There’s so much information out there these days, it can be tough to know what to listen to and what things might be saxophone myths. Today, I want to try and debunk some common myths and misconceptions about learning to play the saxophone. Many of these might be getting in the way for some of you and slowing down your progress.
Let’s get started with my top 10 saxophone learning myths. Be sure to let me know in the comments if there are any others that I could have included her
1. Myth Number One…
You need to practice long tones to develop your sound.
Just kidding that one is true.
While I’m sure there are players that never practiced long tones and still have a great sound… I would say they are probably outliers. Most people develop a great sound by working on it. Part of that work is almost always some amount of long tones.
2.You need to start at a very young age to get good at music.
While starting early will clearly give you a head start, not all great musicians started early. Plus the rewards from playing music are not limited to feeling like you are great at it.
First of all, few people ever reach that point of feeling great at music. The best musicians never cease in their efforts to improve on their playing.
And second, it’s the process of studying and learning music that delivers the most benefits and rewards.
Even if you start music at a very late age, you can immediately start enjoying the benefits and rewards of the process.
3.You need to practice for 10K hours to master playing the saxophone.
I’m not gonna lie, You need to practice a lot. But you could easily practice for 10k hours and not reach your goals especially if you are practicing the wrong stuff.
You could also practice for many fewer hours and get very good if you use your time wisely and efficiently.
It’s all about your approach…
Again, it’s better to focus on the process and not hold yourself to a specific timeline.
I hear from students every day telling me they can’t believe how much they have progressed in such a short period of time. Then there are others who tell me how frustrated they are with their lack of progress.
I think perspective has a lot to do with this. Those students may be progressing at the same exact rate, but holding themselves to different standards.
The best thing anyone can do is establish a consistent practice schedule always introducing new material and think long term.
4.You need to learn lots of scales and music theory before you can start improvising
Not true. You can improvise with one note, on a drum, by tapping your hands, or even with your voice.
Getting started improvising is easy and anyone can do it.
If you don’t think you can, Check out my free Play Sax by Ear crash course. Thousands of students have taken this course and I’ve never had someone tell me they couldn’t do it.
Having said that, improvised music has many levels of complexity. To access those, you will want to learn your scales and music theory.
I recommend starting to improvise on a simple level to discover the joy it can bring you. This very often leads one down a path of discovery towards the more complex and sophisticated possibilities.
Don’t let improvisation intimidate you, it’s not as hard as it may sound.
5.You need to play fast improvised lines to sound good.
This is a very common misconception, but it’s understandable. When we listen to great improvisers, often they are playing a lot of notes and very fast lines. If you listen carefully though, you will also hear great improvisors playing less dense, more melodic phrases with fewer notes and simpler rhythms.
If you don’t yet have the technical ability to play double time lines at fast tempos that’s fine. Focus on playing more melodically and rhythmically first instead of trying to force speed before the technique is there.
One of the things that makes great solos is how accurately musical ideas are executed.
I think it’s always better to accurately express simpler ideas than to attempt to play beyond your own technical level in order to meet an unrealistic expectation.
Even if you can play fast lines, that doesn’t mean you always should. It’s one of those things that once you’ve put the enormous amount of work into being able to play fast, it takes a conscious effort to turn that off or rein it in when improvising.
This is something that the masters do so well.
6.You need to practice fast in order to play fast.
This is another trap a lot of musicians fall into, I think. Of course we need to practice at fast tempos in order to be able to play at those speeds. But for me at least, I get a lot more mileage out of practicing slowly.
If I want to push the speed of something I’m playing faster, the more I practice it slow, the faster I can play it.
For example, if I want to play something relatively fast say 16th notes at 120 bpm I will practice it slowly at 60 bpm until it is very smooth rhythmically. I also want to be able to play it with relaxed a finger technique. Then I will double the speed to 120bpm without playing all the incremental speeds in between. I don’t even touch the metronome, I just leave it at 60 and play twice as fast.
