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The saxophone, while almost entirely made of metal, is a woodwind instrument. Similar to the way a Clarinet produces sound, a Saxophone uses a single reed that vibrates when a stream of air passes over it. Both the clarinet and saxophone share many similarities. Some beginning Saxophone players will start out playing the Clarinet due to it's lower cost, small size and also because they may not yet have hands large enough to fit around the saxophone keys.
History of the Saxophone
Invented by Adolphe Sax of Brussels circa 1840 and patented in 1846. Antoine-Joseph (Adolphe) Sax grew up in the trade of instrument making and was an expert maker and talented musician. He was aware of the tonal disparity between strings and winds and, moreover, between brasses and woodwinds. He had made several improvements to the bass clarinet by improving its keywork and he also made the then-popular ophicleide (a large brass instrument with keys similar to a woodwind instrument). His experience with these instruments developed his skills that were needed to create the saxophone. His solution was a horn with a body of a brass instrument and the mouthpiece of a woodwind instrument. Sax created saxophones in numerous different sizes and pitch centers: Eb sopranino, F sopranino, Bb soprano, C soprano, Eb alto, F alto, Bb tenor, C tenor, Eb baritone, Bb bass, C bass, Eb contrabass, and F contrabass. Many of these have become obsolete. The saxophone became an integral part of all bands following the famous “battle of the bands” in 1845 when Sax suggested a contest between a French army band with traditional instrumentation against a band that included saxophones. Sax’s band of 28 men, compared to the French Army band of 35, completely overwhelmed the audience and the saxophone was soon introduced into not only into the French Army band but also to many other bands. From this point, many composers began to write music for the instrument. Today, the saxophones in common use are the Eb sopranino, Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor, Eb baritone, and quite rare but still in use are the Bb bass and Eb contrabass.
How a Saxophone is Made
Most saxophones are made from brass even though they are categorized as a woodwind instrument because the sound is produced by a vibrating reed and not the player’s lips against a mouthpiece as in a brass instrument, and because pitch changes are accomplished by opening and closing keys. Materials other than brass have been tried, most notably plastic, phosphor bronze (Yanagisawa), sterling silver (Yanagisawa), and nickel silver (Keilworth & P. Mauriat). The effect of different materials on sound is controversial and tonal characteristics come down to personal preferences. The polished brass is typically covered with a clear or colored lacquer or silver plate to prevent oxidation. Nickel and gold plating are also used. Gold is quite expensive because gold does not adhere to brass and the instrument must be silver plated first.
Keys are forged and usually pinned in place on key rods and, once in place on the instrument, are operated by use of needle and leaf springs made of stainless steel or blued steel.
The three major parts of the saxophone are the body, neck and mouthpiece. The body is a conical brass tube with a U shaped bottom (called the bow) onto which is attached the bell. The keys are held in place on key rods by pins and these key rods are held in place by rod posts and post screws which are attached to ribs (plates) which have been soldered onto the body. The neck (sometimes called goose neck) attaches to the top of the instrument and has an octave key mounted on it. The mouthpiece also slides onto the neck.
Saxophones also have a thumb rest and a neck strap used to hold and balance the instrument.
So your Student wants to play the Saxophone, now what?
If your student will be joining the school band program check with the band director to make sure saxophone is an appropriate choice. Many schools have some type of instrument try-out procedures to help young students select which instrument to play based on physical characteristics, desire and the need to have a balanced instrumentation in the band program. An important part of learning to play any musical instrument is the desire and motivation to commit to the daily practice required to learn the skill sets and parents should help their child develop a regular practice schedule and encourage progress. Be positive and let your child know they are making good progress….never make fun of the odd sounds beginners will make in the early stages. Your encouragement and praise will be very meaningful to your child.
Recommended Beginner Saxophones
The Jupiter 769GN is an excellent beginner saxophone and includes the high F# , adjustable thumb rest, metal tone boosters and a wood frame case. The BAC-AP-AS (Best American Craftsman) is also an outstanding beginner saxophone with high F#, blued steel springs and a ProLine Series case. The Selmer AS600 Aristocrat is also an excellent choice for beginners and includes the high F#.
Recommended Intermediate Saxophones
The Jupiter 969GL features a hand hammered brass neck and gold lacquer body and keys, with high F#, front F, metal tone boosters, blue steel springs and an Artist Series wood frame case. The Jupiter 969SG is like the 969GL except it is finished with a silver plate neck and body and gold lacquer keys. The Jupiter 969SG-S includes a sterling silver neck. The Selmer LaVoix II is also an excellent intermediate level saxophone and is constructed of hand engraved yellow brass.
Recommended Professional Saxophones
The Selmer 52 Series II Paris, Selmer 62 Series III Paris, and the Selmer 72 Series “Reference 54” (Spirit of Mark VI) are all exceptionally fine professional instruments.
Buying a Saxophone vs Renting a Saxophone
Renting prior to purchasing allows for the return of an instrument which is an important consideration with beginner students. Credible rental sources will apply rental payments towards the purchase price. Rentals are usually only available for beginner instruments. RentMyInstrument.com is the only source we are aware of that also offers intermediate and professional level instruments on a rent to own basis.
Types of Saxophones
Saxophones in common use today are the Eb sopranino, Bb soprano, Eb alto, Bb tenor, Eb baritone, and quite rare but still in use are the Bb bass and Eb contrabass.
3 Reasons to buy a second saxophone mouthpiece
Saxophone players often utilize more than a single mouthpiece for different types of playing. Mouthpieces with a larger chamber provide a softer and less strident tone and are favored by saxophonists for classical playing. Mouthpieces with a smaller chamber or lower clearance above the reed (high baffle) produce a noticeably brighter sound and are favored by many jazz, funk and rock musicians. Various types of materials are used to make saxophone mouthpieces including hard rubber, plastic, bronze, surgical steel, glass and crystal. The material may make a slight difference but it is the dimensions of the mouthpiece which will alter the sound most noticeably.
