How to Practice the Saxophone: Four Key Principles That Can Help You Advance

What does it take to develop as a jazz saxophonist–or, for that matter, as any kind of instrumentalist?

Practice.

Right, I guess we all know that. But there is practice, and then there is effective practice. Practice that makes the best use of the time you’re investing. Practice which a year from now will have produced a year’s worth of results rather than a month’s worth of plodding the treadmill twelve times over.

Two things are paramount for effective saxophone woodshedding: what you practice and how you practice. In previous posts and on my jazz page, I’ve provided plenty of material that addresses the “what” part of that equation. In this article, I’m going to talk a bit about the “how” as it pertains to technical development.

Having spent time contemplating the things that have contributed to my own growth as a sax player, I’ve identified four key principles that I believe are important for developing technical proficiency. They are:

Isolate

Repeat

Connect

Memorize

These four principles work together to help you transition from the initial, heavily intellectual process that comes as you tackle new musical material, to a more intuitive approach that develops as you spend time mastering that material and making it your own.

Each of the principles could easily be an article in itself, so I’m not going to tackle them in depth. Right now, I just want to introduce you to the concepts.

Isolate

Whether you’re learning a new scale, practicing patterns, hashing out a lick, moving around the circle of fifths, or memorizing a Charlie Parker solo, the way to approach musical material is in increments.

Think of how you eat your food. You’d never stick an entire steak in your mouth and try to swallow it whole. (You wouldn’t, would you?) No, you cut off manageable, bite-size pieces which you take your time to chew. The same idea applies to working on music: bite-size is best.

Pick groups of notes and repeat them till they lay well under your fingers. In particular, isolate problem areas and focus on them, oiling them with repetition until they’re working smoothly. Work out which alternate fingerings work best in a given situation. If you’re playing in the key of F#, for example, you may find yourself using the bis, one-four, and side fingerings for A# almost consecutively as the context for your approach to the note A# changes.

START SLOW. Concentrate on how evenly you connect the notes, not how fast you can play them. Once you’re playing a note group accurately, comfortably, and consistently, then speed up a notch or two, and continue to increase your speed till you’re playing at high velocity. If you find yourself hitting a speed where you start fumbling and misfiring, then slow down. The point isn’t to play fast, but to play masterfully. Fast will follow.

Repeat

Repetition is woven into the first principle of isolation. You isolate a group of notes or even just two notes in order to repeat, repeat, repeat them, often enough to drill them into your muscle memory. Since I’ve already written a post on repetition, there’s no need for me to–ahem–repeat what I’ve already said. Go read the article.

Connect

Once you’re playing a group of notes fluently, add a note or two in front of it or behind it. Or work on the next group of notes until you’re playing it as fluently as you were playing the first, then connect the two groups.

In the process of focusing on the second group, you may find that you’ve lost a bit of ground with the first group. That’s okay. Go back to the first group and smooth it out. The point is, you work on small units of material, then you work on connecting them to create something larger–to which you will, in turn, connect still more material.

Often you’ll encounter a sticking point between the last note or two in one note group and the first couple of notes in the group that follows. That juncture should become a new area to isolate and work out.

If this sounds like a tedious process, it can be, but it’s also a very profitable one. And not all groups of notes carry equal weight. Some come more easily; others are more challenging. Run toward the challenges, not from them.

Memorize

As long as you’re depending on the paper to tell you what to play, the music you’re working on isn’t really yours. I’m not referring to extended pieces of music where a chart is mandatory, but to scales, licks, patterns…to the building blocks of technique and the language of jazz improvisation. Memorization is an indispensable part of the jazz saxophonist’s toolkit.

The whole point of all this isolating, repeating, and connecting is to move the music off the printed page and into your head and your fingers. So at the very beginning of the process, make a point of looking away from the sheet music. Consult it as freely as you need to, but remember that your goal is to wean yourself from it. When you’re in mid-flight on the bridge to “Cherokee” on your alto sax, you had better be thoroughly acquainted with the keys of Ab, F#, E, and D, because the rhythm section is not going to pause while you look them up in your Larry Teal workbook.

Memorize everything. Tunes. Chord changes. Scales, arpeggios, circular root movements…everything you can possibly cram into your gray matter and drill by repetition into your muscle memory.

One last thing…

Think about what you’re doing. Engage your mind in the process. If you’re working on a digital pattern, consider not just what you’re playing, but also how you can use it with various chords or chord progressions. Think about how you might switch up the rhythm of a lick to create a different effect. You can build all the saxophone technique you want to, but ultimately it’s your brain, not your horn, that converts the raw material into actual music.

That’s it for today. If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more helpful articles on playing the sax, or perhaps find a jazz sax solo transcription to hash out, see my jazz page.

Practice hard–and have fun!

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Comments

  1. Derrick says:

    This is wonderful advice Bob! Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts. I’ve just begun the process of reacquainting myself with my tenor saxophone. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep my focus over the summer.

    Derrick

  2. Good for you, Derrick, and good luck! I’m glad you found the article helpful, and I wish you success as you pick up your tenor and start blowing again.

  3. Thanks for this! I have a question. I no no trouble memorizing tunes, but I can’t for the life of me remember chord changes. They all get mixed up on my brain, other than the blues. Any suggestions on how to memorize changes and more importantly how to keep them all apart once you’ve learned a few?

  4. I struggle with memorizing chord changes too, Andrea. But I’ve gotten much better at it over the years (one kind of hopes that would be the case!). Your concern about keeping the changes between one tune and another separate actually contains a clue as to why the more changes you learn, the easier it becomes to learn still more changes. The key lies in identifying similarities between tunes, particularly various jazz formulae such as iii-vi-ii-V7-I successions and cycles of fifths. Assuming that you know a few ii-V7 and ii-V7-I licks in all keys, look for those building blocks and note which key centers they modulate to, if any. Do they stay in the same key? Progress downward by a half-step or whole step?

    As you continue to learn tunes, you’ll begin to relate sections of tunes to sections of other tunes–”Oh, this part here is the same progression as in such-and-such a tune.” Life begins to get easier then.

    When memorizing more complex tunes, my personal approach is to simplify the harmonic structure at first. I don’t need to know every chord in every measure; I just need to know enough chords to tell me where the tune is going, and I can fill in the blanks from there. For instance, these past few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the bebop tune “Confirmation.” For alto sax, the first eight bars proceed as follows: DM7/C#-7b5 F#7b9/B-7 E7/A-7 D7/G7/F#-7 B7b9/B-7 E7/E-7 A7. Lots of ii-V7s in there, but do I really need to make it that complicated? Why not simplify it to this: DM7/F#7/E7/D7/G7/B7/E7/A7. Get that down first, then think about upper extensions such as flatted ninths, and start approaching some of the dominant chords with ii7s, running ii-V7 patterns over them until they flow easily.

    You may find this more recent post of mine helpful, as well as this much older one on jazz contrafacts.

    I recommend that you begin with a few simpler tunes such as “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” and “Cantaloupe Island,” then progress to more complex numbers.

    I can’t overemphasize that there are no shortcuts. You’ve just got to work at this stuff, and the going can be slow at first. But if you stick with it, one tune at a time, you’ll get it. Memorizing a few solo transcriptions by great jazz artists will help.

    Good luck, Andrea!

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