Frequently Asked Questions
On this page you will find questions and answers regarding some of the most important issues faced by someone interested in learning to play the saxophone.
BEGINNING SAXOPHONE Topics:
Can I learn how to play the saxophone?
Alto sax or tenor sax?
Rent or purchase a saxophone?
ANSWER: This is a question I’m often asked. The answer is that unless you have a physical impairment that prevents you from playing the instrument, yes you can learn to play the saxophone.
The level of proficiency you attain however, depends on a couple of things. Ultimately, your determination, the amount of time invested, and the amount of natural ability you posess work together to determine your success.
Learning to play the saxophone, especially jazz saxophone, is an adventure that you can enjoy the rest of your life. One of the greatest joys of this experience is knowing that you can learn more about the instrument, the music, and yourself, everyday that you practice.
ANSWER: Once you’ve decided to play the saxophone, you are faced with the task of selecting an instrument. There are several important factors that you will need to consider.
Determine first whether you would like to begin with alto or tenor (beginners should avoid soprano). I recommend that most kids begin with alto because it’s the smaller of the two. If you are an adult, you might wish to take into consideration that the tenor is larger, and somewhat heavier on the neck. It is, however, manageable by most healthy adults with no back problems. There are also special harness straps that distribute the weight more evenly on the back.
If you are not certain of the differences between alto and tenor, visit a music store that sells band instruments, and ask to see both. You might also wish to listen to players of both tenor and alto to see if your ear prefers one or the other.
If you are still not certain as to whether you prefer alto or tenor, my recommendation would be to begin with alto. All the notes and reading that you learn on alto can be easily transferred to tenor should you decide to make the change.
ANSWER: Most reputable band instrument stores have rental programs. I like this option, because it (hopefully) insures that you will obtain an instrument in good working condition. It’s also helpful if the store has a repair shop where the instrument can be play tested to insure everything is ready to go. I have seen brand new saxes come out of the box needing adjustment, so don’t be afraid to ask the staff to check the instrument and even play test it for you.
If you are looking to save a buck and purchase a used instrument, be cautious. An instrument may look beautiful and still need $300 or more in repairs to get it playable. If you purchase online, make sure there is a money-back guarantee, and that you have someone that can check the instrument for you once it arrives.
Avoid discount store off-brand instruments. The trouble with these instruments is that you may have difficulty finding a repairman to work on them a year or sooner down the road when they need adjustment. If in doubt as to a brand to choose, contact your local band instrument repair shop and ask for advice. Some of the more popular and reputable brands of saxophone include Selmer, Yamaha, Conn, Guardala, and Keilworth. There are quite a few other worthy brands.
ANSWER: As with any new hobby, there are a lot of available accessories, some necessary, some not. Accessories often add to the experience and complete the feeling of being prepared to undertake the task. Below is a list of items you will need.
Reeds- Extra reeds are an absolute necessity. If you are renting or have purchased a new saxophone, chances are that it came with one number 2 reed. You should purchase a pack of five to ten number 2.5 reeds. There is no real advantage to purchasing high quality reeds at this point, so just get the plain Rico brand reeds.
Reed Holder- A red holder designed to store 2-4 reeds is good to have.
Cork Grease- If you are renting or have purchased a new instrument, chances are that it has a tube of cork grease in the case. If not, it’s cheap, so purchase a tube.
Tuner- For anyone learning to play the saxophone using online or self-instruction, a chromatic tuner is essential.
Metronome- A metronome is a helpful, and highly recommended practice aid. Be certain to get one that has a loud click, so you can hear it while practicing.
Music Stand - A music stand is essential for holding the music in a position that allows you to sit or stand comfortably while practicing.
Cleaning kit- Most music stores offer cleaning kits. Many of these kits contain items that you may not need, so you might do better purchasing things separately.The necessities include a mouthpiece brush, neck cleaner, and a body cleaner. The neck and body cleaners are usually just pieces of fabric tied to a string with a weight on the opposite end, and are used for drying the inside of the instrument after practicing. Another type of body cleaner is a long bushy plume that is inserted and removed from the body of the instrument after practicing.
