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How To Practice The Saxophone-Some Practice Guidelines

Most beginning and intermediate level saxophone students need to learn how to practice in order to get the most out of the experience of playing the saxophone. Multiple times a year I take on a new student that is either self taught or coming over from another instructor. Without fail these students come with some “baggage”, either in the form of bad practice habits, bad playing techniques, or misconceptions about the saxophone. Regrettably I have to go back over the fundamentals and often do some remedial work with these students before I can move them forward. To avoid this pitfall let’s discuss how you should practice, what you should practice and what the stages of development look like for saxophone students ages 10 to 18.

Beginning Saxophonist:

In a perfect world I would begin lessons with a 4th or 5th grade student, age 9 or 10 years old. I recommend starting on alto saxophone at this age. Ideally this student would have a couple years of piano training, and a big bonus would be a year of recorder training in 3rd grade. This student would have a serious leg up on the beginning saxophone challenges, already knowing how to read music, having some finger dexterity, and some experience breathing and blowing into an instrument. This model student would progress through the first two beginning band books (typical example pictured below) in a matter of 4-6 months, and be getting a good sound out of the saxophone very quickly.

This ideal student would be able to handle the basic keys of C, F, G, D and Bb major, navigating up to two sharps and flats with ease. They would be ready for intermediate or advanced band upon entering middle or junior high school in 6th or 7th grade and they should be practicing 30 minutes nearly every day. With average or above average talent and some hard work they would find playing to be easy and natural. Their likely lesson duration would be half an hour at this point.

Intermediate Saxophonist:

Once this ideal model student gets to middle school they will gain valuable experience in a good school music program, and progress in their private lessons to the keys of Eb, A, E and Ab, up to 4 sharps and flats. They would be able to play these scales in several different configurations, i.e. thirds and triads, with a variety of articulations, and they would also be working on a variety of variations I teach on the chromatic scale by ear. This intermediate level student would read well, have a solid technique and sound, and be able to play various mid level repertoire, both classical and jazz. I like to use all the Lennie Niehaus Jazz Conception books as well as my Intermediate Jazz Studies For Saxophone at this stage, as well as my proprietary Intermediate Scale Routine pdf.

By 8th grade he/she would be ready to audition for both All County and All State Honor groups. Their likely lesson duration would be a 45 minutes at this point, and they should generally be practicing 45 minutes most days.

Advanced Saxophonist:

This ideal model student would then be ready for some advanced work upon entering high school, likely more detailed scale work in all 12 keys, scale merging from major to minor tonalities, and more challenging etudes and repertoire, both jazz and classical. The Ferling 24 Melodic studies pictured at the top of this post are an example of some basic classical etudes that all saxophonists can benefit from. A motivated and interested student on saxophone at this stage could begin developing their ear and start the study of jazz improvisation as they would be equipped to handle the challenges that arise from this genre. High school is the pivot point for most saxophone students, they need progressive challenges and constant motivation to break through to the advanced level. I provide detailed lesson plans and proprietary lesson material, culled from my studies with some of the greatest classical and jazz musicians/ private instructors imaginable. On the classical side my undergraduate and graduate studies with Victor Morosco ( reflect the influences of Joe Allard ( On the jazz side my private lessons with Warne Marsh ( and Joe Henderson ( allow me to guide students in jazz improvisation in a very advanced and specific way. I've written this blog post that details the 5 Step process I use to develop jazz improvisation skills.

I've written extensively about sax legend Warne Marsh in this blog post:

I have detailed studies from all these influences and use them continually over the high school years with my advanced students, to great effect. I also incorporate transcribed solos from my personal collection of over 300 solos that I’ve painstakingly written out over the last 15 years, and I pair these with the mp3’s and have the students play along with the recordings in headphones. This transcription of Joe's classic tune Recorda Me is a perfect example of a difficult to play study that challenges tenor saxophonists and exposes them to one of the greatest all time jazz improvisers.

Advanced students on saxophone at this stage are encouraged to practice an hour and half or more daily. This student would be a high school All State Honor Group candidate and a stand out in their high school music program, and fully capable of playing in public at this point. Not surprisingly college bound students of this caliber often receive partial or full scholarships to prestigious music schools; my students have attended Berklee and USC, to name a couple, on scholarships such as this.

The Result:

My goal when working with all students is to foster progress and skill that is natural, lasting and efficiently obtained. I refer to this natural learning process as “organic learning.” It is that process that allows the student to discover for themselves their own interests and objectives and leads to practicing that is enjoyable and effective. The more fun students have with their instrument and their music the more likely they are to become deeply involved and attached to music, viewing it as a lifelong pursuit with rewards at every juncture. I use college entrance requirements as my end goal for all students, not to pressure them to become music majors, but to use these requirements as a benchmark and goal for the students at the conclusion of their high school years. Certainly once they make it to the end of their high school work with me the most talented and motivated students will have developed a strong connection to their instrument that will last a lifetime, allowing them to play music with their friends and in ensembles for the rest of their lives. At that point they are “on their way” with their instrument and their music, having obtained the skills and training to develop their "voice" in any way they may so choose.

As usual, thanks for stopping by my blog...Markos

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