• Information for Beginners

    by  • June 8, 2010 • Uncategorized

    Get a good instructor that actually plays the saxophone.

    Here’s a dirty little secret: a lot of saxophone teachers don’t play saxophone: they CAN play the saxophone, but their main instrument is something completely different. An instructor that really plays, say, the trumpet, but can play the saxophone won’t help a student as much as a real sax player.

    Particularly for a beginner, you want to have the right instructor. If the student has a few years under his belt, he probably already has some idea how to form a correct embochure, how to tongue properly, how to use good breath support, etc. In college, the instructor-to-be concentrates on his instrument (which, of course, can be voice) and will take a few classes on brasswinds, woodwinds, piano, percussion and/or stringed instruments. This really isn’t to prepare the instructor-to-be to teach lessons on these instruments, it’s to teach him the ranges of the instruments and to give him a feel for how particular instruments sound and react – and, possibly, how difficult they are to play.

    Another way of looking at it would be, “Would you rather be taught by someone who has played the instrument several hours a day, every day for the past 15+ years, reads stuff about the instrument and has made it part of his life – or do you want to be taught by someone who knows the fundamentals of the instrument, based on the fact he had a few semesters of training in college?”

    In addition to all this, you could go up to a saxophone player and say, “I need to get a horn and a good setup for a beginner. What do you suggest?” and he’ll help you get it.

    There are a lot of folks that think they can teach themselves. The saxophone is easy to play badly, really moreso than any instrument that has a mouthpiece. It’s difficult to play extremely well, as is the case with any instrument. Remember this, as well: it’s much harder to unlearn bad playing habits than it is to learn good ones.

    How to become a good student

    I sorta left this out on my first update. No real reason why. There are some good things to do to become a good student:

    Listen to a lot of music

    Listening to a lot of music will expand your horizons. You’ll also start learning through osmosis. But there are several different kinds of music you should listen to:

    • A sax player you really like. That’s kinda self-explanatory. You’re going to sound more like a sax player you like if you listen to a lot of his recordings.
    • Saxophone music, in general. You’ll learn things like, "Dude! Some people play Ska on sax!" However, the idea is that you’ll be exposed to the diversity of how the saxophone is played. That’s a good thing. It will also teach you the "color" range of instruments other than the one you play.
    • The style of music you like, even if it’s non-sax. I play classical baritone sax. There isn’t much written specifically for this instrument, but there are a lot of transcriptions from cello parts. That means I’ve listened to a lot of Pablo Casals and Yo-Yo Ma. This helps quite a bit. If you’ve never heard the cello play it, you wouldn’t know how to play "bowed" cues on the sax!

    Expand your horizons

    Possibly the things that will be of most benefit to a student that will pursue a career in music are:

    • Basic piano lessons. The object isn’t to become a piano virtuoso, but to be able to play four-part harmony (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and play chords. You will need this knowledge and the sooner you learn it, the better.
      Another reason for this is if you’re going to do recording and/or transcribing, your work will mainly be done with a keyboard, not a sax.

    • Basic vocal lessons. Again, the object is not to become a virtuoso, but to be able to carry a tune. If you can’t carry a tune with your voice, you’re probably not going to be able to carry one on the sax.

    Buy a Yamaha YAS-23, 25 or 275 (the 275 is the preference).

    Ah, the topic that will take the longest. I’m going to talk about three subjects: why you want to get a Yamaha, “vintage” and used saxophones and what the difference between “professional” and “student” horns is.

    Why you want to get a Yamaha

    >> Brief aside: YAS stands for “Yamaha Alto Sax”. YTS stands for “Yamaha Tenor Sax”. You can guess what YBS and YSS stand for. <<

    The Yamaha models are:

  • Student level: 21, 23, 25, 200, 275. The 23, 25 and 200 are essentially the same horn, sold in different markets. The 21 has been discontinued for a long while. The 23 and 25 will be discontinued in the near future.
  • Intermediate level: 32, 52, 475, 575. The 32 and 52 are essentially the same horn. The 32 and 52 are generally discontinued in alto and tenor pitches.
  • Basic Pro: 61, 62. The 61, which some people think was the best Yamaha pro horn ever made, is discontinued. There is no higher professional baritone than a 62 offered by Yamaha.
  • Custom Pro: 655, 675. The 655 has been discontinued. The 675 is currently only available as a soprano, and the 675 is the highest professional soprano offered by Yamaha.
  • Custom Pro “Advanced”: 82Z.
  • Custom Pro “Ultimate”: 855, 875. The 855 has been discontinued.
  • So, if someone says, “A new YAS-23 is $1700, but I have a used 62 in perfect shape for $1700,” GET THE 62. Additionally, once you hit the “Custom Pro” levels, you’ll start hearing people say that the 82Z is better than the 875 or that the 655 is better than the 82Z, etc. It’s a matter of taste.

