The Zen Of Saxophone

(Or Clarinet, or flute, or trumpet, or ...)

Music Essays

Sax Zen

Clean your Sax

Dealing with excessive moisture

Optimal Reed Installation

Légère Reeds

Writing Intros

Beginning Improvisation

Akai EWI4000s Links

My Favorite Music

Introduction to MMA

MMA Grooves

Practice with MMA

In case you've not shopped around the rest of my site, you might not know that, among other little things, I play a bit of saxophone. But, life was not always that exciting ... until my late 40s I'd never even touched a saxophone. Not to say that I'd not spent a lot of time over the years playing music. But, sadly, no sax.

I started playing accordion when I was 12 and in my 20s learned to play pretty decent pop organ. I even made a decent living from time to time teaching both instruments. So, when someone suggested that I play sax I figured:

How hard can it be? One only has 1 staff to read (instead of 2 for accordion and 3 for organ! You only play one note at a time. And the range of the instrument is limited to about two and a half octaves. A few weeks to learn the fingering ... and I'll be off to the races.

Yeah, right.

It's about 12 years later and I wonder why anyone, especially me, would think (let alone say it out loud, which I did) such a completely stupid thing. In all honesty I can say that learning to play the saxophone was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Hopefully, this short essay will help someone else avoid some of my mistakes and make the path to saxophone enlightenment a bit easier.

My first mistake was not taking advantage of a good teacher! Now, in my own defense I do have some excuses since I live in a small town and there really aren't any “good” sax (or other woodwind) instructors in the area. I did have a lady give me a few lessons, but, in hindsight, I really knew as much as she did. I would be a lot further ahead if I'd found someone in a neighbouring town and made a weekly 100 mile trek. Teachers are important! Mind you, a bad teacher is pretty useless ... so don't waste money just to say “I have a teacher.”

Mistake number two was thinking that a saxophone was just another instrument like an accordion, organ, synthesizer or piano. It is not. Repeat after me at least twenty times “saxophones are not like pianos.” Now that might be rather obvious, but for someone learning a new instrument it really isn't. One takes the knowledge acquired from similar tasks and tries to apply it to the new task. That's human nature; and it is why we are able to learn much more quickly than monkeys, dogs and goldfish. The problem is that we end up seeing the new problem in the same mindset as the old one.

A saxophone (or flute, trumpet, clarinet or just about any other instrument one needs to blow into to make it work) is different from something with keys on it. Obvious. Yes, but it took me several years to figure this out. When one learns to hit a note or several notes on a keyboard, that's a lesson done. After all, no matter what the weather ... cloudy, sunny, snowing or raining ... that same action on the keyboard will generate the same sound. Not so with my saxophone. There are too many variables to make it that simple. Let's see:

  • There is the reed which vibrates against the mouthpiece. Has it been positioned correctly? Is it new or old? Wet or dry? Is it the correct hardness for the player, horn and mouthpiece?

  • What is happening with the horn? In different weather conditions it gets longer or shorter ... and this makes a huge difference on the tuning of the beast.

  • Was the mouthpiece placed on the horn correctly? A few millimeters further on or off the neck is the difference between being in tune and sounding quite awful.

  • Finally, and most importantly, what is the player doing with his or her embouchure? Are you biting too much or too relaxed. Do you have enough air to blow though the horn or are you tired and lazy?

I'll leave it to the statisticians to develop a formula for the number of different combinations of problems the short list above can generate. Enough to be aware of them. Really aware! And that takes time. For some people, like me, a long time.

Mistake number three was not being aware of mistakes one and two. Blindly I tried to play better, but got frustrated. I just wasn't progressing at the quick pace I'd expected. Was it me? Was it the reed? Was it the horn? Mouthpiece?

I bought new horns. Experimented with different reeds. Spent money on new mouthpieces and other bits of saxophone hardware. But, it didn't seem to make much difference. In all honesty, I sounded just as bad on an nice, shiny, expensive horn as I'd sounded on the cheap, second hand crapper I'd started on. Enlightenment was not coming to me.

But, all things happen in time. Slowly I stopped blaming the hardware and learned to focus on the relationship between me and the horn. I accepted the fact that the setup I'd sounded good on yesterday would never again exist. Today, and everyday in the future, was a new day with different weather conditions and a different mindset for the player. Slowly I came to accept that the pure joy of playing the saxophone was that it was a changing and emotive instrument. An instrument that would not always be in my complete control. Playing saxophone was a journey with different results each time I picked it up to play a note. Wow! Yeah, really.

I'm a far way from being a master of the saxophone. I'll probably never be one! But, I'm happy with a few notes I've played. Give a listen to a few recordings I've made.

So, what's this Zen thing? Well Zen is a Buddhist doctrine that enlightenment can be attained through direct intuitive insight. I'm not sure if playing saxophone counts as insight ... nor is it necessarily enlightenment. But, I have to say that there are times when I play a note (or even more rare times when I play a series of notes) that I feel like I'm on a different plane of existence. A different world where the only important thing is to enjoy the pure sound of that one note. My only hope at that time is that I'll be able to repeat the moment again.

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