Playing Tips: Saxophone Performance

Playing and Performance Tips for the Saxophone

Technique or How to Practice:
Developing technique is really about how to correctly practice. Often musicians are very busy and have a limited time to practice each day. Making efficient use of the time and your energy is most important. However, there are no “shortcuts.” Musical ability is developed to an artistic level only through many, many years of practice and hard work. Here are some pointers that may help you along the way.

  1. When approaching a new piece of music for the very first time, do your utmost to “program it into your brain” correctly. Having to unlearn mistakes is costly. Put yourself in the right frame of mind. Visually examine the music, noting key signature, time signature, accidentals, special fingerings, difficult rhythms, articulations, musical instructions as to form and dynamics, etc. If you are a less experienced player (and everyone is at some time!) break the learning process down: notes and rhythms first, articulations next, dynamics next, and so forth. It may be advisable to start with very small chunks of the music. Learning a musical work is much like building a house — you first need a foundation, then you build upwards. Whatever your ability level, I advise that the first playing of a piece be at a slow tempo, with a steady beat.
  2. Don’t practice too fast too soon! Learn the music first. You have truly learned the notes, etc. when you can play the entire piece at a slow tempo, with no mistakes and no disruptions in the beat. Since we’re only human, this is harder than you realize and requires deep concentration — a necessary part of musical performance. After the notes and rhythms are learned, you begin practicing to make music. Work with a metronome to become aware of tempos, and improve your speed. Strive for musical expression and dynamics. Whatever you play, make it musical!
  3. Have a balanced practice “diet.” Practice regularly, make it a part of your routine.

Always include a warm-up period — do long tones to improve tone quality, do breathing exercises if you’re working on diaphragmatic breathing If you’re advanced enough, work on vibrato apart from the music — with a tuner, if possible.

Always include a tonguing exercise: this can be incorporated with your scales. The tongue is a muscle and must be exercised. Become friendly with your metronome and track your progress.

Regardless of what you play, work some music theory into your practice periods. If a piece is in a certain key, play the scales, arpeggios and thirds in that key. I suggest learning all the major scales and the chromatic scale extremely well. Be able to play them full range. Practice them in various rhythms, both tongued and slurred and with articulation patterns. Here’s a good place to begin being creative if you’re interested in improvisation or composition. Almost all other scales can be easily understood if you know the major keys well. Learn all three forms of the minor scales, and then the modes of the major scale. Saxophone players in particular should learn the two whole tone scales and the three diminished scales because they are in much of our 20th Century literature.

In your practice session, include a technical study and literature. Literature may include your band music, chamber music or solos. Keep track of the solos that you learn and have performed, especially if you’re preparing for college.

After you have learned your music; get past the stopping and starting syndrome. Practice performing. Imagine that someone is listening. If you’re preparing for an audition or a recital, it’s likely that you may feel nervous. Stage fright can inhibit a performer’s true abilities. The more experience you get performing in front of others, the easier this becomes. However, you can battle this by a simple meditative type exercise; Sit in a relaxing, quiet place. Imagine yourself at the performance; let yourself feel what it’s like to be nervous (stomach butterflies, sweaty palms, cottonmouth, etc.) But also imagine yourself not being rattled. Imagine yourself not becoming unraveled by any errors. Imagine a positive performance experience. This technique is very effective because the subconscious brain does not know the difference between a true experience and a highly imagined one. For an excellent source book on how to practice see The Art of Musicianship by Philip Farkas.

Susan A. Loy
Copyright 1998