    >> The YAS-61 is becoming one of the best values for a pro horn, today. A brief Internet search I conducted today shows several selling for under $1000. <<

    One of the most popular student saxophones in the world is the Yamaha 23 and 25 (the 25 was released only in Asian markets, but some have spread elsewhere). The 275 is the updated replacement. The horn is known for a) very decent and forgiving intonation b) being fairly non-resistant in playing (i.e. it’s easy to get the horn to sound a note) c) a rather plain sound that’s kinda bright d) being built with very high quality and e) being the backup saxophone for a lot of professional musicians.

    Yes, this student horn is used as the backup for a lot of pros.

    There are two caveats with the Yamaha student horns, though:

    a) In my opinion, after having owned two YAS-23s and one YTS-23, is that they are not quite as rugged as the venerable (and unfairly maligned) Selmer Bundy II.

    b) The keywork on the 23 and 25 isn’t as consistent with other modern horns –- particularly pro-level horns –- as higher numbered Yamaha models. The latter is less important than the former: the keywork is different, but only ergonomically, not functionally. The bigger concern is ruggedness. If your beginning student is going to seriously damage the horn often, get a used Selmer Bundy II (occasionally called a “Selmer USA Model”). This will set you back about $200 or so.

    There are two other great advantages of getting a Yamaha: most any music store rents or leases these instruments and that means that if you’re damage your horn right before a concert –- say you bend the neck in half or something –- chances are fairly good that a local shop will have the parts in stock, ready to go, at a moment’s notice. There’s a LOT to be said for that.

    As mentioned, I owned a couple YAS-23s and a YTS-23. I also owned a Yamaha 52 baritone sax, which I used throughout high school, college and some of my professional career. These horns are truly that good (I also got the YBS-52 over the 62 because the price/performance wasn’t worth the extra cost of the 62).

    Now, there are some Chinese and Taiwanese-made horns on the market that are getting a fairly good reputation. I’ve requested some of the dealers of these horns send me some horns to try. I haven’t gotten any, so I can’t recommend them, but I can say they have the possibility of being fairly high quality and low price. Additionally, the YAS-23 has been around for at least 20 years. The design is well-tested.

    Why not to get “vintage” or used saxophones

    Here’s the argument: vintage instruments –- and by “vintage” I mean, “A horn that has kept its value from when it was introduced, was a professional model and still has playability value, today” — sound better or have more “character” than modern instruments.

    That’s a spurious argument. It’s more accurate to say that a lot of vintage instruments are cheaper than a lot of today’s student instruments. It is arguable whether vintage instruments are better than today’s professional instruments – and this is not an argument that I will get into here.

    There are several caveats with vintage instruments:

  • A vintage horn generally has intonation “quirks” that are difficult to impossible to overcome by a beginner.
  • A vintage horn may only respond well with a certain type of mouthpiece.
  • Some vintage horns are “tuned” to a different standard (one common one is called “French Standard Pitch”. Another is “High Pitch” or “HP”. “Low Pitch” or “LP” is the modern standard) and CANNOT be “retuned” for use with modern instruments – no matter what anyone might say.
  • Some vintage horns may have additional keywork or may be missing modern keywork (low Bb, altissimo F, altissimo F# and “articulated” G# are the most common missing keywork).
  • Most vintage horns have their own style of keywork layout which can be unergonomic and very difficult for young beginners to contend with.
  • A lot of vintage horns are only “good” in a small range of serial numbers. Later or earlier horns than this serial number range may not be up to the same quality standards.
  • It can be difficult or very expensive to replace broken or missing parts for vintage instruments.
  • That gives you some ideas.

    >> Additionally, if you plan on buying a used instrument from eBay or the paper, you need to assume that it will need at least $400 to $600 for repair. This puts most used instruments out of people’s price ranges and makes a YAS-275 a much more attractive buy. If you can find a used instrument from a dealer and the dealer has overhauled it, then it’s a good deal. <<

    THEREFORE, I DO NOT RECOMMEND A VINTAGE HORN FOR A BEGINNER. Used modern instruments, particularly Yamahas, can be a very good deal (as mentioned in the above section), but remember that you should assume that any used instrument will need $400 to $600 of repair.

