Practicing Saxophone

saxophone_practice_PaintingPracticing the right way is what makes you play the saxophone at a higher level.  You also need to get out in the world and play with musicians, but that alone, as Joshua Redman said, will only get you so far.

The late Michael Brecker used to practice many hours a day.  Other master musicians have as well.  You might not have so many hours to dedicate to the instrument, but you can make the most of your practice time.

Think about the goals when you’re practicing.  It’s kind of like fishing.  You prepare certain types of bait to catch certain fish.

You practice certain things to prepare for performing different styles and with different ends in mind.

If you need to refine your technique, it might be good to spend more time working meticulously on classical music.

If you want to strengthen your sound, spend more time on long tones and ballads.

If you rhythm isn’t solid in a style of music, slow down and check out what’s going on within the rhythm section.

Practice Tips:

Doing things like putting your horn on stand and making it available to practice can help.

George Young suggested to me dividing practice time on saxophone into three equal parts.  It’s a good basis to build your practice routine with, although of course you can make changes based on where you want to go personally.

1.Long tones and ballads

These will help develop your tone. Maintaining a steady tone with intensity takes some work, especially at low volumes.

2. Scales

-including ‘microscales’ (part of the scale, say 3,4,5 notes of it) and varying the articulation

slowly and intentionally, moving toward mastery

arpeggios- major, minor, modes

play everything like music, even one note

Oliver Nelson, Jackie McLean books.  These books have patterns in them that you can work on.

Here’s a ‘digital lick’ played around the circle of fourths.  The movement in fourths happens in music pretty often. You’ll move from the I to the IV, that’s a fourth, in the blues. And from the V to the I is also a movement of a fourth. So those are two common harmonic transitions. If you practice something in one key and then move up a fourth, it will sound like the harmonic movement you might hear in a song.

digital_lick_tenor_circle_of_fourths_saxophone_tribe (mp3, right click and save)

3. Tunes, etc

As you practice, if you run into a pothole, you can make an exercise out of it.  To do that,  take it up a 1/2 step, down a 1/2 step, take it around the block using the circle of fifths, try it at different tempos, with different feelings, etc.

Classical  music will heighten sensitivity to music, sound, develop your chops.  Building up a classical repertoire on saxophone will help your playing and clean up a lot of things.  If you can master things like  Glasanov, Ibert, Creston, Al Gladoro, Marcel Mule, etc, then you are going to be a better player in whatever style you want to play.  You’ll get into the finger points, things like perfectly executed crescendos and the right shortness of staccato.

As you practice, you may want to circle trouble areas and focus on them.  And you don’t always want to practice a piece from start to finish, try working on endings first and making way back to front once in a while.

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Ermel April 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm

are you going to go over the circle of fifths, from a player’s view?
I would like that.


Neal April 10, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Hey Mel,
So the movement in fourths happens in music pretty often. You’ll move from the I to the IV, that’s a fourth, in the blues. And from the V to the I is also a movement of a fourth. So those are two common harmonic transitions.

If you practice something in one key and then move up a fourth, it will sound like the harmonic movement you might hear in a song. What else would you like to know about it?


Ermel October 23, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Please illustrate this!


Neal October 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm

Hey Mel, just uploaded a file where I play a lick and go around the circle of fourths. So C to F to Bb to Eb, etc. The transition should sound like something you have heard in music before.


Mike Solomon August 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I haven’t been practicing as much has I’d like, but it’s definitely been a lot more than I use to. I haven’t made it all the way through the 25 daily exercises during a day yet, but I’ll get there sometime!

I’m working on three pieces including Charlie Parker’s Yardbird Suite. This one will take a little while due to some of the faster licks. I just started on it today, and I have the first 15-16 bars of the sax portion down decent and the 8 bar intro down pretty dang good at medium tempo. I’m starting to memorize the pieces I’m working on so I can focus on tone and expression without worrying about fingering.

Just a practice update. It feels odd just posting comments, and maybe a forum format could be on the horizon to the tune of Sax On The Web. It wouldn’t need to be as intricate, but it’s a suggestion 🙂


Neal August 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Hey Mike,
You want to get through those exercises at a tempo you can play them accurately and that will take some time to develop.

Have you been practicing the Lindeman exercise?

I might change the format of Saxophone Tribe at some point, thanks for the suggestion. In other ways I have more flexibility using what is up now, the pages can be updated and you don’t have to scroll through multiple pages of comments. Not trying to be quite like Sax on the Web.



Mike Solomon August 14, 2012 at 3:17 pm

I have been working on the Lindeman exercises. My fingers are staying a little closer to the keys, but I still get fly-away with the pinkies. I try to use the 25 exercises also to work on keeping my fingers in position. That is probably part of why I’m taking a good bit of time with them!


Neal August 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm

Hey Mike,
Glad to hear you’ve been working on it. Since you’re mentioning the Klose, maybe I’ll put those exercises up on here and record a few. You’ll find that you can practice fingering position with everything you play and that it will keep getting better as you’re conscious of it.


