Choosing a beginner saxophone – an introduction

by Ellie Steemson

Choosing a beginner saxophone can seem both exciting and daunting. A quick Google search reveals the plethora of different saxophone brands and types available, and without expert knowledge it can be very difficult to know where to start.

As a teacher I love to see people coming into the first lesson full of excitement and anticipation, and the first thing I always do is put my mouthpiece on their saxophone and play it to check it’s both working, and of an appropriate to learn on. Thankfully, most of the time I am able to give them the thumbs up and on we go into learning the basics of embouchure, breathing and how to play the notes .

Sadly though (and with increasing frequency) people arrive with instruments they have bought online or from second-hand shops which barely function. The market has been flooded with new brands in recent years. Consequently, there are some surprisingly good instruments for relatively little money, but there are also some terrible examples.

Moral of the story: Ask an expert! That’s where we come in. We would so much rather speak to you about your options and offer you some advice than have to give you the ‘bad news’ in that first lesson. So please, if you’re thinking of starting – get in touch!

Choosing a beginner saxophone: FAQ’s

Here are my answers to a few common questions I get asked:

Which size of saxophone should I start on?

When choosing a beginner saxophone, the first question is which size of sax do you want to play? The saxophone family has four main members. In order of size from smallest to largest, these are: soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Most people begin on the alto, and if you’re not sure then this probably the best option for now. You can always change or add a sax to your repertoire later down the line.

The alto is generally the least expensive of the four to buy. It is small and light enough to be played by most children aged about ten years+, but this is definitely something to seek advice on with a teacher before you buy if you are unsure. It is also a great starter instrument for adults, who may also consider starting on the tenor. Slightly bigger and deeper in tone than the alto, it has quite a different personality. If you love jazz tenor players and want to sound like them – maybe this is the sax for you…?

The soprano and baritone are at the two extremities of size and range. I don’t tend to recommend soprano for a beginner unless it is really their heart’s desire as it more difficult compared to beginning on than the larger saxes. There’s nothing to stop you starting on baritone if you don’t mind the heavy weight and fairly astronomical price-tag!

My child is younger than ten, but desperate to learn – can they still start?

Children as young as eight can start if they have enough of their adult teeth, but they would be best advised to go for the lighter weight alto called the AlphaSax.

I am a big fan of this instrument, as it allows younger children start earlier. The downside is that you are limited as to the notes you can play so it is only an instrument for beginners. It will take you up to grade three standard in the ABRSM music exams, but beyond that you need the full alto to progress.

Should I rent or buy?

This is worth considering carefully when you are choosing a beginner saxophone. If you’re really not sure whether the sax is for you, then renting can be a good way to ‘try before you buy’. You will probably end up paying a bit more for the service of having the saxophone and the slight depreciation involved (quite like leasing a car), but it can work out as a great way to be sure that the sax is for you, and to spread the cost of purchase. Fife Sax School are able to recommend various companies, so please get in touch with us if you would like to explore this further.

New or second hand?

The answer to this question depends somewhat on your budget, and also your appetite for risk! Buying second hand through a recognised retailer is the safest way to do this as they will normally offer some kind of warrantee or after-sales care. Buying online from individuals is not advised unless you have some expert assistance, or are happy to take a chance on a bargain!

A new saxophone can cause you a lot less problems in the short-term with repair and maintenance, although eventually every saxophone will come to a point where it needs a bit of a service and tune-up. You will pay a premium of course for a brand new instrument, but they hold their resale value fairly well, especially if you choose a good brand.

Should I upgrade my mouthpiece?

Short answer from me as a teacher – if your sax didn’t come with a Yamaha 4C or equivalent then yes. For me this is a no-brainer as they are fairly inexpensive and can make a world of difference to a beginner.

Do I need to take lessons?

I would recommend at least starting off with a few lessons. There are a lot of aspects to saxophone playing, and a good teacher will be able to set you up with excellent groundwork which you can then build on yourself. I have certainly found it works better this way around rather than striking out alone, and then realising you have problems a few months down the line. By this point it may be much harder (but not impossible!) to change entrenched habits.

Also, the simple physical aspects of putting the saxophone together correctly are also learned much more effectively with the guidance of a teacher. For example, it takes skill and experience to know exactly how to line the reed up on the mouthpiece, and without guidance this can result in a lot of frustration and wasted effort!

