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Improving Your Sax Playing the Fast Way

The Woodshed

I’ve recently begun to throw myself full force into practicing again. Although I’ve done quite a bit of professional playing in my day, the last few years have seen me doing a lot more work at the computer and a lot less at the horn. But unlike other periods where music performance was a more central part of my life (ie: music school), this time I’ve really jumped headfirst into some of the fundamentals of playing the horn while at the same time working towards becoming a more intuitive musician overall.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

When I first started practicing regularly a few weeks ago, I sounded alarmingly terrible. My high school self could have mopped that floor with this beleaguered tenor cobweb brusher. Playing a musical instrument is not like riding a bike. If you don’t use it, you most certainly lose it.

However, I did notice that my former level of proficiency seems to be coming back to me at a much faster rate than it took to build up my skills in the first place. So yes, it’s true that those chops disappear if they’re allowed to sit dormant for an extended period of time, but they can come back pretty quickly as well.

Making up for Lost Time

Granted, I work full time as a web developer while also pouring my heart and soul into this website and projects associated with the site. So it’s not like I can lock myself in the shed for eight hours at a time. Realistically, it’s more like 45-ish minutes a day, sometimes less, sometimes more. But having a limited amount of time to practice has made my practice time more efficient than it’s ever been.

Gone are the days of noodling around the horn playing things that are already comfortable for me to play. Nowadays, I seek out my weak spots and make it my business to focus on those weak spots first and foremost.

Here a few of the things I’m practicing which have allowed me to improve on my instrument at a more rapid rate than I ever have improved in the past.

  1. Long Tones
    As my good friend and saxophone bad-arse Tim Wilcox showed me, I practice fading my notes in as though they came out of nowhere, going all the way up into the fortissimo range, and then coming back down to fading out. However, I make it a point to not remove the horn from my mouth between notes. This robs my chops of the chance to recuperate, thereby strengthening them.I also make it a point to be conscious of biting down too hard on the mouthpiece with the upper teeth. I’ve noticed great results from a combination of the Joe Allard school of tone production as well as the “No Embouchure Embouchure” as espoused by Jerry Bergonzi. My bottom lip is not rolled in all the way, nor is rolled out like I’m puckerin’ up for a big fat kiss. This natural way of playing has made my tone noticeably bigger. More on the topic of lip position in this article here.
  2. Overtones
    One of the beautiful things I’ve found about running this site is that I get all kinds of great practice techniques to add to my arsenal. To gain control over the character of my sound as well as the altissimo register, I’ve been practicing my overtones as outlined in this article here, where saxophone awesome-factoryRicky Sweum shares some fun and effective exercises with us. The most exciting thing that I’m taking away from my overtone practice is use of the tongue. In practicing moving around the back of my tongue into different vowel and consonant sounds, I find myself able to nail the different partials easier than ever.
  3. Scales
    With scales, I’m learning that I can only play my scales as fast as I can play the most difficult interval within the scale I’m practicing. Prime example: F# major scale – sure I can rip through it, but some of the notes get trampled on the way. As I isolate the trouble spots, I find that it’s the first four notes of the scale that really give me gas (not literally, but you get the point…). I mean, going from F# to G# clearly and evenly at a fast rate is hard enough, but how about G# to A# – now that’s a true biz-natch! Try to bring in some articulation and now I’m reallyin trouble. So what do I do? I practice going back and forth between the trouble spots very slowly, savoring the feeling of the keys under my fingers, focusing on anything other than my fingers, making sure to keep my arms, wrists, and hands from clenching (thanks to a reminder from Bill Plake). You can read more about this approach to practicing tough intervals in the beginning of a series I’m working on here.
  4. Ear Training
    I don’t really have a set regimen for this, but I like to take Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever, contributor Sam Sadigursky’s method of practicing simple songs by ear in all twelve keys. You’ll probably laugh at this, but playing that sax solo from the 1980’s hit Careless Whisper will definitely give your ears a run for their money. There’s some big intervals in there which make it a lot harder to play by ear than Frère Jacques or Mary Had a Little Lamb. Besides that, I like doing things like randomly playing a major scale in an unfamiliar key in fourths or fifths. For example, an Ab major scale in fourths would be Ab-Dd-Bb-Eb-C-F etc etc etc. Diatonic 7th chords are great as well (Google that if you’re not familiar with diatonic chords). Finally, practicing hard-to-hear licks, such as licks based on altered scales, is a nice little kick in the ear as well.
  5. Paperless Transcription
    This is basically a subset of ear training which I learned while putting together a summary of a Joe Henderson mater class. In the master class, he shares how when he was coming up, he wouldn’t learn solos by transcribing them, but instead repeating by ear what was played on the record and committing that to memory. Umm, yeah. Not easy. So since this was my first time attempting this, I thought I’d make life easy on myself  by starting with one of easiest jazz musicians to transcribe – Miles Davis. Since it’s so easy to zip around on a saxophone, it just seems like transcribing a sax solo by ear without paper might be too discouraging a first foray. Miles’ solo on Venus de Milo from the incredibly classic album Birth of the Cool is what I’ve started with, and so far so good.
  6. Play-Alongs
    Although jamming with play alongs (or “jazz karaoke” as I like to say)  can be a noodley stroll down Comfort Zonesville, I make every effort to practice things that are uncomfortable for me to play. I mean, who would have though that I suck as bad as I do at blues in concert Ab? Or what happens when I solo over an unfamiliar tune without the benefit of having the chord changes before my eyes? Basically, the goal is to move away from simply “letting my fingers do the walking” (as Jamey Aebersold like to call it) and only play things that I actually hear in my head. I’m finding that when I restrict myself to only playing what I can hear clearly in my head, what comes out is often pretty trite and vanilla. All of this means that I need to expand my ears and my vocabulary into some new areas. To that end, Matt Otto’s Modern Jazz Vocabulary Vol. 2 has been very helpful. One thing that’s really challenged me has been to sing a solo over the play-along, and then jump into the solo playing my horn to see if I can form a continuous musical stream of thought between what I’m singing and what I’m playing. Since the ultimate prize is to be able to play everything you hear, this has been a cool way to push myself towards that goal.

