Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Saxophone Accessories

There are numerous accessories for your saxophone on the market these days and it can be confusing, especially to the beginner, as to which kind and what brands to get.  Different accessories can help you play better, such as the right mouthpiece, ligature and reed, which really become very personal choices arrived at after some trial and error and sometimes a few good recommendations from other players. Other accessories are for maintaining your horn in good playing condition, so it is important to have them and keep your horn in top shape along with regular maintenance from a reliable technician.  Those who read my blog regularly already know that for my mouthpiece, ligature and reed combination, I use a Meyer 6M with Rovner DL ligature and LaVoz Medium reeds, also sometimes using a Legere Signature 2 1/2 or Plasticover 2 1/2 reeds.  For Tenor I have  Jody Jazz Red 6, for Soprano a Jody Jazz HR6 with Plasticover 2 1/2 reeds, and for Baritone an old Meyer 5 with LaVoz Medium reeds.  However, I won't get into mouthpiece, ligature and reeds, because not only are they more personal choices, but I've already written articles on the subject of "Mouthpiece-itis", the affliction that many horn players have, looking for the Holy Grail of mouthpieces, as well as ligatures and reeds.  If you already have developed a conception of your sound in your head, or based on your favorite player as well as how you feel when you blow into the horn, you will know when you have the right mouthpiece, ligature and reed.  Of course, it's always good to listen to seasoned players and their advice, scour the internet and learn what is available out there, all which you should do when you are a beginner, but it's also important that you develop your own sense of sound, playing comfort and so on, to develop your own unique approach to the saxophone.  

I will focus on other accessories that I personally use and highly recommend as well as those that also may be of interest to you.  It's important to keep your saxophone in good playing condition, keeping it clean, free of dust and other debris.  Other accessories can help you play better, and others are more or less a luxury or perhaps a necessity depending on what your playing level is, or whether you are performing, etc.  

When you buy a new saxophone, it generally comes with basic accessories like a mouthpiece and ligature, strap, cork grease, polishing cloth and swab.  When you buy a used instrument, it will either come without any accessories or if things like the swab are left inside, it probably is already a little too funky to use and you have to throw it out and get a new one.  Let me start with a basic maintenance kit.  Even if your new saxophone has some of these items, I still suggest you get a complete maintenance kit so you have all the things needed to keep your saxophone clean and in good playing condition.  There are a number of different maintenance kits, and the one I use is the store brand from my local Sam Ash store.
Like this kit, your kit should contain a swab, a polishing cloth, cork grease, mouthpiece brush, neck swab or neck brush, small brush to clean dust out between the key rods, pad paper and key oil.  The neck is an especially neglected part when it comes to cleaning, but since it is also the most important to the overall sound of the sax, it is important to be able to clean the moisture and gunk out of it.  Some kits may also come with a small screwdriver in order to tighten the post screws.  Pad paper helps unstick any sticky pads, by covering the tone hole with it, closing the key cup, then pulling out the paper. You always need cork grease to make sure you can easily place and remove the mouthpiece so as not to tear the neck cork.  The mouthpiece brush helps clean the gunk from inside the chamber, the swab of course should be used to wipe out the body and the bell before putting the horn down for the night.  Key oil used sparingly every 6 months or so to keep the movement of the keys smooth and to keep from wearing.  You can also create your own maintenance kit by buying all the components separately, but you'll save yourself some money by buying the complete kit.

Though I said I won't discuss mouthpieces and reeds, there are still a couple of accessories for them that are useful for them, and one that is absolutely necessary as far as I'm concerned.  The mouthpiece usually comes with a cap to protect it, and some ligatures come with a special cap that can only fit that ligature.  However, even with the cap on, you can drop it or it can accidentally fall out of the case and when it hits the floor, the mouthpiece can have the tip or base cracked or chipped, so I also use a mouthpiece pouch for extra protection.  A good mouthpiece isn't cheap, so it helps to protect it as much as you would the horn itself.  I use the ProTec mouthpiece pouch, but any brand will do if it can be zipperd closed and is thickly padded.

Many players complain that it's hard to find a good playing reed, that they go through boxes and boxes just to find that one good reed, so when you finally do find it, you want to keep it for as long as you can, and for that you need a good reed case.  The first reed case I ever used was one my father gave me.  It was a beautiful old reed case.  It was a glass plate with 4 metal clips.  You inserted the heel of the reed under the clips, and the heart and tip would lay flat against the glass.  It came with a beautiful old leather case.  Today I use a Selmer reed case which also uses a glass plate.  I prefer the glass, because it is easier to clean and will last forever if you don't drop it.  Also, by just laying flat on the glass, you are less likely to chip or break the tip of the reed.  The plastic reed cases are cheaper and will do the job too, but won't last as long. 

You may find that the neck strap that comes with your saxophone is suitable for you, but you may also find that it puts a strain on your neck muscles, forcing you to bend your head in an unnatural position, making it uncomfortable to play.  I was developing a stiff neck from playing, and the muscle strain would go down my shoulder, so I decided to buy a saxophone harness.  The harness takes all the weight from my neck and puts it on my shoulders, freeing up the movement in my neck and making it much easier and far more comfortable to play.  If you play a baritone, I believe this is a must-have, or even if you're a tenor player.  If you decide on the standard type of neck strap, I still recommend something with a very heavy foam padding where it goes around the neck. I use the neck strap for the soprano so I don't accidentally drop it while playing.  Neotech are my preferred straps, but any other with this kind of padding is also suitable.

