Hints and tips
Get your reed wet...
Saxophone reeds must be wet in order to vibrate properly, so it is not unusual, before a practice or performance, to see sax players, and other woodwind players, walking around with a reed in their mouths, wetting it before playing. As reeds gets older, they tend to wrinkle at the tip when they get wet, making them impossible to play. They do straighten out after a few minutes, but this could be a good indication that you need a new reed! Reeds typically can last several weeks or even months if looked after, but bear in mind that reeds will soften over time with playing.
Remove the reed after playing
Take the reed off the mouthpiece when you’ve finished playing and put it back in its reed carrier. The underside of any mouthpiece where the reed sits is a flat surface. However, the reed is only secured to the mouthpiece by the ligature over half its length. As the reed is permanently wet and vibrating backwards and forwards at a vast rate, the tendency is for it to curl towards the mouthpiece facing (the open bit). If left on the mouthpiece for long periods of time, the reed will adopt a slightly curved shape. This in turn will make the tip opening smaller. As a beginner’s mouthpiece has a smaller tip opening (to make it easier to play), a slightly curved reed will make the sax harder to play and can cause squeaks as the reed closes completely on the mouthpiece.
How long should a reed last?
When you first begin to play a reed it will feel slightly harder than it's supposed to be - or at least harder than it will be once it's been played in for a while. After about an hour's playing it will settle down to its 'real' hardness (plus you'll be more used to playing that new reed). As mentioned above, a reed will gradually get softer throughout its life to the point it will no longer produce a clean tone. The actual working life of a reed is ultimately dependant on the quality of the cane, the chemistry of a player's saliva, how it's played and how careful a player is. Some can last for months, some for a matter of minutes if inadvertantly used as a clothes brush!
For many years you were deemed to have ‘made it’ when you played with a really hard reed. In recent times though sense has prevailed and there is no longer a ‘macho’ association with harder reeds. Play with a reed strength you’re comfortable and happy with - one that suits your mouthpiece, your horn and your style of playing. I once picked up some strength five reeds in a job lot and I’ll probably end up using them as replacement floorboards! Beginners should start with one and a half strength reeds as these are easier to play, while more experienced players move on to harder strengths. Metal mouthpieces tend to play better with softer reeds compared to ebonite (black) mouthpieces.
Don’t use ‘feather duster’ sax cleaners
These are the big fluffy ‘tampon’-style cleaners with a rubber bung on the top. They slide into the top of the sax as you put the sax away and are supposed to soak up any moisture inside the horn. In reality, all they do is hold the moisture inside the horn against the pads. There are some 'pull-through-shammy-type' cleaners which are much better - you pull through the horn to absorb some of the excess water. Moisture is the number one enemy of saxophone pads so the best thing to do is turn the horn upside-down to drain the excess moisture, and then leave it to dry naturally.
The mouthpiece is the only place you can tune the sax to other instruments, so it needs to move smoothly along the cork. Rubbing in cork grease into the cork every month or so will keep it in the optimum condition. In time, if you only use one mouthpiece with your horn, a small step will develop along the cork where your horn is in tune. Putting your mouthpiece on up to this step will always give you a good idea of where your horn is in tune. However, different makes of mouthpiece have different barrel lengths and so will tune in different places along the cork. Hence, a cork that’s been regularly greased makes the horn easier to tune.
I did have one student whose mouthpiece was stuck fast to the cork. Had it been tuned correctly it wouldn’t have been so much of a problem. But it was more by luck than judgement that mouthpiece was freed without breaking something!
Always use a sling that has an enclosed clasp (not a hook) where it connects to the ring on the horn. I’ve seen many horns hit the deck where players have bent down with their horn around their neck and the horn has caught on a pocket or belt buckle, detaching the horn from the sling. The repair bill to get dents out of horns can be rather large!
Also, get a strap that has some support around the back of the neck, and preferably one that is not elasticated. Personally I find the more elasticated slings are harder to play with as there is too much movement between the horn and one’s chops! Also, it’s much more comfy if you wear a polo-neck top or similar shirt with a collar.
