In this Saxophone beginner guide we cover everything from the history of the instrument to the benefits of learning to play. You’ll also learn about the different types of Saxophone, how to hold it, the best starter songs and important mistakes to avoid! Continue reading below…
Saxophone for Beginners
For many of us, the desire to learn how to play the saxophone started with a song. Behind so many hit songs lies a saxophone, adding depth, emotion, and style.
These wonderfully versatile instruments appear in Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” pretty much anything by Kenny G, and of course Alexandra Stan’s catchy “Mr. Saxobeat,” an upbeat tribute to this amazing instrument.
The saxophone is a distinctively smooth instrument that sounds like velvet on your ears. It’s easy to see why it’s a popular instrument people wish to learn!
Why play the saxophone?
Before you invest in an expensive instrument, you probably want to know if playing the saxophone is the right hobby for you. Let’s take a quick look at some of the reasons why saxophones are awesome.
1. Music is good for you
First of all, the connection between music and improved mental health is well-established. Music provides crucial coping skills, helps us regulate our emotions, and allows us to express ourselves.
Even just listening to music has emotional, psychological, and cognitive benefits. We can listen to music that reflects our mood, or use music to change how we’re feeling.
Musical genres all reflect different attitudes of the mind and arouse feelings of positivity. Music is something that people connect with on an emotional level. The mood of the music is naturally transferred to the listener.
Need to destress? Listen to a soft ballad for a calming effect. Need more energy? Add some intense music to your exercise regimen. Pop, rock, blues, jazz, and dance music (just to name a few) all have different tempos, keys, instruments and melodies that provide different enjoyable listening experiences.
All styles of music transfer the emotions of the singer and musicians from the music into the listener.
Playing an instrument—and creating music of your own—takes all these benefits one step further. You creatively express yourself through your playing. Your saxophone can even help you process difficult situations and emotions.
All in all, playing an instrument has a documented ability to:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower stress
- Reduce the intensity of anxiety or depression
There’s even some indication that making music may give your immune system a little boost!
2. It’s good for your brain
The challenge of learning a new skill keeps your mind sharp. You might already be familiar with the research showing that speaking a second language helps ward off cognitive decline in old age—But did you know that playing an instrument can do the same?
Regardless of your age, picking up the saxophone is an excellent way to stretch your cognitive skills, keep your brain active, and improve your memory.
3. It’s good for your posture
Good posture is important for playing the saxophone, so your posture will almost certainly improve. Slouching with a saxophone gets uncomfortable fast. As you improve your posture, your core strength will also improve.
Plus, good posture habits benefit the rest of your life. If, like many people, you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, your new and improved posture will prevent back and neck pain.
4. You’ll learn new skills and become more coordinated
There are TONS of new skills involved in learning how to play the saxophone. First up, breathing. Chances are you don’t spend too much time actively thinking about your breath. But you’ll quickly learn how important your breathing is as you gain marvelous breath control and expanded lung capacity.
Next, better hand-eye coordination—in fact, better overall coordination. Your breath, posture, fingers, eyes, tongue—they’ll all be performing small, precise movements dictated by the sounds you want to produce. If you can get coordinated enough to play the saxophone well, you will be coordinated enough for just about anything.
And finally, what about reading music? Perhaps you were supposed to learn how to read music in elementary school but it never really sank in? Or maybe you never learned in the first place? Now is the time!
Learning some basic music theory can open up a new and exciting world, whether you want to compose your own pieces or simply understand your favorite songs better.
5. You can join a local band or orchestra and meet like-minded people
Hobbies offer excellent opportunities to socialize with people who have similar interests. You may not know it yet, but your neighborhood or local area is likely full of likeminded musicians—so how can you meet them? Making new friends as an adult is notoriously challenging.
That’s the great thing about starting a new hobby. You have the chance to enter new communities, attend events, and widen your social circle. And you know from the start that you have things in common with other people in the community.
Once you can play the saxophone, look for opportunities to get involved in your local music scene, whether by playing in a band or orchestra.
6. Saxophones are cool
There really is no denying it. From the sleek brass body to the hypnotizingly smooth sounds, this is an instrument that commands respect. It can produce an enormous array of sounds and capture any mood, whether triumphant or melancholy, bubbly or dark.
The saxophone also allows for considerable freedom, creativity, and improvisation. Once you’ve got a solid grasp of the fundamentals, you can develop your personal style.
