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Is Saxophone Hard to Learn? Advice for Beginners

Most musical instruments are not what you might call “easy to learn.” They all present their own challenges. Is saxophone hard to learn? Well, it is easier than some.

But like all woodwind instruments, there are some important techniques to master that do not apply to a guitar or a piano. In some ways, that makes them harder than those instruments to learn.

A Recent addition

A Recent addition

The sax, unlike most other instruments, is a recent addition to music. It was the early 1840s when Belgian instrument maker, Adolphe Sax, sat down to create something new. He wanted to combine the best of woodwind with the best of Brass. The sax was the result. We are still playing it. 

Generally speaking

It’s not hard to get a sound and not that hard to begin playing the saxophone. But it can be very hard to master it. It isn’t difficult to make a sound on the Sax, but at first, it is quite hard to make a good sound.

One positive for the new player is that the lip shape, or embouchure, doesn’t alter in shape to get different notes. That certainly makes it easier. We shall be looking more closely at the embouchure a little later.

Making the Notes

Notes are made by pressing down on the keys and releasing them. That is all it takes. The sax is not, like shall we say, the trumpet. Most would say that is much harder. On the trumpet, the embouchure changes to make the notes. Lips must be pursed tightly, and it is often difficult to master. You don’t have to worry about that with the Sax.

Some instruments like the flute need you to project air from your mouth into exactly the right location. The air needs to split, and this causes the vibration that creates the sound. Does that sound difficult? It is. None of that with the Sax.

The Sax player blows through their lips into the mouthpiece, and Voila! Sound. Actually, it isn’t quite as easy as that. But once you have mastered the mouth and lip shape, it stays the same and doesn’t change. So let’s get on with it. 

Is Saxophone Hard to Learn?

Is Saxophone Hard to Learn

As with just about all instruments, some will find it easier than others. Very young people might struggle because of the size of their hands and their mouths. It does take a bit of puff, so that also needs to be borne in mind. If you have played any sort of woodwind instrument, like, for instance, the clarinet, that will help.

An early challenge

One of the problems for new sax players is that progress often appears to be slow. Getting control over the instrument and the sound is not going to happen overnight. It takes time, patience, and a good deal of effort to create a good sound and tone quality.

Be Realistic

Don’t get frustrated if you don’t sound like Charlie Parker in the first month. For some students, the learning curve is never-ending. Improvements may be slow. But you need to remind yourself why you started. And then remind yourself that it will take time. Aspirations and expectations that are not realistic will bring nothing but disappointment.

The Early days

Most people get a sound out of the sax quite early, and usually, the first time, they pick it up. That sound might not be the most pleasant, and it might send the neighbors running for cover. But it will be a sound.

If you are having problems, it is usually that you are squeezing the mouthpiece and the reed too tightly. Too much jaw pressure is a common mistake in the early days. Grip the mouthpiece firmly but learn to relax. And don’t panic if the first few blows achieve nothing. Persevere, and you will soon have the neighbors stocking up the air-raid shelter. 

There are several important elements to learning the saxophone. All play their part in your development. But let’s move on to what may be the most important aspect of learning the Sax. Using the mouthpiece correctly.

Embouchure

How you hold and position your lips on a saxophone’s mouthpiece is called the “embouchure.” This has a tremendous impact on the sound you produce. It requires practice and more practice and is a skill you will achieve quite quickly. You will then develop your technique over some years. 

It is also something you will need a teacher to help you with. I feel it is unlikely to be something you will learn and master through online lessons.

But once you have achieved it, and it will come, all you need to do then is learn and memorize the keys that produce each note. Well, it’s not quite as easy as that. But that is the basis of it.

Finding the notes

One big advantage of the saxophone when compared with some instruments is finding the notes. The finger positions are not as complicated as some woodwind instruments. Even playing higher octaves only requires you to push the “octave key,” all the notes are still the same.

This isn’t the case with the Flute or Clarinet. And of course, Brass instruments may only have three valves, but then there are all the changes in mouth position to remember. So how do you start to play the saxophone? Let’s be specific.

What You Will Need

What You Will Need

I am assuming that you will be starting on the Alto sax. It is slightly smaller than the Tenor and therefore is easier to hold. This isn’t the cheapest instrument to buy, and it is always best if you can get the best your budget will allow. Here is a shortlist of what you are going to need.

The Instrument

Unfortunately, a decent saxophone is going to cost you a bit. If you can help it stay away from cheap, budget models. They often do not perform very well and will make it harder to learn. 

Here is an example of a great instrument that isn’t too expensive from one of the best manufacturers around. The YAMAHA YAS-280 Saxophones Student Alto saxophone.

Mouthpiece and Ligature

Some saxophones for new players will come with a mouthpiece. That is the case with the Yamaha YAS-280 above. I wouldn’t say that they are Yamaha’s top of the range, but it will suffice to start with. 

If you need to upgrade, an option from a world-class manufacturer in France is the Vandoren SM711 AL3 Optimum Series Alto Saxophone Mouthpiece. Most good manufacturers will supply a ligature with the instrument.

Spare Reeds

You will go through reeds quite quickly. So having plenty of spares is always a good idea. A nice option is this box of Vandoren SR213 Alto Sax Traditional Reeds.

Good quality Neck Strap

You will probably be provided with one by the instrument manufacturer. But it might not always be the highest quality. It needs to be comfortable, secure, and durable. In case you need to change it, a good option is this ADORENCE Padded Saxophone Neck Strap.

You will need a case, but many of the better manufacturers provide one. It is an important extra to store the instrument and carry it around if necessary.

Finally, and probably most importantly…

Find yourself an excellent teacher. They will give you technical instructions and ensure that you are getting it right. They can monitor your progress and set you realistic tasks to accomplish.

But importantly, they can be a shoulder to cry on when it sometimes goes wrong. A good teacher will be your instructor but also your mentor and the one who encourages you.

Looking for a Great Saxophone or Sax Accessories?

We have you covered. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Soprano Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Yamaha Saxophones, the Best Selmer Saxophones, and the Best Beginner Saxophones you can buy in 2021.

Also, have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Tenor Sax Mouthpieces, the Best Saxophone Mouthpieces For Jazz, the Best Alto Sax Mouthpieces, the Best Saxophone Reeds for Jazz, and the Best Saxophone Neck Straps currently available.

Is Saxophone Hard to Learn – Final Thoughts

When you start, it is very important to develop your basic saxophone skills. It is going to be time-consuming and, at times, frustrating. But it must be done.

Work on your embouchure, practice your scales and arpeggios. Start to develop your vibrato and learn how to play with dynamics. And, of course, practice as often as you can. 

You have chosen one of the great instruments to play. The Sax is the instrument of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and so many other greats. Very few instruments can stir the emotions like the sax. Love every minute of it.

Until next time, let your music play.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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