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If you’re here, you probably have a saxophone right beside you and you can’t wait to get better playing it. Today I’m going to tell you what the most common mistakes beginners make when learning the saxophone are and how to avoid them.
When you’ve been working with saxophone players for a long time, you see the same common mistakes all the time. The most important stuff that beginners miss.
If you can avoid these mistakes, you will move ahead so much faster in your playing.
So strap in and let’s get started.
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The 10 Dumbest Mistakes Beginner Saxophone Players Make, And How to Avoid Them
Here are the little things that are easy to get wrong at the beginning. The things you need to fix early because they are really tough to fix later, and they tend to take away from all that hard work you’re putting into your playing.
Mistake #1 — Not Sticking to a Practice Schedule, Routine
Not practicing enough.
Simple concept, but it is the most important.
I think that if you are really intent on learning the saxophone and making some serious progress at it, you need routine.
You don’t pick up your saxophone when you feel like it, you’ve got to schedule when you pick it up.
Ideally, you want to practice every day.
If you are not putting in the time, you’re not going to see the kind of results you expect when you expect, if you ever even see them.
Think of learning the saxophone as more of a sport than a hobby. Lots of improvements need lots of practice. You can’t just do two hours on the weekend and then nothing for two weeks.
If you can find just 30 minutes to an hour to practice your saxophone—at the same time preferably—every day, and develop that into a habit, and stick to it, you are going to see your playing improve dramatically.
If your schedule is four or three times a week, that’s okay too. But you have to stick to it. This is one habit that will make your playing improve so fast.
You need to make that the most important habit in your learning process. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is.
Mistake #2 — Practicing Mistakes, Reinforcing Bad Habits
Stay with me here.
Once you have your schedule down, and you are sticking to it, the next thing you need to be worried about is practicing mistakes.
What I mean here is that you are practicing hard, but you are making a mistake (or doing something wrong), but then you are doing it again and again and making it a habit.
It doesn’t matter where you are in your playing, it is really important to develop a good set of playing habits.
In the article I wrote to answer whether a saxophone is hard to learn, I went through the 10 common things that hold back saxophone beginners. You might want to check that out to supplement the points I cover in this article so you know the most common pitfalls to avoid early on, especially if you are a self-learner.
The article above covered bad habits. The other side of that is good habits—practicing proper or correct technique.
The only thing worse than not practicing is practicing the wrong thing.
You are teaching your brain the wrong thing.
Guess who much effort it takes to undo that?
Get the technique right, before you even start practicing it. I think that is the single most important thing you can take away from this blog. I put quite a bit of effort into that. If you can get proper saxophone playing technique the first time around, I will have saved you quite a lot of time, and I’ll be content I’ve done my job.
Mistake #3 — Structuring Your Practice Time Wrong
One of the biggest things in all aspects of learning the saxophone that most people miss is knowing how to structure your practice time properly.
This mistake has a huge impact on how much progress you make in your practice time.
This gets even harder when you are learning more than one saxophone at a time and you have to split your schedule between horns.
Just to give you an overview, the key thing here is to divide your practice session into three main parts: tone exercises, technical exercises, and music practice.
Tone exercises are geared more towards strengthening your embouchure with long tone exercises and similar exercises.
Technical exercises are more about practicing scales, fingerings, arpeggios, and similar exercises.
And music practice involves exercises such as licks, pop tunes and generally having fun.
Mistake #4 — Practicing the Wrong Music For Your Instrument
The thing about music practice is to use different music for every horn you are learning.
So if, for instance, you are learning both alto and tenor, you don’t practice alto with tenor music.
Finding music relevant to your saxophone type gives you a much better opportunity for developing, not only your technique and tone but your style on that instrument.
So play alto pieces on alto and tenor pieces on tenor—the correct pieces for whatever horn your learning.
If you are, for instance, learning a jazz standard, take a separate one on alto for the alto and a separate one on tenor for the tenor.
Something that is specific to that instrument gives you an opportunity to really dig deep into all the little stylistic things that make it sound amazing.
I think this is a really great tip.
Mistake #5 — Neglecting your Embouchure
This is huge.
The embouchure is one of the first things we learn when we start playing the saxophone, and there are a million things you’ll hear from different teachers about it.
The embouchure is, hands down, the most important thing to focus on to get a really great sound. So if you want to get better fast, you cannot neglect your embouchure.
Not neglecting your embouchure means putting a good portion of every practice aside for working just on it.
I got you covered here too. I wrote a complete A-Z guide on saxophone embouchure, everything you need to know about embouchure technique is there in an easy to follow step-by-step process. You’ll love it, but most importantly, you’ll take away a lot from it.
You need to work on your embouchure muscles every day.
As a saxophone player, the muscles that you need to focus on the most are your embouchure muscles.
It’s exactly like going to the gym or running to stay fit. Your embouchure muscles need to be in shape.
Embouchure covers things such as long tones, slow melodies. All these things that will strengthen your embouchure are all hugely important.
Make your embouchure the most important part of every practice.
One other mistake that’s very common with wrong embouchure technique is pinching your mouthpiece.
You need to loosen your embouchure.
You don’t want to be too tight, or else it will make the sound pinched.
Mistake #6 — Placing Your Reed Wrong
This is one of the most common yet one of the most basic mistake.
So how do you know that your reed is properly placed, that it’s not way off to the side, or too low or too high?