Brief history of the saxophone
The saxophone is not just one instrument; rather, it encompasses a family of woodwind instruments, generally made of brass. There are several different kinds and sizes of saxophone.
Invented by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s, saxophones were designed to be uniquely powerful and versatile, a welcome addition to the instruments already available at the time, such as flutes and trumpets.
Sax, a Belgian instrument maker, made a whole series of saxophones that came in several different sizes. They also differed in transposition (more on that down below!).
In 1866, Sax’s patent for the saxophone expired, allowing many other instrument makers to alter, improve, update, and adapt the saxophone as they saw fit.
Transposition and transposing instruments
Okay, so what exactly is transposition? What makes a transposing instrument different?
Transposing instruments like the saxophone are differently tuned, you could say. If you play a C on a piano and then try to play a C on a transposing instrument, the notes won’t sound the same.
You might be thinking “Well, that’s just stupid!” and you’re probably not the only one that thinks so. But there is a reason (or really several reasons) why the saxophone and other instruments are transposing.
It has to do with their construction and size. A bigger instrument will sound low and a smaller instrument will sound high.
Now, Adolphe Sax wanted to make the saxophone easy to play. He wanted any saxophonist to be able to pick up any saxophone and play it without major difficulties. The thing is that since saxophones come in different sizes, doing so could be pretty hard.
Let’s say that I’ve learned to play the alto saxophone and want to try a tenor sax instead. If the instruments weren’t transposed, I wouldn’t be able to just find a page of sheet music for tenor saxophone and start playing with the keys I was used to from the alto saxophone.
Because they are transposed, however, I would know exactly how to play a D on the tenor sax or whatever note that is written. But here comes the funny part: It won’t sound exactly the same.
All in all, this feature is actually really clever because it means that you can just pick up any saxophone, read music, and play it. You don’t have to relearn every time you switch to a different kind of saxophone.
But the sounds produced by saxophones of different sizes won’t sound exactly alike.
The only problem is that the sheet music for transposing instruments needs to be transposed too. If everybody else is playing a C and I try to play the same note on my alto saxophone, I will have to play an E♭. Otherwise, it won’t be the same note.
This means that you will need to learn about music theory to play with other people, especially if you just jam without any written sheet music.
You will need to know how to transpose music, as well as which keys you are comfortable playing in. Sometimes, other people will be able to adapt to you. If you play the alto saxophone, try to convince everybody to play in E♭. Then you can play in C, which is the easiest key for you!
If you want to learn more about why it’s actually quite handy that these instruments are transposing, check out this YouTube video, which I think explains it very well.
Why do we like the sound of the saxophone?
What is it that makes people like the saxophone so much? One thing that makes woodwind instruments very expressive is that you can use lots of dynamics. You can play softly or loudly and you can add crescendos and diminuendos (playing louder and louder or softer and softer) to one single note.
This is very much like the human voice. When we sing, it’s not a matter of plucking a single note and then it’s finished. You can make it last as long as you want, play around with dynamics, add vibrato, and bend the note.
Musicologists all over the world agree that the human voice is the ultimate instrument, and our ears tend to favor sounds that sound like our voices. The closer the sound of the instrument is to the human singing voice, the more beautiful we think it sounds.
The saxophone’s expressiveness is useful in a wide range of genres: Jazz, classical music, blues, rock and roll—It’s a versatile instrument that you can adapt to play practically any music!
Of the four instruments I have mastered, I would definitely say that the saxophone was the easiest one to learn. It might look complicated, but once you get the hang of it, you can progress quickly.
It’s also a great instrument for learning how to improvise. You’ll be able to jam with your friends, which is so much fun!
A few caveats
Saxophones and neck pain
The only reason I can think of not to play the saxophone is if you suffer from neck pain, since many saxophones are quite heavy and hang around your neck.
Does this mean that your new hobby has come to an end before it has even begun? No, don’t worry! If you think that your neck can’t handle much weight or pressure, there are measures you can take both to prevent and remedy problems:
- Try a soprano saxophone, which is smaller and lighter than other kinds (e.g. alto or tenor).
- Remember to maintain good posture! Don’t let your shoulders slump forward, and don’t crane or tuck your neck. Spending hours (or even minutes) with your neck bent forward and down is a sure way to cause pain, so keep your neck in alignment and your shoulders back, down, and relaxed.
