An Introduction to the Saxophone

by Sarah Beatty, Music & Arts Lesson Instructor

Tools for Success

Music Stand Shop Now >
A music stand is essential for practicing with good posture, hand position and air support.

Reeds Shop Now >
Good reeds are important in successfully creating a good sound on the saxophone. Beginners typically start on a size 2 reed and increase strength (2.5, 3, 3.5, etc.) as they develop a level of comfort and proficiency. Beginners will go through reeds rather quickly because they are extremely delicate. As students learn how to properly place them on the mouthpiece and care for them, they’ll begin to last a little longer.

Reed Case Shop Now >
Reed cases are necessary for maximizing the lifespan of your reeds. They protect reeds from becoming damaged and warped, and they allow students to easily store reeds away after use. Students should have at least four working reeds in their case at all times, so a case that holds multiple reeds is ideal.

Neck Strap Shop Now >
The neck strap attaches to the body of the saxophone using a hook and is worn around the neck to help support the saxophone. Better neck straps are padded, hence more comfortable, and often will include hooks that close completely to offer more security.

Swab Shop Now >
A swab is essential in the care and maintenance of the instrument. It removes the moisture from the pads and instrument after each practice session. Excess moisture left on the pads after practice will wear away at the pads, quickly causing them not to seal or to possibly fall off. This will cause the instrument to not respond properly, or at all.

Cork Grease Shop Now >
This comes in a small tube that looks like chapstick. A small amount is placed on the neck cork of the saxophone when putting it together. Cork grease helps the mouthpiece connect to the neck easily and avoids tearing the cork or damaging the instrument. New corks should be greased each time the saxophone is put together. Once the mouthpiece can go on smoothly, the student should only need to grease the cork once a week.

Metronome Shop Now >
A metronome provides steady beats through clicks in order to help develop the player’s sense of rhythm. It is a useful practice tool that allows the student to start working on a piece or passage slowly and then increase speed gradually over time.

Chromatic Tuner Shop Now >
A tuner helps the student learn how to play in tune. By playing with the tuner, saxophone students can learn how to adjust their mouth in order to play each note in tune. It also trains their ear and teaches them how to hear and match pitches. This is especially important for practicing at home. Playing at school trains a student’s ear simply by playing with other instruments.

About The Saxophone

The Saxophone has two pieces to the body as well as a mouthpiece, ligature and mouthpiece cap. This is what it will look like disassembled in the case and put together properly:

Saxophone has two pieces Saxophone has two pieces Saxophone has two pieces

The Reed, Ligature and Mouthpiece
The reed is a small piece of cane placed on the mouthpiece. It is the wood part of this woodwind instrument, and it’s necessary for producing sounds on the saxophone. It is important that the student wet the reed gently in their mouth for approximately for one minute prior to placing it on the mouthpiece. This makes the reed softer and more flexible, allowing it to vibrate and respond. The reed will not play correctly––or at all––if it is chipped or broken.

The flat part of the reed lies against the flat part of the mouthpiece. It does not go inside the mouthpiece. It is held onto the mouthpiece by the ligature. The student must be very careful when placing the ligature on the mouthpiece as to not chip the reed. Some ligatures tighten around the mouthpiece with the screws on the reed side and others with the screws on the back of the mouthpiece. The screws should always be on the right side of the mouthpiece and should be easily tightened with the right hand. The mouthpiece cap goes over the whole setup when not playing to protect the reed and the mouthpiece.

The Neck
The mouthpiece should be placed on the neck, after greasing the cork, by slowly twisting it back and forth. The flat part of the mouthpiece should be facing the ground or underside of the neck. The octave key runs along the top of the neck. The student should be careful not to place too much pressure on this key when putting the mouthpiece on the neck. After the mouthpiece has been placed on the neck, the student can then carefully insert the neck into the body of the saxophone and tighten the neck screw once it is properly lined up. The neck screw should always be loosened when inserting and removing the neck and tightened when the neck is in place to keep it from spinning around in the body. If the student is struggling to get the neck to go into the body, they may use a small amount of cork grease on the tenon as well to get the neck to insert smoothly in the body.

The Body
The saxophone is played with the left hand on top and the right hand on the bottom. There is a key to press down that corresponds with each finger as well as the thumb of the left hand. The right hand thumb is placed UNDER the thumb rest and is used as an additional support for the saxophone.

Reading Music: Melody and Rhythm

As the player progresses through their musical studies, they’ll improve their ability to read, write, and understand written music. As with any language, there are several components that, once learned, will provide the player with the ability to fluidly connect musical passages and the ability to compose and arrange their own music.

