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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
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How to not play the saxophone



I thank you in advance for your interest in this short course. By the time you reach the end of it I can guarantee that you will be a fully-fledged not-saxophone player. Indeed, I will go so far as to offer a complete refund to anyone who fails to achieve their goal - so confident am I of the techniques and methods herein.

The saxophone has long been regarded as the most 'cool' of instruments - and yet many people have been misled into believing that in order to achieve this degree of coolness it has always been necessary to learn how to play the thing.
I'm here to tell you that this is not so - and I will even go so far as to say that this belief is simply a marketing ploy fostered by the manufacturers for the sole purpose of lining their pockets with your hard-earned cash.

By using my method you can save quite literally some pounds, and achieve the hallowed status of being a not-saxophone player in mere minutes.

Now, if you're comfortable, we'll begin.
I notice that some of you have arrived here today with saxophones.
I very much regret to inform you that you have wasted your money. The very first thing you must do is not buy a saxophone.
There simply is no need. You can achieve just as much - if not more - credibility by simply knowing just the right amount of information. I think you will be astounded to learn that there are in fact very few saxophone players at all - by far and away the largest proportion of them are, in fact, non-saxophone players. Later on in the course you'll see how you can spot a fellow student.

Seems simple enough, doesn't it - but it's extremely important, vital even, that you not buy the right kind of saxophone.
I see the young gentleman in the front row has bought a relatively cheap model. This is really no good at all. Even if he were to leave now and spend the next five years studying the art of saxophone playing, he'd still never achieve the height of coolness by virtue of having bought the wrong make of instrument.
This is the first lesson - you have to get the right make.
This, of course, is always an expensive proposition - but with my method you will save thousands of pounds by dint of not having to buy a saxophone. It's enough simply to know what you didn't oughta buy.
Now, there are three camps to choose from. The most well-established camp insists on the legendary Selmer MKVI. There is a sub-camp that regards any Selmer as being acceptable - but you should be careful that the Selmer you don't buy is made in France. Another camp favours the more modern horns - such as those by Yamaha and Yanagisawa. The possibilities here are wider - and the guiding factor will always be price. The more your saxophone doesn't cost you, the better your standing in terms of coolness. The last camp favours what's known as 'vintage horns'. This camp is rather more suited to the advanced course - indeed, it's an entire course in itself. It isn't enough to not buy a particular make, you have to not buy a model from a particular year.
Tricky, isn't it?

This applies to some extent to the first camp - Selmers built before a certain date are deemed to be more worthy than those built after. It's essential - and I cannot stress this highly enough - that you study the accompanying Serial Number Date List in detail. Learn all the important dates by heart - because if you don't, you will be rumbled.

I want to touch, briefly, on the choice of finish. This is largely a matter of personal taste - but there are two phrases that you must become au fait with. The first is 'original lacquer', and the second is 'bare brass'. It doesn't really matter what they mean - they both have the same potential for hipness. An absolute no-no is 'relacquered'.

So, at the end of the first section of the course you're already halfway towards being a not-saxophone player. You can stand in any bar, of any town, and proclaim that you play a 1958 Selmer MKVI, with its original lacquer - and fellow drinkers will regard you with the awe and respect that you seek.

We move on now to the accessories.
Don't be fooled by that apparently innocuous word - it's here that your reputation as a not-saxophone player will be made or broken.
Accessories cost but a fraction of the price of a saxophone, and yet have an impact on your coolness that far exceeds their value.
The first item is the mouthpiece.
There are two stages to this non-purchase. First you must find either the most expensive or the most curious mouthpiece not to buy. Your kudos will be much enhanced if you can claim you came by it via a well-known saxophone player. In some cases you may well find that you can claim to have bought it off a well-known not-saxophone player. It may astound you to know that many mouthpiece makers are actually graduates of this course. Names are given on the factsheet that accompanies the course. Please mention our name when not ordering.

The second stage is to have your mouthpiece refaced. That's pronounced ree-faced...not reff-aced. You needn't really know what it means, it's enough to say 'I had it opened up a tad'. There are several specialists from whom you can choose not do this work for you - though to be honest you can quite often glean some additional kudos by making a name up. This is a great way to meet and spot fellow not-saxophone players - all you do is say something like "I had it opened up a bit by Fetchley Binkum" - and if they nod sagely then you know you have met a fellow graduate.