- Perform regular stretching exercises to reduce neck pain. You can learn how to do this easily, thanks to the many video tutorials available.
- Get a high-quality padded neck strap, which can help distribute the saxophone’s weight.
- Even better, get a harness. This is an especially good idea if you play a larger instrument. Harness help spread the saxophone’s weight out across your shoulders and back, so your neck no longer bears the brunt of the weight.
Saxophones and asthma
Many people who suffer from asthma wonder if they are able to play the saxophone. The short answer: Yes, it is absolutely possible for people with asthma to play the saxophone.
Some studies suggest that playing the saxophone can help with mild to moderate asthma, and in general does not exacerbate it. However, you need to listen to your body. Don’t push yourself if you’re starting to get an attack, and always have your inhaler nearby.
How you practice can also make a difference. Dr. Clifford Basset, who is an allergist and asthma specialist, recommends performing some breathing exercises and a warm-up before you practice and staying well hydrated.
Bottom line: Don’t let asthma discourage you from trying out this hobby!
Responsibilities of playing the saxophone
Even though I highly recommend the saxophone, there are a few things that you will need to consider beforehand:
- Saxophones are loud and neighbors don’t always like that.
- You need to clean your saxophone
- Buying a saxophone and learning how to play costs money.
- Reeds break easily and have to be replaced often.
Different kinds of saxophones
There are four types of saxophones that are commonly used today. In order of smallest (highest-pitched) to biggest (lowest-pitched):
- Soprano saxophone
- Alto saxophone
- Tenor saxophone
- Baritone saxophone
The alto saxophone is often the one that beginners start out with since it’s a good medium-sized saxophone. This guide is primarily geared toward learning on an alto sax. The alto sax is in the key of E♭.
Many saxophonists then move on to the tenor saxophone, which is my personal favorite. It has a deeper tone and is perfect for jazz music. It’s in the key of B♭.
Then there are the soprano saxophone (in the key of B♭) and the baritone saxophone (in the key of E♭).
There are also some really cool saxophones that you will probably never play that you should check out just for fun, from the tiny and high-pitched sopranissimo to the enormous and low-pitched subcontrabass. Check out this YouTube video, which features some amazing saxophones!
Which saxophone you choose is up to you, though as I mentioned, most beginners get started on the alto sax. If you’re set on a jazzier sounding instrument, the slightly larger tenor sax is a solid choice.
Many beginners are tempted by the soprano sax, which thanks to its smaller size is sometimes more affordable and seems more manageable. Now, as I’ve noted up above, if you have neck problems, this may very well be your best bet.
However, that small size makes them a little trickier to play, demanding precision that you may struggle with as a beginner.
Finally, the baritone sax is on the bigger and lower side. Its large size can make it hard to handle for beginners. Generally speaking, I’d advise choosing a nice medium-sized instrument such as the alto saxophone while you learn the ropes.
What you need to buy
Ready to start learning? In this section, I’ll walk you through exactly what steps to take and which items to buy.
I love shopping and there is nothing as wonderful as shopping for musical instruments. One of my favorite things to do is going into a music shop and trying out different musical instruments.
This is the best way to choose your saxophone, as it’s really the only way to find out how it feels and sounds.
But what if you don’t even know how to play yet? I get it, it might be embarrassing and fruitless to test-play saxophones when you can’t even make a sound on them yet.
If you are a total beginner, I would recommend that you rent your first saxophone. This allows you to learn how to play a little bit before you actually buy an instrument.
You can also order a saxophone online. If you do so, make sure to watch video demos where somebody is playing so that you can hear it before you make up your mind.
Buying a pre-owned instrument is an affordable option. However, it’s important that a used instrument has been inspected by an expert to ensure that there’s no irreparable damage. Beware of buying a used saxophone via websites like eBay or Craigslist unless you can verify that a professional has inspected it.
When you play the saxophone, the sound is produced when you blow air through your mouthpiece. But if you don’t have a reed in the mouthpiece, you’re not going to get any sound.
Reeds are made from cane or bamboo, though they also come in synthetic varieties. So if you have wondered why saxophones are woodwind instruments even though they’re made of metal, this is the answer!
