5 Common beginner saxophone mistakes

September 10, 2019

By Jeremy Trezona


The 5 common mistakes that are easiest to fix

OK, so let's assume you've finally taken the plunge and you've just started learning the saxophone, but things aren't exactly going smoothly just yet...

Amongst all of the new techniques being thrown at you early on, it's hard to know what to prioritize and what will make the biggest improvements to your sound.

After many years of teaching beginners the saxophone, I see the same issues coming up again and again, and for this article, I've picked 5 common easy-to-fix mistakes that can make a huge difference to your playing!

Prefer to watch instead? Check out our handy YouTube video below!

#1 - Setting Up The Reed Incorrectly

What does it matter if the reed is slightly off-center on the mouthpiece?

Actually - it matters a lot!

Getting a great sound on the saxophone relies upon the reed being able to vibrate freely as we blow air in.

Setting up the reed incorrectly means that some parts of the reed will not be able to vibrate properly, MASSIVELY hindering the sound we create.

As a quick recap - the reed should be centered on the mouthpiece, and lined up with the tip of the mouthpiece - not hanging over the end or set too far back.

Just spending a minute really making sure the reed is set up correctly is one of the easiest things you can do to ensure you create the best possible sound.

alto saxophone mouthpiece reed ligature

That's how the mouthpiece is supposed to look. Notice how the reed is perfectly aligned with the end of the mouthpiece, and the screws are facing outwards, on the underside of the mouthpiece.

#2 - Not adjusting the neck strap correctly (or at all)

Keeping with the theme of 'quick fixes that yield the best results', another very common mistake beginners make is not adjusting their neck strap correctly.

How do you know if the neck strap is set to the correct height?

The mouthpiece should be coming in at mouth height without you having to hold the saxophone up with your hands, or bending your neck down.

Adjusting the height of the neck strap ensures you get the right angle between your mouthpiece and your mouth, and thus, gives you more control over the sound!

Fun fact: Stock image websites like Shutterstock are usually full of really bad / funny examples of saxophone technique!

I actually see a lot of beginners doing the same thing - bending their neck down a lot to meet the mouthpiece instead of adjusting the neck strap first.

(Don't be this guy...)

saxophone neckstrap

#3 - Puffing out your cheeks

At some point in our lives, most of us have seen cartoon characters playing wind instruments and comically puffing out their cheeks as they play.

But just so we're clear - we definitely do not want to do that while playing saxophone!

Puffing out our cheeks means we lose the 'jet' of air that is created when we blow into the mouthpiece - and instead, we get a very flat, uncontrolled sound.

Most beginners are actually completely unaware that they're puffing their cheeks out as they play, so the easiest solution is to practice in front of a mirror and watch those cheeks!

#4 - Leaning on your side keys

The saxophone (being a wonderfully ergonomic instrument) has a number of keys on the side of the saxophone designed to be played with the inside of your hand.

Although we're not dealing with those keys just yet in Lesson 1, be careful not to lean on them by accident - it happens more regularly than you might think!

Saxophone Side Keys

These side keys sit comfortably underneath your right hand when playing. The only problem? Leaning on them by accident!

#5 - Wrong breathing / no tonguing

Say the following sentence, but try taking a breath after every single word:

"Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns, One-a-Penny, Two-a-Penny, Hot Cross Buns"

Did you make it to the end? (I hope you're not feeling faint...)

Of course, it's nearly impossible to get through a whole sentence like this, but that's actually how a lot of players approach playing the saxophone at first.

The trick is to take one big breath at the start of a musical phrase and use the tongue to separate each note instead of the breath.

When placed on the mouthpiece, the tongue acts as a mute, instantly cutting off the sound.

By using the syllable 'TA' we can use the tongue to separate each note as we play, without relying on our airstream to do all the heavy lifting.

In that way - playing the saxophone is a lot like singing!

Don't worry, nobody's perfect.

Trying to keep track of all these things at once is actually quite difficult to do!

Certainly this is where having a teacher in the room to remind you of these things really comes in handy.

But not everybody has access to great saxophone instruction where they live, and even for those that do, the time and cost involved in getting private lessons each week are usually major limiting factors.

That's why in the SaxTuition Beginner Series we've captured the feel of a real-life lesson and made sure each technique naturally leads on from the next.

Plus - there's plenty of reminders in the lesson videos to watch out for these problems too!

Want to get started today and watch your first lesson?

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