think you'd like to learn the saxophone? We tell you the advantages and
pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost -
everything you need to know
Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
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Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
Links to other sites
Cost: from £345 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
Best age to start: 12 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, quite easy
saxophone is a member of the woodwind family but is made of metal,
which proves that the distinctive sound of any instrument is created
by the internal shape rather than by the material it is made from - a
papier-maché saxophone would work quite well, although it
wouldn't last long! You hold it in front of you and blow directly into
the mouthpiece to which a single reed is attached, just like the
clarinet. It is the reed which vibrates to make the sound, rather like
blowing a blade of grass between your thumbs. To make the different
notes you cover and uncover holes with a system of keys operated by
rods and levers.
Saxophones come in several different sizes. The smallest is the
soprano saxophone which is straight. Then comes the alto saxophone
which has a curved mouthpiece and bell and is usually supported from a
sling round your neck. The larger tenor saxophone is the same, while
the even bigger baritone saxophone (not to be confused with the
baritone horn which is a small tuba and therefore a brass instrument)
has its tube coiled to reduce its length.
The saxophone is a "transposing" instrument. This means
that when you play, for instance, C on the alto sax, the note that
comes out is actually E flat on the piano or on most other
instruments. In practice this is no problem to a beginner, as all the
music you buy for the saxophone has been adjusted accordingly. It does
mean that you will not be able to play from the same piece of music as
your friend who plays the flute. Well, you can, but it'll sound grim!
The system of "transposing" instruments is a bit of a
nonsense, and has its roots way back in musical history. It would be
far more sensible to do away with it so that all instruments could
play from the same music, but this would mean (a) re-educating all the
saxophonists in the world, and (b) re-printing all the music - so
instead we carry on perpetuating this out-of-date and ridiculous
system! Soprano and tenor saxophones are in B flat (so when you play a
C, everyone else thinks you're playing B flat), and alto and baritone
saxophones are in E flat. You need to take care that any music you buy
has got the correct instrument printed on it, or it won't sound right
if you play with anyone else.
Most saxophonists start on the alto saxophone. The soprano is also
perfectly suitable for a beginner, but it is not advisable to start on
a tenor or baritone - get an alto first, and switch later. The change
is very easy.
As instruments go, the saxophone is particularly easy to start. You
will be able to make some sound straight away, and will be able to
play tunes in a couple of weeks. By the time you get to Grade 4 or 5
there is little difference between the saxophone and other woodwind
To play the saxophone you need to have arms strong enough to support
the instrument and hands big enough to reach the keys. There are no
small instruments especially for beginners, although of course the
little soprano sax is easier in this respect. It is common for
children of 11 or 12 to start on the saxophone. We would think twice
about starting before that. One thing to bear in mind is that your
teeth do play a part in forming the "embouchure" (the fit of
the mouth to the mouthpiece and reed), which isn't good if you still
have your milk teeth (and is impossible if you have no front teeth at
Saxophones come apart in several pieces, and pack into cases
according to their size. A soprano or alto is not difficult to carry,
and the cases offer excellent protection.
The saxophone is a versatile instrument, essential for wind bands and
jazz bands and not uncommon in pop music. It therefore offers
excellent opportunities for group music-making. Orchestras do use
saxophones too, but not many pieces of orchestral music require them
so it is not possible to become a permanent member of an advanced
orchestra - rather, you will be brought in just when the music demands
it. However in orchestras of lower standard, such as your school
orchestra, you are likely to find a permanent place as most easy
orchestra music includes parts for the saxophone. It is common for
clarinettists and sometimes flautists to "double" on the
Saxophones are quite robust in normal use. They do not like being
dropped or knocked, though. Bent keys can make an expensive repair,
and dented metal is repairable but can be expensive. Every couple of
years you will have to have the pads renewed (the soft pads fixed to
each key that close the holes off) which can cost as much as £50
or £60. The reeds cost from £1.50 each, and can last several
months. On the other hand, if you catch the delicate tip of the reed
on your clothing and chip it, it could last only five minutes! You
need to have a couple of spares with you all the time. Apart from
that, there is virtually no maintenance to do.
A good "student" alto sax costs about £400.
Alternatively they can be rented from some music shops for about £25
a month. There are not many bad saxophones on the market, but for the
beginner the good makes are Yamaha, Trevor James and Jupiter. Student
model soprano saxes cost from £375, tenors start at about £520
and baritones at a whopping £1,800.
Probably the most highly respected and popular tutor book for
beginners is "Learn as you play saxophone" by Peter Wastall.
You can buy it at a discounted price by clicking
Beginners. While it's always best to have a teacher, many people
do try to learn the saxophone by themselves.
Tune a Day for Saxophone is fairly old and may no longer be the
best saxophone tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly
suitable for lone students.
If you want to learn more about the saxophone and saxophone-playing
in general, try
Rough Guide to the Saxophone or
Art of Saxophone Playing. You might also enjoy listening to the
saxophone being played in a variety of styles by one of the great
performers - try
Moderately expensive instrument
Easy to start
Not difficult to find a teacher
Excellent opportunities for group music-making
Not particularly prone to damage, but repairs can be expensive
Easy to transport
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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005