KT February 17, 2013 at 6:59 pm

I practiced 1 hr 40 mins minimun every weekday. Weekends from zero to 2 hours. I do scales, up to Db/C# which is slower than any others. I also do Lindeman. Some songs, and long tones. I FEEL LIKE I HIT A WALL. My neighbors swear I am better, yes they hear the good, the bad and the ugly. I think they just like the consistent tone and some familiar songs. Being stuck on Jamaica but getting parts of several other songs down is confusing. FIVE notes gets me stuck?
Does anyone have suggestions for what helped?


Neal February 17, 2013 at 8:19 pm

You’ve almost got that one, you played four notes instead of five. So just make your last note into two notes. Sounds like you’re getting quite a bit of practice in.


KT February 17, 2013 at 7:19 pm

Sat Kate 1 Resistance 0
Sun Kate 1 Resistance 0


Peter L February 17, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Chaotic practice!
Like the idea of a practice score. “Resistance” is an intriguing notion as is “chaos” as they are terms that dominate my practice at present. My score last week was poor- practice 2-resistance 5! This hint has caught my attention!
I have responded to obsessing over lindeman by just reverting to it whenever i reach a “pothole”
For example when i have difficulties with a phrase, i now “slow it down” and focus on keeping my fingers curled and in contact. Definitely helps. Sometimes i feel overloaded, eg, have too many practice items to work on and this causes resistance. I then revert to playing tunes and forgetting the rest then just fooling around playing long tones as part of a tune or scale to break up the monotony.
My main enemy is memory as i reach advancing years but i won’t give up!
Thanks for the heads ups


Neal February 17, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Hey Peter,
You should probably be able to do better than 2/7 this week then, sometimes it’s good to keep track. Practicing more often will make it more of a habit and you won’t have to think of it as much.

Slowing down and working on the transitions like the Lindeman is a good idea in songs sometimes.

And playing tunes is good too, you want to have fun as well!


Sam Golden February 18, 2013 at 10:06 am

Sunday: Practice lindeman, Misty, St James Infurmary, How high the moon, and slow songs. Up tempo tunes still challenging, Without sheetmusic; lost, few scales,play by ear emproving little. Monday: Sam 2 Resistance 0


Neal February 18, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Sounds like things are coming along Sam, keep it up! If you want to play fast, you start slow.


KT February 18, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Monday 2 18 2013
Kate 1.25 resistance .75
I practiced less than usual. Appts from 11-5.
Scales, Lindeman, ballads, just messing around trying to work on fingering. Db / C# scales is still slow.
Still playing only parts of Desperado, Nights in White Satin, Moon Dance, Fever, but review God Bless the Child every few days. Jamaica….not sending it until it feels and sounds better.


Neal February 19, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Might want to focus a little more on Jamaica Farwell, you’re pretty close to having it right.


Ted February 19, 2013 at 8:36 am

My sax is on a stand in the dining room so I sometimes practice several times a day but not really on a scheduled basis and just doing whatever comes to mind. I’m going to try to be more disciplined in future and follow a planned sequence:
1. Scales
2. Lindeman
3. Long Tones
4. Circle Of Fourths (thanks for posting that mp3 Neal, I didn’t understand what it was ’til I heard it).
5. Whatever I want.

Some days I have to travel overnight so I miss a day here and there and so can’t really rate myself using the practice/resistance model.


Neal February 19, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Hey Ted,
That’s a good idea to have it out like that.

You might be able to adapt it for the days when you are able to practice.


KT February 19, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Kate 1.45 min resistance 0
Played Jamaica 4 times after Lindeman & scales warm up. Played parts of some new songs, played some nothing to feel music and hear it, played Jamaica two more times.


Gil February 20, 2013 at 7:13 am

On 2/19th practiced 1 hour 10 min,
0 resistance. Long Tones, Scales, Practiced Lindeman B to D combo, practiced Jamaica, played part of song entitled Satin Doll by Duke Ellington, sent in recordings for critique by Neal.


Neal February 20, 2013 at 11:36 am

Hey Gil, last recordings I got from you yesterday, not sure if you sent something more. Thanks


Gil February 20, 2013 at 4:59 pm

No I havent set anything since yesterday.


KT February 20, 2013 at 5:20 pm

KT Practice 20 Feb 2013:
Kate 1:45 Resistance 0

I expected to practice this long use to practice being more fun than other tasks.

Jamaica Farewell, scales, tried more time on Db/C# scale, Lindeman, ballads-long tones and went back to harmonics.


KT February 21, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Neal, Uncle Sam put on some resistance yesterday, but today, he won the tug o war!

Kate Practice Feb 21:
Kate 0 Resistance 2.0


KT February 22, 2013 at 8:01 pm

KT 2/22/2013 Practice
KT 2.25. Resistance 0

Did usual skills based practice, some songs and Jamaica at least a dozen times.