    By the way, buying a used instrument from a dealer has another benefit: some dealers have a “try it and if you don’t like it, send it back and get a refund” policy. It’s rare to see that from eBay.

    What’s the difference between a “professional” horn and a “student” horn?

    Simply, three things:

  • Price, but this is within a manufacturer’s model chart. In other words, a YAS-23 is a lot less expensive than a YAS-875, but the YAS-23 isn’t necessarily less expensive than any other company’s pro OR student model.
  • Build quality, but this is within a manufacturer’s model chart. In other words, a YAS-875 is built to higher quality standards than the YAS-23, but the YAS-875 is not necessarily built any better or worse than, say, a Keilwerth SX-90R (and, if you’re in the market for a professional horn, an SX-90R is a very good choice, by the way).
  • Features – again, this is within a manufacturer’s model chart. The YAS-875 has more adjustment screws, fancier engraving, more finish options and more options, period, than the YAS-23, but these options aren’t necessarily available on, say, a Keilwerth SX-90R.
  • The one real problem with some “professional” horns is something that’s suggested above: some modern saxophones are advertised as “professional models” and they’re really not all that good quality. They may be the best model offered by a particular company, but that doesn’t mean that they’re very good.

    I don’t want to get too technical, but bear with me for a second. I’m going to be a little inexact in hopes that I can be more understood.

    Most manufacturers have a couple different bores for their various “levels” of saxophone. Let’s call a bore the measurements of the interior of the main body of the horn (that’s close enough). Two comments:

  • The bore is what makes the saxophone sound like a saxophone. You can tweak tone hole placement, internal width and such (to an extent), but if it’s shaped like a sax, it’ll sound like a sax.
  • A. Sax essentially proved that no matter what material the bore is made out of, a saxophone will sound like a saxophone if the manufacturer adheres to the same kind of conical bore he prescribed.
  • As you can probably guess, it’s a tad expensive to engineer a bore – you have to accurately find out where all those toneholes go if you make the internal or external dimensions a specific number, etc. — so any given manufacture probably doesn’t have more than two or three bores. Add to this a different neck, bow and/or bell, and you can significantly change the character of the saxophone. For instance, the difference between the Yamaha 52 and 62 is the metal the horn is made out of and the bell (the 62II alto and tenor have different necks than the 52, as well). The difference between the Yamaha 575 and 62 is JUST the bell (and $400 US).

    What’s the difference between the 23 and 52? The 23 has a completely different bore.

    I mentioned that I bought a Yamaha 52 baritone over a Yamaha 62 baritone because the price/performance wasn’t worth it. In today’s numbers, a YBS-52 is $4100. A YBS-62 is $6400. Is the 62 BETTER than the 52? Yes. The 62 has a little better response and tone from the bell keys, specifically (the 52 and 62 bells are different), the 62 had somewhat better feeling keywork (mother-of-pearl on the 62 vs. nylon on the 52) and the 62 sounds a bit darker than the 52 (possibly because the 62 is made out of a slightly better grade of metal). However, in my opinion, the 62 wasn’t $1300 better. If price was no object, I would have happily gotten the 62 over the 52, but I would rather take the extra $1300 and buy something else (and I did: that YTS-23 I mentioned).

    When I went shopping for a new alto a long while ago, I tried the entire Yamaha line and ended up leaving with a YAS-23. Why? It was simply “nice enough” and cheap enough. Was the 855 a better horn (told you it was awhile ago)? Yes, but not worth two YAS-23s. I considered getting a YAS-52, but the 23 was on sale.

    Get a Vandoren V5 hard rubber mouthpiece with the A27 facing or Selmer S80 hard rubber mouthpiece.

    Or, very generally, “Get a very good mouthpiece to start on. These are some really good ones.”

    The two mouthpieces I mention here are fairly well known as high-quality “medium” mouthpieces. They tend to do everything fairly well, but are not necessarily the best for any specific style. Each could easily last you your entire playing career, though.

    When I started playing – on clarinet – I was completely unaware that you could get different mouthpieces. I didn’t discover this until several years after giving up the clarinet because it was “too hard”. The clarinet wasn’t “too hard”: the mouthpiece that came with my very nice clarinet was a piece of junk. I swapped the mouthpiece and I was very, very happy. (I again refer you to my statement about getting an instructor that knows the instrument well.)

