Are You a Mindful Saxophone Player?
The Buddhists call the practice of applying calm awareness to one’s activities as “Mindfulness.” And no matter what it is you’re doing, mindfulness will allow you to do it better.
Zen and the Art of Sax
Of course, practicing the saxophone is no exception. In fact, I would venture to guess that over 90% of the mistakes I make while playing are the result of zoning out on something other than the task at hand. So that tells me that if I were to significantly decrease the whole zoning-out thing, then my playing would increase exponentially.
On top of that, as I move away from the autopilot mode where I let my “fingers do the walking,” the music coming out of my horn becomes a truly authentic extension of myself. And whether you’re Dave Koz or John Coltrane, being authentic in your playing is an absolute requirement for greatness.
Easier Said than Done
Unfortunately, we live in an A.D.D. society where things like iPhones, MTV, and airlines with broadband service are turning our attention spans to…umm…wait – what was I talking about…? So it’s important for us to do everything we can to keep us focused on the act of playing our instrument.
Here are some examples of mental devices I use to keep me on track while practicing:
- Play long tones focusing only on the steadiness of my pitch.
- Crescendo and decrescendo through my long tones, focusing only on the steadiness of harmonic color in my sound. In other words, I focus on hearing the same overtones at both pianissimo and fortissimo.
- Practice overtones focusing on keeping the pressure of my jaw and lower lip the same throughout the entire harmonic series and using the other muscles in the throat and embouchure instead.
- When playing anything, focus only on supporting the sound using my diaphragm.
- Play a rapid chromatic scale listening for the percussive sound of the clinking of the keys as I press them down, and the steadiness of 16th-note rhythm as the notes clink by.
- Practice anything, whether it’s long tones, scales, an etude, or whatever while imagining that I’m performing to a full audience at Carnegie Hall. (Trust me, if there was ever a situation where you wouldn’t want to zone out, that would be it).
- Transpose an exercise or tune into the the key that’s most difficult for me, and play it strictly by ear.
And the list goes on, literally ad infinitum. The point here is to zone in on just one thing at a time while practicing. And the same thing applies when playing in a live situation with a group, however in this case I focus fitting myself as beautifully as possible within the totality of the entire “musical picture.”
Taking It to the Next Level
So if all of this talk of mindfulness and musical authenticity is floating your boat, you may want to check out the relatively-recent but classic book and accompanying CD by brilliant jazz pianist Kenny Werner titled Effortless Mastery.
And with that, I leave you with a quote by the master himself…
Do or do not… there is no try
April 30, 2012 @ 11:55 pm
It’s incredible how helpful being aware of what you’re doing can be. It sounds like a no-brainer automatic thing, but It’s something I really struggle with. I’ve found that practicing mindfulness daily, with or without the sax, helps a lot when trying to make it a habit. So just check yourself; next time you sit down for a little practice, do you find yourself worrying about your next exam, thinking about that gorgeous blonde, or fantasizing about a grilled cheese sandwich?
May 1, 2012 @ 12:03 pm
I agree, mindfulness is a good habit at any time. With the constant attacks on our attention span that we’re bombarded with, some daily meditation is almost a requirement for balanced living, just like grilled cheese sandwiches and gorgeous blondes (male or female, depending on your preference, of course)!
August 6, 2021 @ 12:15 pm
Thanks. I’ve had these thoughts myself and it’s good to hear someone else articulate them, especially the ‘zoning-out’ and ‘autopilot’ modes. I thought I was the only one with that did that!
Your suggestions are great. Two additional ones that I try to use are: listening really closely and/or sing in my head as I play, and try to remove the ‘third-person’ from my head. That is, go directly from intent to playing, eliminating the middle layer that often judges the effort or directs it in some way.
August 7, 2021 @ 7:32 am
Glad you dug the article, love the suggestions too – letting go of judgement is key for me as well(!).