Reeds come in different strengths, indicating how stiff they are. I would recommend that you start out with 2, a relatively soft reed, and see how that feels. For some more detail on choosing a reed, have a look at the guide here.
The brand doesn’t really matter, as it’s all about personal preference. I personally like Rico Royal or Vandoren.
When you buy your saxophone, you will most often get some stuff included, though you may still need to buy additional items. Here is what you need:
- Neck strap
- Cork grease
- Music stand
- Cleaning kit
First, you’ll need a neck strap, which helps to hold up the saxophone when you play. Make sure that you use a cushioned neck strap, since they are much more comfortable!
You also need some grease to put on the cork occasionally where the mouthpiece attaches to the neck so that it slides on well.
Next, you’ll want a music stand. It’s important that you adjust its height so that you don’t have to look down at it. Looking down with a heavy saxophone hanging around your neck is not recommended!
I had a problem with neck pain for years until I tried putting my sheet music higher up and it almost instantly disappeared!
And finally, you should pick up a basic cleaning kit for your saxophone. In the next section, I’ll explain how the cleaning process works.
How to clean your saxophone
Clean your saxophone every time you use it. This is incredibly important!
You need two swabs (string + weight + fabric), one for the wider body of the instrument, and a bigger one for the narrower neck and mouthpiece.
When you finish playing, remove the reed and place it in its case.
Then remove the neck and mouthpiece. Put the body swab in the body of the saxophone (going in the bell and out the neck). Pull on the string, dragging the cloth through the saxophone to clean away any moisture. You might need to do this a second time if there’s a lot of moisture.
Next, put a pad-saver in your saxophone to remove any lingering moisture.
Finally, run the smaller swab through the neck and mouthpiece, going in at the bottom and out at the top.
Regular cleaning keeps your instrument functioning at its best for a very, very long time.
Occasionally, you may need to seek professional help. Let’s say you’ve had your sax for a few years and notice that the keys are sticking and it isn’t sounding quite right. It’s probably time to find a music repair shop.
That said, simple daily maintenance is the #1 way to prevent damage, moisture build-up, and the expense of a professional cleaning.
Putting your saxophone together
Now you have your saxophone and you know how to care for it: Time to put your instrument together to get it ready to play.
The very first thing you should do is to pick up a reed. Be careful because they are quite sensitive and get little cracks easily. You can check if it’s whole by holding it to a lamp, which makes it easier to see.
When you’ve made sure that the reed is whole, put it in your mouth to soak it a bit. Reeds need to be wet in order to work. Alternatively, you can let it soak in a bowl of water, but I always prefer just to keep it in my mouth while I put on my neck strap.
Next, pick up the mouthpiece, gently slide the reed in under the ligature, and tighten it with the screws. You should try to align the reed with the mouthpiece perfectly. If you look at it from the top you should not be able to see the reed sticking out.
If you fail to align it, your saxophone is more likely to squeak.
Then it’s time to put the mouthpiece onto the neck. Once in a while, and especially on a new saxophone, you will need to grease the cork on the end where the mouthpiece goes, so that you can get it into place.
How far in the mouthpiece is on the cork determines how the saxophone is tuned. The further out it is, the lower it is tuned and vice versa. You will never cover the entire cork.
Now you can take the saxophone and hook it to your neck strap. There is a little ring on the inside of the saxophone (I always imagine it to be the belly of the saxophone, if that helps!).
When you lift the saxophone, hold it in the bell and try not to press on anything that looks like it could break!
When the saxophone is hanging securely, you can take the neck with the mouthpiece on it and press it onto the body. There is a screw that you will need to tighten so that it stays in place.
Let’s start playing!
So you’ve finally got everything assembled and ready to go. Now it’s time to learn how to play! Here’s what this section will cover:
- How to make sound
- How to hold your saxophone
- How to play your first notes
- How to play your first songs
Promise yourself not to give up. Producing sound will be tough in the beginning, but all of a sudden, it will become second nature. Almost everyone struggles to get the saxophone to even make the smallest of sound in the beginning.
And when you finally have learned that, when you least expect it, it will get a life of its own and randomly squeak when you least expect it.
Now let’s get into how to actually make sound! As I mentioned, it’s important that your reed is properly moisturized, which is just a matter of keeping it in your mouth for long enough.
Start by drawing your bottom lip over your bottom teeth. You never want the teeth to touch the reed because it might break. Also, you’re not eating the saxophone, so you don’t need to bite it completely!
