Saxophone for beginners: 10 top practice tips

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with just the wave of a magic wand, learning how to play the saxophone could become so much easier?!

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The truth is of course, we all know deep down inside that it takes many, many hours of saxophone lessons and committed, regular practice to move forward with our growth and development on this beautiful and challenging instrument. But how helpful would it be to have a checklist of hacks for saxophone for beginners that could make the process of improving on the sax just a little simpler?

Well, here are my top ten tips to help you make your practice and development on the saxophone as enjoyable, productive and efficient as possible. Why not try incorporating some or all of them into your saxophone routine and see (and hear) for yourself the difference it makes!

1. Get the best mouthpiece you can

If your sax is a lower cost instrument, you can instantly improve the way it sounds by using a professional quality mouthpiece.  The better quality the mouthpiece, even if it's played on a very average cheap saxophone, the better quality the sound you'll be able to produce.

In contrast though, try putting a cheap plastic mouthpiece on even the best saxophone in the world and it will make that saxophone sound average at best. So before you upgrade your saxophone, upgrade your mouthpiece!

The same advice goes for reeds. Do not penny pinch when it comes to reeds. Get your reed from a well-known, established reed manufacturer like a Rico Royal or Vandoren and do not waste your time or effort with the cheap reeds that you may see on auction sites.

2.  Have a comfortable sling

A decent sax sling (that’s the strappy thing that goes round your neck) will make practising the sax so much more comfortable.

The type of sling you typically get with a cheaper, beginners sax tends to be really uncomfortable  - usually because they’re thin and they don’t have the lovely, fat squishy foam pad that comes with a better quality sling .

If you are practising the sax and it feels like you are being slowly decapitated, then this will definitely put you off! So, first things first, upgrade your sling.  You can get a comfortable foam sling on eBay for about £15 or £20 and believe me it's well worth the investment.

3. Get a sax stand

Are you lacking motivation for practice? Well here's a simple solution: Get a sax stand and have your sax out, all the time, where you can see it, looking beautifully appealing.

Having your sax in sight and ready to play at any time makes it a lot easier to just pick it up and practice than if it's packed away in its case under the bed. Remember, if its out of sight, its out of mind. This one simple trick can improve the frequency of your practice by 100%.

The thought of having to go upstairs, grab your case, bring it down, unpack your sax, get the mouthpiece ready and put it all together can sometimes be off-putting.  If the sax is ready to go, there's much more chance that you’ll pick it up. And the more often you pick it up, the quicker you'll find yourself improving on the sax.

4.  Play your scales and exercises over a backing track

In my experience, practicing with backing tracks is just so much more fun and musical than playing your scales and exercises on their own. Of course it’s also important and extremely useful to practice without a backing track, and especially when you are learning something new so that you have no distractions and can build up the accuracy of whatever you are doing.

Ideally though, try and practice both with and without. If you are not currently playing to backing tracks then you should at the very least give it a try. There are awesome backing track apps for your phone, tablet and computer that are inexpensive, and quick and easy to install. They've certainly changed my whole approach to practice.

Adding the use of a backing track in the same key that you are working in can bring so much relevance and context to your practice and will encourage you to play for longer because it’s just so much more fun. Playing with backing tracks also prepares you for working with other musicians or a live band because it demands that you play, and stick to, a set tempo.

5. Transcribe a solo

Would you like a project that will 100% guarantee growth in your playing? Transcribe a sax solo of a famous player. 

What does “transcribe” mean? Well “trans” means to move and “scribe” means to write down. So when we write down the names of the notes that a sax player uses, we are moving them from the world of listening to a form that can be read off a page.

Start off with a tune that you know, see if you can identify which notes are being used, and write them down. This will involve you listening actively to each and every note very carefully and you will benefit hugely as a player.

I'd suggest beginning with a more straightforward tune and then, once you have some experience of transcribing, you can increase the difficulty and complexity. 

