Playing With Style

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A Personal Experience

When I began college, one of the groups I played in was a jazz band. I was still shy at that time in my life, and I was the lead alto player. Those two things don’t always go together well, but I did my best.

One approach that I had been doing right (in my preparing to play jazz correctly) was listening to professional jazz musicians. They sounded so good, but I didn’t sound anything like them.

One day, I decided to copy the sound I had heard by professional lead alto players and apply it, in jazz band.

A Moment of Truth

The moment came and I applied the inflection and style that I had heard in recordings. Well, I caught the band director’s attention; his expression was not one of happiness or approval, but of shock. I still remember how wide his eyes became. I immediately translated his expression to mean, “What in the world are you doing? You’re not supposed to do that!”

However, he never said anything to me verbally about my attempt at adding style. Because of this, I assumed I was wrong and continued on with an approach to jazz that focused solely on reading notes and rhythms.

Is Copying a Good Thing?

Obviously, this was not a happy experience for me at the time. It felt strange to copy someone; I didn’t know if copying was okay or frowned upon. The facial expression from my band director lead me to think it was not a good idea. In addition, I was raised in a home where my mother was a classical musician, so the idea of copying someone from a recording was not mentioned.

The Problem

I knew who I wanted to sound like, but in my mind, it was not okay to copy recordings. Even though nobody said that this was a bad idea, this is how I felt through my own experiences.

The Light Turns On

A couple of years later I had a new saxophone instructor. I was taught that I could play jazz, and that there were two key elements to playing in this style:

  1. Listening to recordings
  2. Copying what I heard on the recordings

I couldn’t believe it! I had it right two years earlier. However, for the first time in my life I was instructed by a professional jazz musician to copy what I heard on recordings. This was a whole new perspective in learning music. It was a liberating feeling and it opened up the door to becoming a professional saxophonist myself.

Musical Storage

Everything that we hear is stored in our mind, even musically (genres, styles, rhythms, melodies, etc.). I now had access to a library of ideas that I stored up over a lifetime. It’s very exciting when you think about it. Basically, anytime you hear quality music, you’re building your mental musical library to help you make wise musical choices. This is something we need to learn to use and trust!


This is how it works. First, it’s important to understand that music is a language. How do we learn a language? By listening and copying. As a child, we listen and try to speak, and over time we build a vocabulary.

Your musical vocabulary has been growing for years in your musical storage (your brain) through all the music you have heard. Now, it’s time to copy what you’ve heard. Take all that knowledge and begin to apply it as you play.

Permission & A Secret

Basically, I’m giving you permission to make musical decisions based on the quality music that you:

  1. Have heard
  2. Specifically copied

All the great composers and musicians have done it, and that is one of their secrets to success.

Playing With Style

As you continue to practice the saxophone (and develop embouchure, tone, technique, etc.) also spend time having fun with style. Try adding style to the music you play by copying what you hear in professional recordings. The best way to do this is to copy the recording exactly- note for note. This will also assist in the avoidance of developing bad habits.

The main reason for writing this post is to provide permission (for those who need it, like I did) to copy all the music you have in your brain and all the music you hear. Doing this is key to becoming a successful musician in any style.

If you have questions about any approach or technique to obtain a certain style, go ahead and ask in the comment section below. If you liked this post, please feel free to share it using the social media buttons below. We appreciate it!

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Comments 4

  1. Good Morning Jeff.
    I have gone through the entire post . Its quite interesting. As you have rightly said when we listen a piece of music our Brain tries to store if not fully but to certain extent. It starts storing more & more depending upon our listening that particualr number quite a number of times. Then a time comes when we are able to re produce it exactly to 100 %. it happens with me also. But as regards the style of playing I feel each of us have our own style. We learn from other players of course for our development. finally we stick to a few players whose style of playing we like & try to copy them. In India there is Mr MANOHARI SINGH an eminent sax player who has played in almost all Indian Hindi movie songs. Of course he is no more now. His way of playing is extremely simple, No unnecessary emotions or Over actions.
    Jeff all your posts are very interesting & informative. Thank you so much jeff. regards.

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      Thanks for your input on developing your own personal style. What you said is very true and essential for developing into a capable saxophone player.

  2. Thanks Jeff.
    I enjoyed your comments about learning and playing Jazz.
    I believe what you said apply’s to life.
    Love Dad

    1. Post

      To those who know about my approach to consistency and hard work (and how they pay off), the man who wrote the comment above is one of my first great examples of hard work. Because of his example, life never took me by surprise on how much work was required. He provided a solid foundation for me to succeed. Thanks Dad!

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