Setting realistic goals on the saxophone for beginners

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Have you ever picked up your sax and started practicing and noticed that you are having feelings of frustration, disappointment or self doubt?

I know that I certainly have. I've been playing the sax for over 25 years now and, especially in the early years, I had feelings that made me want to throw the sax across the room.

Of course I would never actually do such a thing, and I can assure you that no saxophones were hurt or injured in my personal journey with this beautiful instrument so far!

But how do we manage those negative feelings? And what kind of mindset works best in order to make realistic and achievable improvements on the saxophone for beginners?

In this blog post I would like to share with you techniques that have worked for me and that have had great success for other people that I have had the pleasure and honour to teach.

It's all about expectation.

I’d like you to join me in a thought experiment please.

Imagine that I've just told you that I’m going to give you twenty pounds. A nice, crisp, twenty pound note - from me to you, no strings attached.  A lovely gift.

How do you feel about that?

Take a moment to imagine that scenario and pay attention to the feelings inside.

Feels pretty good, right?

Now imagine that I say to you that actually, I’m not going to give you twenty pounds, but instead I’m actually going to give you only ten pounds. Notice your reaction, there are some feelings of disappointment aren’t there?  Perhaps even frustration or annoyance?

Here’s the crazy thing though. You're allowing yourself to feel annoyed, frustrated or disappointed about receiving a gift of ten pounds! Isn’t it amazing that, if we perceive the scenario in a certain way, we can feel disappointed about getting some free cash!

The reason we have this negative reaction is because our expectation was previously set at a higher level and that expectation has not been met.

Now imagine that I say that I’m actually going to give you thirty pounds instead. How does that make you feel?  Even better than you expected, right?  Again, you feel better because you are getting more now than you expected. Your expectations have been exceeded.

I was discussing this fascinating aspect with my 12 year old son who is an accomplished pianist. He said to me, “So what's your point Dad? That I should set the bar so incredibly low in my practice that anything feels good?” ( You can always trust a 12 year old to search for any chinks in the armour of your argument!)

No, I’m not suggesting that, I told him.

What I’m saying is that if we approach practicing the sax, or any musical instrument, with a mindset of humbleness, it really, really helps.

It also helps to remember that to play the sax well is a hard thing to do. The most important thing is not that we must always make gains with our practice, but that we keep on playing and enjoy the experience.

If we keep that point in mind, that no matter how long we have been learning there will always be more to improve, then it helps us stay humble.

And always remember this phrase:

“The practice that you do today may not pay off today.”

It will pay off, for sure, but the way the brain seems to work is that if you practice hard, have a rest and a good night's sleep, come back the next day and practice again, have another night's sleep and come back to whatever you are working on again - it will feel so much easier.

And depending on the complexity of what we are working on, it could take many days or even weeks to get whatever it is you're trying to perfect "under your fingers."

Once we accept this approach, then we can practice with realistic expectations, knowing that steady progress will come with time and effort.  Imagine how liberating this would be. We can just practice, and we don’t have to worry about improving anymore because we know we will get there, in time, when we are ready.

This way, if we do notice some immediate improvement then we are delighted and inspired and satisfied. And if we don’t, it doesn’t matter because we know that the improvement will come eventually and we don’t mind anyway because we enjoy playing the sax so much.

This attitude also helps us remember to play little and often. We no longer need to do long, marathon-like practice sessions with a high expectation of growth, but just ten or fifteen minutes here and there, on a regular basis, just for fun, to “chip away” at the rather large job of being a good instrumentalist.

If we truly approach our sax practice with this mindset and with realistic expectations, imagine how relaxed we will be.  Ask yourself, do people learn more easily when they are having fun and relaxed, or when they are cheesed off, frustrated and annoyed? The answer is of course, that you learn more easily when you are relaxed and open.

So why not take a moment to think about your own expectations with regard to your sax.  Become aware of what they are, make sure that they are realistic and you will progress quickly, have a pleasurable time exploring music and love the experience playing your wonderful instrument.