9 Tips for Practicing Saxophone Without Getting Shot by Your Neighbors

Practicing QuietlyThis article is based on a question sent in by Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. guest writer and reader Charles “Chazz” Pratt in Phoenix, Arizona (question has been slightly abbreviated):

Here’s a question that’s been on my mind for quite some time.

Where do people practice?

If you’re traveling (not as a gigging musician, but mainly in your work life) where can you practice without making so much noise you get in trouble at the hotel?

Just looking for some creative ideas!

Take care,

Chazz

Let’s face it. The saxophone is freakin’ LOUD.

No matter how you slice it, there is very little that can be done in the way of insulating those who share walls with us from the relentlessly penetrating acoustics of the saxophone.  A sound engineer could probably give you a full explanation of why that is, but regardless, there’s something about the saxophone, and really, just about any wind instrument that makes the sound extremely difficult to contain.

A few months ago, NYC sax heavy and Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. contributor Sam Sadigursky wrote an article chronicling his adventures trying to practice saxophone in various NYC apartments without having his limbs broken by his neighbors. This week, I’d like like to expand on that theme a bit by breaking down into list form some of the tips I’ve gleaned from Sam’s article, my own personal experiences, and feedback from some of my sax-tastic Facebook and Twitter buddies. I’ve also included tips that pertain to practicing while travelling and living out of a suitcase.

 1. Ask Permission

Some say that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. But for many of us it is hard to fully concentrate on our practicing while there’s even an once of self-consciousness that there may be someone else absolutely stewing in their apartment wishing that we and our God forsaken saxophone would be abducted by aliens.

One approach is to “beat your neighbors to the punch” by introducing yourself – ideally in person. Explain that playing sax is what you do for a living, or that it’s a great passion of yours, and that you’d love to be able to practice without disturbing them. I would suggest asking them what time they are normally out of the house, and most importantly, that they call you for an immediate ceasing of the sound instead of trying to track down the landlord – or worse yet – the cops.

Los Angeles session woodwind player and BSWE podcast interviewee Jeff Driskill took the following wise course of action:

A long time ago I took my horn into an apartment that I was planning on renting, made sure that all of the neighbors were home and started playing. 15 minutes later I started knocking on doors and talking to my potential future neighbors and told them that playing the saxophone was how I was planning on paying the rent and that I would soundproof the room as best I could (which I did). It was very loud in that empty apartment, but I asked them if they could live with it. They were all cool with it and I rented the apartment. Not fool-proof by any means but a pretty good way to weed out neighbors that just aren’t going to be able to put up with it at all.

Website contributor Brad Carman jokingly suggested on Facebook that you buy them some beer, but in all seriousness, for neighbors who are especially cool about the practicing, a nice thank you card or plate of freshly baked cookies could go a long way in keeping the good vibes going.

2. Serenade Your Clothes

If you don’t have a soundproof room of some sort, then you’ll find that a walk-in closet can be the next best thing. The clothes in the closet will go a long way towards cutting your sound way down, so the more clothes you’ve got packed in there the better (another excuse to go shopping ladies and gents!).

As I mentioned in a recent article, my wife and I just moved to a condo with no walk-in closet, so I’ve been forced to play with the bell of my horn stuck in between a sound-deadening mass of groovy garments. Although it doesn’t kill the sound as much as its walk-in counterpart, it still makes a dramatic difference.

If you do have a walk-in closet, burying your horn in the clothes while in that closet will make a truly noticeable difference.

3. Shove It!

One of the best-known remedies for the neighbor-maddening sound of an unwanted saxophone is to shove a sock, or t-shirt, or really any decent-sized piece of cloth into the bell of the horn. Of course, you can say buh bye to your low Bb and probably a few of the notes above it, but this really does help.

4. Turn your Car into a Practice Room

Of course, this only applies to those who own a van, truck with a camper shell, or an RV. I suppose you could try in a regular sized car, but unless your car was very large and had a ton of leg room, it would almost certainly force you into a very awkward and unhealthy position.

On the other hand, if you’re vehicle allows you to sit on a chair with your back straight or even stand, then you can always park the car somewhere away from the hustle and bustle and start sheddin’ away. You could even blast some play-along recordings from your stereo system and make your way around town as a mobile one-man show playing with the windows rolled down!

When I was touring with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (during the golden era of swing – you know, 1995), you could often find me horn-in-hand in our second-rate tour bus. What a killer hookup that was!

