This guest post is from saxophone and multi-reed player, composer, recording artist, and educator Sam Sadigursky of SamSadigursky.com
As both a saxophone player and educator, one of the most bothersome things that I regularly see are instruments in poor working condition and regulation. Oftentimes, students, and even some fairly advanced players, consider buying fancy, name-brand equipment a prime pursuit at the expense of having their instrument checked and maintained regularly by an experienced saxophone technician. In my experience, so many of the frustrations that I’ve encountered with what I thought were mouthpieces and reeds (the two easiest things to switch around), and even with my playing technique, were traced to problems with my instrument’s physical condition.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
As a student, I remember foolishly thinking that letting my instruments go out of regulation for extended periods of time was actually good for my playing. It was as though making me work harder for a period of time made me a stronger player, like a baseball player swinging the bat with a heavy doughnut on it before coming to the plate. “If I can get those low notes to sound with all these leaks, imagine how good I’m gonna sound once I have them fixed…”
As I’ve learned, often quite painfully over the years, masterful playing should be easy, always, I’ve realized how much harm I was doing in those periods of compensating for leaks in my instrument and such. The minute you start to adjust for those things that aren’t necessary, you throw things out of whack, and immediately begin serving the instrument rather than the music. Remember, the instrument is there for you and your musical vision and expression – you’re not there to serve it!
Pad Heights, Leak Lights, and Timing
So many common pitch problems can also be attributed to poor regulation, especially pad heights, which are so crucial to the way a horn plays. For example, one of the most common complaints is that the high D, Eb, E, and F, played by the left-hand palm keys, are often sharp. Yes, there are things that most good players do to work on their intonation in this region, but carefully setting the pad heights there (which is actually something that is quite easy to do yourself) is a perfect example of how good regulation can liberate you as a player.
And it really shouldn’t get to the point where you can’t play certain notes on the horn. Small leaks anywhere on the horn can cause you to lose that “buttery” and even tone you’re looking for, and remember that any leak in the horn effects everything below it, not just one particular note that the pad is associated with. Also, one thing that a leak light can’t detect is key timings, which are also incredibly crucial in order for the horn to play move smoothly throughout all intervals on the horn.
Remember, besides the pads, which need consistent maintenance with standard wear and tear, there are hundreds of working parts on an instrument. Much like a car, even if you take exquisite care of your horn there will still be issues that need attention every so often.
Don’t Make Your Repair Person a Pinch-Hitter
Seeing your technician shouldn’t just be a first line of defense when you feel that things are starting to go sour for you. I recommend to everybody that they find the best person in their area or reach to service their horns, and before you consider putting $5K into that fancy saxophone that you’re dreaming of, make sure the one you have is in good working condition. You’ll be amazed at the difference in will make. And, if you do put that $5K into that beautiful vintage or new horn, make sure to also put some money into getting it checked out properly so that you know you’re getting everything you should from the horn. It’s some of the best money and time you’ll ever spend.
If you do have that horn of your dreams, make it a regular habit to see your technician. In my experience, most of them are happy to do a quick check-up on your horn, which should only take a few minutes or so. From my experience, it’s quite rare that there’s nothing to be done. As you become more accustomed to playing a well-maintained instrument, you’ll fine that even a few minor tweaks will go a long way. The best repairmen that I’ve found over the years are also happy to show you what they’re doing, so that you know what to look for when things are going wrong, and quite possibly even learn how to fix them yourself. I can promise you, I’ve never left a visit to the repairman without a renewed sense of excitement to play my instrument.
Find the best repairman in your area, one who understands the instrument and has a keen sense of what it needs, and develop a good relationship with them. See them preventatively, not just when it’s a day before the school concert or next gig and you need to beg them to fix that spring on your octave key. They are capable of doing more for your saxophone playing than you’ll ever imagine.