You will need reeds to place on your mouthpiece. These are essentially bits of old wood that have been shaved down a bit and stuck in a glitzy box. It doesn't really matter what brand you choose not to buy - but it is important that you moan about them. At some length too.
The fewer reeds you can actually use in a box, the better your standing.
Your standing will be increased exponentially if you can claim to have found a good one (just one, mind) - and remember the date. It should be a minimum of eight years ago.
If quizzed excessively on any point, don't panic - all you need do is shake your head and say "but it's the tone, man, they don't have the tone".

Which brings us neatly onto tone itself.
This is what I like to call the 'Freestyle' section.
On your way in today, many of you will have noticed what looked like a weather map on the wall. This is because we here at this institute also train weathermen. The two courses are not dissimilar really.
Let me give you an example.
If you had listened to today's weather on the radio this morning you'll have heard the following; A bright start, with some overcast patches in places - some rain in some areas, but other areas will see the sun. As the morning moves on the outlook is brighter, but those clouds will move across from the east to meet those coming in from the west. It will stay cool, except where it started off warm, though some places will notice a drop in temperature later. The evening promises to be fine - but that's highly changeable across all areas...so take an umbrella, just in case.

Now, what precisely does that tell you? ......Nobody willing to have a stab?
Well, that's because it tells you, frankly, sod all. We like to cover all eventualities here.
And so it is with tone.
It actually doesn't really exist - though it does, or rather it ought to - but the point is it isn't possible to say exactly what it is...er..or what it isn't.
As you can see, it's not difficult.
There are at least three key phrases you must get into your description of your tone, or indeed anyone else's tone.
These are; Full bodied but effervescent; Smooth but with a certain cut; and Reminiscent.
With the last phrase it's often fun to bung a name on the end - refer to your fact sheet for appropriate names - though personally I find it just as much fun to be slightly off the wall and refer to fruits or vegetables. This is particularly effective if you're wearing a beret and smoking French cigarettes.
Bear in mind you can make this go two ways. You can say "He has a full bodied but effervescent tone, kinda smooth...but with a certain cut... sort of reminiscent of Tubby Hayes (fact sheet artist No.78).
This is a compliment - but if you insert fact sheet artist No.157 (Bill Clinton), you can see how it turns the phrase right around.
If you find yourself struggling with this section, read a couple of wine labels - we do those too. Oh, and beauty products.
What's that?... Oh yes, we did the recent US election too.... Yes, we're doing the UK one too - but please, questions later.

We come now to gadgets.
There are two approaches here. All or nothing. You cannot waver between the two.
I recommend the all approach - you quite often find that real sax players prefer the nothing approach - and god forbid you should ever find yourself having to prove your worth to a real player.
Blind 'em with science - and bring on the gadgets.
There are many such gadgets to not buy - you must use your own discretion. This is an area which allows us all a degree of individuality. Indeed, there's much fun to be had at our annual conventions when prizes are awarded for the graduate who hasn't amassed the largest collection of gadgets, or the one least likely to actually do anything.
Again, you'll find that many suppliers and makers of such fripperies hail from these hallowed halls.
You can chose not to buy things that go into or on your mouthpiece. Ligatures, for example - there's a whole course devoted to these little buggers.
There are things that stick on your saxophone - and a whole range of replacement parts that do the same thing as the original, but look slightly different.

Bear in mind that gadgets fall into two categories - those that have an effect, and those that don't. Both are devilish in their own unique way.
The ones that do have an effect will make a change in the way the saxophone plays. The thing is, it's left up to you to decide whether the change is for the better or worse - and as you'll have pretended to have shelled out lots of cash for the gadget you'll naturally be inclined to think the former.
That is, until such times as you realise that it just makes a change, and a change is as good as a rest.

