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Beginner How Do You Know You're Progressing?

randulo

Playing alto 2 1/2 years
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When you are young, say under 10 years old, progress from zero is relatively easy to measure. You typically would have an adult teacher who gives you progressively harder studies. That person will see how you are playing the exercises and pieces you're learning. As an adult learner from, say, 20 and up, beginner or intermediate, it's potentially less easy to see how you're doing. We all know there are up and down days, and mostly we're not truly satisfied with our progress. So I wondered,

How do you know you are moving up, forward, getting better at running this infernal machine called saxophone?

(In other words, moving towards the goal(s) you have set for yourself)

In a recent post about overtones, we talked about this in the sense that it is a specific goal in and of itself as well as a path to better altissimo mastery. In fact, I write this today, because in practicing overtones, you have a very precise measure of progress in that task. You either can or can not repeatedly hit a particular note. For example, yesterday, I know I am nearing a plateau in this work, because I get closer and closer to being able to confidently hit the 4th overtone on the first few notes. The exercise common to most everything I've read or watched involves playing the second (octave) overtone from low ("long-fingered") Bb up to F or further. I'd call that a good step, once you can do that. Then that part can be refined by further work on tone. That often involves matching the overtone with the same note's normal fingering or trying to slur between a low note and its first octave (or other) overtone.

Overtones are but one small part of learning to play the saxophone, so how do you measure progress in the rest of the "requirements", again to arrive at your goal, not to be the next Brecker.

I suppose you could measure the speed at which you can repeatedly play a chromatic scale from bottom to top and back? Does that act constitute a part of your goal? Few would answer yes. :p

You could measure the speed at which you can play usable scales, arpeggios, melodies accurately. But is speed alone your goal? Again... no.

It occurred to me on the way to the store that another "test" is how softly you can play notes, especially the lower ones. They are usually a challenge for new players, but eventually this improves. It's one of the too numerous things I'm doing these days. The improvement in that area is obvious as it happens, although it varies with reeds and mouthpieces (and saxes, I suppose).

Does outside approval help? Increased 'likes' on social? Sales? Downloads? I think they do help, to an extent, but only if you agree, you're progressing.

Aside from rigorous mathematical analysis such as highest tempo for a particular sequence of notes which we've found wanting, how do YOU think about this? Or do you think about it at all? And what about once you have reached your goals? Do you move the goalpost?
 
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Wonko

Member
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335
First of all, even as an adult one can have a teacher that gives you progressively more advanced targets. There are even on-line teachers available that seem quite good.
I am 50+ and still taking weekly lessons at the same music academy where my wife and daughter take music lessons.
....
One can set personal goals of course. Not everybody has the same perspective of where you want to get or what music you want to play. And it seems logical that those goalpost will move when you get there (or more likely they will automatically move forward once you get a bit closer)
Personally I try not to compare myself with others that are more advanced than I am. I try to be pleased with every little step that I manage to advance my own level of playing.
Sometimes I get the impression that I am not advancing at all. But when I look back to what I was doing a year ago, I find quite a bit of progress anyway.
 
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randulo

randulo

Playing alto 2 1/2 years
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Personally I try not to compare myself with others that are more advanced than I am. I try to be pleased with every little step that I manage to advance my own level of playing.
Sometimes I get the impression that I am not advancing at all. But when I look back to what I was doing a year ago, I find quite a bit of progress anyway.
I think most people are as you state.
 

Hipparion

Member
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242
Could you precise what you mean with 'goal' ?

I am asking because it seems to me that once a goal has been set, the measure of whether it has been reached or not is automatically defined, e.g. 'being able to play the head of Cherokee at 400bpm in all 12 keys' is a goal and knowing when you reach it is very easy.

Knowing how far you are from the goal may be more difficult though... was that your question ?

The difficulty would actually be to estimate where you are when you don't have a precise goal...

And the goalpost is automatically moved. If not, your interest in the saxophone (or at least that part of the saxophone) is dead and you're very likely to focus on something different...
 
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randulo

randulo

Playing alto 2 1/2 years
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Yes, "precise goal" may be hard to define. I have goals, plural, but they're not speed-related. I've said many times that my main goal is to be able to play what I hear in my head, and that's really hard to measure progress in. As I said, speed goals are easily measured, you either can or can't play X at speed S. If you started at 80 and now are at 95, that's progress, even without a goal.

I think it's probably a good thing, just to think about goals, and whether you have any. Just wanna have fun? That's a goal, but not something you can really measure, nor wish to evaluate. "Am I having fun yet?" Yes, that's one of my goals, too, but I'm succeeding wildly there.

I think I could state my most important goal like this: I would like someday, to feel that most of the time, when I pick up the instrument, it is an extension of me. That I am able to communicate the empathy, sorry, joy and tears with it. A lofty goal indeed, and not measurable, except subjectively.
 

GCinCT

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This is an interesting and thought provoking question as there are many different goals that are possible and some more difficult to measure than others.

I think we could start with the broadest of goals, to get "better". Yes, that is vague but if we then go ahead to define the areas that make us better (different for every individual) I think it's a springboard to more specific goals.

