Teach Them the Saxophone First

by Ron Kearns

Date Posted: October 15, 2019

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Whenever I do clinics for bands I’m asked to help their saxophone students learn to play music their band is working on. Directors want me to show their students how to play the music in a specific style or use “jazz inflections.”

The first thing I notice is that the students are having difficulty getting around the horn. The problems range from poor embouchure, improper posture, poor breathing and poor sound.

At best all I can do is put a bandage on these problems and hope they can imitate what I’m doing to get through the selections. It causes me to reflect on what older players used to say, “he/she doesn’t know their horn.” That statement means that the player doesn’t know all of the nuances of playing the saxophone.

So, what does the teacher need to do in order to help their students? First, if there’s a professional saxophone player around bring them in for coaching or private lessons. If that’s not possible, here are a few things that can be done.

A Playable Horn

First, make sure they have equipment in working order. Have a qualified repair person check the instrument out. Leaks and misaligned keys can create problems that are easily fixed.

Next, check their setup. Is the mouthpiece the one they need? Have them try out three or four mouthpieces and listen to see which one sounds best and feels most comfortable to them. This is going to be refined later but basically the mouthpiece that they can get the best sound from immediately is the best choice.

I recommend starting with a size two or two and a half reed first.

Have them play a few scales on that setup with a good ligature first.

Once you have the initial setup have them play long tones. Most students won’t want to do that but it’s one of the most important things they can do. Everyone who has attended one of my clinics will tell you “it’s all about sound.”

Start with the biggest sound you can so that like a diamond cutter you can chip away the rough to get to the gem. Once the student has mastered sound production you can refine the sound. No matter what style music is to be played a good full saxophone sound is needed.

Equipment Setup

Discussing reed types and sizes, ligatures and mouthpieces would be a complete separate article so I’ll just say that a good setup is vital for good sound production. Vandoren has plenty resources to help you match the best setup with your student. All styles of music require a good basic concept of what a saxophone should sound like so the selection of the right setup is to give your students the best materials to develop their concept.

Long Tones

The first process in good sound development is playing long tones. My mother who was not a saxophonist or musician made me play long tones until my sound sounded good to her. Every time I pulled out my horn I had to play long tones. I discovered later that my mom was teaching me the lesson that formed my philosophy, it’s all about sound.

I learned the importance of shaping the sound of each note and the importance of good intonation. Every good saxophone player must learn that lesson so start there first. Before you can learn to alter a note you must learn to produce the best sound on the note.

I would hear my high school band director tell saxophone players not to use a “sub tone” but he never explained what it was. I later learned as a jazz player how to do it and recognized it as an altered tone affected by manipulating the embouchure.

"It's all about the sound." - Ron Kearns

Proper Breathing

Related to good sound production is proper breathing. Wind instruments depend on wind or air flow. Air flow goes beyond playing individual notes, it also involves supporting lines and phrases. The idea of saxophones not being able to play in tune comes from poor embouchures and poor air support. Combine four whole notes into a one breath phrase followed by another four bar phrase on whole notes. This develops the concept of breath support for a full phrase that can be transferred to the music you’re teaching. The warmup should be directly associated with skills your players will need in real time playing.

Listen to the Greats

The next step is listening to model players and model saxophone sections. Whether it’s classical or jazz saxophone YouTube and other internet sites have plenty resources. Before you assign your students to listen to these videos or recordings screen them first to make sure they meet your standards. Regrettably, there are a lot of videos you don’t want your players to model. Vandoren has videos of their artists as well as links to the artists’ websites so you can start there. Conn-Selmer and other instrument manufacturers offer the same. You can trust them because they select artists who can demonstrate the quality of their equipment.

Once you’ve done the things listed above stress the importance of practice. There is no close enough for music of any kind, it’s either right or wrong. Encourage your students to practice as a section or in groups of two or three. Between listening to themselves or other saxophone players they will begin to understand what the saxophone should sound like when played correctly. Far to often directors buy into misconceptions of the saxophone. With today’s technology and craftsmanship it is more difficult to play out of tune than it is to play in tune. Have your students start off checking their intonation with a chromatic tuner but then have them aurally discriminate pitches. Ear development is the most important thing for saxophone players and other musicians. Once your students have prepared themselves a guest artist like myself can come in and shape and polish the gem. It’s all about sound and concept!

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