Remember that guide I told you I wrote about saxophone embouchure. There’s a whole section on how to put a reed on a saxophone the right way. Yes, there is a wrong way, and yes, it takes just two minutes. Have a look see.
But just to recap:
You need to wet your reed, wet your mouthpiece, line up both of these up, and then put the ligature and tighten it while you make adjustments.
And that’s really it. You really do need to read that article to get this broken down a bit more. It might be a really simple concept, but moving your reed even a few millimeters makes a huge difference.
Also, make sure your reed is not chipped, once a reed is chipped, it’s toast. It never sounds right again.
If you need more resistance with your air, move the reed up just a little bit, and if it’s too hard to play the note, move the reed down a little bit.
Over time, as you play, your reed will get misaligned. So you have to align your reed every now and then but it’s very instinctive, it’s like tying shoelaces, once you get it, you get it, you don’t even think about it, you just do it.
Misaligned reeds will encourage things like squeaking, split notes, so keep your reeds perfectly aligned.
Mistake #7 — Not Keeping Your Tone, Melody Simple
Most of us tend to overcomplicate our playing.
It’s understandable—we are trying to sound like our idol.
That’s why we think we need to add extra things with our embouchure, extra bend notes, with scoops, and vibrato on every note… you know what I’m talking about.
Scooping way too often is something I hear with improvisers. Soo many scoops on every other note.
In the end, what complicating your playing does is it buries the core, most important thing we need to pick up as learners—the ear for a good strong melody with a big lovely tone.
When you are just getting started, it is better to focus on keeping everything simple stupid, as they say in some circles.
If you are learning to play a lovely melody such as the sweet, marvelous Take Five, keep that melody simple and get the core of that melody right.
This goes for whether you are learning a jazz standard or even just a simple pop tune like we talked about in how to play saxophone by ear.
Start with the core melody, get that right, make it sound fantastic as a simple clear melody with a wonderful warm tone.
Once you’ve got that right, then you can think about adding extra stuff on top.
You have to take the complexity out of your playing, so it’s not a hindrance to what you need to be learning. Sometimes you don’t even know that you are scooping way too much, you might need to record yourself to catch this.
Keep it simple and you’re going to see much more progress much more quickly.
Mistake #8 — Trying to Sound the Same on Different Types of Saxophones
This one is a mistakes beginners make when learning more than one saxophone.
The most common mistake that everybody makes is trying to sound the same on different types of saxophones.
That is a big, big, no-no.
You will likely run into this mistake when you started learning alto, and now you starting learning tenor or the other way round. Even if you throw in soprano and baritone, it doesn’t really matter which you start with or move on to.
Actually, if you do it the right way, switching between learning one type and another is not that difficult.
The thing to do when learning more than one type of saxophone is to find your own unique voice on each type.
That’s how you avoid the mistake that everybody makes.
A good place to start is to find people that you absolutely love to listen to on alto and then completely different people that you like to listen to on tenor, and so on.
What you are looking for by doing this is finding a different idea of sound, for each type of saxophone you play to help you along.
You need to develop a clear idea of your sound on each saxophone.
Your alto sound must be different from your tenor sound, which must be different from your baritone sound, which must be different from your soprano, and so on and so forth.
The only way to do this is to have a clear idea in your mind of your sound on each.
Mistake #9 — Wasting Time On the Gear
It’s not about the gear!
On some level, I feel that we are all guilty of this. Swapping this mouthpiece with that one, jumping from one saxophone to the next, looking for the next little piece of gear that will magically improve our technique.
There really are no shortcuts to learning the saxophone. Nothing that you buy, especially, will magically transform you into a great player.
And if you think about it really, for any great player, it doesn’t really what saxophone they play. They still sound amazing.
What makes a great player great is their technique—not gear.
Their embouchure, and their concept of sound as well. That’s the most important thing you need to be focusing on. Focusing on gear just takes precious time away from that.
While, at best, better gear will give you a small marginal increase, 99 percent of it comes from you, whatever gear your playing on.
Focus on your technique—getting your absolute best sound on that particular setup that you have. Spend time on that. Obsess on that, even.
That’s how you move ahead so much faster. That’s how you get a really clear idea of what your sound is.
So that when you go to get the 1 percent you get from gear, it really something you are adding on your own special sound.
So stop watching those Youtube videos comparing the cheapest saxophone on Amazon with the pros and go practice.
Mistake #10 — Lacking Focus in Your Learning
There will always be so much stuff to distract you and what ends up happening is you go from one thing to the next, to the next, constantly throughout your saxophone learning process (especially if you are self-learning).
The best thing you can do for your playing is to focus on one thing at a time.
Just one exercise, for instance, or one scale. Really follow one idea through to the end and set yourself a time-frame.
You might choose for instance to focus only on the pentatonic scale over the next month, or whatever duration of time. Until you can at least get to a certain standard with it.
Work through one thing and follow that to the end and forget about everything else while you do it.
Don’t work on 10 different things at once or you run the risk of not seeing any of them through to the end.
And there is another aspect to focus than just learning different aspects of saxophone playing at once:
If you are practicing your scales while on Facebook, maybe you, really, should be on Facebook. Practice time means cutting out everything else during that 30 mins to an hour minimum practice time.
That’s the sort of focus where you start to see real improvements.
I hope that helps ya!