The ones that don't have an effect are, debatably, even more dastardly. They often cost a great deal more too - so you're even more motivated to think that they make a positive improvement, in spite of the evidence...er, or lack thereof. This generally lasts until such time as you no longer feel embarrassed about admitting as much, and/or no-one's looking as you toss it away.
Fortunately, as a not-saxophone player you won't need to buy any of these gadgets, just know about them. And there are even several ways you can learn about such things. You can either swot up on them, taking the time to examine the bumf and the theory - or you can simply hang around with other not-saxophone players and wait for them to pass on their collection of gadget info. All you need do then is simply repeat what they said, word for word, and watch your kudos grow.
Vive la difference, as they say - express yourself. Just remember to memorise the prices, OK?

We now come to what many consider to be the hardest part of the course. The 'theory' section.
I really don't know why people consider this part so difficult - it's just like speaking a foreign language...and before you ask, yes, we're responsible for English.
All you really need to do is memorise a few phrases. The commonest, and most useful ones are; Major, minor, diminished and blues. These four alone will cover practically everything - just be sure to use the 'feel' suffix.
I recommend using what we like to call the 'student y' for newcomers to not-saxophone playing.
Here's another example. You might find yourself being asked to listen to, and comment on, someone actually playing a saxophone. Now, you could get lucky and get away with saying something like "Oh, that has a nice major feel". If it turns out that the piece was in a minor key then you could be very stumped indeed. More advanced graduates will know how to describe a major feel in a minor mode.
So negate that risk by using the student y...thus: "Oh, that has a nice majory feel".
That simple letter y opens up a whole catering size tin of ambiguity - and if pressed on an apparent mistake you can simply say "Well, I did say majoreeeee ", and it's smiles all round once more.
And don't forget the volume relationship - if it's loud, it's 'raw', if it's quiet, it's 'laid back'.
Use your ears too - if it sounds bloody awful, it's 'earthy' - if it sounds bloody boring, it's 'evocative'.
Yes - we do sleeve notes for world music CDs too.

Finally, you need to know how to hold your own in a tight spot.
Contrary to what's written on the wall in the gentleman's toilet, this doesn't involve putting your hand in your pocket and smiling inwardly to yourself. No, this is about learning how to field questions from your arch-enemy...the real saxophone player. Fortunately there are but two types to contend with - those that will give their opinion (and expect you to do nothing but listen), and those who will ask your opinion.
In the former case all you need do is nod a few times, perhaps interject with a 'hmm' every now and again - but on no account should you attempt to proffer an opinion in return. This will just encourage them - and you may end up being asked to lend money. For those of you who wish to dabble, I recommend the Masterclass sessions - available (at a slight extra cost) to those who graduate with grade B or better passes.

As to the latter kind you can choose from two approaches - aggressive or defensive.
For example, let's assume you've been buttonholed by a sax player who's just asked you your opinion on a gadget he's overheard you mention in an earlier conversation. If you go for the aggressive approach you might want to say something like "Oh, it was rubbish, completely ruined my tone". This may invite debate - and if you'd really rather not get involved in such a debate you can simply add "and my tuning".
This tends to put the wibbles up any real saxophone player straightaway, though your average not-saxophone player might not bat an eyelid.
If, however, you go for the defensive approach you might say something like "Well, it looked OK, but it didn't do very much for me". If this fails to knock the line of enquiry on the head you can add "and it moved me away from the tone I wanted to get". This usually elicits a sympathetic nod - and may even earn you a free drink in commiseration.
And if none of that works - just use the academy's favourite get-out....pick any artist's name off your fact sheet and say "..besides, I don't have it any more - I lent it to (insert name here) and never saw it again".
Should even this fail to work then simply make up a name and tell your inquisitor that you heard 'so-and-so' passed away the other day. If quizzed as to 'so-and-so's" credentials, just say he played with Count Basie. Just about everybody's played with Count Basie - you'd be very unlucky to get called out on this one.

And so, my friends, you are now ready to leave these hallowed halls and go out among the good people of the world in your new-found role as not-saxophone players. You may now join in endless, pointless discussions about which horn is best, or which gadget is the one to get - and bask in the kudos that others will shower upon you in great quantities. I have but one word of warning - and it is this: Never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, attempt to actually play a saxophone, let alone own one.

Don't forget to collect your complimentary accessories on the way out. For the jazzer we have pork-pie hats and stick-on goatees, for the rockers we have stupid ties and mullet hairpieces - and for the classical players we have a list of restaurants looking for staff.

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015