Are you new to the sax? Unsure of which saxophone you should be learning on? I’m here to help…
The short answer is I always recommend that people start learning on an Alto Saxophone.
“Why?” you might ask…
So, as you might have gathered I’ve been teaching for quite a few years now and during that time I have literally taught hundreds of saxophone students. I’ve taught complete beginners (both adults and children) right the way through to advanced level students studying for their performance based degrees at the London College of Music.
I’ve seen how a lot of people handle and can cope with the various types of saxophone at different stages of their advancement and have drawn some conclusions.
The four main types of saxophone are as follows (ordered in descending pitch – links to relevant wikipedia entries): –
There are actually quite a few more types of saxophone (both at the extremes of pitch, but also in the middle ie. the C Melody Saxophone), but these listed four are by far the most common and so for this post I’ll stick to these for the basis of this post.
The Alto Saxophone isn’t the smallest saxophone and it isn’t the lightest in weight, but it is arguably the easiest to control and so is the most popular of saxophones for students to begin on. Rightly so in my opinion.
Basically all of the saxophones have some degree of a trade off between the ease of control against its weight and size and so to me the Alto seems like the most logical choice with it’s balancing of these points. Roughly speaking the Alto Saxophone weighs around 2.5 kg, so most children from the age of 9-10 years old (depending upon their size) should be able to cope with the weight of the instrument, and then as the instrument is on the smaller side of things (compared to the Tenor and Baritone) the amount of air required to produce a note is relatively easily achieved.
In my experience I find that within weeks (as long as they practise regularly) a student can usually create tones relatively close to actual pitch across the middle of the range, and within 1-2 years this is extended across the full range of the instrument. This isn’t saying that tuning is spot on by this point (of course not!), just rather that the student’s control of the saxophone is allowing them to produce a decent tone with tuning that is acceptable and pitches in relation to each other.
The Soprano Saxophone is by far the lightest of four main saxophones but developing a stable embouchure to help create consistent tuning is very difficult indeed. This is due to the amount of pressure your mouth needs to be able to withstand and exert on the mouthpiece to be able to produce a stable tone. Whilst it is quite easy to get a note to speak in the middle register, basically playing the soprano can be completely battering for your bottom lip (yes, ouch!) if you are to play it in tune, and also completely battering for everyone else’s ears if you are not able to control it!
At the bottom end of the four saxophones we have the Baritone. This is a beautiful instrument with such versatility. The baritone can have a gorgeous, rich and singing tone at times, but absolute weight and power in sound at others (playing the baritone saxophone in big band or funk band horn sections is really excellent fun and hugely recommended!). However, due to it’s size, obviously the weight and practicality of the instrument can be an issue for children (I don’t think I’ve ever recommended a student to try out the Baritone until they around 15-16 years old). Combine that with the sheer quantity of air required to support tone production on the instrument and it can be a fiendishly difficult saxophone for even advanced level saxophonists to control.
Finally we get to the Tenor Saxophone. If people definitely don’t want to start on the Alto Saxophone then usually this is the instrument that they go for. It’s not too much of a bad compromise size wise (although like the Baritone it’s not really suitable for anyone in their pre-teenage years), but in my experience I have found the issue for the beginner to intermediate level student has been that they haven’t been able to achieve a stable enough embouchure so that they can produce the lower notes on the instrument. Students often either relax their jaw considerably creating the “subtone” sound (ultimately a desirable technique to achieve on the sax, but they often struggle to get anything lower than a low D to speak as it requires a great deal of control), or they go the other way and are too tight with their embouchure (resulting in lots of squeaks and unplanned overtones). In the lower register the Tenor Saxophone can really be a tricky beast to master!
Now in fear that I am coming across as too negative here, I must state I’m not advising students against ever playing these saxophones (far from it!). I love it when students explore the possibilities of the different instruments, with their unique characteristics and repertoire. I just recommend that a student gains a sure footing first with their technique and knowledge of music prior to diversifying on to other saxes, and I believe that this solid foundation is achieved at it’s quickest rate when a student begins on the the Alto Saxophone.
I hope that both makes sense and helps!
Also, for more pointers for those of you just starting out on your saxophone and music making journey please do check out my post “5 Top Tips for Beginner Saxophonists“. I hope you find it useful.
The saxophone is such a wonderful instrument and can be an absolute joy to play! If you’d like to find out more about the different types of saxophones and which would be the most suitable for you to learn on, or if you would like to enquire into having saxophone lessons with Nathan please do get in touch at anytime.