The front teeth, on the other hand, will loosely bite on the mouthpiece. You should have a little protective sticker on your mouthpiece. You might need to buy these separately and exchange them now and then.
They not only protect your mouthpiece, but also stop your teeth from sliding around.
The next step is to close your lips around the mouthpiece to create a seal around it, so that no air comes out on the sides. Everything should go through the saxophone.
Watch what you’re doing with your tongue. You should only ever touch the reed with it when you play a new note. When you play long notes, keep the tongue away until it’s time for a new note!
Hopefully, you’ll have quick success following these steps, but don’t get discouraged if it takes a while, as this is quite common. It’s like learning how to whistle—some people catch on right away, and plenty of others need time and practice.
In the beginning, you think that you’re never going to be able to do it and then one day it just works and you will never forget the technique.
If you want to practice making sound, you can actually do this using only the mouthpiece and the neck. Wait to attach them to the body until you know what you’re doing.
This allows you to focus only on what you’re doing with your mouth, without worrying about how to hold the body.
Holding the saxophone
When you finally can get your saxophone to sound, at least a little bit, it’s time to learn how to hold the saxophone properly. Here are the basic steps:
Start with your right hand. There is a thumb rest that you put your thumb under on the right-hand side of the saxophone. It looks like a hook pointing downward.
When the thumb is in position, take a look at the keys there. You’ll notice that there are three round keys in a row. Place your index, middle and ring finger on them.
Now it’s time for the left hand. This step is similar to what you just did with your right hand. This time, you place your thumb on a little black button (I’m sure it can come in other colors too). Then on the left-hand side, there are three similar buttons and you use the same fingers for them as you do with your right hand.
You can either play standing up or sitting down. If you sit down, hold the saxophone to the right of your legs. If you prefer standing you can also hold it slightly to one side or just in the middle.
You might need to twist the instrument’s neck depending on where you position it.
Adjust the neck strap so that your saxophone is at a good height. You shouldn’t have to bend up or down; reaching the mouthpiece should feel comfortable and natural.
When you’re not playing it can be a good idea to hold on to the bell in order to save your neck.
Also bear in mind that the reed is very delicate, so avoid bumping the mouthpiece into things. Use the mouthpiece’s little hat every time you put the saxophone away to protect your reed. It’s usually included with every saxophone.
Playing your first notes
This is it! This is when you learn to play your first notes! They grow up so quickly…
- Press down the middle key with your left hand and nothing else. This is C.
- Then you can go down by pressing down the index finger in your left hand, which is the note B.
- Add the middle finger so that you play both at the same time and you’ve got yourself an A.
- If you press down all three keys in your left hand you’ll be playing a G.
- Then you can go down even further by keeping G down and adding the first key (your index finger) in the left hand. That’s an F.
- Add the middle key as well and you’ve got E.
- And finally, D is when you press all six keys down.
You can go further down as well, but we’ll stop here for now.
The last little thing you need to know about for now is the octave key. Try moving your left thumb a little to the right and press that key while you’re playing a note. It should take that note up one octave.
What you do with your mouth plays a part as well. If you think and move your mouth as if you’re playing a really low note while you’re pressing the octave key, it might not work as well.
In the same way, if you play something low but your mouth behaves as if it’s playing a high note, you might experience that the note goes up one octave.
There are excellent YouTube videos that show how to play different notes, so try searching for the note you want to learn. You can also watch beginners’ tutorials that will teach you basic finger positions.
Your very first song
Here is a very simple first song for you to try. You’re going to be using three notes: G, A, and B. The note alphabet is like the regular alphabet, but it only goes from A to G, and then it starts all over again.
So the first note you will play is G, meaning that you press down all the three keys in your left hand. You’ll have two of each note.
Try playing two Gs after each other! Make them long, four beats each: Think in your head one, two, three, four as you play each one.
When you’ve played two Gs, you’re going to do exactly the same thing but with A instead. Lift your ring finger so that only the top two keys are pressed down.
Then you lift your middle finger and play two Bs. After that we have gone all the way up to B and we will be going down to where we started, playing two As and two Gs.
Here is what this song looks like written down.
Memorize which note is where. You’ll notice that G is on the second line from the bottom, A is in the second space and B on the middle line.
