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Beginners Explanations for beginners

When I got my first saxophone about six months ago I found plenty of books and net information about how to attach a reed, make a 't' sound, play simple tunes using just a few notes, music theory, etc.

What was missing were answers to the 'why' questions, the ones that are a barrier to the beginner and only become obvious once you've been playing for some time.

So for the benefit of any other newcomers who find their way to this site , here's some ideas - feel free to comment.

1. The arms of a saxophone player stay still, unlike (for example) piano, guitar, violin, where the arms and hands all move around to find the notes. With the sax, only the fingers move (and hands a little bit) so rather than fingers going to the notes, the notes have to come to the fingers. This is why there are so many rods, hinges and little wig-wags all over the body of the saxophone - they extend the fingers to places that the fingers can't reach.

2. If all the rods, hinges and wig-wags were put on the inside (like a piano) they would spoil the airflow, so they have to be on the outside. They are fairly strong, but not so strong that they can't be bent if you use them to pick up the sax. Therefore pick up the sax by the bell. Yes, that puts fingermarks on the bell, but since blowing down the thing means liberal amounts of spit go down as well, face up to the fact that that cleaning the sax inside and out is a necessary part of the fun of sax playing

3. Generally speaking, the more open holes that you have on a sax, the higher the note that you will produce and one key pressed down = one pad opening. However, there are exceptions.Some holes are put in special places on the tube where they break up the airflow in such a way that only sounds an octave higher can be produced. The hole nearest the mouthpiece is such a one. It is operated by a key held down by the left thumb.

4. The special trick about the octave key is that all other fingering remains the same. So if you hold down the keys needed for the note G in the first octave (the lowest G) and then press the octave key with your thumb, then G an octave higher should sound. I say should, because it might produce a squeak or a gurgle instead. This is because everything you play depends on how you hold the mouthpiece in your mouth and how you blow though it and lots of other subtle things that sax players get to know when they've been playing for long enough.

5. There are more notes available on a saxophone than the number of fingers on a normal person. This means all sorts of fancy gadgetry has been invented to overcome this. The three keys that stick out on the left hand side near the top play high notes and are actually played by the insides of the knuckles and the inside of the palm. Likewise there are three rectangular keys in a row about halfway up on the right hand side that are played by the inside of the knuckle of the first finger. All of these special keys are particularly suitable for 'trilling' because it is easier the move the hand in and out fast than it is to move a finger up and down.

6. Both your little fingers have got a lot to do. The left little finger operates those four keys arranged in a square. Three of them play low notes (when other fingers of both hands are holding keys down) and the fourth is a higher G# (which only uses left hand fingers). The right little finger operates one or other of those pads with rollers which play low notes. Moving a little finger up and down isn't too bad; but moving it sideways while the other fingers stay still is probably easiest for people who have done extensive shadow-puppetry earlier in life.

7. Not only can certain notes on the saxophone be played by using alternate combinations of keys (some of which sound more muffled than others), but various very high notes (altissimo) that Mr Sax never originally intended can be squeezed out by a combination of keys, breath control and reed control. This is used by saxophone players to sort out the men from the boys.

7. If you are the type of person who likes to learn in stages so that each new note learnt will bring you the joys of Frere Jacques and then Jingle bells, there are certainly training books and videos out there. On the other hand, if you want to play along to backing tracks or recordings, then you might as well find out where all the notes are in one hit, since B/Ts and recordings will need knowledge of a wide range of notes. The best fingering chart that I've found for demonstrating all the notes from a baritone low A to the highest altissimo is
If nothing else, it's helpful to know what the limits are.
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