Becoming a Saxophonist
Courtesy of Yamaha
By Ken Nigro
After many years of teaching and presenting clinics for all ages and levels of musicians, I’ve discovered that a majority of saxophone students have many of the same needs. Some of these needs are often overlooked.
This column deals mostly with the long process of getting ready for the first "gig" by addressing these needs. Listening is a big part of that and I’ve included a listening list towards that end. This list is intended as a general starting point to familiarize yourself with some of the pioneering and most influential jazz saxophonists. These recordings should be easy to acquire, with transcriptions published for most of them. In addition to using published transcriptions, it is very important to transcribe solos and tunes on your own (for intermediate & advanced players). Spend as much time listening as you can to develop a clear concept of the jazz language/style. Listening to classical recordings (sax & other instruments) is equally essential. Include in your listening classical players such as: Eugene Rousseau (alto saxophone), Donald Sinta (alto sax), James Houlik (tenor saxophone) and Steve Mauk (soprano saxophone). Listen for tone, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, etc.
Be sure to spend a few minutes daily playing long tones for tone development and air support. Begin with your lungs completely full of air and start playing a tone as softly as possible, starting with a note of moderate range that you can play with your best tone. Don’t use vibrato. While holding the tone out as long as possible, do a gradual crescendo to full volume and then begin to fade to as soft as you can. If performed correctly, your lungs should be almost empty as you reach your softest level.
Use all your air as the tone fades away (you should be able to play so softly that it is an effort to hear it!). While doing this, keep the sound and pitch very steady. Listen to yourself closely & use a tuner occasionally. Needless to say, all major and minor scales and arpeggios should be learned thoroughly and for the entire range of the horn (intermediate players). Once these scales are learned, try playing them in"thirds" or "fourths" etc. For example, play 132435 and so forth with a major scale (C: CEDFEGFAGB etc.). Next, try 14253647 etc. In this way you will really learn your keys! Learn the blues scale (see example A) and other scales & patterns in all 12 keys (intermediate & advanced players). Practice playing through the keys in a descending chromatic order (C blues, B blues etc.). Next use the cycle of fifths (C blues, F blues, Bb, etc.). With scales, use a metronome at least half of the time.
Aside from a good tone and "knowing your way around" the sax, you must learn to listen very carefully to your own playing - and be aware of such concepts as tone, pulse, technical accuracy, intonation, phrasing and style while performing. Fingering "glitches" are common to saxophonists and must be addressed, especially in the upper and lower register extremes. Play the pattern in example B in all 12 keys, but concentrate on the upper and lower extremes. Play these slowly and with a metronome - never any faster than will allow for a perfectly smooth fingering technique - with no notes or sounds between intended notes! Listen for intonation while playing these. Use a tuner to check yourself. Developing this technique as a warm-up will limit the amount of glitches and other problems during a performance.
Be sure to read about professional musicians and talk to people in the music business whenever possible. Really listen to what teachers and other musicians have to say. Being professional at all times is absolutely essential. Never be late or unprepared for gigs or rehearsals.
Always be humble, polite, and open-minded to all styles of music, etc. Having a "musical" or pleasing sound, exhibiting good intonation, playing with a steady pulse, and the ability to perform in all keys are some of the most important (and most overlooked) skills a saxophonist needs to have. It is absolutely imperative to study with a good teacher/performer to develop a proper embouchure, air support and digital technique, etc. Always remember, practicing and listening are the keys to success. Listen often to recordings of as many players as you can. Best of luck & keep practicing!