Memorizing three notes at a time like this is good to do right from the beginning because it gets less overwhelming.
If you want to learn even more about how to read music, check out our guide that tells you everything a beginner needs to know and more!
When you play this first song of yours, try to blow very evenly, making the notes equally loud. You should also try to play it through without taking extra breaths.
Take a deep breath before you start and see how long it lasts you. You will need to distribute the air evenly throughout the song.
Doing some physical exercise is a useful activity in conjunction with your saxophone practice. Moving helps with your breathing! So try adding some cardio sessions to your schedule a few times a week if you struggle with lung capacity and breath control.
Your second song
Let’s take a look at the second song you’re going to learn. It looks like this:
What differences can you spot when you compare it to the first song you learned?
As you can see, we are using the same notes as we did before, G, A, and B. But now, we’re going to play four short notes of each of them and then land on a long G.
When you play short notes like this, you don’t have to actually blow four different times. Before you try this song, see if you can separate a long note by gently touching your tongue to the reed.
You can try this on any note. Try going 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 on just one note of your choice. Once you can control it well enough, try playing this song!
Your third song
For the last little song, we’re going to break it up into three parts. This is an effective way to learn new songs. We’re going to call the parts 1, 2, and 3. Most people would start by learning part 1, but we’re going to do it differently and learn part 3 first!
It looks like this:
Yes, those are three notes you don’t know how to read yet! But don’t worry, it’s really simple!
These three notes are E, D and C. You play C by using all six keys you’ve been using so far (three with your left hand, three with your right hand) and adding another key with your right pinky.
If you look and feel where your pinky is, you want to press down the lower of the two keys that are attached to each other.
Do you remember how to play E and D? E is the note with all the fingers in the left hand and two in your right. D is when both hands use three fingers.
As the sound gets lower, you will probably feel that you need to blow differently from how you blow when you play higher notes.
It’s hard to explain exactly what you should do. I think the thing that’s going to help you the most is having a “low feeling,” just like when you sing low notes. Visualize yourself going down the stairs or whatever works for you personally.
Low notes can be especially hard to play on cheap saxophones, but that can often be helped by buying a better mouthpiece.
Anyway, back to the song! Now that you know how to play E, D, and C, it’s time to figure out the rhythm. You’re going to be counting two beats on E and D, and 4 beats on the last note, C.
It’s the same melody as “Three Blind Mice.” So if it helps, you can think those lyrics to yourself as you play this bit.
Once you have practiced part 3 a few times and feel like you know it you can move on to learning the beginning. It looks like this:
Do you remember what notes they are?
That’s right, it’s A, B, and C. This is not the same C as the song finishes on, but it’s an octave higher. It’s the note that you play using only the middle key in your left hand.
This bit of the song reminds us of the very first song you learned, with pretty long notes going up. You will be counting two beats on each, starting on A, then B, and then C.
Remember to separate them with your tongue!
In order to tie the beginning and the end together, we will be playing only two notes! Here’s what they look like:
It’s an A and an F. F is played by pressing down the keys for B, A, and G and your index finger on the right hand.
These two notes are shorter than the other notes, only one beat each.
Try playing them over and over again, like an ambulance!
The entire song
When you have learned all the three different parts of the song, it’s time to put them all together! Here is the sheet music for the whole song.
Try to start by playing the beginning and the middle notes directly after each other a few times and then add the end!
Reach for the stars!
If you’ve tried all the three songs above, you still haven’t played a song where you get to use the octave key.
It’s time to change that! Try playing all of these with the octave key pressed down. (Remember, that’s the one by your left thumb).
The only note you will play without the octave key is the last note in the third song, C. You will simply play the C using your left middle finger.
The octave key is a very useful little thing as you easily can place a song an octave higher. Sometimes it can be a nice effect to play a song in the lower octave to start with and finish one octave higher.
Let’s look at how we write the high notes that we play with the octave key.
This picture shows all the notes from high D to ultra-high F. (No, those aren’t the technical terms, but why make it more difficult than it has to be?)
Now, you have yet to learn how to play ultra-high D, E, and F. They are played with the octave key as well as one, two, or three of the funny-looking keys that are under your left palm.
Methods for learning to play the saxophone
Back in the day when I was learning to play the saxophone, I never even considered teaching myself. In my world, you got lessons from a teacher, and that was the only way to learn. The internet wasn’t really a thing back then, and reading books about how to play can only get you so far.