Yeah, I Know

As you can see, I’m reading very little music besides Matt’s book, and I definitely need to start working on some etudes and classical repertoire. But since I live in a condo with finicky neighbors, my practice space is basically my wife’s non-walk-in closet, playing with the bell of my horn practically buried in her clothes. Yeah, real classy. In the meantime, I’m looking into getting one of those nifty saxophone mutes so I can blare away to my heart’s content with a music stand in front of me.

So that’s what I’ve got for now. I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the individual bits of my practice routine in future articles, but I’m glad that I got to take some time tonight to give the general overview.

So pray tell, my esteemed saxopheliacs – what are some of the most helpful things that you’ve been practicing?

Photo by cogdogblog

Category: Best of the Blog, Best Saxophone Tips and Techniques

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About the Author

I've been playing the sax since the late 80's, but my musical journey has run quite the gamut. The musical rap sheet includes tours with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and reggae master Half Pint, center stage at the L.A. Music Center, cozy cafes, raucous night clubs, gear-drenched studios, and the pinnacle of any musician's career - playing weddings in New Jersey! (duh). There's a lot of other stuff too, but you should be reading these blog posts and leaving comments instead. Now off you go!

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Comments (17)

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  1. Brad Carman says:

    For classical folks: there’s a new book entitled, “I Used to Play Saxophone” out there. It has several little work-outs similar to those listed above (long tones, full-range scales, etc.) then has some play-along classical literature to goof around with. For all students: There are a lot of play-along classical books for all ages and abilities now. Some easy, others more challenging. Combine any one of those books with some ear playing, long tones, and scales, like Doron has suggested, and you’ve got all your bases covered! And for intonation, reading and style practice, a book called “Jazz Phrasing for Beginners” by Greg Fishman is great even for intermediate and advancing players. You can play with a studio player on alto or tenor — goal: play in perfect unison at all times. (Watch out for intonation and counting on the long notes – and there are plenty of them!) Take the studio player out and it’s all you — plays like a Jamey Aebersold edition only shorter. Happy Shedding!

  2. Bill Plake says:

    Doron, great article! Not only inspiring for those who’ve been away from the horn for a while, but also, solid, practical advice for optimizing time. It’s amazing what progress can be made with 45 minutes per day! I think you’ve covered most of the basics here (with the exception, as you mentioned, of reading regularly).

    Some variations I might add to this are: slow improvisation (quarter note=60-80, all legato, without swing feel) over tunes, modes, specific chord progressions, etc. This will help you get away from reverting so much to your old, familiar cliches. You’ll start really following your ear and your muse, finding a good deal of surprise along the way. I think this would tie in well with what you’re already doing (singing into playing as you improvise). Also, I would make arpeggios part of daily practice, even if it means alternating one day as a scale day and the other as an arpeggio day. And of course, as you practice scales, invent melodic patterns with them. It’s endless how much music you can find doing this, not to mention how intimately familiar you get with your scales. Best of luck! Oh, and BTW, you might want to look into a “Whisper Room” type portable practice booth. They’re not cheap, but they do the trick if you’re dealing with neighbors, etc.

