There is so much stuff to practice and learn that it can feel a bit intimidating right?
How to make progress in your playing
Over the years I’ve worked with thousands of saxophone students in my online courses, YouTube videos, Virtual Studio, and in person lessons and based on all of that teaching I can tell you the reason 95% of saxophone students are making slow progress.
Good news is, everyone has pretty much the same weaknesses. I am going to break down those weaknesses into 2 things, and tell you how to start improving them immediately.
Now if you are someone who has been practicing a lot but feel like you aren’t getting any better, it is probably because you are not focusing enough or at all on these 2 things.
It is very easy to get caught up practicing things that won’t get you closer to your actual musical goals on the saxophone or practicing the right stuff but in the wrong way.
What stands out to you?
When you listen to a great saxophone player what are the things that stand out to your ears?
Maybe you’ve never thought of it like that, but the things that make a good saxophone player enjoyable to listen to are the exact things you want to be working on every time you play your instrument.
Thing 1 – Sound
Thing 1 is the most important… Sound!
I notice a ton of students playing the saxophone and not really thinking about their sound. Lots of people are spending time trying to learn complex tunes or how to play fast notes, altissimo note,s and improvise without working on the most important Thing 1.
This is a mistake because even if you execute all those notes and complex stuff well, the result is going to sound not so good.
Now don’t get the wrong idea here. I’m not saying just practice longtones in a cave for years before you do anything else.
What I try to communicate to all my students and myself when I’m playing, is that your sound is the most important element of what comes out of your instrument.
It should never be an afterthought.
Solution: Use More Air
The biggest problem with saxophone students’ sound is not using enough air.
In order to have a big beautiful, controlled and in-tune sound you need to fill the instrument up with a steady and strong air stream.
It is very common for saxophone players to hold back the air, which results in a weak, faltering sound and poor intonation. It also has a negative effect on the other main sax player Weakness – which I’ll get to next.
Now there are a few reasons saxophone players have this tendency to hold back the air. One is that many saxophone players might have been constantly told that they were too loud while playing in the school band. Maybe the strength of the saxophone section was drowning out the flutes and clarinets. This can end up creating a habit of being afraid to put a strong air stream through the horn.
Another common cause for this is practicing at home.
Lots of people are concerned about annoying other people in their house or their neighbors while practicing the saxophone because it can be very loud. As a result they try to play quietly all the time again creating a bad habit of holding back.
The best thing you can do is train yourself to fill up the saxophone with air. You want that strong steady well supported air stream.
Yes, long tones are a fantastic way to focus on this, but you also want to carry that same long tone air stream over to everything else you play.
That is the habit you want to establish and the one that will result in a beautiful sound.
It’s the equivalent to following through in your golf, tennis or baseball bat swing.
There are several other elements to developing a great saxophone sound, but for now, make sure you are following through and filling that horn up with air. If you need some long tones practice, check out this video.
Thing 2 – Rhythm
Thing 2 is Rhythm.
Solid rhythm is much more important even than playing the right notes. You have probably heard someone say that they’d rather you play a wrong note than a wrong rhythm. There’s a reason for that. Sound and rhythm have to be equally important.
So as saxophonists, we have to put a bit more thought and mental energy into rhythm.
We need to develop the habit of always playing rhythmically and feeling responsible for the steadiness of that rhythm.
Here are a couple quick win solutions to improve your rhythm today.
Solution #1: Play with a Metronome
#1 is play with a metronome. Most people do not practice with a metronome. They say things like “oh it’s too hard,” or “I can never lock in to it,” or “it’s just annoying.”
Well guess what, if you cannot lock in to the metronome then how could lock in to other musicians, how could you play with steady rhythm?
For most people, just using it to practice anything on a regular basis, will make a huge improvement immediately. Please make friends with the metronome and start using it if you don’t already. Get a free phone app or tap metronome into google. There’s really no excuse here. Here’s a great video that goes more in depth on how to use a metronome.
Solution #2: Playing along with Recordings
If you already practice with the metronome, one of the next best things you can do is play along with recordings.
Whatever song you are working on there is likely a recording of it available for free. Play along with recordings and sync yourself up with those musicians as best you can. From there, you will find yourself improving on your sound and rhythm.
Filling the horn up with air is crucial to playing with good rhythm as that air serves as the power source for your sound. When you hold back the air, you are also holding back your confidence to play with solid rhythm.
Keep in mind that these two crucial elements of saxophone playing, sound and rhythm are things that you will be working to improve for the rest of your saxophone playing life because they are so important and because there will always be room for improvement.
The earlier you make sound and rhythm priorities the better.
Want more great practice techniques? Check out this post on tonguing basics.