Of course, there have always been geniuses that are able to learn any instrument in an hour or so without any help, but most of us aren’t that lucky.
My view on in-person lessons has changed slightly over the years. There are now some extraordinary online resources such as video lessons on YouTube or entire saxophone courses to which you can subscribe.
It is now possible to learn how to play from the internet. However, the internet is never going to tell you “Could you play that crescendo more dramatically?” or “That G# sounds a little bit flat.”
Having a skilled saxophone player listen to you when you play is half of the value of lessons. A teacher will be able to hear things you need to work on that you might have no idea about.
Ultimately, I believe that regular in-person lessons from an expert are the best way to learn how to play a musical instrument. A good teacher can show you exactly what to do, correct your form and posture, identify errors, select appropriate songs, and more.
If regular (say, weekly) lessons aren’t an option for you, then having infrequent lessons (say every other month) is still better than nothing. Intermittent “check-ups” from a pro will let you know how you’re doing and give you valuable pointers. It’s important not to develop bad habits and then get stuck in them, and even irregular, infrequent lessons can help you avoid that.
And finally, what if there are simply no saxophone instructors in your area? Skype and online lessons are an option you might want to try. But again, there really is no substitute from someone standing in the same room listening to you play.
How to practice effectively
Have you ever heard that it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something? It’s true that it takes a lot of time to learn a skill, but how you use those 10,000 hours is also important. One key to practicing effectively is to choose appropriate songs for your level.
Choose appropriate songs
Let’s say that you spend all of your time practicing songs that are too hard for you. Finishing a single song takes you several months. If you do this for a year you might have learned five different songs, and that’s all you know how to play.
On the other hand, if you learn songs that are on your level, slightly challenging but manageable, what will the result be?
If you practice like that instead, you might be able to learn one song per week, which is 52 songs in a year! Plus, you won’t be tempted to toss your saxophone away out of frustration.
Sticking with appropriate songs is a better way to learn for several reasons:
- You’re able to track your progress more easily
- You get to learn more fun songs
- You encounter more new things
- It keeps you motivated
- You learn how to play the saxophone
I’d like to take some time to go through all of these reasons. Hopefully, you’ll learn how to make your practice sessions more enjoyable and productive by playing songs that are on your level.
You’re able to track your progress more easily.
Believe me, I’ve been there. Practicing a piece that is too hard for me but refusing to give up. But it’s actually not that fun to practice the same four bars over and over for weeks because you can’t play them perfectly.
And if you practice a long, difficult song, it’s hard to notice how much you’ve learned. You might find that you start to focus on how much you have yet to learn instead, and that can be very discouraging.
If you instead play short songs that you learn pretty quickly, you’ll experience a feeling of accomplishment much more often.
You’ll also find after a while that you have lots of different songs that you can use as a warm-up before you practice your homework for the week. These songs are also good to have for concerts, parties, weddings, or other occasions where people might ask you to play.
You get to learn more fun songs.
If you ask me why I play the saxophone, I will always answer, “Because it’s fun!”
Our main reason to play should always be because we enjoy it. And if you make sure to practice simple songs that you can learn within one or two weeks, you’ll get to try lots of different songs that are fun to play.
If you only choose songs that are too advanced for you, you’re going to have to spend plenty of time learning them. You’ll notice that you get to a point when you totally hate the songs you’ve been working on for the past few months, and you stop enjoying playing the saxophone.
If you find cool songs that are a little too tricky for you, see if you can find simplified versions of them. Perhaps your teacher (if you have one) can help you to make them easier.
You encounter more new things.
Playing many easy songs will, in the long run, be a better idea than just playing difficult songs because you get to try more new things.
Things you will encounter are different keys, time signatures, dynamics, rhythms, and so on. If you only learn a handful of songs every year, there are only so many new things you will come across.
It keeps you motivated.
In order to feel motivated when learning a new skill, you need to feel like you’re moving forward. And nothing makes you motivated like learning lots of new, fun songs!
When you practice, break the songs down into small chunks and focus on one at a time.
The way that most amateur musicians practice is not the most efficient way to do it. Most often, they will start from the beginning and play until they hit a wrong note. Then they start over, play everything again, get the same note wrong and start over again.
