All Things Saxophone


Last modified 09/12/08


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Ahh, practicing — the most favored discipline in the path of the aspiring saxophonist.  Wait a minute!  That’s not true!  Almost all saxophonists I have taught and worked with dislike practicing and wish they didn’t have to.  Well, let’s explore the discipline of practice — here’s the dictionary’s  definition:

prac—tice [prak—tis] noun, verb

1. repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency

This definition has key words that are critical to creating a good approach to practicing.

· Systematic exercise

This is a point that many saxophonists don’t grasp.  Practice is exercise, much like the exercise that athletes do.  Exercise for a saxophonist means long tones, breathing, tonguing, scales, patterns, and so forth.  To further explain this, let’s look at that  athlete analogy and consider a basketball player.  Practice would be stretching, breathing (good breathing is applicable everywhere in life), dribbling, lay ups, etc. — NOTE THIS DOES NOT INCLUDE ACTUALLY PLAYING A GAME OF BASKETBALL.  Going back to saxophone, we see a similar concept that often escapes aspiring players — playing a piece over and over again without the fundamental work won’t make you a professional saxophonist anymore than playing basketball games without fundamentals will make you a professional athlete.  To truly practice you must work on the fundamentals first — warm up with long tones & breathing, then simple patterns, scales, more difficult patterns, and then work on the music you’ve selected for that session.  At least one third of your practice time should be for the fundamentals (i.e. 10 min. for 1/2 hour, 20 minutes for an hour, etc.).  Sometimes practice doesn’t even include playing musical pieces at all.  These are the concepts that make practice a systematic exercise.

· How much to practice

This depends on the skill level of the player.  A young player might practice only 20 minutes at a time every day or every other day.  An advanced player will practice as much as two hours in a session, daily.  I’ve worked with folks who have practiced more than 2 hours daily but I don’t believe additional practice beyond that amount is productive or healthy.  Human nature craves variety — a little bit of everything each day, just like we learned in kindergarten (time to run/jump, time to nap, time to snack, time for a story, etc.).

· Practicing difficult motifs

So you have a motif (passage) in a chart that is difficult.  How do you work it out?  Here are the steps — slow it down, break it into pieces, put the pieces back together, and speed it up.  Take a look at this motif:











Assuming the performance tempo is 144 we have a little work to do here.  However, this is easily approached by slowing down the motif and breaking it up into pieces like these:











Then put the pieces back together, speed it up, and you’ve got it!

· Where to practice

This concept is very important for your well being and the well being of others.  If you are truly practicing then no one is going to want to listen to you — trust me on this.  Going back to the basketball player analogy — the player’s fans don’t want to watch stretching, dribbling, & lay ups.  They want to watch the game.  Same is true for your listeners.  They want to hear you play — not practice.  If you let someone listen to you practice you will find that you will just end up playing for them (which is a good thing but not in the practice arena) and you won’t get anything done.  Or if you practice in their presence they will be unhappy because they aren’t hearing what they want to hear.  So, be sure to pick a private location when you are practicing and make sure there is good sound dampening so people in the same building will not be subject to the sound of your practice (the musically uneducated just call it noise).

· Practice vs. rehearsal

These words are NOT interchangeable in the genre of music even though a lot of folks think they are.  Practice is as defined above.  Rehearsal is the process of assembling a group of people (who have already practiced their parts individually) to fit the parts together into a whole.  This is where professionals are separated from amateurs.  Years ago I played (briefly) in bands where the players got together frequently to “practice”.  The players would come to “practice” (should be rehearsal) unprepared and the whole thing ended up being a big clusterf__k where the individuals wasted each other’s time learning their own parts and no time was spent actually rehearsing.  I have no time for this and neither do any other professionals.

Practice, practice, practice — most saxophonists don’t like to do it but if you want to really improve, this is the way to do it, folks.  Regular, systematic practice will make you a better player and you will find that performing will be a lot more fun!