The Saxophone has to be one of the most expressive instruments yet created. Whether its the Soprano, Alto, Tenor or my favourite the Baritone, they all have their followers. There are a few important unique aspects to the saxophone which make it a popular choice in the pop and rock world.
I have experience playing all four (not at the same time!) in Quartets, concert bands, soul bands, blues, swing and Jazz.
One thing that presents challenges when incorporating wind instruments into a standard rock pop group is the fact that they belong to a family that is known as transposing instruments. This very important detail means you will be playing in a different key to the rest of the band which requires unique skills “jam” unless you play from specially written music (transposed) or have learned to play by ear. For instance if the band is playing in C you will be in A on Alto and Bari, or D for Soprano and Tenor.
Most bands that are guitar based tend to use guitar friendly keys E A or D putting the Eb Sax in C# F#or B which presents a problem for a saxophonist who have been taught in the traditional graded way, as this puts you in quite advanced keys of C# . More about this in later blogs. C# is a not normally attempted until the saxophonist has reached relatively advanced stage of playing. However it is possible to learn a technique that non reading pop rock players use and that requires playing by ear and usually developing mental riffs to accompany guitar based keys.
In the sessions I run I prepare backing tracks and sheet music so both approaches can be used.
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Embouchure plays a big part in developing your sound, it should be one of the first things you get advice on as it is difficult to change once well established.
Fingering – there are many ways to play scales and some notes have alternative choices of fingering.
Learning the correct fingering at the start will help as you progress, there are sensible choices which are critical for your playing to flow.
A lot of beginners struggle with this, I remember my first Saxophone lesson after I had self taught with books for a few years. I was asked by my teacher to play my best piece… My teachers response was “Well Cliff, it’s not all bad” I then had to retrain my embouchure and my breathing. After taking his valuable advice I became able to play without fatigue and with a vastly improved tone.
Theory such as scales, arpeggios, transposition, articulation and feel.
I cannot underestimate the advantage gained from practising scales, arpeggios and other targeted routines in advancing as a saxophonist. If you want to play with other people a good foundation in playing scales is so helpful, community bands and concert bands require a grade 3 or similar ability for you to join in and be able to contribute to the performance.
Advanced players will understand the different genres and play the music differently by interpreting swing beats – both on played beats and on rests.
Learn about techniques such as vibrato, growls, bends and spills.
The techniques required in different genre of bands may differ in bias but an understanding of these different skill sets will help your expression massively.
Arranging and transcribing your own song if you wish to sell it to others.
To be able to transcribe tunes that you want to perform is a great skill. This can be by hand or using a notation program. Some DAWs offer this facility which is more than adequate for creating a quick sheet of dots but these arrangements are much easier to produce on bespoke notation software.
I use Finale which is pro engraving software. With Finale it is possible to print out arrangements for you, your friends, your band or even sell your music on-line.
See my DAW section for tips on recording your playing. Recording your playing is a great way of developing your tone and technique. You can also share your recording with family and friends.
Saxophones require similar setups to singers, I have use mic stands and radio microphones.
Monitors may be necessary when in pop and rock bands. Playing in a rock band can be quite loud and as there will be no conductor it will be paramount that you can get a mix that you are comfortable with. I prefer vocals and keys in my monitor and naturally myself. Yes, it can be that loud! In ear monitors can be used but they take a bit of getting used to.
Stage sound level can be loud. Consider how loud a saxophone is when played in your rehearsal room, now consider that it is not loud enough to hear yourself on stage and you will get some idea of the sheer volume your ears are exposed to whilst performing.
I have used ear protection. Commercially available musicians ear plugs should be investigated, they do take some getting used to but your ears are very precious and tinnitus is something that can be caused by constant loud music. One of the other benefits of wearing ear plugs is being able to hear yourself and in some venues I have used them to advantage if monitors are not available.
choosing iPad software for stage or busking work
I have tried several programmes for stage and busking work, some display words and chords, some play drums only, some play backing tracks only, and some that present sheet music with backing tracks accurately tracked by the software – turning the page as you play!