    But there are hundreds, if not thousands of different makes and models of mouthpieces and then you have facing charts, tip lengths, etc. It’s way too complicated.

    So, get a Selmer or a Vandoren V5 in hard rubber and don’t worry about the other mouthpieces that are out there.

  • I should mention that mouthpieces are available in a variety of other materials, including metal. The different materials essentially bring out certain characteristics, but have their own difficulties to trade off. A mouthpiece in hard rubber may not allow you to squeal like Lenny Pickett, but it will allow you to have a lot more volume and intonation control, which is what a beginner needs.

    Use the stock ligature that comes with your Selmer or Vandoren mouthpiece.

    When you come down to it, you really COULD use a rubber band to keep the reed on the mouthpiece. Hey, some ligature manufactures do this. The only real reason I mention anything about a ligature is because:

  • It needs to properly fit the mouthpiece and
  • I’ve seen an awful lot of students that are using ligatures that have been flattened or otherwise damaged. At best, this will cause the reed to move around in a way you don’t want and make playing much more difficult. At worst, you’ll damage your mouthpiece and/or cut yourself.
  • If you have a damaged ligature, there are hundreds of ones out there. However, considering you’ve got a Vandoren or Selmer mouthpiece, you can order an “original equipment manufacturer’s” ligature from most saxophone or woodwind shops for relatively little cash.

    Get some brand-new Vandoren Java reeds, strength 2.5.

    A brief aside: reeds are measured in thicknesses, generally from “1” to “5” or “soft” to “extra hard”. Most students use a 2.5 (medium soft) until they build up embochure strength or start playing a mouthpiece that requires a harder or softer reed. As a point of reference, I generally used 3.5 reeds on my classical mouthpieces. I backed off to a 3 on my jazz mouthpieces.

    The brand really doesn’t matter that much, but why not go for something really decent? I have heard that Rico owns the patent for mass-producing reeds, so the real difference is in what kind of cane is used. In my experience, Vandoren had the most CONSISTENT reeds in a box, followed by LaVoz and then Rico Royal.

    The point really is that I’ve seen too many students that show up with reeds that are split or chewed or whatever and/or they’re using a way too hard or way too soft reed. Yes, reeds are relatively expensive. Remember that I used to play bari and those cost TWICE as much.

    You sometimes hear about plastic, plastic covered or other synthetic reeds. If you have played long enough and know that you always use a reed of a specific strength, these might work for you. For me, I like a reed a little harder than a 3, but a little softer than a 3.5, so I have to use a bit of sandpaper on almost any reed, so synthetics are out for me. Additionally, the synthetics I’ve tried taste a little funny. However, I can say that they’re very nice for gigs where you have to play more than one instrument.

    Get a decent neckstrap. Neotech makes some nice ones, but just don’t get one that’s got pointy metal ends.

    I’m definitely not going to say that a neckstrap is going to make you a better player, but it will make you want to play more.

    There are many, many different kinds of neck straps out there, but try to stay away from the ones like [http://www.music123.com/Rico-Soprano-Alto-Saxophone-Strap-463312-i1144369.Music123 this]. They’ll work, in a pinch, but the little hook, even if it’s covered in rubberized paint, will develop a pointed end and will badly scratch your saxophone. Get a strap with a plastic hook. It’s only a couple dollars more.

    Also, remember, this “necklace” will be holding a horn that’s worth at least $1000. You want something heavy-duty. I’ve snapped many of the ones that look like [http://www.music123.com/Rico-Soprano-Alto-Saxophone-Strap-463312-i1144369.Music123 this], but I’ve only broken a couple of the ones that look like [http://www.wwbw.com/Neotech-Soft-Sax-Neck-Strap-i35396.music this].

    Practice, Practice, Practice

    The only way to get to Carnegie Hall is to practice. A really super spiffy saxophone will NOT get you there.

    There is the incorrect impression in the saxophone world that a specific horn will make you sound “better” or make you sound like John Coltrane. That isn’t the case. At the very most, you can say something like, “I can’t sound like Lenny Pickett because I’m using a Sigurd Rascher mouthpiece. I need a metal jazz mouthpiece.” This is really, really rare, though!

    I mentioned that the main difference between a student saxophone and a professional saxophone is build quality. I can say, as well, that some professional saxophones are easier to play than some student saxophones. HOWEVER, the difference isn’t great enough for me to say, “Stay away from student horns. Just go buy a pro horn!” — especially when a Yamaha student horn is as good as or better than lot of other companies’ pro models