Pre-Playing to Get Big Results with Little Effort

Preparing to Practice
Photo by Nina Stawski

I would venture to guess that many of us go into a practice session or performance somewhat mindlessly. Of course, once the horn is in our mouth, we usually snap into conscious music-making mode. However, are there things we can do set ourselves up for the best possible results before we start playing?

To dig a bit deeper into this topic, I’ve taken a question sent in by newsletter subscriber, Dave.

I’d like to see an article from someone about getting ready to play. What is their mental process for preparing to play during those couple of minutes as they’re getting the horn out and getting ready to play, or if they even have a “process” for that or just line up a reed on the mouthpiece and go. How they clear their head of all the clutter/noise/judgment and just let themselves be their most musical.

Dave Salvator

To get some answers, I hopped over to the vibrant online saxophone hub, the “Saxophonists” group on Facebook. Here are some of the answers I got from pros and non-pros alike:

Have some goals in mind.

Sax teacher Joe Del Chiaro has a very practical approach that would benefit just about anyone unpacking the horn.

“I’ve gotten into this routine where as I set up, I make a mental checklist of what my goals are for that session so I’m not flying blind from the start. Whether its scales, language, vocabulary, transcriptions, etc. I know what is the objective of this session before I play a single note.”

Tap into your memory banks.

Muscle memory plays a huge role for all musicians. While we’re in the act of playing, there’s just too much for us to process with our minds alone. In fact, one could argue that developing muscle memory is one of the most important things we can take away from our practice sessions.

Professional saxophonist, teacher, and author of the acclaimed book Saxophone Sound Effects, Ueli Dörig shares his own powerful method of accessing and bringing to the forefront the sort of muscle memory we need to play our best.

“When a moment comes during a practice session or even during a gig where I’m really happy with my sound (or anything else). I try to focus on how it feels, as I truly believe that our body can remember things. It’s just like when you read music and your fingers know exactly what to do without having to think about it. Well, I try to make my body aware of all things ‘saxophone playing’ this way. A really cool payoff of this approach is that if, for some reason, I can’t play my horn for a week (or even longer), I can get my horn out and before playing the first note, I try to remember how it feels to play with a beautiful sound, and boom, the first note coming out of my horn is strong, warm, and full of confidence.”

Relax and keep it light.

I’ve been working on a follow up to my saxophone instructional program, Bulletproof Saxophone Playing, and in doing so, I’ve had the pleasure to interview one of jazz’s heaviest musicians, Dave Liebman. I actually asked him about this very topic, with respect to what he does before he plays on an actual gig.

For Liebman, it often boils down to just hanging out with his bandmates before the show, joking around keeping it light, maybe even having a little bit of vodka. So there’s no heavy formalized ritual or anything like that.

Although the example Mr. Liebman gives relates to live performances, it’s certainly not a stretch to say that the same principle applies to practicing as well. Being light of heart seems to benefit just about anything we do (unless you’re playing in a goth band, of course).

So next time you want to engage in a debate on the abortion issue, try not to do it with one of your bandmates before the gig. Levity is a powerful tool when it comes time to make music.

Grab some inspiration from the masters.

There’s nothing that gets the musical juices flowing the same way that hearing great players do their thing. I remember listening to Charlie Parker or Michael Brecker while putting my horn together, and then lingering to listen for a bit before actually playing. Oh man, did that work wonders in getting me set to kick some serious saxo-booty.

A member of the Saxophonists group who goes by the name of “Cb Jazz shared” this tidbit:

“Before I practise, I listen to a tune by a master, and carefully and focus on details, the articulations in a great lick, bends, scoops and approaches, etc.” 

Obviously, this suggestion is probably something that many of us already do, but it’s so helpful that I just couldn’t leave it out.

Develop an all-encompassing ritual.

The good folks at define ritual as “an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite.” Although practicing or performing may not necessarily qualify as a “religious or other rite,” you can certainly use an established or prescribed procedure to set the tone for a playing session.

Saxophonist Teddy Meyer shares his own ritual which is quite involved and goes pretty deep into realms outside of music, but I think that it’s a great way to use music as a means of experiencing the bigger picture of life, which in turn gives music true depth and character.

Shares Teddy: “There is absolutely a process, an ever-changing organic one. Before practice sessions, the process is very self centered and starts with thinking of what I am doing that is helping me improve, and what I am doing that may be a barrier for me to overcome. These thoughts are mixed with thoughts of life, friends, family, work, Facebook comments-whatever -life. But as I put together the horn, a ritual begins, and that’s the key. The Ritual. It is part of the reason why religion is so powerful.”

“Putting on a reed, adjusting the neck strap, moving the fingers over the keys, looking at exactly where the reed is on the mouthpiece, tightening the ligature, feeling the reed on the mouthpiece pop in my palm, looking at photos of Coltrane – these are part of my Ritual. As soon as this ritual begins, things grow from the Self, and as the focus grows on whatever it is you’re doing- it could be as simple as finger movement through a difficult passage, or counting out a difficult rhythm, transcribing a line, listening to the bass, the ride, whatever it is-the self becomes less, and every day the ritual begins again, and every day is a new day to be the best that we can in life and on the horn.”  

Access the mysterious powers of the universe.

This approach is very much along the lines of what Teddy describes. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it can be argued that the reason most musicians pick up an instrument is to experience the joy that comes with getting in touch with a deep sense of joy. I’ve heard many great musicians share that their daily practice of meditation serves as an integral part of their musical expression. In fact, jazz education pioneer Jamey Aebersold sells many spiritual books on his company’s website, and has done so for years.

So taking your mind off of yourself and focusing it on silence, or even an unlimited spiritual power of your choosing is a proven means of boosting your overall musicianship right out of the gates..

Along these lines, New York-based professional saxophonist Michael Walters has his own deep spiritual approach:

“I’m a Buddhist and chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo so I will usually try to chant before I start to practice. I also stop to chant when I lose focus during practicing. Works for me.”

For more information on this topic, you can check out this article or pick up the incredible book by jazz pianist Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery.  

Pre-practice while you’re practicing.

Confused by this header yet? I thought so.

When it comes to practicing, some folks might not have any desire to do any sort of ritual or get into a specific head space before playing their first note. In that case, Rob Lockhart, one of Los Angeles’s top saxophonists, suggests simply diving in and letting the direction of the practice session develop out of your first few minutes on the horn.

Says Rob, “I pick up the horn and start playing. As I get into the feeling I will map out what I want to for that session, what I need to do, what’s weakest and get busy.”


I recently saw a documentary on the pervasive obesity epidemic in the United States. One method that people were using to lose weight was to take a minute before taking that first bite, quiet the mind, and feel gratitude for the food they are about to eat. The result is that people were eating consciously, and as a result, they were equipped with an inner awareness of when they were eating more than what their body was asking for.

The lesson here is that when we do things consciously, our minds ars stronger, we make better decisions, and we get better results. So I encourage you to try incorporating some sort of constructive pre-playing activity, and see if you too can make big gains, with a relatively small amount of effort.