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In this article, I want to show you how to start improvising on saxophone even if you’ve never done it before, even if you’re a total beginner on saxophone.
There’s a common misconception that before you can even attempt to improvise, you need to know all your scales, arpeggios and lots of music theory… the list never ends.
A lot of musicians play their saxophones for years chained to sheet music without ever even trying to play freely.
I, for instance, started with piano lessons and then moved to saxophone lessons for many years before anyone even introduced me to the idea that I could improvise. And by that time I was so chained to reading sheet music and depending on it that the thought of creating my own music was nothing short of terrifying.
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In this guide, we are going to learn a very simple way to practice improvising that anyone can do no matter what their level is on the saxophone. It also happens to be the very same method that accomplished improvising musicians use all the time.
So if you are a beginner and you want to get off on the right foot, and you don’t want to be constrained to reading sheet music to express yourself on your instrument, this is the guide you’ve been looking for.
There is simply no reason that anybody shouldn’t improvise right from day one.
How to Improvise on Saxophone: The Step-by-step Starter Blueprint
Before we get started I want to put a few ideas out of the way. This is not a guide on jazz theory. We are going to break down improvisation into tiny little steps that are very very easy to follow.
Our first goal in improvisation when we are just learning is to play the right notes in time. That’s it. right notes in time and we are well on our way.
This method of practicing improvisation is basically the same sort of thing that very advanced, accomplished musicians use when they improvise.
And as I said, there is simply no reason that anybody should improvise, right from day one of picking up the saxophone. Once you can play a few notes, you are ready to improvise.
So let’s get started.
Step #1 — Choose Your Limitations
The first step is to choose your limitations.
You don’t want so many choices, especially in the beginning when working on improv because that just leads to chaos.
By limiting yourself, you force yourself to focus on just the things we want to improve.
Start by limiting yourself to only three notes. No matter what level you are on your instrument, you can play three notes.
Pick any three notes you like.
I have chosen Concert G, Concert B-flat and Concert C. If you are playing on tenor those notes are A, C, and D and if you are playing alto those notes are going to be E, G and A after you transpose.
Step #2 — Choose Your Mode of Accompaniment
The next step is to choose your mode of accompaniment.
Your accompaniment can be something as simple as a metronome or something like a backing track. It can be a song, a recording that you like, a drum loop—something with a nice steady beat.
And, of course, it could be nothing at all. You can just play freely.
Step #3 — Improvise
The third step is to start improvising in this sandbox that we have created for ourselves to play in.
Start by playing long notes and leaving long pauses between what you play. Don’t try to do too much–that’s very important. Make your own music and take your time with it.
You don’t have to try to impress anyone. Yet.
Focus on playing in sync rhythmically with the accompaniment.
Since you are only playing three notes, you don’t have to worry so much about how your fingers are doing. Instead, you really focus on rhythm here to improve your ability to create your own rhythms that are in good time.
Experiment and explore this idea until you are comfortable with it.
Step #4 — Variation
When you are ready for a change, start by changing the restrictions you placed on yourself earlier.
You can change the number of notes you allow yourself to improvise with. You can change the choice of notes. You can change the mode of accompaniment. You can change the tempo. Your options here are limitless.
You can even take off, all the restrictions and play completely free.
But, remember that it’s the limitations that we place on ourselves that kinda force us to focus on improving aspects of our playing.
It’s what’s keeping us from following the natural tendency to become a bit incoherent when improvising.
Of course, the more technical skill and ability you’ve got on the saxophone, the better you’ll be at variation and the better you’ll be able to express yourself.
That’s precisely why we practice scales, arpeggios, long tones and all the technical things we work on or practice every day.
So no matter what stage you are with your instrument or your ability, this is the blueprint you need. Start incorporating it in the practice of improvising.
In fact, start incorporating saxophone improvisation into every daily practice session you take.
The best time to improvise in your practice session is right at the end (the last 25-30% of your total practice time). Check out the 30-minute saxophone daily practice routine I’ve been using for years not to see what I’m talking about.
So if you are practicing scales or some new pieces of music, that great. But at the end of the practice session, there is nothing to stop you from playing freely and have fun.
Improvising is fun and liberating. That’s precisely why I call the last part of my daily practice sessions The Fun Stuff.
There is nothing to be afraid of here.
If you are afraid of playing the “wrong thing”–wrong note, wrong rhythm, or whatever that thing is to you–an easy solution for that is to create for yourself a set of limitations like we’ve just seen here.
That, to a certain extent, averts the fear of playing the wrong thing, so you can focus on just improvisation and have fun.
Once you get more comfortable and the fear lifts, then you can start taking risks and be a bit more adventurous.
How to Improvise BETTER on Saxophone: Top 2 Sax Improv Technique Pro Tips
Here are the two pro tips you need to get started improvising on saxophone.
Pro Tip #1 — Simple Melodies
Think of this as your first improvising rule.
You need to stick to simple melodies when improvising. I really want you to think about keeping things simple.
We are making up little melody ideas—they don’t need to be long at all.
So don’t think about one rambling thing that goes all the way through. Instead, think about one short idea and maybe another short idea.
But like good melodies, they need to have a beginning and an end.
Pro Tip #2 — Simple Rhythm
Your second rule is to keep the rhythm very very simple.
As you are playing through, think about where the beat is, and see if you can get your notes to line up with that beat. Play in a rhythmical manner.
A metronome is perfect for getting a good rhythm going but what good is it if you don’t keep to it.
If you can keep stick to the notes, keep your melodies simple and play to a simple rhythm, you’re going to have awesome sounding saxophone improvisation. Aim for very simple, rhythmical improvs.
Saxophone improvisation ties in neatly with the idea of playing the saxophone without the constraints of sheet music. A whole constellation of skills that pivots on playing the saxophone by ear and reading saxophone fingering charts.
I am convinced, now more than ever, that this is, without a doubt, one of the best (and easiest) way of learning the saxophone completely by yourself.
Thanks for reading I hope you found this helpful, useful and informative.