Eventually, they might learn to play that tricky note they always get wrong, but when the next difficult bit comes along, they will keep starting over from the beginning. When they finally have managed to go through the entire song, they will have played the beginning lots of times, but the second half of the song will be much more unfamiliar to them.
Practicing like this will often result in a very uneven song that isn’t fun to play or to listen to.
By breaking it down into small parts of a few bars, you avoid this problem. You may still start at the beginning if you want to. Decide how many bars you are going to learn.
Now ask yourself how many times you think you will have to play those bars until you know them perfectly. This depends on the difficulty of the song. I personally think that 15-20 times should be enough, and if it isn’t you should probably find an easier song.
When you have played the first bit as many times as you thought you would need, evaluate if it was enough and you know it well, or if you need to play it three or four times more.
I’ve found with my students that this is a good way to get them to focus on what they’re doing. It becomes like a game: They challenge themselves to get it right before time’s up.
Another way to practice is to focus on the second half of the song first, perhaps even the very last bars.
If you practice backward like that, you will feel that the song gets easier and easier when you, later on, play it through.
Choose the right time to practice
You have probably already figured that you’re not going to be able to practice the saxophone late at night because of the volume. But there are a couple of other things you should think about when it comes to choosing the right time to practice.
The most important practice session of the week will be the one right after your lesson. And I really mean right after. As soon as you come home after a lesson with your teacher, repeat what you have learned during the lesson.
It doesn’t have to be for long, maybe only ten minutes or so. The reason for this is simple: We forget things. If you wait to practice until the night before your next lesson you can be sure that you won’t remember half of what you were supposed to learn.
Try to practice a little every day or as often as you can. It doesn’t have to be for too long; the most important thing is consistency. Try practicing for 15 minutes a day, which should be enough when you’re a beginner.
If you practice something that’s not working, take a break. Do something else and get back to it later. Even as you’re sleeping at night, your brain may continue processing what you’ve been trying to learn.
Sometimes when I’ve struggled with a piece it miraculously works the next day when I’ve had some rest.
Mistakes to avoid
As a beginner, you’re going to make many mistakes. That’s just the way it is. But that’s okay because you’ll learn from them! Some mistakes are totally avoidable, though. Here’s a list of mistakes that I think you should avoid making:
Buying a super expensive saxophone.
There may be a few musical instruments that increase in value over the years, but in general buying an expensive new instrument is not the best investment.
Even though many beginners imagine themselves playing the saxophone twenty years from now, the reality is that within a few years, most will quit or practice very seldom.
You simply don’t know how much you are going to enjoy playing, or if you will advance to the level of needing an expensive saxophone. Buy an affordable instrument or rent one so that you don’t end up with an amazing sax gathering dust in the attic.
Don’t bite too hard.
Remember that you aren’t supposed to bite your mouthpiece; you should simply let the teeth rest on it so that the reed vibrates properly. I’ve even seen beginners bite through the protective sticker, and that can’t be good for the mouthpiece or your teeth!
Don’t wear lipstick
As a lipstick lover, I’m speaking from personal experience. Don’t even bother wearing lipstick or lip gloss if you’re going to play the saxophone later.
Of course, you can wipe it off before you start playing, but sometimes you’ll forget and even if you do wipe it off you might stain your reed which just looks gross.
Don’t eat before you play.
Avoid playing the saxophone right after you’ve eaten. As you’ll soon notice if you haven’t already, a lot of spit ends up in the saxophone. Imagine if your breath still smells like garlic and you have crumbs stuck in your teeth…
Drink plenty of water instead, which prevents you from becoming dehydrated when you lose saliva.
Use a mute.
When I grew up, I sometimes put an old T-shirt in the bell to dampen the sound when I practiced. Fortunately, there are better options. Buy yourself a saxophone mute so that you can practice without worrying too much about what the neighbors can hear.
There are other ways to avoid disturbing the neighbors, such as putting up foam panels on the walls or playing in a walk-in closet, but nothing is as good as a mute.
I truly hope that this guide has helped answer some questions you might have as a beginner saxophonist! If you’ve made if all the way to the end, you probably have the dedication it takes to get really good.
Learning to play might feel overwhelming, but remember to take one thing at a time and everything will make sense after a while.
The saxophone is certainly one of the coolest and most versatile instruments you can play. It works for so many different genres and it can produce many different tones.
Good luck with your saxophone journey!