So you've decided to start learning the saxophone. Congratulations! Whether you are young or old, starting a musical instrument can only enrich your life. One of the great pleasures of my job is getting students of all age groups started on the saxophone. They ask me many questions, such as "how long will it take me to learn?" and so many others. I will try to answer these questions as well as help you make decisions about selecting an instrument and finding a teacher.
Okay, so you've made the decision to play, but where to begin? Do you buy a new or used saxophone? Do you find the teacher first or find an instrument first? You can't afford a teacher but you have the ability and self-discipline to teach yourself but still need help choosing a saxophone. You really want to play but aren't sure whether or not you have the talent to play. What do you need to practice? Are you an absolute beginner, or have you played before but stopped because of family, work, life etc.? The list of questions and concerns is long, so I will address these one at a time.
Finding A Teacher
You've decided that despite the possible cost, you would do better to find a qualified teacher that can help you and guide you through the process of learning. A teacher who can show you what to do and what to play, explain and demonstrate points you don't understand. Will your teacher inspire you to play better or will your teacher be critical and discourage you? Whatever your level, from raw beginner to experienced player, it is important that your teacher understand your needs and concerns and that they help you get to where you want to go. Above all the lessons should be fun. They call it "playing" music not "sweating" music. Of course it takes work and practice to achieve any level of proficiency on an instrument, but approached from the spirit of play and openness makes the whole learning process much easier. Your teacher should be able to clarify any questions you have and keep your interest piqued. Eventually, your teacher should be your friend.
Your teacher can also help you select a saxophone, but it's important that they are impartial about the selection process. This means that while they can make suggestions about brands and the quality of the instrument, they must also understand what your budget is and what you can afford, helping you find the best horn for the money you can spend. I know too many teachers who insist that the student buys X brand saxophone, even though it's pricier than what the student can afford. Unless the teacher is spending the money, they should not insist on any particular brand or model. Also, if you are already in the possession of a saxophone, your teacher can evaluate its condition and whether or not you should get a qualified repair tech to get it in playing order, or whether or not it's even worth fixing. However beware of the teacher that may tell you that the perfectly good vintage horn you have is "old and no good". I met a young girl who came to my shop carrying a beautiful 1936 Buescher Aristocrat with silver plate and gold bell which was in immaculate condition. It had belonged to her brother who took excellent care of it and passed it on to her. However her teacher said that the horn was old and no good and that she should buy a Selmer. I played the horn and found it in perfect working order, with a gorgeous lush tone and told her to find another teacher. Since this was the first and only sax this girl had played, she was quite well adjusted to the old mechanism, and told me she had no problem with it, and it also seemed that whoever did the adjustments on the horn had a good understanding of old mechanisms and adjusted it accordingly so that it was as smooth as can be for a horn of that vintage. Her dad and brother agreed with me.
Selecting A Saxophone
I've already touched on a few points of saxophone selection above, but let me elaborate here. First, you have to decide what you can afford to pay for a saxophone. You also have to decide whether you are going to buy new or used. Today there are many excellent new student saxophones at affordable prices. However be forewarned. If you go too cheap then the chances are great that you are getting what you pay for. A good student alto sax goes anywhere from $400 to $1000, with Yamaha YA23 saxophones going for $1300. A good student tenor will go anywhere from $600 to $1600. This may seem like a lot of money, and it is, but it is important that you have as good a horn as you can afford. There is nothing more discouraging than playing on a total piece of crap and thinking it's you so that you end up quitting because you think you haven't got it. I've seen this too many times. It is also important you buy your saxophone from a reputable music store with a liberal return policy, good service, and with an in store repair shop that can tweak your sax and put it in its best playing condition. Personally, I'm against renting an instrument, because most rentals are crap horns, and many young students don't do a very good job of taking care of them. When a student owns his own instrument, there is a pride of ownership so they will usually take better care of the horn. Besides, at the cost of a new student model that plays well, renting no longer makes sense. Buy it new, and if you don't like it or get bored, sell it.
If you decide to get a used saxophone because you feel you'll save money or get a great deal, make sure you buy it from a reliable source. This is where it's also important to have either your teacher or another musician help you. They can look it over and tell you whether or not your money will be well spent or if you're buying total garbage. They can play it for you and determine whether it sounds good or not, and if the key action is light and supple as opposed to stiff and hard. There are lots of good deals out there on eBay and Craigslist, but there are also even more sellers pushing junk on unsuspecting and uneducated buyers. They may even sell a well known vintage horn like a Mark VI or Conn 6M at an amazing price that you just can't pass up, only to find that it is a terrible re-lacquer, parts and screws missing, severe dents, no neck or not the original neck, etc. The seller may try to tell you you can buy the parts but there are NO spare parts for vintage horns. If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is. Buyer beware when you buy used. If you do go the used route then once again go to a reputable dealer who will back up what they sell.
Perhaps you have enough experience or self-discipline to teach yourself, or you have to because you can't afford the lessons. That's understandable. However it's important that you get off on the right foot. You have to get the right book, and perhaps a DVD which shows you the basics of putting together your sax, placing the reed properly on the mouthpiece and forming your emboucher. It's also important that the book has a fingering chart or you can buy a fingering chart at your local music store or from an internet dealer. There are a number of good books to get started with, the best being The Universal Saxophone Method by Paul DeVille, and the Rubank Methods. Both are oldies but goodies. The exercises in these books are arranged in a manner that promises progress and a proper understanding of music when practiced in sequence, not skipping any lessons. After you gain confidence and make audible progress, you can supplement your practice with play-a-long books. One of the most popular series for jazz play-a-longs are the Jamey Aeborsold series, and the Hal Leonard Play-A-Long series. The CD's that accompany the books have rhythm sections that you can play along with so it's like playing with a band without the pressure so you can woodshed and gain confidence and hone your chops.
How Long Will It Take?
This question gets asked by me a lot and the only answer is that it will take forever. Wait a minute, what? Forever, but I want to make music now!!!! What I mean here is that your progress will depend on how much time you put into it. This doesn't mean you need to practice hours and hours. 1 hour a day is sufficient, and I'll go as far as to say that 15 minutes of concentrated practice is better than hours of doodling and messing around without purpose. Also it's important that you make practice fun. If you feel tired then it's okay to put the horn down and take a break. Don't push it. Play as long as you enjoy it. How fast it will take you to reach a level of musical proficiency and dexterity will depend only a little on talent and mostly on desire. I am of the belief that it's desire that fuels talent. While there are those out there that seem like they can pick up any instrument and just play it, the majority of musicians simply work hard at it and achieve spectacular results. If you really want to play, you'll play regardless of whether or not you feel you have natural talent. However, what I mean about taking forever is that if you love playing, you will always be learning, and that's a good thing.
What to practice? Start the first five to ten minutes practicing long tones in order to strengthen your emboucher and your tone. Then practice scales for at least another fifteen minutes or so. Related to scale practice is practicing chord patterns. Then to finish, play a few tunes. Start with easy songs until you can play them through smoothly and then progress to more difficult ones. Eventually you can add improvisation practice to your routine when you have enough of a command of the basics. Once you gain some proficiencey, get out there and look for some jam sessions. They don't have to be jazz. They can be blues, rock, etc., anything to hone your chops on stage with other musicians. Above all have fun.
Congratulations on your decision to play the saxophone. I hope you have fun with it and eventually accomplish your musical goals.