How to clean your horn
Any real solution to this would be gratefully received by all horn owners. The short answer is very carefully! If you leave your horn on its stand between playing it will pick up dust over time. This, greasy finger marks and moisture leaking from the tone holes during playing, means that your horn will need cleaning once a month or so. I’ve found that a silver polish cloth and a spare half hour here and there does the trick. It is worth doing this regularly to stop the build-up of dirt in some of the tricky-to-get-to spots. Under no account should a horn be immersed in water - leather pads do not get on well with water!
Sticking G-sharp key
Most horns suffer at some point from the G-sharp tone hole cover sticking closed so when you go to play the G-sharp, the note still sounds like a G. This is due to the moisture inside the horn migrating towards this tone hole while playing, and it sticks shut as the horn dries out after being put away. The easy solution is to check it before playing the next time and, if need be, just ease the tone hole open with your fingers. This will stop it sticking during that particular playing session. Some modern horns (the Keilwerth SX90 for example) has a device that stops this happening (clever Germans!). And from experience it works. If you have any other tone holes that are stuck shut prior to playing, they will probably just need easing open and a good clean.
If you’re determined to keep your horn in tip-top condition, check your jeans! Although these days most jeans don’t have rivets on the back pockets (to be kinder to leather sofas, chairs and car seats), there are rivets on some front pockets which can scratch your horn! Watch out. A long shirt should suffice.
If, like me, you’re one of those people that doesn’t like putting your front teeth on to a hard surface, then a mouthpiece pad is a perfect solution. Looking not unlike a bicycle inner tube repair patch, these pads stick neatly on to the top face of your mouthpiece, protecting your teeth. Perfect. These pads are made for clarinets and saxophones alike and are available from most good music shops. One pad should last at least a year, if not more.
To be able to play the sax for any long periods of time, the muscles in and around your lips need to be strong. This strength, or conditioning, will build up automatically in time through regular playing. Eventually you’ll be able to play for a couple of hours at a time without your lips ‘giving way’ through fatigue.
Once you have established where your fingers should sit on your horn (there are very slight variations between different makes of horn), you should get into the habit of not lifting them too far away from the keys. It’s harder to play quicker passages of notes if your fingers have to move a long way back to make contact with the keys. One simple way of checking this is to play in front of a mirror - you’ll soon see just how far away from the keys your fingers are moving. Another more extreme training aid is to put double sided tape on the keys...You’ll soon get in to the habit of not lifting your fingers up too far! Another point - you don’t need to press hard with any of the keys to get them to close. If you do, then your horn has gone out of adjustment and needs to be looked at. I know someone that pressed so hard to activate the octave key that she couldn’t play for six months due to a thumb strain.
It is a good idea to clean your mouthpiece every month or so. The very nature of playing any reed instrument means that whatever has been in your mouth will get transferred to your mouthpiece and therefore into the horn (a contributing factor over time to the sticking tone hole covers). I find that anti-bacterial wipes are good for cleaning both mouthpieces and reeds - and the taste is not too unbearable! A good swill with soap and water will also not do too much harm.
Unfortunately there’s not really anything that can be done to vastly reduce the volume of a saxophone. Unlike a trumpet or trombone whose sound only comes out the end (and can be muted), the sax has lots of holes all the way down it’s body where the sound escapes (although a large proportion still comes out the bell). You can make a slight difference by stuffing a t-towel or t-shirt (or similar) down the sax’s bell, but this may only make a slight difference in reducing the volume. There is also a danger that you could stop the bottom C, B and Bb from closing properly. If you do try this method of noise reduction, be careful.
More recently one or two manufacturers have brought out sax mutes. These resemble Star Wars fighter suits in looks and are basically an over-size sax case that encloses the sax with a hole at the top for the crook and arm holes to let you in to hold the sax. I have not used one yet so can’t comment on their effectiveness.
The first accessory you need to purchase for your sax is a stand. There's no easy way to put your sax down on a surface without scratching your sax or the surface you're placing it on! Most sax stands are inexpensive (£10 to £20 typically) and most are adjustable for alto and tenor horns alike. For a bit more dosh, SaxRax make a range of great stands that are VERY nice indeed. The only downside to leaving your precious horn out on view is that it will need dusting more often! And this is a skill in itself...