The saxophone is a versatile and expressive instrument and, with proper training and lots of practice, can be relatively easy to play. Many musicians agree that, although it’s not always the easiest to handle, the saxophone is one of the most vocal sounding instruments in all of music. If you’re new to the instrument, or simply haven’t picked up your saxophone in a few years, you’ll probably need to experiment with some techniques and effects before you can consider yourself a master. From practicing the right breathing to properly caring for your instrument, here are a few tips for playing the saxophone to help get you started.
Practice Your Breathing
Not only does playing the saxophone require more breath than most instruments, but the flow of breath needs to be constant. Unfortunately, this isn’t a natural process for most. In order to control the flow of air you’ll need to “train” your throat and diaphragm. The throat should be open at all times- if your throat doesn’t feel the way it does when you yawn, try again until it does. Next up on the list is making sure you’re using your diaphragm to breathe. Diaphragm breathing involves expanding the lungs downward. Since it’s a muscle you can’t see, most saxophonists find it easiest to concentrate on the muscles in the front; the same muscles you tense up if somebody is about to hit you in the stomach. The combination of tensing these muscles and pushing the abdomen out is the easiest way of training yourself to breathe properly.
Practice Consistently (and Often)
To develop and maintain your embouchure it’s important to play regularly. If possible, try to practice everyday. To encourage yourself to do this, some experts recommend leaving your sax out of the case, set-up, and ready to play. This way, as you’re coming and going throughout the day you’ll have a visual reminder that you’ll need to practice. If you choose to practice this method, place your saxophone in a safe place where it won’t get unintentionally damaged. When practicing, make sure your music is positioned in front of you at eye-level. Laying music flat on a table will contribute to poor posture and bad habits are hard to change. Music stands aren’t expensive, so purchase one as soon as possible.
Stick With a Position
Depending on the personal preference of your music teacher, you were probably taught to either hold your instrument between your legs or to the right side of the legs. There are pros and cons of each method, but once you choose a position, stick with it. If you switch back and forth between the two positions, it’ll hurt your ability to play. The reason? When you switch positions, the angles change. And this difference in angles, no matter how small, changes everything. Instead of concentrating on perfect vibrato or tone, you’ll be worrying about how to reach difficult fingering through a different hand position than you’re used to.
Don’t Forget the Dynamics
Music is a form of expression, and if you aren’t playing with dynamics you likely aren’t expressing very much. Dynamics are a great way of adding drama and storytelling to your playing, and should be used as often as possible (and whenever noted in your sheet music.) If you’re blindly playing through a song at the same volume, you’re missing a prime opportunity to take your listeners on a ride. For example, playing in a soft, light manner will calm your listeners into a mellow dreamlike state, while music played at louder volumes will wake them up or make them excited. Although there is no right or wrong when it comes to dynamics, listeners tend to prefer listening to music that enhances their mood. Ask yourself whether you’re playing at a volume because it’s what’s comfortable to you, or if you’re using dynamics to express yourself.
Choose Reeds Carefully
Purchasing higher quality reeds is beneficial for a couple reasons: not only do quality reeds improve the sound of your saxophone, but those who choose higher quality reeds notice they’re less likely to splinter in their mouth- an experience that’s painful and (literally) leaves a bad taste in your mouth. While choosing saxophone reeds made of cane or other natural materials is ideal, so is choosing a reed that’s the appropriate hardness. Make sure to purchase the strength of reed that best corresponds with your strength. This produces optimum tone and makes playing easier if you’ve stepped away from your instrument for an extended period of time. If you’re pushing too hard, either use a softer reed or work on strengthening the muscles in your mouth that control your embouchure.
Take Care for Your Saxophone
Treat your instrument with the same care you would a puppy or kitten. They may look indestructible, but if you bang a certain part of your saxophone the wrong way it can be left unplayable. The best way to keep your saxophone in good condition is to clean your instrument regularly and make sure it’s being maintained. Always remove any moisture after each playing session, and dry it thoroughly with a lint-free cloth. Occasionally, you’ll need to apply a small amount of oil to the pivots. Sticky keys and leaks are bound to happen, and experience will tell you which repairs need to be handled by a professional. When in doubt, take it to a qualified repair technician. Never attempt to remove any parts from your saxophone unless you’re 100% sure of your abilities.
For more information about adjusting saxophone reeds, check out How to Adjust Saxophone Reeds.