6. Transpose a song

What does this mean? Well, as we saw above, “trans” means to move and “pose” means the position. So we are "moving the position," or the key, in which a song, or part of a song is played.

Imagine that you are singing the National Anthem and as you are singing, some of the high notes are too high for you to reach. You might choose to start the song again, but this time beginning with your first note a few tones lower than before. In this process you have just "transposed" the song.

You can apply exactly the same process to the sax and it is a terrific exercise that is guaranteed to improve and develop your musical skills.

You don’t need to play a whole tune, just the first few notes or a short phrase will do. Why not take a simple tune like “Summertime” as a starting point and see if you can play the first phrase starting on different notes.

7. Get a flight case

Taking your sax out into the world is a beautiful thing. You can take it round to play at your friends house, you could take it perhaps to a BBQ or a jam session or just look for a beautiful place in nature in which to play. You could even take it on holiday!

But if the standard case that your sax comes in is bulky, clumsy or difficult to handle then it may make it an unappealing proposition to take your sax anywhere.

The solution is to get yourself a flight case. They are strong, light and durable and are much smaller than the classical square sax case. Some flight cases even have straps so that you can wear your sax as a backpack which makes it even easier to transport.

The saxophone is an amazing instrument to share  - and integrating your sax into your travels and adventures, wherever they may take you, will add a new dimension to your experience.

8. Practice little and often

There's tons of research out there that supports the notion that small, regular amounts of practice produce better results than longer practice sessions that happen with less frequency. 

I am personally convinced that at least part of being a good sax player is getting the idea of regular practice into your behavioural repertoire, even if it's just for ten minutes a day.

I also notice that if I don't practice for a while I can experience some feelings of guilt, and that very feeling can actually hold me back from picking up the sax because I have a mild negative association. Regular practice definitely helps me keep those feelings in check!

Shorter practice sessions are also less overwhelming and exhausting than long epic sessions and musical ideas that are being worked on regularly in small increments are easier to remember. If you only practice once every week or so then it's going to be harder to remember what you were working on last time.

Picking up the sax every day or so, just for s few minutes, is definitely the way to develop more quickly. 

9. Partner up

Having other people in your life who have similar interests to you and who will support you in your development is massively important.

If you can find other sax players or musicians to share your experience with then your musical journey will be so much more enjoyable than if you are on your own.

  • If you're not sure how to go about meeting people with the same interests, here are some ideas for you. Go to a local jam session. If you are nervous about playing in public you don’t have to take your instrument, you can just go there to listen and meet people.

  • Find a local rehearsal space, usually they will have a notice board and there will be lots of adverts from people who want to connect. Sax players are always in demand so it should be easy to find people to interact with musically.

  • Look on social media sites for groups of local musicians and meet that way. Practicing with other people is fun!

10. Play in an inspiring setting

Having to practice quietly in your kitchen because you don’t want to annoy the neighbours does not bode well for creating an inspiring and liberating atmosphere in which to grow!

Of course practising anywhere is better than not practicing. But practising in an inspiring setting adds a wonderful psychological dimension.

Great places to play are on the beach, in the mountains, near a river, in a forest, a field or a wood. Even practising by a window that looks out onto a beautiful garden or other view makes a big difference. The feeling that you have when you play in an environment like this is amazing and it will lift your spirit as well as your playing.

It doesn't necessarily even have to be a tranquil setting. As crazy as it sounds, playing by the bridge of a motorway, where the noise of the traffic allows you to play louder than you normally would can be a very liberating feeling.

A very famous sax player called Sonny Rollins practically lived on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and practiced there many hours a day for three years because he could make some serious noise without disturbing others or being disturbed. Afterward he recorded an album entitled “The Bridge.”

So my advice is, find an inspiring place to practice your sax and it will add another dimension to your motivation as well as your ability to practice the saxophone.

The small things are the big things

Individually of course, all of these ideas are fairly small changes. But lots of small changes when they're combined together can make a really big difference.

So why not try some (or all) of these ideas and see how it affects your practice, and your playing, in a positive way!