    • Man, so much great info in your comment Bill, but that’s no surprise to me. :-)

      Slow improvisation and arpeggios are definitely two areas that I could benefit from.

      As for the whisper room, I would love to have one, but we’re a little short on space and they’re quite bulky, so unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to go that route in our current place.

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  5. ericdano says:

    I’ve found that using a program like OmniFocus, and setting up various things in that works well for me. Except over the summer I really fell behind in the oboe practicing…..30 minutes every day except I haven’t since the middle of July!

  6. Slab says:

    I’d be curious how you fit all that into 45 minutes a day?

    • Well, it’s not like this is a 100% strict regimen. Some times I leave out the paperless transcription, other times I don’t get to the play alongs. Other times I just focus on a single scale, or even just a few notes out of a scale over and over again.

      The point is to find all of my weak points and focus on them. Whatever I least feel like practicing in a give day is what I’ll practice.

      I hope that helps!

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. Doron, these fundamentals are definitely the way to go for maintaining technique. One way I try to get the most out of practice is by using drones. By practicing long tones and scales to drones I am able to simultaneously work on tone development, intonation, and ear training. The collection I created can be found at music.raymondcmjohnson.com and the ebook of practice routines that accompany it can found at http://raymondcmjohnson.com/2011/09/21/improve-pitch-and-intonation-with-drone-tones/. Thanks for the article!

  9. TenorMoxie says:

    Sonny Rollins commented some years ago that covering the basics in practice never loses its importance. His practice routine involves basic scales and modes. Stay sharp on the fundamentals and you can move forward. Get flaky with them and you stagnate. That certainly fits with my experience. I am in a somewhat similar situation to Doron’s, working my way out of a prolonged slump. It forced me to take a very critical look at the way I had practiced in the past and what I needed to change to get the most out of my practice time. I have a somewhat hierarchical scheme for practice elements worked out. “Somewhat” because change-ups are important for keeping boredom at bay and staying inspired to be creative. As Steve Coleman said in a workshop, “If you practice creative, you will play creative.”

    Level I, technical:
    Long tones with and without a tuner.
    Overtones.
    Major scales, all modes in all keys, with even tempo, articulation, and tone. I always incorporate my highest altissimo into scale practice. Be equipped to play in and out of altissimo fluidly to execute musical ideas. Altissimo is too often used as a bag of tricks separated from other playing.
    Ascending and descending arpeggios based on major scales, all modes, all keys.
    Diminished and whole tone scales, as with majors.
    Ascending and descending intervals – thirds, fourths, fifths…. Minor thirds and augmented fourths will follow naturally from arpeggios of diminished and whole tone scales. Walk the intervals up and down following set intervals.

    Level II, technical – creative:

    All of this scale stuff is learned so we can forget it, following Charlie Parker’s advice.

    Melodic figures walking up and down various intervals. Feel like varying the walk? Varying the figure? Go for it!

    Work variations of melodic figures over ii-V patterns and variations thereof. Play off roots and and tritone. Play around with modal variations and changing scale intervals – see where inspiration strikes.

    Does something you’re doing sound familiar from somewhere else? Explore it.

    I’m sure others could add much, much more.

    Ready to take anything you’ve found and apply it to a tune?

    • Wow, this is an awesome practice routine! As for the overtones, I just did an interview with the great sax teacher Dr. David Demsey, and he recommended to practice overtones about 20 minutes into the routine so as not to over exert the necessary muscles too early on. Kinda interesting.

      Great insights, thanks!

  10. Bob Inglis says:

    I have switched from brass to the sax due to pressure build up behind my eyes, I am a septuagenarian so it was no choice. I thoroughly enjoy the sax and have been playing for 2 years and have started jamming at the local blues club. My biggest wonder is how do people remember so many tunes. I have trouble with one!! The other thing I find difficult is playing by ear, yet as a lad in a bugle band we learned every tune by ear.
    I had to learn not to play a sax like a trumpet, much smoother.
    Practice for brass or any wind instrument is the same so that was not a surprise.
    I first bought a student alto second hand but I now have a Hanson silver plated Alto (made in Yorkshire), a Selmer Signet Tenor(made in the USA) beautiful tone, and a chinese Sop.
    Like a famous golfer once said the more I practice the luckier I get!!
    Glad I found this site all tips and info can only make the experience better, Thank you.

  11. Eric says:

    Really learning a lot here…Also am finding that maybe I am doing better than I thought (maybe). Some of the things that seem to be “advanced” are what I have just been doing naturally, not knowing any better. Learning solo’s by ear and committing to memory for example…I don’t read music, so how else would I do it??? Or not using the thumb key until I am on the palm keys…I thought that was what it was for… ;)

    Anyway, helpful site…thanks.

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