1 Thing You Need to Know: To Fix Anything

We all understand learning to play the saxophone takes consistent practice, which makes it challenging and rewarding. You may also see ads stating the opposite, that you can learn the saxophone in a few months, rather than a few years

The Truth

There isn’t a secret formula for learning the saxophone, but there is some truth behind statements such as, “Use this 1 tip used by pros and accelerate how quickly you learn the saxophone”. In fact, that sounds very familiar… I may have even used that statement.

Learning from Pros

I have learned from many pros and made a career, myself, out of saxophone performance and pedagogy. Some teachers helped me progress faster than others, because all teachers are not equal.

Through my experiences, I have collected many pro tips over the years and codified my own. In this week’s post I will share a pro tip that I use (and many other pros do as well) every time I practice.

It really does speed up learning the saxophone compared to the way we naturally want to practice (see A Bad Habit below).

An Example

When beginners practice, they tend to make the same errors over and over again. This can be frustrating because the error continues to be part of our playing, and seems to never be resolved.

For example, you may be playing a high C# and the next note is a middle D. No matter how many times you play the exercise, the middle D doesn't respond, or it doesn't sound the way you hoped it would.

A Bad Habit

Usually students will play an exercise from the beginning and hope when they get to the measure with the C# to the middle D, that the note will speak. If it doesn’t, they keep on playing to the end of the exercise.

Next, they’ll start at the beginning again, and play through the entire exercise and hope they can get the middle D to speak when they arrive at the measure. No matter what the result was, they will continue to play to the end of the exercise.

This process will slow down your learning.

The 1 Thing

Here’s the 1 thing that will help you fix this: we’re going to make up a personalized exercise for each error in our playing (don't worry; we won't work on all of them at once). We'll use isolation and repetition to speed up the learning curve. Here's how we'll do it.

The Process

Here’s the process for fixing the middle D (as discussed above). Take a piece of paper and write, "High C# to middle D". Then follow this pattern:

  1. Play high C# to middle D- ten times.
  2. Stop, and move on to the next part of your practice session
  3. The next day, begin your practice session by repeating step 1
  4. Continue this process daily, until the issue is resolved

I know this sounds simple, but by taking the issue out of the exercise, isolating it, and repeating, your ability to fix the issue increases drastically.

Don't Be Perfect

When trying to fix a weakness in our playing, often we try to solve it in one session. When you try to fix it in one day, it can become frustrating, exhausting, and discouraging. We don’t want to think this way about the saxophone.

The Goal

Instead, play the issue (C# to D) ten times each day. You won’t solve the problem in one session but you’ll begin making progress. Additionally, you’ll feel motivated because you’re reaching your goal every day (repeating ten times). Notice our goal is set on a daily number and not eliminating the problem.

The Real Goal

As you follow this daily, you’ll have daily success, but you’ll also reach the real goal of solving the issue. This process is used by many pros, because it gets the job done without discouragement.

Just think, every time you sit down to practice, you’ll have confidence that you’re improving!

How Long?

My guess is that an issue like C# to D could be resolved in as little time as a week. Of course we’re assuming that the embouchure is correct, among other things.

Personalized Warm-Up

For every weakness you have in your playing, turn it into an exercise. Some other issues that may surface include:

  1. Articulation
  2. Changing from one note to another
  3. Get one note to speak (like the low notes)
  4. Certain fingerings
  5. Starting notes (with their full tone)
  6. Ending notes at the right time

When you come across an error in your playing, write down the problem on the sheet mentioned above. Soon you could have as many as ten items on that list.

You’ve now created a personalized warm-up list that you’ll work on every day. Start each practice session with this list, and then you'll go to the main part of your practice session.


As you follow this process, many of the little nagging things in your playing will eventually disappear. By isolating the issue, and repeating on a daily basis, you’ll be on your way to solving many issues and playing in a mature style.


Here's a challenge for the week. Share one of your issues in the comment section below and try this approach for seven days. Come back after seven days and let us know how you did! Enjoy playing and have fun getting better every day.

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Comments 8

  1. Going from c to d or Vice versa – because you have to put down or release all of your fingers for the D and they have to be done at exactly the same time or the wrong octave key will be engaged!

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      Definitely something this practice approach can fix. If you have any questions during the week, please reach out to me. I’m excited to see you resolve this issue!

  2. As we all know, coming from empty fingerings to full fingerings is difficult. This is my problem too. It either come out weak or squeak. Just like playing Besame Mucho.

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  3. Hi
    The advice about identifying the issue, isolating it, creating a simple routine or exercise to address it through repetition is spot on. The role of a teacher had many facets, one is to provide the student with the tools he/ she can use to make self sustaining progress. The “identify, isolate, exercise, repeat” approach is one such tool.

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      Thanks Stephen! I appreciate your insight and response. What you stated is one of my goals as a teacher: to provide tools, so the student can become an independent musician. Thanks for sharing and feel free to comment anytime!

  4. Thank you!
    At eighty years old I am learning to play the hundred years old ‘The Martin’ alto sax my dad played as a young jazz player in the ‘30s.
    My major problem is cadence(?) I can read music but unless I know the tune I have difficulty with timing and duration(?) of notes.
    I can play the notes as written but the continuity is missing. If I play very slowly I can play every note. Playing them as a ‘smooth composition’ is challenge.
    Is there any hope for me? I have wanted to play all my life. It only came to fruition when I came across my dads horn about five years ago.

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      Hi Jim, and welcome! That is amazing that you have your father’s saxophone and that your saxophone is connected to the early 20th century. That was the time when the saxophone was more popular than the guitar is today. Many people had saxophones in their homes back then. Yes, I believe you can learn to play the saxophone and I have had many retired students from their 60’s and up be successful. Your challenge is actually common even for pros. The pro is doing the same thing as well- we play slowly and then slowly accelerate the speed until the song is where it needs to be. This is something we always work with. This is always the practice pattern, but over time, we get faster at it. Just keep up the consistent practice and you’ll improve! Thanks for writing in.

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