Using Your Secondary Study to Improve Your Primary Skills

by Ben Woodard

Many college saxophone players, such as myself, find themselves picking up secondary instruments as a means to better fill roles in jazz bands and pit orchestras. I first noticed the need to learn secondary instruments to make myself a more diverse and employable musician in high school. I began formally studying these secondary instruments in college. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my study of secondary instruments was improving not only my marketability but also my saxophone playing. I have noted some of the ways I improved and found that a more cognizant study of woodwinds as a general study helped me apply my lessons to all of my instruments. I will identify some of the main improvements that I can trace back to my flute and clarinet studies.  I am sure that there are many other ways that my musicianship has improved and that many other musicians have experienced improvements manifested in other aspects of their playing. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I hope that it will give players something else to consider when approaching a secondary instrument.

Air Usage

The first improvement I experienced stemmed from a lesson I quickly learned in my first few flute lessons. I was surprised when I started studying flute that it took significantly more air than even the bari sax. By studying flute, not only has my air support improved, but I was able to better understand the proper way to use my diaphragm while I was playing. This was a concept that I immediately applied to the saxophone. Though the concept of air support was certainly something that had been addressed in my saxophone studies, I was able to get by with a less than ideal airflow. It took studying flute to realize that I wasn't supporting my saxophone sound to my full potential.

My concept of air would later be reinforced in my clarinet studies with more of a focus on phrasing and connection.  When playing clarinet, I was experiencing an issue I had faced in my early saxophone instruction where I was playing with an inconsistent airflow and pulsing my air on each note. Experiencing these issues with my air on flute and clarinet made me much more cognizant of how to use air to play the saxophone. 


Learning secondary instruments comes with the challenge of learning a new fingering system. With these new fingerings comes new dexterity. Exercising your fingers in different ways than you normally would with your primary instrument will help increase finger strength and control.  The pinky work needed to play the clarinet is more demanding than the saxophone (at least for me as a saxophone player) and certainly much more than required for the flute.  This pinky work has translated to my saxophone playing well.

My more recent studies with the clarinet have been a great reminder to alleviate as much tension in my technique as possible. I naturally experience a lot of tension in my hands, which in the past caused my fingers to experience pain and fatigue. I have the tendency to force my fingers to the fingering for each note, particularly with the clarinet, but this idea of relaxing my hands is necessary for more advanced technique on any of my instruments. At a certain speed it becomes simply too difficult to force my fingers to play each note.   

These are by no means revolutionary saxophone concepts but perhaps a different way to approach learning secondary instruments. When studying a new instrument, I recommend that a student avoid the mindset of trying to be just good enough to make in through a gig, but rather understand that the work you're putting in on this new instrument will benefit your primary instrument as well.

Ben Woodard Small

Ben Woodard is a Senior Commercial Music major at Millikin University.  He plays his primary instrument, saxophone, in many top Millikin Ensembles.  He is a doubler on clarinet and flute and also plays drums in various rock bands as well as guitars as a hobby. Ben is also a front of house sound engineer for several Millikin ensembles as well as a freelancer in the Decatur area.  In his free time he plays intramural basketball and watches Wes Anderson films. 

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