The Secrets To INCREDIBLE Sax PracticeAug 25, 2023
In this video, Jeremy reveals the secrets of effective saxophone practice by presenting a simple practice framework that can be adapted to any sax player, beginner or pro. You'll learn why time (alone) doesn't guarantee success on the saxophone and how you can still get amazing results with only 1 hour per week! Watch on, or read the full video transcript below:
As sax players, it’s natural for us to equate practice with time
In fact, the astonishing amounts of practice achieved by the greats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane have become immortalised into the stuff of myth and legend in the saxophone world.
But the simple, surprising fact is, focussing on practice time alone, will not make you a better sax player.
In fact, it’s possible to practice for hours a day, for years on end, and still make very little, to no progress on the saxophone.
And that’s because there are actually 5 key components to effective practice that you must do if you want to make progress every time you pick up your instrument.
This is true no matter what level you’re at on the saxophone, but it’s especially important for intermediate players, if you feel like you’re stuck in that ‘intermediate trap’.
Now, I’m releasing this video to celebrate the launch of my brand new intermediate saxophone course called Supercharged Saxophone - it’s built on the very practice framework that I lay out in this video.
So - what are the 5 essential components of good sax practice? Let’s find out!
Without question, the first key component, is playing long tones - this is as true for a beginner, as it is for a professional.
Long tones have 3 major benefits
Firstly it’s a mental reset for you. It gets you focussed on the practice session ahead, and allows you to filter out the distractions of the day. Essentially, it’s a meditation on your saxophone tone.
As you play your long tones, you should start to turn your attention inwards - focussing on your posture, on your breathing - filling your diaphragm, and getting a warm, full and stable tone.
Secondly, it physically primes the instrument. Playing long tones and putting hot air through the instrument loosens the fibres of the reed giving you a richer sound and a faster response, and as the body of the sax starts to warm up, it actually improves your intonation, versus playing on a completely cold instrument - which is just, the worst.…
And thirdly, long tones are your opportunity to check in with your embouchure and experiment with making small adjustments to instantly hear the affect on your sound.
What happens if you use a little more mouthpiece in your mouth?
What happens if you roll your lip out a bit more?
What happens if you bring your jaw out slightly?
By going through this process of experimentation you’ll start to get a picture of how you can improve your tone by breaking out of your old habits and starting to form new ones.
You can even augment your long tone practice further by practicing with a tuner, and making sure that you’re playing right in the centre of the pitch - remembering that pitch control comes primarily from your jaw and your bottom lip.
You should also aim to vary the dynamics you’re using for each note - from pianissimo, all the way up to fortissimo.
So you can see, there is a lot to think about as you practice your long tones, and it’s vital you approach them as a mindful exercise, rather than a mindless one.
The second key component to your practice session is tone development.
Now you’re probably thinking - hang on, isn’t that what we just did?
But there are so many vital exercises to unlock the full range of expression on the saxophone, that long tones is truly just the beginning.
In this component, you can practice things like subtone, vibrato, overtones, altissimo and so much more.
These exercises expand your sonic palate, exploring what the saxophone is truly capable of and deepening your understanding of this instrument.
Now depending on how much time you have to practice, you could be looking at a couple different topics in this component, but for more casual players, I’d generally recommend just sticking to one at a time.
For now, let’s look at a simple vibrato exercise.
Vibrato is achieved by bending the pitch of the note by controlling the pressure on the reed.
If you’re new to vibrato you can practice this by just moving your jaw up and down very slightly to see what it affect it has.
As you get used to that feeling, you can start to practice shallow vibrato, and then deep vibrato.
As that starts to feel natural, the next hurdle to cross is being able to play that with a metronome.
So you can set up a nice easy click, let’s say 60 bpm, and start by practicing the vibrato as 8th notes.
Then, you could try practicing the vibrato as triplets.
Of course, you can then vary the tempo of the metronome, try different rhythmic groupings, or try different depths - shallow, deep or somewhere in between.
Once again, a fairly simple exercise quickly becomes a more challenging one, as we start to adjust a few variables.
Using vibrato effectively helps us to develop a sense of forward motion in our phrasing, and brings a very human, vocal-like quality to our performance, especially if we’re holding a static note.
And by gaining fine control over our bottom lip and jaw like this, we’re developing our ability to make subtle pitch changes on the fly, a key pillar of being able to play in tune.
Now the 3rd key component to your practice is scales and arpeggios.
Scales form the backbone of all music, and arpeggios outline the important chord tones of a scale, which apart from being a great exercise in their own right, are vital to understanding the make-up of different chords that we’ll encounter while improvising - but more on that later.
