Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

My first sax



Firsts, I find, can go one of two ways. Either they imbue you with unerasable street cred, or they leave you with a lasting sense of embarrassment.
A popular social pastime is naming the first record you ever bought. I tend to avoid getting involved where possible - not out of some lofty moral high ground but simply because the first record I ever bought was 'Sugar Sugar' by The Archies.
There, I've said it - you can stop laughing now.

Ooh, if only my mum had been more rock 'n roll, if only I hadn't spotted the single in the shop, if only I'd bought sweets instead...
Even my least rock 'n roll friends can list first records by such luminaries of hip as the Kinks, the Beatles, Bob Dylan etc. etc.
I wouldn't mind so much, but I was 17 at the time (no, only jokin').

My first sax was a similar disaster in credibility enhancement.
To be fair (on myself, mainly) it wasn't strictly speaking my first sax - but it was the first sax I had had any involvement in the purchase of.
I'd been playing alto and baritone for a little while and had decided that I wanted a tenor, but with a very limited budget I already knew it wasn't going to be easy to find one. I scoured the music press and the local papers for weeks - and then I spotted an advert for a tenor sax that fell within my budget. I rang the number, had a brief chat with the seller and set a date to go along and try the sax out.
I should have known that something was amiss even at that stage. The seller informed me that he was a retailer - he had a small music shop that specialised in folk instruments, and he was selling the sax for a client as a favour and that he didn't really know anything more than he'd been told about the instrument. The address he gave was of a small village somewhere in the south east, and although I can't now recall the name it was one of those curiously curious and typically English names - like Fibbly Trimmings, Lower Arse or Scratching Madders.

My dad drove me down - and I think I was that keen to get hold of the sax that I'd persuaded the seller to let me pop round on a Sunday.
The shop itself was dark, small and very cramped - and stuffed to the hilt with all manner of strange instruments the like of which I'd never seen (and some I've never seen since). Bohdrans, gourds, lutes, hurdy-gurdys - and something that looked a bit like a roadkilled badger with a loofah shoved where the sun never shone.
The sax itself was extremely old, a Hawkes & Son Excelsior tenor.
If I knew back then what I know now I wouldn't have touched it with the strange roadkilled badger thing - it was made before concert A was settled at 440Hz, so it was high-pitched, which meant that although it played reasonably well in tune with itself it would be very sharp when played against any horn built after the late 1920s...which was just about every other horn out there.
It was also very archaic in its design, and to top it all it wasn't in that good a condition.
Even better - the seller informed me that the owner found the horn worked best if you plonked it in the bath for half an hour before playing!

Well, I bought the damn thing.

I think it's this experience that lends me a sense of fellowship when first-time buyers arrive at the workshop.
I have to admit that I'm rather prone to having a chuckle at some of the things that turn up in the guise of 'my very first saxophone', but I hope my chuckles come across more as laughing with the punters rather than at them.
I'm often amazed too at the sheer dedication I see.
Just as in my case, their ill-chosen purchases seem to make them all the more determined to make a go of becoming a saxophonist - and I suppose there's some cred to be had in the notion that folks like us came up 'the hard way'.

The client that came in just a few days back was an experienced player, of the oboe, and had bought a Czech tenor as her first sax. Compared to my purchase this horn was leagues ahead in terms of quality and playability, despite the fact that it wasn't working all that well.
In fact it had quite a few problems, and I was shocked to hear that she had forked out £70 recently on a service.
Well, I looked - and looked again - but I couldn't see so much as a single piece of fresh cork or solitary new pad. There wasn't even any oil on the action. It seemed to me that someone had simply opened the case, looked at the horn sitting there, said 'yup', closed the case and written out a bill for seventy quid. I mean, the thing hadn't even been dusted!

I get genuinely angry about things like that. I'm none too pleased when I feel that people have been charged excessively, but there's perhaps some small comfort to be had if the horn is at least working afterwards. I'm half tempted to punt a horn with known problems round the shops to see who's capable of fixing it at a proper price...might make an interesting new item for the review section...

So, the client had a horn that wasn't working all that well.
That's bad enough, but what made it worse was the advice she'd been given. She'd been trying to learn the horn using an oboe embouchure. In 'the trade' this is known as a double embouchure - where the lips cover both the top and bottom teeth. The standard embouchure is lips covering the bottom teeth, top teeth resting on the mouthpiece. You certainly can use a double embouchure, but it's bloody painful until you get used to it and it's not the ideal setup for a beginner. It doesn't have any advantages over the standard embouchure, and I find that about the only people who sing its praises are those who've always used it and don't know any better...

What made it even worse though was the mouthpiece.
The original mouthpiece that came with the horn was atrocious. The previous owner had tried to customise the piece by fitting a crude resin baffle in the bore and adjusting the lay by means of filing it. Notwithstanding that the piece was dreadful to start with, it was now so bad that it was completely laughable. So much so that I persuaded the client to let me have it in exchange for a similar quality piece in good nick, for my 'black museum'. I might take a piccy of it and pop it up here...it really is that bad. Apparently the previous owner had been playing quite happily on it, too.
In its place she'd been persuaded to buy a 'decent' mouthpiece - by the same person who told her to use the double embouchure.
Decent can mean several things.
In terms of a student's needs, decent should mean practical, usable and reasonably priced.

She'd been persuaded to part with a considerable sum of money for a metal Yanagisawa piece - and when I say considerable I mean more than the sax itself cost. It was perhaps unfortunate that the mouthpiece itself was more suited to a Bar-Room Walker type of player...you know, the sort of player who uses scaffold boards for reeds, cracks walnuts with their teeth and plays so loud that they're in danger of blowing the bottom bow out straight.
If I were asked to choose a bona-fide, working mouthpiece that would be guaranteed to make things as hard as possible for a beginner, this would have been my choice. I'm no lightweight myself when it comes to a heavy mouthpiece setup (Dukoff D8 and Plasticover 5 reeds), but even I struggled to get anything pleasant out of the Yanagisawa.

There's a happy ending though.
The client had been toying with the idea of calling it quits and buying a new horn, and this, coupled with the prospect of a bill for £140 to put the horn in good working order, was enough to tip the balance.
And even more than that, she can claim that her first saxophone, although a bit of a disaster, at least inspired one of my articles. That's street cred!

My old tenor had a similarly creditable end.
It was in such bad shape that I sent it off to a local repairer to have it fixed up. When it came back it was in a dreadful state. Soldered-on tone holes had been resoldered, and there was more solder around the tone holes than there was holding them on. I took one look at it and thought 'Even I could do better than that' - and in that instant I realised that I probably could, and should...so I did.
The tenor even gained me my place on the repair course. As part of the acceptance programme you had to take along an example of work you'd done - so I took along the tenor sax and claimed I'd repaired it. Well, I'd re-covered the case in bright green vinyl - so I'd certainly done more than the repairer who'd charged my client £70 for nothing visible at all.

 

 

 

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