If it’s not clean at double speed, I’ll go back to half speed some more. I have found this method to produce much better results than always practicing things at my speed limit.
Spend some time trying this yourself with fast lines and let me know how it goes.
7.You need to practice for long sessions of a couple hours daily in order to improve.
Of course long practice sessions can help us improve. But shorter ones, that are consistent, can also help us to make a lot of progress.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I only have 30 minutes to practice so no point in bothering since I can’t get better in such a short time.”
You might not get much better in 30 minutes of practice… But if you did that every day for a year, there would be significantly more progress compared to a 2 hour practice session once a week for example.
We all have to make time for practicing, and every minute of that time is precious.
Just taking a half hour break from the world to play music each day can have a very positive impact on our lives. It doesn’t matter how much musical progress we make in that time.
8.You need to practice overtones in order to be able to play in the altissimo range.
Sorry, this one is also not a myth. You DO need to practice overtones in order to get access to the altissimo range of the saxophone. One thing that is a bit of a myth though is that you need a high baffle mouthpiece to play up there.
I have always played low baffle mouthpieces and don’t have any trouble getting altissimo notes to speak reliably. When I do play on high baffle mouthpieces I don’t always find altissimo to be easier to play and sometimes it’s even harder for me probably more a result of what mouthpieces I’m used to playing on.
The bottom line is, Any good mouthpiece can play altissimo just fine.
9.You have to perfect a concept before moving on to something new.
This is something I’ve been guilty of in the past, and I find many of my students doing as well. While in some disciplines this approach might work, in music, it’s a sure way to slow down your progress.
Conversely, I also find a lot of students think that they have mastered a topic after having studied it once and then wanting to only look at new material.
The best approach is a mixture of the 2. I encourage my students to study a topic and once they have a somewhat solid grasp of it, move on to new material with the plan to revisit each topic multiple times over an extended period.
So in my Pentatonic Foundation course and others for example, I tell students to go through the entire course at a relatively steady pace learning the easy version of the exercises. Once the course is finished, the best thing to do is go back to the beginning and do it all over again.
I am always reading books about music and watching masterclasses about the same topics over and over, but still manage to take away a deeper understanding of even basic concepts again and again.
I have never fully understood a musical concept the first time around and I don’t know anyone else who has.
So I strongly encourage students to avoid getting bogged down practicing the same material for too long and to continually revisit topics you’ve already studied in order to deepen your understanding and mastery of them.
10.Conflicting information from different teachers… Someone is wrong!
Over the years studying I have come across some very different approaches to the same saxophone concepts by highly respected and accomplished teachers.
If you’ve been watching YouTube videos you have probably come across some seemingly conflicting information on everything from embouchure, articulation, altissimo fingerings, what to practice and more.
Someone has got to be wrong right?
Well not necessarily.
Often there is more than one path to get to the same place and sometimes what may appear to be conflicting information is actually complementary or just another way to say the same thing.
My advice for students is to listen to teachers whom you respect and whose playing you like even if their instructions seem to go against something you had previously been taught.
I have found that some concepts which were difficult to grasp at first can become much clearer when explained from a different angle or approach.
See what works best for you as an individual. Getting multiple perspectives on a single topic or concept will usually help deepen your understanding.
If you learn a particular technique from a teacher, give it a proper try before deciding whether or not it works for you. Some new concepts can take weeks or months before you get the payoff from practicing them while others may seem to be instantly helpful.
I’m not saying that everyone out there teaching saxophone is always right about everything, but there are clearly multiple approaches that work well and each student should gravitate to those that work best for them. Keep an open mind and rather than trying to determine who’s right and who’s wrong try to understand the different approaches and why they may or may not work for you.
I hope you got some value out of these tips and tricks. Now may be a good time to get your horn out and go practice…
Interested in more of my “Top 10 lists”? Check out my “Top 10 Classic Jazz Era Alto Saxophone Players of All Time” or my “Top 10 Classic Jazz Era Tenor Saxophone Players of All Time.”