My personal recommendation is to concentrate on the major scales first - these are the scales that practically all other scales are based on!
So when we talk about learning pentatonics for example, which are extremely useful for improvisation, we talk about them in relation to the major scale - i.e. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 - these are the notes of a major scale that form a pentatonic scale.
Now as you start to learn more of your major scales, there’ll be more sharps and flats to remember as well.
The important thing here is to practice these scales enough that you can move them out of the ‘thinking’ part of your brain, and into your ‘muscle memory’ - where they can be recalled instantaneously.
For casual players, I recommend practicing 2 keys at a time, and only moving on when you’re really comfortable with those
It’s also important to regularly revisit the scales and arpeggios you’ve already learnt to ensure that they stay ‘under your fingers’, otherwise - trust me - they will eventually fade from memory
So, we’re almost there - the 4th component of effective saxophone practice is technical exercises.
These are exercises that focus primarily on the mechanics of the saxophone, like fingering speed and efficiency, but they could and should also include another key pillar of saxophone playing, which is articulation.
Now, there are lots of good books out there that are filled to the brim with technical exercises, like the Rubank Method books - which are books that I worked through back in High School.
But I also recognise that technical exercises rarely get sax players excited
So, if that sounds like you - I would instead concentrate on short, focussed exercises, or simply taking a large exercise and breaking into manageable chunks for your practice.
With technical exercises, the most important element is your attention to detail - otherwise, to be honest, there’s no point even playing them.
Getting the notes right, is the first, most obvious step, but equally important is being able to play them in time with a metronome, and, playing the correct articulations or slur groupings.
For Supercharged Saxophone, the course I mentioned at the start of the video, I wrote 94 2 bar exercises that focus on challenging fingering patterns, and add detailed articulation that really challenge my students.
And the final part of any good practice session, is of course - practicing songs.
Now you may be sitting there thinking - wow 5 practice components, and only 20% of the practice time is actually spent learning songs.
But in fact, over half my practice time I will spend on this songs portion, and that’s because each of the other components have a smaller weighting
This is the ratio I generally stick to - about 5% on long tones, 10% each on tone development, scales and technique exercises, and that leaves about 65% or roughly 2/3 of your practice time on songs.
So if you’ve got an hour to practice, it’s going to break down like this
Personally I’ve found sticking to this ratio does require a lot of discipline
What you have to keep in mind, is that all of this is a process. If you don’t get through all the technical exercises in time, that will plant a seed in your brain, that the next time you go to practice you can get that little bit closer to finishing them.
Sometimes there’s value in moving to the next practice component to avoid you getting bogged down on a single topic, as long as you revisit it the next time that you practice.
Now by far - the songs portion of your practice has the broadest scope
At it’s core - you’re going to be learning melodies - the notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations.
If you’re learning jazz, blues and R&B - you may also be practicing your improvisation.
Now just jamming with a backing track and ‘noodling’ - don’t get me wrong, its FUN - and there can still be value in that - but that’s not effective practice.
Just like every other component, you need to practice improvisation with purpose - so have a specific harmonic or rhythmic concept in mind, or even just give yourself a challenge to start thinking more creatively.
Some simple challenges I recommend are:
Repeating the first phrase that you play in your solo - no matter what you play - and see if you can develop that idea organically
Starting your phrase with the last note that you played from the previous phrase
Or - sticking to one rhythmic grouping - play all quarter notes, all 8th notes, all triplets - you get the idea!
These will help shake you out of the familiar patterns that you’re used to, so you can start to bring more creativity to your solos.
Now the songs portion of your practice can also include things like transcription, which really deserves it’s own video, and even active listening - listening to a performance and breaking it down into it’s individual parts.
But now - I want to ask you something - do you have a practice framework that your happy with?
If the answer is no - I’m going to guess that your progress on the sax has been rather slow.
Now at this start of this video, I mentioned that I’m celebrating the release of my latest course - Supercharged Saxophone.
It’s built on the practice framework that I’ve laid out in this video.
But it also has all the great songs and techniques that you’ll need to fill out this framework.
The tracks have been recorded with a live studio band, and the course is perfect for you, if you love jazz, blues and R&B and you feel like you’re stuck in that dreaded intermediate trap.
Guys thank you for watching this video, I’ve got some incredibly exciting content planned - so if you haven’t already, make sure you hit subscribe button so you don’t miss out - let me know what your practice routine looks like in the comments below, and I’ll see you in the next video!