5. Take Your Business Elsewhere

One of the best solutions to this eternal dilemma is to find another place away from your home where you can practice at least some of the time, if not all of the time. Some ideas for places to practice away from home and the neighbors:

  • Both Sam and Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. featured artist Rob Wilkerson recommend finding your way to a local college’s music building and nabbing a practice room there. Perhaps you can work out some sort of deal where they let you practice in one of the rooms for free or for a small price. Or you can do as Sam did and teach a class at the school to get an student ID. If you’re travelling and don’t plan on being in town for more than a day or two, Rob recommends sneaking your way into the music building under the radar (but I didn’t tell you that).
  • Many apartment and condominium complexes have a community room which is normally reserved for parties and miscellaneous gatherings organized by the tenants. See if you could score some time each week in one of those rooms.
  • A small room in a professional rehearsal studio can often cost less than you think – especially if you have a flexible schedule that allows you to practice during business hours on the weekdays when those rooms are all but deserted. I’ve seen them for as low as $10 for almost the entire day. Many of them come with audio equipment which enables you to play along with recordings, or make digital recordings of yourself. Even if you have to restrict yourself to playing at home most of the time, making a trip to one of these rehearsal spaces a couple times a week can be a nice treat.
  • If you’re staying in a hotel, Rob recommends that you be upfront about your plans for noisemaking and see if they’ll let you grab an empty conference room.
  • You could practice outdoors. I personally don’t like this as option for a variety of reasons, but one thing you will get out of playing to the birds and the bees is that you’ll have a prime opportunity enlarge your tone. There’s nothing like the great outdoors to make us sound teeny-tiny and compensating for that teeny-tininess can be a great thing.

6. Get a Room

Whisper Room

A fancy sound isolation booth like this one is going to be one of the pricier options.

One sure-fire way to be able to blow your brains out (musically speaking, of course) from the comfort of your own home is to spring for a small sound isolation booth such as the ever-popular WhisperRoom (among other brands). This is one of the most expensive options and will run you anywhere from the high hundreds to the low thousands (in US dollars, that is). You won’t have too much room to move around in one of these, but  many of these rooms include a ventilation system so that you can make yourself pretty comfortable. Of course, if you’re claustrophobic, you may find this option to be a bit of a challenge.

7. Yes, There is Such a Thing as a Saxophone Mute

All these years playing the saxophone, and it wasn’t until relatively recently that I learned that these things existed. Apparently the company E-Sax makes mute which is basically an encasing that you put your horn into an object much resembling  a saxophone case. You simply put your hands in the holes and start playing to your heart’s content. It comes with a headphone jack so that you can hear the sound that’s actually coming out of the instrument as well as audio-in jacks for playing along with recording as well as audio-out jacks for recording. I’ve been meaning to pick one of these up myself since the whisper room is not an option for me at the moment. Of course, you have to consider that these will make your horn a lot heavier – especially if you’re a tenor player. Baritone and soprano players are out of luck on this one since it’s only manufactured for alto and tenor at this time. At $579 for the alto model and $619 for the tenor, it’s not cheap, but it’s definitely an option worth considering.

You can learn more about the E Sax practice mute over here.

A cheaper, less awkward, but far less sound-deadening option is the Saxgourmet Saxophone Mute which looks much like a trumpet mute and will run you only $45.

Finally, esteemed sax repairman and my former Tommy Dorsey Band bandmate, Tony Bigham shared with me that one of his customers would practice playing into a soft-gig-bag-slash-saxophone-mute made by the company El Saxco. I’ve seen some less-than-stellar reviews for this product plus it seems to be out of production and difficult to find used. However, Tony’s friend reported it to be quite effective, so that’s another cheaper option (shouldn’t cost you more than $80 to find a used one, possibly much less).

Demo of E Sax practice mute

8. Clicking and Clacking Keys

For silently improving your technique and possibly even your reading, professional woodwind doubler and music educator Bret Pimental offers the simple solution of practicing without blowing into the horn. The clinking and clanking as well as the pitch of the keys coming down can prove a very effective guide as to the accuracy of your playing. Grab yourself a metronome and you can run through scales, arpeggios, even etudes and really anything else that can be at least somewhat beneficial without blowing through the horn.

9. The Space Age Approach

This option isn’t going to do you a lick of good if you’re looking to work on your saxophone tone production, but if you have an electronic saxophone-like instrument such as the Akai EWI or the Yamaha WX5, you can definitely practice things such as improvisation, etudes, sight reading, and anything else that’s not too saxophone-specific. Both of these instruments have a pretty formidable learning curve (especially the EWI) and will take a good deal of practicing just to get around these instruments. Additionally, since these are simply MIDI controllers, you’ll need to have some sort of sound source such a laptop computer with music software or a small synthesizer. But they’re a hell of a lot of fun to play, and thanks to the modern wonder of headphones, you can blast away.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, we all need to be able to play loud at some point. As Bret says, “To practice right, you really have to be able to play as if nobody’s listening.”

Obviously the best case scenario is to have a room in your home where noise making is not an issue. But on the other hand, if we find ourselves employing a few of the aforementioned methods of noise reduction, we can be forced out of our musical comfort zone, and there’s always something to learn when that happens.

So tell us, how do you practice without having someone take out a bounty on your head?

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