How to take care of your saxophone
After playing the saxophone should be swabbed out to remove moisture created by the condensation from blowing air thru the instrument. There are several saxophone swabs manufactured that will have a piece of chamois or soft cloth attached to a string which is weighted at the opposite end so it can be dropped thru the instrument and then the chamois or cloth portion can be pulled thru to remove the moisture. Once this process is completed many sax players like to use pad savers which can be inserted into the instruments to help draw any moisture from the pads. A soft polish cloth can be used to remove finger prints from the keys and outer portions of the saxophone.
Saxophone mouthpieces can be cleaned with a mouthpiece brush specifically designed for this purpose. Generally, sax mouthpieces can also be cleaned with warm water. Saxophone necks have a tenon cork which will occasionally need cork grease to prevent the cork from drying out and provide lubrication when sliding the mouthpiece onto the neck. Cork grease is sold in small tubes that look like chap stick.
Woodwind players will need to have their instruments regulated by a professional repair technician on occasion because the key assemblies will gradually come out of adjustment and affect the playability. Over time, pads, corks and felts will also wear out and need replaced. Like all mechanical things, woodwind instruments require occasional repair and replacement of parts which become worn with use.
Top Saxophone Brands
Selmer, Jupiter, BAC (Best American Craftsman), Yamaha, Yanagisawa, Cannonball, P. Mauriat
How to Play the Saxophone
The instrument must first be assembled which is simply a matter of placing the neck onto the instrument and tightening the neck tenon screw to hold it in place and then placing the mouthpiece onto the neck. The saxophone reed should be moist (players usually just hold the reed in their mouth for a couple of minutes) when it is placed on the mouthpiece. The thick, flat part of the reed should be on the flat surface of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed should align with the tip of the mouthpiece. The ligature should be over the think part of the reed and the screws tightened just enough to hold the reed onto the mouthpiece. Sax players also utilize a neck strap to help manage the weight of the instrument which hooks onto the back of the instrument. The left hand operates the upper stack of keys and the right hand operates the lower stack of keys. Most sax players position all but the soprano sax on their right side, although some players will perform with the other saxes (alto, tenor and bari) directly in front of them as well. Once the saxophone is assembled and the mouthpiece and reed are ready, the player is ready to make their first sounds.
How to make your first saxophone sound
Once the saxophone reed is moist and has been properly placed onto the mouthpiece (see details in How To Play The Saxophone section), the beginner student should place their top teeth of top of the mouthpiece at a point approximately ½ to ¾ of an inch from the tip of the mouthpiece. The bottom lip should cover the bottom teeth just slightly and the reed should touch the bottom lip at the approximate place where the reed separates from the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece should be angled down just slightly and the lips should be brought around the mouthpiece in a drawstring type of fashion. The player’s chin should be flat (pointed down—not bunched) and the corners of the mouth should be like a slight frown. Also think of a slightly stiff upper lip while maintaining a relaxed lower lip. With this set up the player is able to blow air and achieve a sound from just the mouthpiece that is referred to as “crowing” the reed (it does sound somewhat like a crow). The next step is placing the mouthpiece onto the neck and crowing the reed again with the mouthpiece and neck assembled. Once the crowing sound is solid and successful, the player can then place the neck and mouthpiece onto the saxophone and repeat the procedure to accomplish their first sound on the instrument. For future success, it is critical that the reed placement and embouchure formation are accomplished well so that good tone, range and flexibility will result.
How to find a teacher for Private Saxophone Lessons
Teachers can be located by contacting local school band directors, music stores, and colleges and universities. They will have saxophone teachers/specialists on staff or will usually know contact information for recommended teachers.
How to Tune a Saxophone
Primary saxophone tuning is accomplished by pushing the mouthpiece further onto the neck (raises the pitch) or pulling it further off of the neck (lowers the pitch).
Dangers of starting with a Used Saxophone
Is the saxophone clean and sterile and are all the pads, corks and springs in good condition? If not, a complete re-pad and/or overhaul could cost several hundred dollars. Saxes which have not been played regularly and kept in storage for extended periods often have serious issues with pad deterioration. Used saxophones should be inspected for needed repairs by a qualified expert (music educator, music repair person, professional player) prior to purchase.
There are also a large number of poor quality instruments which have been imported during the last decade and many of these have been discarded by the original owners and are in the used instrument marketplace. Buyers should be very wary of and avoid these instruments which can be easily identified because they are not acceptable brand names to music educators or professional musicians due to their inferior materials and craftsmanship.
Cautions with Pawn Shops and Ebay
Pawn shops and on line auctions are not in the business of music education or instrument repair and are simply interested in selling merchandise at a profit. The merchandise sold is most often sold in “as is” condition. Buyers should know exactly what they are getting with regards to brand, model and condition of the instrument and have written warranties certifying same. There are a lot of poor quality instruments and/or quality instruments in poor condition for sale from sources who do not specialize in musical instruments…..buyer beware!
Charlie "Bird" Parker - Kansas City native known as one of greatest jazz improvisers of all time.
John Coltraine - tenor sax jazz artist greatly influenced jazz in the 60s and 70s
Stan Getz - from Philadelphia, was nicknamed "The Sound" because of his perfect control of the instrument.
President Bill Clinton - not a giant among sax players, but well known!
Kenny G - Kenneth Bruce Gorelick who is known for his Grammy Award winning contemporary sound.