The Components
Every note written on a piece of music corresponds with a fingering on the saxophone. The notes on the staff will tell you which notes to play and consequently which fingers to use. In beginner books, the fingering is often written out for the student each time a new note is introduced. They also often include a fingering chart in the book, normally on the first or last page. Each darkened circle represents a key that is to be pushed down. Sometimes this is done with a finger or your palm. Sometimes both! These charts can also be purchased separately to keep on the stand as a reference. They will look something like this:

The Notes: Every note written on a piece of music corresponds with a fingering on the clarinet. The notes on the staff will tell you which notes to play and consequently, which fingers to use. In beginner books, the fingering is often written out for the student each time a new note is introduced. They also often include a fingering chart in the book, normally on the first or last page. Each darkened circle or key represents a hole that is to be covered or a key that is to be pushed down. Sometimes both! These charts can also be purchased separately to keep on the stand as a reference. They will look something like this:

alto saxophone fingering chart

The Rhythms:
Each note will be a certain shape. Some will be colored in and others will empty. Some will have beams connecting them and others have a single stem. These differences in shapes, beams and stems dictate how long each note should be held for. Here is a basic chart explaining the length of notes:

note and rest chart

The Time Signatures:
The time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure. It also tells you what type of note will receive the value of one beat. In most cases, the quarter note will receive one down beat. If you were to tap your foot or put the metronome on, each tap or click would be equivalent to one quarter note in many cases. The top number of the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure you are playing. The chart below is a brief summary of some of the most common time signatures the student will see:

common time

The Key Signature
The key signature tells you which notes are changed to flats or sharps throughout the piece. There is a fingering that corresponds with each note that is sharpened or flattened. To sharpen a note, you raise the pitch of that note by half a step by altering the fingering. To flatten a note, you lower the pitch by half a step also by altering the fingering. A key signature can have anywhere from zero to seven flats or zero to seven sharps. You will never see flats AND sharps together in a key signature. It will only be one or the other. However, you could see one in the key signature and individual notes altered to the other within the music. These are called accidentals. Below is an example of what key signatures look like:

The key signature tells you which notes are changed to flats or sharps

Each sharp or flat is on a line or space on the staff and that tells you which note is sharp or flat within the piece.

Practice Time and Good Practice Habits

Scheduling the Right Amount of Time
For most beginning saxophone students, a reasonable amount of practice time is approximately 15-20 minutes per day. Often, their mouths cannot play for much longer than that as they are developing muscles around their mouths necessary for playing. They can slowly extend their practice time to 30 minutes as their endurance increases. An intermediate player should be practicing 30 minutes a day and an advanced player 45 minutes to an hour.

Using your time efficiently
Proper practice technique is key to successful practice and the mastery of music. Always sit down with a specific goal in mind rather than practicing aimlessly and without direction. Think of it like a workout. You need a warm-up, strength training, cardio and a stretch. Decide what you’d like to accomplish before you begin the session and work toward that goal. All practice sessions should be broken in to focused sections or exercises. Long-tones or warm-ups stretch out the lungs and muscles around your mouth. This is called the embouchure. Technical exercises get the fingers moving and reinforce music reading skills. Breaking the piece into smaller sections, isolating problem measures and slowing down difficult passages will always result in a successful practice session. The piece or passage will come together very quickly if you do these things!

Where to Practice
Always use a music stand and supportive chair when practicing. This will ensure proper hand and body position as well as proper air support. It makes playing the instrument easy and eliminates unnecessary challenges. Sit up straight with both feet on the floor and bring the saxophone to you, ensuring the mouthpiece is coming straight into your mouth. Never lean down to go to the saxophone, rather bring the saxophone straight to you. Make sure you are taking in an adequate amount of mouthpiece so that you are resonating correctly and filling the entire saxophone up with air, promoting the best quality sound. Embouchure (the way the mouth is sealed around the mouthpiece) should be firm with no puffing cheeks or air leaking from the corners. Fingers should be relaxed and curved, as if you were holding a can of soda. Make sure you are in a quiet location where you can listen to your sound, work with your tuner and not get distracted from your goals.

Maintaining Your Instrument

Basic Care
The saxophone should be swabbed out after every playing session. Depending on the length of practice, pulling the swab through about five times should be adequate. Also, the cork should be greased about once a week. Always remove the reed from the mouthpiece when finished playing and place it in a reed case to prevent warping and chipping. Never force the case closed or put anything on top of the saxophone inside the case. This avoids unintentionally damaging mechanisms on the instrument. Always remove the neck strap before placing the saxophone back in the case to prevent scratching the instrument. Make sure all the parts are placed back neatly and correctly in the case before closing.

Once a year tune up
You should send your saxophone in once a year for a “tune-up” to a certified technician, even if you don’t think anything is wrong. There are many moving parts and tiny pieces on a saxophone that need routine checking over, just like a car. Pads are replaced when they are start to tear or are no longer seal correctly. This can make a world of difference in the way your saxophone responds. Springs, the needle-like pins that open and close the keys, can rust out, break off or lose tension, causing the key not to lift or close. The mechanisms also need to be regulated, which means all the keys might not be closing correctly. These and many other factors are normal wear on an instrument, and slowly but progressively make it difficult to play. A quality instrument that is properly maintenance will stand the test of time.

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