My teacher always says the music sounds best when you get the music off the page.
She is not suggesting I learn it by heart, but that I learn it well enough that I don't need to religiously read every note pitch and length.
It took me many years to truly understand that "music" is what you hear---not what you see on a page. What is written down by the composer/arranger is merely a rough outline of how the sounds are to be created and is just a fraction of the whole. The rest is supplied by the performer's experience, musicianship, and emotional investment in the piece.
Have you considered thinking without playing? This may seem weird, but I find that most of my practicing goes on when I'm not playing the instrument and I'm just thinking about it...
Last week I had a gig in a good venue in London, it'd taken about 10 months to arrange so despite having a heavy cold the week before, I couldn't cancel nor could I practice with a sore throat and all the other symptoms, so apart from a quick blow before I packed my horn (and Lemsip), all the practicing I could do was to think about what I was going to play. The gig went well, the trio played better than ever and we got paid £200...
I'm not saying that you shouldn't pracice at all, but I think it's omportant to think about what you're practicing and why you're doing it and have some reason to be doing it all.
When I bought my first sax I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it and have pursued that goal. As a result there's a lot I don't know about saxophone playing, not because I'm no interested it's just that there are only so many hours in a lifetime.... but there are also things I've discovered that few others are interested in...
I think it's important to figure out what you want from music (and life) and learn to explore it for yourself and develop the musicality within you.
Sheet music is just a map, it's not the real landscape and some aspects of music are un-map-able - those are the places that are the most fun to explore if you can get over your fear of dragons and falling off the edge of the world. If you don't explore, no one else will do it for you and you'll never know what you've missed. Exploration can become part of your practice, you can even do it with long tones...
It is interesting you should say this. I have been "working on" the song Bewitched with my saxophone in the case. I have listened repeatedly to Paul Desmond's recording, and I have listened to the changes in the backing track I made while hearing notes, motifs and phrases in my head. Sometimes I mentally finger the saxophone as I hear these notes in my mind, and sometimes I just listen.
according to some, you may have to practice it a 1000 times before it's yours...
but feel free to encourage your students to go off piste and explore their instruments for themselves. The musicians I learnt from always encouraged me to find things out for myself and reminded me that the rules are only guidelines and not set in stone.
As Halfers has pointed out, credit for the phrase 'the map is not the territory' should go the Alfred Korzybski - it's been many years since I read any of his work, but always worth the effort - "The only usefulness of a map depends on similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map"
Music is sound and music theory is only a way of trying to understand those sounds that we find pleasing. This can vary widely depending on culture and taste.
A note is not a sound, it's a way of describing the pitch of a sound, but it says nothing about any of the other qualities that a sound may possess
Others have said this in various ways: The music comes from you. The sax (or any instrument) is an intermediary. It can be very difficult for a long time to use this as your voice, but eventually it's (ideally) an extension of you.
You're on a journey and have taken a good step in having that experience. Many who have learned "mechanically" and only read music have never experienced what you have. There's lots of names for it like "being in the zone". It's a type of familiarity that allows your unconscious mind to take over. The example was given of tying shoelaces. Another example that's a bit more complex is driving. A connection is made that allows your conscious brain to NOT have to concentrate on the task at hand.
While there is nothing very creative abut tying shoelaces or driving there is creativity in making music. This is where the magic comes in, but can also disappear. If you have music in your head and your body knows how to produce it (like singing) it's only your ability with your instrument and the type of connection you have with that instrument that presents limitations. If you can play "by ear" then there is a good connection between brain and what comes out of the horn. If only reading, then everything is "translated" from eye to fingers without the player necessarily knowing how it will sound. Repetition, as mentioned by others, is one way to get the sound in your head, but the longer you need to repeat, then IMHO = the less musically adept. When improvising there needs to be an instant flow of hearing in your head to playing. The only situation in which that isn't the case is for those who improvise by "cut and paste" according to the chord changes...another mechanical rather than musical exercise.
OK, here's the hitch: When you are "in the zone" or having the music flow through you, you need to let it happen and try to keep that flowing without consciously trying. The moment you let your conscious brain get involved it disappears or changes to a slower mechanical style and the flow is lost. The worst thing is to let your ego try to own it...stops me dead every time!
Being in the zone isn't too hard if you are in the process of being one with your instrument (using it as you would your voice). Staying in the zone is a lot more difficult with players having to fill in with musical "UMs and AHs" until they can get back in.
I know it sounds odd, maybe even mystical, but the striving is to play "unconsciously". You're on your way......
With my students I used the analogy of learning to tie one's shoelaces. At first you have to think of each step as you are learning to do it. With repetition, it goes to "muscle memory" and you can tie your shoes while carrying on a conversation or thinking of something else. Learning to play scales and songs is exactly the same---you have to do it over and over again and it takes the fingers of both hands.
The key is repetition. Stealing a joke a tuba player friend of mine likes to tell, "Every new saxophone I buy comes already knowing how to play the Misty and Take Five". Of course his is "new tuba" and the song is "In the Hall of the Mountain King" or something.
Every time you pick up the horn and practice, or pick up a new piece of info, or go to a lesson, or ask a question, or play along to a tune on the radio etc etc.. That's your short cut there Not always a direct route, mind
Hi @Zugzwang , I aim to go busking as soon as I have a set of 10 songs I can play to backing tracks. I don't mind not being able to play them perfectly, as I guess three hours of busking a couple of times a week on top of my normal practicing will soon sharpen them up.
At the moment I can only play one and a half songs with backing tracks, so it's going to be a few weeks yet.
Fantastic @Colin the Bear I am not sure my lips and cheeks could survive for 6 hours. I'm going to see how things go when I start, I might not survive 3 hours. But what's the worst that can happen? No - don't answer that.