Saxophone Tips for The 6 Hardest Things to Do

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Saxophone Tips

Everyone’s always looking for saxophone tips, especially because there are plenty of really hard things to do on the saxophone.

So here’s a list of hard, yet very useful and important things you will probably want to be able to do well at some point.

1. Play with a beautiful saxophone sound

Sound is really everything on the saxophone.

There’s the famous quote: The saxophone is really easy to play… badly

Your tone is what will make you or break you on the saxophone. I’ve made a bunch of more in depth videos about this and I cover it a lot more in some of my courses, but the gist,is that in order to have a beautiful tone, you need to be playing on a very regular basis, (like daily) for years and you need to be actively listening to great saxophone players to have an intimate concept of what a beautiful saxophone sound really is.

Oh yeah long tones… check out this video for a quick daily exercise and more saxophone tips.

2. Play with good time

This one is just as important as sound, if not more important, and it is even harder in my opinion.  It’s also notoriously overlooked since sax players aren’t normally thinking of themselves as time keepers in the same way as drummers, bass players and guitarists are.

Like sound, it’s something that you’ll be working on forever since there’s always room for improvement.

Some of the best things to do to improve your time feel include practicing with a metronome, and there are tons of ways to do this. I go over how to do this well in this video.

Also, practice along with great recordings of really tight bands.

My favorite hack for playing with better time, is to think about the drummer. If you’re playing with a drummer, you want all of your rhythms to sync up with what they are playing. So you gotta keep your ears open and lock in.

I know it might sound obvious, but this is something rhythm section players do actively, that sax players… not so much.

If there is no drummer, imagine one and play good time with your imaginary drummer friend.

The big picture is hold yourself accountable for the rhythm not just when practicing along with the metronome.

3. Playing Relaxed

Playing musical instruments tends to make us all tense up physically. On the saxophone we typically have tension in the shoulders, neck, hands and jaw. This tension wreaks havoc with the first 2 on the list, sound and time.

The best way to get in the habit of playing with less tension is to practice in front of a mirror as much as you can, and actively work on playing in a very relaxed way.

Biting down on the mouthpiece and raising up tense shoulders are very common issues with saxophone players and can take a while to correct.

When performing, it’s almost inevitable that tension is going to increase, so the more you are in the habit of practicing relaxed the better.

4. Play in Tune

This one shouldn’t be so hard, but it’s a challenge for everybody. The most obvious reason for this is the instrument design itself.

The saxophone has a wide range of expressive capabilities. One trade-off of all that sonic flexibility is the amount of control required.

The saxophone is also a very imperfect instrument when it comes to intonation. There are a lot of acoustic compromises that have to be made in order for this instrument to work the way it does. One of the consequences of these compromises, are what I’m calling “tuning variances.”

The most in-tune playing saxophone still requires the player to make significant adjustments in order to play in tune.

I’ve made a video about how I practice this, but what I found helps the most, is to do a lot of practicing with a pitch reference.

That could be drone tones or just recordings. We need to develop the ability to instantly react to the pitch of other sounds in our environment and adjust.

To do this well, requires a lot of strength and embouchure control here, which is only possible with daily practice to keep the chops up.

5. Play Chord Changes

I think saxophone players have a more difficult path towards improvisation mainly because as single note instruments we are rarely required to think about harmony the way guitar and piano players do. Bass players generally only play one note at a time, but they are laying down the harmony with those notes.

While there are endless resources for studying and practicing improvisation, the thing sax players usually need to work on the most is harmonic knowledge. Being able to play a bunch of patterns and licks doesn’t go very far without understanding the context.

One of the best things saxophone players can do to improve their ability to improvise over chord changes is learn to play the piano at a basic level.

Learning to comp over chord progressions will make such a huge difference in the quest to become a strong improvisor.

6. Make Money

All of the saxophone tips on this list so far require a lot of time, dedication and passion to pull off. Normally in life, when we apply those things in large quantities to an activity, there’s some kind of financial renumeration on the other side. However with music and a lot of artistic pursuits, the money can be elusive to say the least.

The fact is, musicians are very rarely rewarded solely on their musical abilities. Financially successful musicians are typically skilled in a number of different domains simultaneously. This is the case now more than ever so if you are young and starting out on the path to become a professional musician, I strongly recommend you develop some of these as they may make the difference between being able to sustain a career as a musician or having to give it up.

Short list:

  • Networking – musicians need each other, and the size and scope of your network determines the sort of jobs you can get. There are a lot of great musicians to choose from when a gig comes around. The people that get those gigs consistently are the more likable ones. Big picture here, don’t be a dick.
  • Presentation – Look good, smell good, smile, be friendly, say hello and goodbye to everyone at rehearsals and gigs, give genuine complements and support often.
  • The musicians who do those things get far more work and earn more than better players who don’t. Those are just facts.
  • Humility – Not every gig is going to be at Carnegie Hall. Take gigs that pay well and swallow your pride. On the other hand don’t let people take advantage of you. Providing musical services below market rates doesn’t help anyone.
  • Play your butt off – Being everyone’s friend isn’t enough. You have play well too. Don’t be that person who got all the good gigs in town and then stopped practicing.

Other saxophone tips…

*Notice I did not include saxophone tips on things like slap tonguing, circular breathing or altissimo in this list, the first 2 I never learned how to do or felt the need for, but altissimo is pretty useful and hard, so check out this video next for my tips on how to do it.

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Rajesh Priya says:

My lower lip almost cut while playing sax. Kindly give idea, so that i could play without any hurt on lower lip

Jay Metcalf says:

Use softer reeds, and relax the lower jaw. We want to put light pressure on the reed from the bottom lip.



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