An electronic metronome is also a must as far as I'm concerned.  Especially as a beginner, you need to learn to keep proper time, and the metronome is the tool to help you do that.  The standard mechanical metronome can also be used, but the smaller ones will barely be audible when you play, and the larger ones are too bulky to fit in your case.  The electronic metronome will not only fit in your case easily, it will actually be more accurate in its tempo settings.  The other thing is that many electronic metronomes also come with a tuner, and also have other beats or time signatures to help you negotiate them which a mechanical one cannot do.  I use the Korg metronome/tuner combo.  When I used to work in music retail, I actually spent more time selling and explaining metronome/tuners than the instruments themselves.  Don't go overboard, just get one that fits your budget and has features useful to you.  They can range fro $15US to over $200US, so just get what you can afford and think is best for you, and that can easily fit in your case.

I have used various saxophone stands over the years, mostly to be able to place the sax on the bandstand, as I prefer to always keep it in the case at home so as not to allow dust to get all over it.  I used to use Hercules stands, and they are very good solid stands which open up and fold up easily and generally fit in most cases with a large side pocket.  They also make a portable lightweight stand for alto and tenor that fits into the bell of the saxophones, but I do not recommend them at all.  They do not hold the saxophone well and it is prone to falling off without even touching the horn, thus damaging the instrument.  The other stands are better, but the saxophones are still prone to fall off and get damaged if accidentally bumped into, which happens on the bandstand a lot, or when the occasional idiot from the audience decides to just walk up and touch your horn when you're not there.  I now use the SaxRax stand.  Even if someone accidentally bumps into your sax or someone grabs it the wrong way or otherwise mishandles it, the sax will not fall off the stand.  It may move, but it won't fall off.  Although it is more expensive than other stands, it is cheaper than a trip to the repair shop when your horn gets damaged, making it very much worth the extra money paid, especially if you're a working musician. 
Many stands also come equipped to hold both alto and tenor, with extra pegs for soprano sax and clarinet or flute, which is quite useful for those players who have to double.

If you live in a big city, in an apartment complex, or a room in a house you share with many other people, it may be difficult and sometimes impossible to practice where you won't disturb someone.  The saxophone is loud, and anyone near you will hear you no matter how softly you try to play, and trying to play too softly all the time will inhibit your tone production.  Many times I have had to go to the park and practice.  Sure, I could always find a remote spot where I wouldn't disturb anyone, but you could only go on a nice day, when it wasn't raining or too cold outside.  I will say however that on those nice days when I practiced in the park, many attractive women out running would stop and listen and it was a great way to meet them.  Just saying.  Most of the time I just said the hell with it and practiced in my room, always during the day, and since this was New York City, I figured people were used to the noise.  However, when I got to Tokyo, although it is a big noisy metropolis, the Japanese are always careful not to disturb their neighbors, even in the day time, so many musicians would be practicing in Yoyogi Park.  People have tried various saxophone mutes, but they do not make the instrument quieter, just change the tone.  For brass instruments like trumpet and trombone, a practice mute can significantly reduce volume, but it is a single tube where the only opening is the bell.  It is different with the saxophone.  because of the tone holes, it will be loud no matter what you insert into the bell.  The Japanese came up with an effective but unusual solution.  The EWhisper case is a contoured saxophone case, looking almost like any other case except for a few things.  You place the fully assembled saxophone inside the case then close it with the neck and mouthpiece protruding from the top.  There are two sleeves, one and each side, positioned so that you can insert your hands inside and place them properly on the keys.  You hook the strap on the case the way you would on the sax.  It has earphones so you can hear yourself play, while your neighbors won't hear anything.  It is a bit bulky and unwieldy at first, but once you get used to it, you can practice any time you want and not disturb anyone.  They are made only for the alto and tenor.  They go for around $500-600US. 

All saxophones come with a case, and most of them are quality cases that are just fine.  However, very often a player prefers a different case for various reasons, and the choices are numerous.  The most important consideration is always how well will it protect your instrument.  Will it safely hold the instrument and keep it from being damaged as it gets dropped or thrown around when traveling?  Does it have enough space to hold your accessories and your books?  Are the zippers, straps or clips sturdy enough so they won't easily pop open?  If it is for a baritone or larger sax, does it have sturdy wheels so you can easily move it and tow it behind you?  Does it have straps so you can hang it over one or both shoulders to keep your hands free and so it won't weigh you down?  I use the ProTec XL case for myself, and since it is the alto, I always take it with me and place it on the overhead compartment when I travel by plane.  However, while musicians have won the right to carry most of their instruments on the plane with them, some instruments are too big unless you can afford to buy an extra seat for it, like some bass players do.  Most large or bulky items must go into baggage, and we all know that even if the airline doesn't lose or misplace your baggage, it is always being mishandled and tossed about by the baggage handlers.  For that you need a very strong case that can handle the abuse while keeping the sax safe inside.  The best case in my opinion for the traveling player who cannot carry their instrument on board the plane are the Calzone cases.  They would have to be dropped from 33,000 feet to break open, but under normal abuse, if abuse can be called normal, they will withstand all that will be handed out by the clumsiest baggage handlers or roadies.  Calzone makes cases to fit multiple instrument combinations, which for the doubler is very important.

There are other different accessories you may decide to use, like rubber key risers or thumb rest cushions, mouthpiece cushions, reed clippers and so on, and it seems that someone is always trying to come up with another item to add to your growing collection of sax accessories.  With all the choices out there, you may decide on what you feel you need or just want.  Either way, keep your sax in playing condition, and above all, keep playing your sax.

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