For some reason, I went “retro” and pulled my beginner book. Lindeman works! Same songs I started with were smooth, in rhythm, and easy to play smoothly while sight reading. It was a good experience to have proof of growth! Whew!


KT February 23, 2013 at 5:59 pm

KT 23feb2013 Practice

Kate 2 Resistance 0

That is time, not quality time todat. Yesterday was a great day- except for Jamaica. Who knew 5 notes had so many permutations? I will spare you today’s recordings of Jamaica….I looked at wavelengths on GB and listened….no two ad the same problem..not one was it!

Knights in White Satin is cool!


KT February 25, 2013 at 12:11 am

Kate 2.0. Resistance 0


KT February 25, 2013 at 6:42 pm

KT 1.50 Resistance 0.50

Not sure I can bring my saxophone on a trip of almost 3 wks. My case is on softer side with two straps….and both places I will stay have dogs. There is an outdoor music shell walking distance….if I find a way to transport it safely, I will try.


Neal February 26, 2013 at 8:06 pm

You should be able to fly with an alto as your carry on, or maybe look into renting one if you want to play there.


KT February 26, 2013 at 5:29 pm

My dad said close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. He should have included music, especially Jamaica Farewell on sax.


Neal February 26, 2013 at 8:09 pm

When you’re practicing music, you keep getting closer and closer. But yeah, I would say it counts to some extent when you’re close compared to being nowhere near where something should be.


KT February 27, 2013 at 3:30 am

KT Practice Feb 26
Kate 0 Resistance 2.0

Getting ready to travel…did work on other music/writing. Hope to get in at least an hour before leaving tomorrow.
May be nice to practice where no one can hear due ocean waves and wind!


KT February 27, 2013 at 3:31 am

KT Practice Feb 26
Kate 0 Resistance 2.0

Getting ready to travel…did work on other music/writing. Hope to get in at least an hour before leaving tomorrow.
May be nice to practice where no one can hear due ocean waves and wind!

Home close may be an improvement, but it is not good enough to play with others.


KT March 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm

KT practice Feb 27
Kate O Resistance 2.

KT practice Feb 28
Kate 2mins! Resistance/dog 2.o
He ran before I played a note! Ran further when I actually played a measure. Tried later…just as bad. There is a summer outdoor music shell, that some locals use to practice in other seasons…even winter. I hope to get up there a few times.


KT March 2, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Kate Practice 2March2013
Kate 1. resistance 1.
Traveling. Got in one hour as quietly as I could. Any longer seemed rude and boring….I am. Guest…scales and Linderman are not great for those with me. I also did not bring much music with me.

Playing quietly on sax is not easy!


KT March 3, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Kate Practice 3 March 2013
Kate 0 Resistance 1
I hope for at least an hour a day….not getting that on this trip.


KT March 5, 2013 at 3:09 pm

KT Practice
Kate 1 Resistance 0

Kate 1.50 Resistance

Lots of listening to songs for ear training-my especially week point.


KT March 6, 2013 at 2:45 pm

KT Practice 6March2013
Kate .25 Resistance .75
One song today, ear training on Norwegian Wood, scales and Lindeman. C# scale is easier, but only done very very slowly.


Neal March 6, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Hey Kate,
I thought I sort of understood your numbering system, that your points were the number of minutes you practiced? Or fraction of an hour? (the system I had in mind just uses whole numbers, either 1 for you or 1 for resistance per day)

But I don’t understand it with decimals for resistance.

What does a resistance of 0.75 mean?



KT March 6, 2013 at 11:29 pm

Hey Neal,
I usually practice 1.5 to 2.0 hours. If I give resistance a .75 it means I practiced 45 mins or 3/4 arts of an hour less than I plan/expect to it into the day.

So today, I hoped for an hour, but oly managed 15 minutes, so resistance/ something got in the way costing me 45 mins from my plan for today….I knew I had long meetings and family things.


KT March 8, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Practice 7March2013 thru 10March
Kate 0. Resistance 3

Do not have sax with me this part of travels.


KT March 11, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Practice 10MARCH2013
Kate 1 Resistance 0
Lindeman, scales, harmonics and review of songs from way back….Norwegian Wood first phrases by ear. Still traveling and not able to play as long or everyday.

Next week I have a few hours at JFK. Should I take sax out and put a Red Sox cap out for donations? Kidding.


Vijai Anand March 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Hey Neal,
When we practise like for Guitar players there are website such as tells the chord. Is there anything similar for saxophone? I think this may help once we listen to the song and know the scales and then practise?


KT March 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Kate 1 Resistance 1
Played, but only 30 mins when at home my minimum goal is an hour to 2 hours.

Before I got my sax, I loved to travel and did so easily, spur of the moment trips to other continents twice. Now I feel like part of my day is missing when I don’t practice for a couple of days.


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