The areas for me where I see progress are:

Tone - I know from recording myself and feedback from other people I sound better. Obviously, better means different things to different players. I am better at playing the sound that is in my head, the alto tone that I prefer. This includes more accurate intonation in any situation, better control over dynamics and I'm even developing the ability to change my timbre to fit the musical situation.

Technique - I can play not only faster, but more accurately. I pick up on the things I'm learning more quickly. I would also include in this embellishments such as falls, glisses and turns. When I first joined my current big band in September 2018, I could not perform any of these and although they still need work, I can now play them pretty well.

Sight Reading - I have a long way to go on this one, but I am much better. Complex pieces of music are still difficult, but I can read the simpler ones well and don't get completely lost like I once did.

Playing what I hear - Perhaps difficult to measure, but it is testable. I sing a line and then try to play it. I can do that much more quickly and accurately than I could since I started and with more complex lines. When improvising, I am very often playing what I hear, what I would scat sing over the changes.

Keeping my place in the changes - I used to get lost and jump to the next chord too quickly., Although I knew the progression, I was never exactly sure what chord I was on during an improvisation. Using my ears, I am able to keep my place much better, knowing what the current chord is and knowing what and when the next is. My improvs feel much more free. I just play without having to really think about it.

Really good thread, I think we can all learn from each other regarding goals and how we know we are reaching them.
 

thomsax

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3,679
For some months ago I began to send mp3's to a player in USA. I was so tired of playing the same things all the time. He told me that I should play more "soul" and "ballads" because of my tone and lack technique. "A big and personal tone but don't struggle with playing the top notes ..... relax and don't play too much".

My goal is to continue to play in a blues band. As a part in a hornsection but also to be able to play a solo. Transcribed or improvised. I'm not getting better. I'm glad if I can play my saxes in the way I like and that they other guys want to have me in the band/group. 2-3 "gigs" at small streets festivals, good food and beer, nice hang ..... . The blues is great. Easy to play. It's more "Love, Peace and Understanding". That was not the case when I tried to play jazz.
 

Juju_Birdie

Member
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45
Well, my goals are small since I'm only a month or so in:) But my goals this week after my first actual lessons were pretty simple- remember to ret my upper teeth on the mouthpiece (harder than it sounds as I spent three weeks not doing that) and keeping my fingers close to the keys.
 

GCinCT

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Well, my goals are small since I'm only a month or so in:) But my goals this week after my first actual lessons were pretty simple- remember to ret my upper teeth on the mouthpiece (harder than it sounds as I spent three weeks not doing that) and keeping my fingers close to the keys.
You're going about it the right way. Small goals first. Every aspect of your embouchure position is important so it's very smart to take the time to focus on those things at the beginning.
 

jbtsax

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I think I could state my most important goal like this: I would like someday, to feel that most of the time, when I pick up the instrument, it is an extension of me. That I am able to communicate the empathy, sorry, joy and tears with it. A lofty goal indeed, and not measurable, except subjectively.
I think that is what most serious musicians aspire to regardless of the style of music they perform. In my own case this has been more of a journey than a destination. Let's just say I have had my "moments" over the years while performing that I have felt this inside, but they have been few and far between.
 
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randulo

randulo

Playing alto 2 1/2 years
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Come to think of it (today), a definite line can be drawn when you're able to move comfortably around the rollers while making those low notes. This was a huge challenge and is getting much better.
 

CliveMA

Member
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528
I've started using the voice memo on my iPad to record snippets of my playing and I think I can hear progress. Some notes still sound dreadful but every now and again i can hear something almost musical!
I record snippetts regularly. I include a short verbal description, "Reed Hemke 2.5" as I like to vary reeds quite a lot. I also keep a short written diary on my phone where I record date, length of practice, reed and what my primary focus that session was eg, "Klose fingering exercises 1 &2" or "timing on middle phrases on Summertime." It is interesting to review the diary and see progress over time.
 

Lounge Lizard

New Member
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3
To me, there were two things in my saxophone playing which were driving me really crazy for a long time.
No. 1: lack of tone control. For a long time, I had to struggle to get a decent sound at all out of the instrument, and making the instrument sound at all took so much of my energy that there was no energy left to make the sound musical. So I did embouchure and tone control exercises every day half an hour before moving on to something else (like improvising or playing a piece of music). This eventually helped me to shift my efforts from tone production itself to shaping the tone the way I wanted.
No. 2: lack of phrasing (which probably had a lot to do with the lack of tone control). Over the time, the tone came out more readily and more the way I wanted it to sound, but all I played sounded the same, even if I was able to play at different dynamics meanwhile. I wanted to use the saxophone like a voice, where you can use the tone of your voice to express feelings, like sounding glad or angry or happy or whatever.
I'm still far away from expressing myself on the saxophone, but what helped me for the phrasing was to transcribe and copy the music of some good professional saxophonists. I did not only play along with their solos, but also tried to copy the way they played the theme. I'm still striving to achieve control over the "Tonfall" of my playing (please excuse the German word, it's the only one which expresses what I mean).

What I wanted to say with this lenghty post: You will feel that you are getting better when you have certain pain points which you overcome by practising. If your goals feel diffuse like "getting better" or "getting faster", it might be worth the effort to analyze what exactly this means to you, and which features of your present playing prevent you from playing the way you want to.

I'm also very much in favor of taking lessons with a good teacher who understands where you want to go and can help you on this way.
 
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