Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You 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
Other costs
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
Violin & Viola
Double Bass
French Horn
Trumpet & Cornet
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
What's copyright?
Links to other sites


The Saxophone

Family: Woodwind
Cost: from £345 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
Best age to start: 12 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, quite easy

The 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 instruments, though.
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 all!).
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 saxophone.
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 here. Another is Absolute Beginners. While it's always best to have a teacher, many people do try to learn the saxophone by themselves. A 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 The Rough Guide to the Saxophone or The 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 this CD.
• 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


Use this Google Search box to find more stuff about
the saxophone, either on this site or on the World Wide Web.


Click here to go home
Copyright © David Bramhall 2005