it from ear over and over sticking close to the melody.
Then, I might put on a backing track and try to play that melody with embellishments.
Once I feel good about that, I’ll work on improvising over the chord changes and try to bring in some of the patterns and language that I practiced earlier.
By that time I usually have to go do something else and put my horn away, but if I spend a good hour and a half on a routine like this, I usually feel like I’ve accomplished something that day.
I hope this breakdown of my practice sessions has been helpful. Everyone has a different approach, but this is a very universal (and effective) way of getting started.
Let me know what your practice sessions are like in the comments below! Would love to compare notes!
Want more things to practice? Check out “Applying a Pattern to a Scale Key in All 12 Keys.”