Bob Reynolds Shares Strategies and Exercises for Getting Back on the Horn After an Extended Break

Photo by mikemackay82
Photo by mikemackay82

One of my online students recently asked if I had any tips for building back up again after taking an extended break from practicing the saxophone.


Looking forward to the Summer Series [Sorry(!), but this web page has disappeared since the original publication of this article]. Back on the site after a six month hiatus. [Dan goes on to explain some family health stuff that fortunately is working out] …Now that the dust has finally settled, I’m itching to start blowing the horn again. (My chops have taken a serious hit). Any thoughts on your end on how I should go about building back up again after such a long break? Anyway, I’m really stoked about the Summer Series and the much needed stress relief that comes from pushing air into the horn.

Take care,

First of all I was relieved to hear things are turning out well with his family. I also know how challenging it is to come back to the horn after a break.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart because I am a terrible practicer.

Let me rephrase: I’m a terrible *consistent* practicer. I’m awesome at practice hacking (making up for lack of practice time by employing very focused practice methods).

Two issues to deal with

  1. Physical. Your embouchure muscles are going to be weak and your fingers will feel fat and slow.
  2. Motivational. Because you’re out of shape it will be somewhat depressing when you start shedding again. (At least that is how I feel.) You know you once were better than how you feel or sound now, and that is frustrating. Just acknowledge that it will suck for a couple days and move through it. Day three is usually 20 times better than day one.

There’s nothing wrong about starting with scales and long tones, but I often feel so bad about myself (partially my playing, partially guilty for letting my practicing fall by the wayside) that I give up on these important fundamentals and find something else to do (check email, twitter, etc.).

I’m better with some inspiration to catapult me into shedding so I (almost) always start with transcribing a solo.

Transcribing: the cure-all

Transcribing someone’s solo gives me an instant barometer as well as acting like my seeing-eye dog, guiding me down the most productive path to playing the way I want.

I choose something medium and not technically stressful. Playing something too fast or complex will only reinforce bad habits.

I’ll loop a small part of it (like 2 measures, then 4, etc). Repeating this for 15 minutes to a half hour not only exhausts my embouchure but ensures I’m focusing on my tone quality, intonation, articulation and time feel.

Right now I’m working on a Stan Getz solo over A Night in Tunisia.

Trying to sound exactly like Stan helps me sound the most like myself. It gives me a quick boost of confidence, joy and ambition. Necessary ingredients for motivating me to put on the metronome and do the less glamorous work of long tones, overtones, and slow technical exercises.

I’ve always found a bit of transcribing to work magic on my motivation, tone, technique, and creativity.

Add to that 15-20 minutes a day of long tones and scales and/or arpeggios played slow, straight and slurred to a metronome, and you’ve got a recipe for recovery.

Check out this video to see how I work out my embouchure, fingers and forearm muscles, all while strengthening my lungs and focusing my attention for the rest of my practice session:

Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.

Bob Reynolds is a melody architect. An award-winning composer of 36 published songs, he has released 4 albums as a leader and played on over 40 as a side man. He created an online video coaching community for his students around the world to connect and learn together from weekly lessons and courses, and in his spare time he’s a saxophonist to the stars (John Mayer, USHER, Jonas Brothers, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, and more).