Start Breaking These 7 Bad Saxophone Habits

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Most Common Saxophone Bad Habits

I can pretty much guarantee that everyone watching this is guilty of at least a couple of these bad saxophone habits.

We all have bad habits that are holding us back from being better versions of ourselves. A lot of our practice time should be devoted to eliminating those bad habits and building good ones.

Here’s a list of the 7 most common bad habits I see in saxophone players, myself included, and how to fix them.

Let me know in the comments which ones you’re guilty of, and together, let’s aim to fix them this year.

1. Biting Too Hard

This is almost universal. Even very experienced players will end up biting too hard in certain situations.

When we bite too hard on the reed, the sound gets pinched. The pitch goes very sharp, and we are prone to squeaking. Low notes and high notes also become much more difficult to produce clearly.

Here’s the thing, we don’t need to put a ton of pressure on the reed. Think of your lower lip as a stabilizing cushion that ideally allows the reed to vibrate as freely as possible while maintaining a solid tone that’s in tune.

We want to aim for the least amount of pressure necessary to get that sound. As you relax your embouchure, the pitch will go down and get rounder and less pinched. You will likely need to push your mouthpiece further in as you correct the biting habit.

Why do we bite so hard?

There are a few reasons.

  1. Tired embouchure. Maintaining the correct amount of pressure on the reed does require a certain amount of strength in our face muscles. These get developed through time spent practicing, long tones can be very helpful for this. If our muscles are weak, they get tired quickly and we respond by biting down harder so the whole thing ends up spiraling out of control.
  2. We are playing on too hard a setup. The harder your reed, the more pressure you’re going to have to maintain on it. This will tire you out faster. An easy to play setup with relatively soft reeds will help you break the biting habit.
  3. Stress and tension. When we play with physical tension because we are nervous or just tense, it usually results in biting. This brings us to the 2nd bad habit.

2. Tension

Removing tension from your body when playing the saxophone, or any instrument is a constant battle. It’s something we all need to work on. That tension can result in biting down too hard on our reed which will produce a poor sound, but it also can cause all sorts of other issues not least of which is physical injury.

It is so important to learn to play with very relaxed hands, wrists, shoulders neck and everything else. Too much tension in your body while playing can result in repetitive strain injury, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and more.

Again, I use long tone practice to focus my attention on releasing any tension I might have in my body. Just playing one note at a time, allows me to become more aware of what areas need to be relaxed.

This is a great way to develop a good habit and then carry it over to other things you play. Besides messing with your sound and physical health, that tension can really mess with your rhythm which brings us to bad habit number 3.

3. Rushing

As you can see, a lot of these bad habits are connected, and if we’re not careful we can end up with a chain reaction of problems.

Rushing is when you play your rhythms faster than the pulse of the music. It’s when you get ahead of the beat.

This is also extremely common. The first step to correcting any of these bad habits is becoming aware that you are doing them. Everybody rushes the rhythm sometimes, listen carefully and focus on making your rhythms sync up with the underlying pulse.

Be aware that the natural tendency is to rush and that you will likely need to pull back a bit. The slower the tempo, the more we need to look out. At fast tempos, the tendency will often be to drag or play your rhythms slower than the underlying pulse so, that’s another bad habit to be aware of and work on correcting in your practice sessions.

4. Poor Finger Position

When we play relaxed, our fingers will rest gently on the the key pearls in a naturally curved position. Problem is, once the music starts and we have to play all these different notes and rhythms, and we’re worried about messing up, the first thing to go out the window is that finger position.

Again, I find playing long tones to be extremely helpful in building a habit of relaxed fingers that stay in contact with the keys. While playing a note like middle C for example, I only have one finger down, I’m practicing keeping all the other fingers relaxed and in their ideal position while playing that note.

The trick is to carry that feeling over to everything else you practice. And the even harder trick is to maintain that good habit when the music gets difficult and while under the stress of performances.

These first 4 bad habits are all related to tension. You can work on building good habits for all of these things at the same time. The key is to constantly remind yourself to stay relaxed. Practicing in front of a mirror is extremely helpful for all of these. Tension is always trying to creep back in to our playing so be vigilant.

5. Thinking Your Gear is the Problem

Everyone can relate to this on some level and we’ve all been guilty of blaming our equipment when things don’t go well.

Now if you watch this channel you know that I’m into gear, and it is important that your gear is working for you. But, once you have a decent saxophone, mouthpiece and reed, the rest is up to you.

Yes, you can get little boosts from upgrading stuff, but great sound and technique come from putting the time in on the horn, end of story.

If you find yourself thinking that you can’t sound good until you have that holy grail, Mark VI, 5 digit-serial number, original lacquer, American engraved saxophone with the original Vintage New York Meyer or Otto Link Slant Signature mouthpiece and reeds that were hidden away since the 1970s. Then you need to spend more time in the shed with whatever setup you have.

Unless of course you find that vintage 3 band Brilhart ligature, then of course you don’t need to practice. Those things play themselves.

6. Not Taking Care of Your Instrument

When was the last time you had your horn looked at by a good repair technician? For most of you watching, it’s been too long. All saxophones go out of adjustment slowly, over time. There are tons of moving mechanical parts, and materials that wear out.

Most saxophone players don’t visit a repair shop until their instrument stops working.

For most people an annual check up will keep things working smoothly. When your horn is functioning correctly, it is so much more fun to play, and you get stuff done in the practice room. You can also count on it to work during those concerts.

Those of you who play a lot, should see your technician every 6 months.

7. Not Listening to Enough Music

As our world has become so full of distractions, it seems to me that we collectively spend less time just listening to music. In the old days before the internet, just listening to music was a very common activity. We used to say things like,

hey do you want to come over and listen to the new record I just got? And we would do that for fun.

In the days before Netflix, going out to hear live music at night was also something we would do for fun on a regular basis. These days it is harder and harder to break through all the distractions and just enjoy the experience of hearing music.

I am definitely guilty of this one but here’s how I try to build better habits.

Carve out a time each day that you listen to music, which might mean less internet surfing or streaming tv. Check local listings for concerts and live music performances. Get tickets, mark your calendar and go to the shows. You’ll be glad you did.

Now when it comes to correcting bad habits on the saxophone, so much of the process is in our head. Believe it or not, just repeatedly thinking positive thoughts about how you practice and perform goes a very long way towards developing the good habits we want. Watch this video next for 10 things you can say to yourself that will actually help you improve just by repeating them.

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