Having a good technique on the saxophone is vital in so many ways whether we play in a jazz, pop or classical context. For example, when we improvise a jazz solo we want the freedom to express what we want to say through the saxophone at that very moment. It’s having command of our instrument that allows us to do this. I’ll therefore try and answer how you can improve your saxophone technique in this article below with some useful tips and advice.
So, you want a good technique? These are the things you should be practising as part of your routine: –
Yes, I’m afraid so…
Unfortunately there’s no dodging this one. If you want to improve your technique on the saxophone (or any instrument for that matter) then you need to get to grips with at the very least your major and minor scales.
The ability to play scales fluently is vital as if you look for them they are everywhere. We need them for jazz improvisation. You’ll find them in Bach. We even use them when playing with a DJ to the latest house music dance track!
How should we practise them?
Firstly, grab your metronome. Think of your metronome as a long trusted best friend. A metronome tells it to you as it is, i.e. bluntly. It will let you know when you are playing accurately, and also when you are not. You just need to make sure you listen to it, and heed its advice!
Okay, but what does that mean?
In short, regardless of your ability you need to make sure the notes of scale line up with clicks of the metronome. Just adjust the tempo of the metronome to a speed you are comfortable with.
Take a look a this example of G major for a twelve below.
Make sure you listen to how the scale sounds. The notes should be of an even length and dynamic. Try and keep your tone quality consistent across the range of the scale, whether your are playing slurred, legato-tongued or staccato.
Full Range Scales
Once you are on top of your scales for the usual range of a twelve or two octaves, try advancing on to full range scales. These are exactly what their name suggests. Always go up to the highest possible note within the scale (ie. F, F# or Gb) and down to the lowest (ie. B, Bb or A#) before returning to the tonic/root.
Again, here’s an example using G major.
Scales in Thirds
Scales in thirds are also a great way to improve dexterity. A scale in thirds is where you leapfrog a note as you move up or down the scale. Again, once the basic versions of the scales are under the fingers and even progress to playing these over the full range as shown in the examples below.
You’ll notice I’ve written these last two examples in semi-quavers. Once you are comfortable with playing scales evenly in quavers, do try and progress to playing them in semi-quavers. Doing this is a great way to help you think and ultimately play in faster speeds.
I guess I’ve listed scales as the No.1 area to work on as they are so important if your want to improve your technique on the saxophone. Just think, have you ever met a great saxophonist who doesn’t know their scales?!
2. Exercises & Patterns
Including technical exercises into your practise routine is a great way to improve fluency across the full range of your saxophone. They can seem rather monotonous, but if you have the discipline to stick with them, they can be extremely beneficial.
Often in a classical context exercises will look to improve the evenness of your finger work and tone quality. A good example of these are the “Exercices Mecaniques” by Jean-Marie Londeix. These come in three volumes and focus on awkward intervals and fingerings with increasing difficulty. Working on these can be quite punishing at times, but in the long run can really improve your playing.
We use exercises and patterns in a different way when studying jazz. Here we aim to create a form of muscle memory, so that the language of jazz flows as naturally as possible when we improvise.
Take a look at the following exercise which explores one such pattern common in jazz.
I wrote these exercises to focus on a very common piece of jazz language found in solos by the absolute greats of the genre. It fits a one bar “major II-V” chord progression and includes the spelling out of the minor seventh arpeggio followed by a sort of loop that includes the b9 of the dominant before landing on a chord tone at the start of the next bar.
If you listen to any of the great bebop players you’ll hear this pattern everywhere! In these short exercises you therefore cover the pattern right across the range of saxophone and in all twelve keys. All of which helps improve fluency for when we improvise.
Here’s a free pdf of the exercises in the image above (five in total) for you to download and use when you practise: –
3. Etudes & Studies
I love a good etude and there are so many for us to choose from to study.
They often focus on specific areas of your playing whilst being more melodic, and therefore enjoyable, than exercises. Areas focused can include articulation, dexterity of finger work, tone quality and phrasing. They can therefore be great way to improve your technique on the saxophone!
If you are new to practising studies and of an intermediate to advanced level on the saxophone, a good place to start are the 48 Ferling Etudes. These are great as there is a fast and slow etude in all twelve major and minor keys. They are a great introduction technical pieces without being too fiendishly difficult.
I’m a big fan of using etudes with my jazz saxophone students. Using them can be a great way to introduce the learner to the language of jazz and help improve a student’s phrasing. They often come with backing tracks and so can be great for working on knowledge of rhythm and pulse, plus are fantastic fun too!
For example, the study book “14 Jazz & Funk Etudes” by Bob Mintzer is truly excellent. It is full of useful language for the jazz saxophonist and has top-notch backing tracks to practise along to.
As you can see technique is extremely important if we want to become an accomplished saxophonist. Hopefully this article will give you some ideas you can incorporate into your practise routine as a way to improve your technique on the saxophone. Whilst working on this area of your playing can feel boring and tedious at times, if you can persevere you will reap the benefits in the long run. At the end of the day, what have you got to loose? Give it a go and feel free to let me know. I’m always happy to help with pointers and advice.
I hope you enjoyed this post. If you would like to know more about my saxophone teaching, or if you have any queries about any of the points mentioned please do not hesitate to get in touch. I’d love to hear from you!