Finally, having lessons gives you motivation and inspiration to keep practicing – the most important part of learning an instrument successfully! Fife Sax School have a range of options for beginners including one-to-one and group tuition, so why not check out our lessons page for more information.

A brief guide for those new to playing music in a group

By Ellie Steemson                                                                       14thAugust 2019

 Playing in an ensemble is one of the most beneficial activities for those learning a musical instrument, whatever your age or experience.  As a teacher I notice a huge leap forward in my students’ playing when they play regularly as part of a group.  It’s also really good fun – but it can feel daunting when you go along to your first rehearsal.  I’ve written this guide to give you a bit more of an idea of what to expect, along with a few hints and tips to maximise your success.  I hope you find it helpful!

What does it feel like playing in a large group for the first time?

If you are used to practicing on your own without any accompaniment it will feel quite different.  The music will probably seem to whizz by, and to begin with you may find it difficult to stay in the right place (musicians tend to use the term ‘getting lost’).  

The main thing is not to panic – mistakes always feel huge to you as a player, but I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me ‘Well I totally messed up … in that piece’ and if they hadn’t told me I would have had no idea!  As a conductor, I will never be angry with anyone for getting lost or making a mistake. Mistakes are learning tools, and anyone who is trying to stop themselves from making a mistake is stopping themselves from learning!

Do your best to find your way back in. As the conductor I may notice and try to help you, and I will try to give an obvious signal whenever we get to a rehearsal mark in the piece.  Or your desk partner (the person you share a music stand with) or neighbour might be able to help you out if they are more experienced by pointing out where you are.  If all else fails just stop playing and listen to the rest of the piece.  You can learn a lot this way so don’t be afraid to take some time out – it may well help you to avoid getting lost again in future. 

There are two ways you can look at playing in a group.  On the one hand you can think that if you’ve made a mistake you’re letting everyone down. Or, the more positive way of looking at this is to say that all the other people are there to catch you if you fall.  The best group playing happens when everyone is supportive of one another and forgiving of their mistakes.  Try to keep your focus on the whole sound of the group, rather than getting too bogged down in playing your own part perfectly.   

What to expect in rehearsals:

When you are part of a large group, individual playing problems (with notes, rhythms, etc.) are a matter for practice at home.  What we are aiming to do is make a great group sound, and with a large group of people that is inevitably (every single time, including concerts!) going to include mistakes by lots of folk – me as a conductor included.  We are all human. 

Rehearsing a new piece will normally start with playing it through roughly from start to finish.  We will then go through it in smaller sections where we may work on areas like dynamics, timing, tuning and balance, then going back to run the piece through and (hopefully!) retain all the things we just worked on.  We may also rehearse smaller groups within the ensemble, if they have related parts. 

It may be tempting to have a quick practice of a difficult passage during the rehearsal, but try to avoid doing this at it can become quite disruptive (contagious noodling then ensues!).  If you do have a difficult section to go over, use your pencil to mark it or make a note of it for yourself when you are practicing at home. 

Use your pencil lots! I use mine to write accidentals in if I need to, to circle important dynamics that I may forget to play, or to make annotations such as who is playing the tune, what the conductor is counting in or how many times to repeat a section. 

Good rehearsal discipline saves loads of time and creates brilliant results.  If everyone takes responsibility for this on an individual level then the group is a lot more productive. 

Following a conductor:

The conductor has two sides to their role.  The practical side involves the basics of making sure the pieces start and finish together, showing the speed and time signature, and trying to encourage the written dynamics and articulation through gestures with the body.  They are also responsible for keeping the rehearsal on track in terms of timing and material covered, and in a performance they provide a focal point for the audience too.

The other side is more creative.  Great ensembles play with a unified intention behind the music, and the conductor might convey this through gestures with the body, and through verbally sharing their concepts and feelings about the music.  

Hints and tips:

  • Always keep a pencil (preferably with an eraser on) in your sax case for use in rehearsals.
  • When playing sitting down, it is best to sit near the front of your chair, and bear in mind that you will probably need to have the mouthpiece at a slightly different angle than you would when standing.
  • If you have a tuner or tuning app, it’s worth checking your tuning when everyone is warming up at the beginning of the rehearsal. We will tune together as well, but it can make things easier if you are already in roughly the right place.

Copyright: Ellie Steemson  14thAugust 2019