The Gym and the Saxophone

Pros Even Have Weaknesses

Professional musicians are not always born, destined to be great one day. Yes, there are some people who have a talent for playing music, and seem to understand and apply concepts faster than others. However, many people become accomplished players through smart and consistent work. Not every musician is good at everything from day 1; everyone has something that they can work on and make better. Today I want to share one practice approach that many musicians use to help weaknesses become strengths.

Working Out at the Gym

What would happen if someone walked into a gym and said, “Point me to the machine that works out every muscle in my body at once, and then I’m out of here!” What would the trainers say? They would probably look at this individual and question whether they had ever stepped foot into a gym. Why? Because working out is based on isolating muscle groups. You don’t work on everything at once; you work on part of the body, and then move onto the next group. When one muscle group is weaker than another, we isolate the weaker muscles to make them stronger.

Isolation in Our Practice Sessions

The gym example is an analogy for what we’re trying to accomplish on saxophone. For example, if you are learning the F major scale, 2 octaves, some parts may be easier than others. If you have the first octave down well, but the second octave is struggling, then we isolate the problem. In other words, you don’t need to spend much time on the first octave, because you already have that down. Instead you isolate the problem and work on the 2nd octave. Sometimes people will play the whole thing over and over, even when the first octave is fine. To get the most out of you practice, isolate the problem area and work on that part only. Once you have spent some time on it, then play the whole scale a couple of times.

Isolate Measures

A common approach that beginners make when learning a new exercise, is playing the whole thing (over and over) even if 80% of the exercise is played well. The other 20% is a challenge, but they don’t isolate the measures. Usually they’ll play from top to bottom, and when the problem measures come up, they think, “I’m going to get it this time!”, but then they make an error. Then, they play through the whole exercise again hoping to get the 20% correct.

A Practice Approach to the 20%

Here’s the pattern to help get the 20% as comfortable as the 80%.

  1. Play through the whole exercise 1 time
  2. Mark the measures that need work
  3. Play each marked measure 5-10 with a metronome
  4. Play the whole exercise 1-2 more times

With the process above, you’ll play the whole exercise  2-3 times, but you’ll be playing the problem areas 5-10 times. Make sure that you play the problem measures slow enough that you don’t make an error. Playing slowly and accurately will help you play faster, without practicing at a fast tempo.

A Look Inside

Hopefully this has been valuable- to peek inside a professional approach to practicing. Not everyone is going to become a professional saxophonist, but understanding certain practice techniques can greatly accelerate your abilities, and help you become a better than you thought possible.

Comments 7

  1. As a triathlete and a coach I can relate to that , specially on the swim .
    One day I will be saxophone player , I steel consider my self a biginer .
    Thank you

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  2. I am having problems with different sounds, I bought a used sax I don’t know if there is something wrong with it or not, I would like someone that can play it to see if there is something wrong with it.

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      Hi Gary,

      If you take it into a repair shop, you can have the repair tech play it right in front of you. They can provide you with the information you need to move forward with your saxophone. Repair techs are generally pretty honest. They’re usually musicians themselves, so they will help you with what you need to succeed on learning the saxophone. Here’s a post on when to repair your saxophone. Let me know how it goes!

  3. Excellent advice on isolating difficult passages. As you said, it’s a very frequent mistake to play the whole exercise once and again and again fighting against fingering, breathing or tempo (or all together) issues in the same measure(s) that probably are only a small part of the score.
    I think it’s a bad practice many of us inherited from old-school music teacher who forced us to play “da capo” (from t

    1. from the beginning) -sorry, fingering mistake on the keyboard, ironically- just because we missed one note or rest in the middle of a measure.

      Practice what it’s difficult to you… if i’ts easy, well bravo! enjoy it and have fun, but little learning will you earn from it. This applies to any mind/body performance, be that sport playing, music learning or any other challenging activity.

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