I am in the beginning stages of creating a series of Beginning Saxophone question and answer videos based on some of the most frequent questions I've received from many of you. I'll post the videos here and in a playlist on my YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/user/saxtrax
I also have some answers to other frequently asked questions about learning to play the saxophone, saxophone maintenance, purchasing and renting a saxophone, saxophone reeds, saxophone mouthpieces, and more. These topics should be of interest to beginning - intermediate saxophonists. If you have a jazz saxophone or beginning saxophone question, send it to me.
Visit the homepage for information on my online beginning saxophone lessons.
Answer: First, I would suggest that you have a fair amount of hands-on saxophone playing experience. You really need to be able to play-test the sax from top to bottom, using a mouthpiece and reed that you are comfortable playing. That's why I usually suggest renting before purchasing.
It would also be wise to have the instrument in question inspected by either an experienced player or repairman. Often, used saxes need to have pads replaced. Depending on which ones and how many need to be replaced, this can become an expensive venture.
Finally, avoid purchasing a used instrument online unless you are buying from a music store that provides a money-back guarantee for the instrument. I have a student that recently purchased a quality brand used instrument online. The pictures were beautiful, and the price was right. He was very disappointed when the sax arrived and need $300 in repairs before he could play it.
Answer: This can be a tricky one. Obviously, if the reed tip gets broken or split, it needs to be changed. You should learn quickly how to avoid most breaks, especially when reeds can be expensive.
One issue you'll face, is that some reeds play better and last longer than others. Some reeds may not even be suitable for playing when brand new. For this reason, I recommend having two, three, or even four reeds on a playing rotation. This way, you'll start to get a feel for what to expect from your reeds, and for when they start to wear out.
Some reed related issues can include excessive squeaking, difficulty playing high or low notes, and difficulty playing in tune. Of course, these can also be user or instrument malfunction issues. Again, by having several reeds on a rotation, you can get a feel for what is a reed related problem verses an embouchure, breath support, or mechanical issue with your instrument.
With all of the above taken into consideration, I would say that most decent reeds are good for 2-4 weeks, depending on the amount of time you practice.
Answer: I recommend that beginning adults play one number 2 reed for the first one to two weeks, unless it breaks sooner than that. At the first reed changing, move up in strength to a 2.5. Buy a box of cheap reeds at first. You won't know the difference until you develop some chops.
Once you've worn out this box of reeds, you may wish to experiment with some number 3's, or you may need to stay with the 2.5's. It really just depends on your personal embouchure strength and the mouthpiece you are playing. You can always try a harder reed, then back down to more 2.5's if necessary. I do think, however, that you should try to advance to number 3's within the first 12-18 months.
Answer: If you have ongoing trouble producing tones such as a middle "D" or high "G," this can be a sign that your octave key is out of adjustment. In this case, you should have your instrument serviced immediately. Of course, if you have persistent difficulty with the low notes, have it checked out.
As far as routine maintenance is concerned, it would be a good idea to have your instrument serviced once a year.
Answer: The mouthpiece should be cleaned regularly with a brush in the sink. There are special mouthpiece brushes you can purchase, or you can use a small child's toothbrush.
There are saxophone neck and body cleaning swabs that can be pulled through the instrument. Do this with frequency to avoid a slimy algae build-up inside your instrument. This will also help to dry the instrument on the inside, adding extended life to your pads.
Answer: In most cases, the beginner mouthpiece that came with your instrument should be good for at least your first year of play. As your embouchure and concept of the saxophone sound you want to have matures, you may wish to experiment with different mouthpieces.
Read reviews and do your research. Most sax players go through several mouthpieces before settling into one they play for years. Most serious players are on the mouthpiece hunt their entire lives.
Answer: That's the question most beginners have. That's also a very difficult question to answer, since "good" is relevant to your expectations.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are a sax player for life. It's not something you master and walk away from. One of the most enjoyable things about playing sax, and jazz, is the journey. You constantly learn more about music, and yourself, as you travel this journey.
With this being said, you should be able to play many basic tunes within a month. In addition to your "Beginning Sax" lessons, you could purchase books with easy saxophone songs - there are many available - and have fun learning to play pop hits or jazz standards in just a few months.
Answer: Practice is the key to success. The more you practice, the better you get. We'll leave it at that.