A Decades Long Saxophone Journey
Original 6/13/22. Updates: 8/10/22



Back when I was 19-20 I lived in far Northwest Chicago.  Occasionally my friends and I would go down to Lake Michigan to roam around the parks or beach.  One night we were on the Northwestern University campus, right next to the lake.  There's a park there between some of the dorms on the South.  As we were just roaming around, sitting on the big rocks piled up to keep the shoreline from eroding, and contemplating life, I heard this saxophone.  I looked around and I could see a guy sitting in the window of his dorm, half hanging out, just belting out a mellow tune.  The sound just filled the air.  It was beautiful.

Fast forward about 10 more years, I still remember that saxaphone and decide to buy a used sax.  If I recall it was Bundy II.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I bought a beginner book and started teaching myself.  But I was still working and raising a family at the time, and started a Masters program, so didn't spend much time, and didn't get much better.  I could play some songs (I knew how to read music from my guitar background), but I felt frustrated, and I gave it up and sold the sax.

Fast forward another few years, I end up buying another sax, off Ebay, but same thing happened.  Frustration set in and I sold it.  Thinking back on it, it was still lack of time, and that produced frustration because I wasn't progressing as fast as I wanted to, I don't think there were any online classes at the time!

Fast forward 30 years, yeah that makes me 60.  Kids are grown and doing their own thing.  I retired at 57 to prepare for a motorcycle strip around the world, take off in December of 2019, get only as far as Colorado to Honduras before COVID closes all the borders, I get stuck in Honduras for three months, and 7 months after leaving, I'm back in the US, hoping it all just goes away... It didn't.  Having sold everything before the trip I had to reestablish myself and ended up on 8 acres in Alabama.

After a year I realize I have a lot of time on my hands, which brings me to January of '22, COVID is still a thing, and I decide it's about time I try the saxophone again, because I finally have time, and the prospects of traveling through the land of COVID bureaucracy is not appealing.  The sound drifting across the park at Northwestern that one night hasn't gone from my head.

So, seeing as I'm not going to spend a lot of money, I get myself on Ebay and see what's selling.  I settle for a new China made Tenor for $550 (can't really beat that).  Got myself a couple beginner lesson books, a couple beginner song books and I'm off.  Made pretty quick progress for a couple weeks until the sax got annoying.  The pads were sticking to the holes, and the G# key would stay stuck, and no matter how much I tried to clean the pads, first with Zipo lighter fluid (that's recommended) and then a leather conditioner, they still stuck.  Then I also noticed that the octave mechanism on the top of the neck was bent.  So started the process to return the sax. 

Soon as I knew I was returning it I started looking for a replacement.  Again Ebay, but figured I'd need to spend a little more if I wanted a decent quality. Clearly $550 was not going to cut it. Looked like at least $1000 gets you something decent. I found a fully rebuilt Cleveland, for $1300, from the 70's.  Rebuilt by a guy who has been doing instruments for 40 years.  It looked good in the photos but, that didn't turn out so well.  You can definitely see that technology made some leaps from the 70's to the China model.  The Cleveland was very hard to operate, especially the table keys, and actually there were some corks missing, and then the G# key got stuck open, and another cork fell off... So, I started the return process again.

Then I found Reverb.com.  Found a Selmer Aristocrat TS600, discontinued, new, under warranty for just around $900.  It was a pleasure to play compared to the previous two.  Everything worked and although made in Taiwan, the build quality was obvious.  In the mean time I had signed up for Scott Paddock's Saxophone classes online and started following his program.  Along with other videos, I was making good progress, practicing 1.5-3 hours per day.

While I had been looking for that Selmer I had come across some information on Rose Brass saxophones.  More copper and added phosphor, that makes the material harder and stronger, and gives it a rosy copper look, and a "darker" sound.  It kept bugging me, so I figured as long as I saved some money on the Selmer, why not get the it and keep the one I liked better, or keep them both!  I ordered a Rose Brass Tenor off Ebay from Eastern Music after I saw a very positive review video on YouTube.  But honestly, it was the look of the thing that really caught my eye. We all like our shiny stuff, right?





Well, when I got it, it didn't exactly look like that.  Problem being that the company showed pictures of one thing, but described a different thing.  The main issue was appearance.  Yes, there was a hint of that rose color but it wasn't all polished and shiny like the photos in the ad..



The actual finish was dull, nothing was polished, and the bell and body were actually a different color.  Hard to tell in the above photo, but it was also more of gold than rose.  To make a long story short, I did order an unlacquered natural rose finish and that's what I got, but the photos they posted were of a lacquered instrument.  And after some discussion with the manufacturer and on a sax forum, it turned out that the instrument was acid dipped to impart a uniform "patina"/discoloration/oxidation.  This is what it looks like two months later:



It's more of a gold color with still a little tinge of rose.  After getting all this clarified, I decided to keep it, because it did seem to play well.  There were some other minor issues related to description versus actual and I compromised with Eastern to give me a small discount. Getting over that initial disappointment in appearance was rough, but I did want an unlaquered instrument, and one guy on the forum said if I don't keep it, don't ever order another one, because this was actually a very consistent color, and it will probably change with time.

Anyway, after two months of playing both, 1.5 to 3 hours per day, most days, and going back and forth between the Eastern Music the Selmer, I actually much prefer the Eastern.  The Selmer is up for sale.  I thought I'd keep both, but there is a slight difference in key placement between the two and I don't see the point of switching back an forth when I prefer the Eastern. The Eastern is more free flowing, less stuffy than the Selmer.  Also, it actually has a brighter sound and resonates much better, more freely, than the Selmer across the entire range.  Some of the keys on the Eastern Music have less travel than those on the Selmer, which feels more natural.  If I sell the Selmer I may just get another Eastern! Because if one is good, two is better, right?

In total, after four months of playing I'm happy with my progress. I'm no expert, but my previous two attempts did significantly reduce my learning curve. I would say the big difference is in what I learned about embouchure, from Scott and Jamie Anderson, who also has a Youtube channel. Scott explained the tonguing well, and Jamie explained the use of a "fish"/fat lip embouchure, which seems like it works better than the tucked, tight lip one.  Also, his focus on not putting excessive pressure on the reed, but letting it vibrate as freely as possible was a good tip. I guess that's a big problem with students; biting down and cutting off air flow.

I can play quite a few songs now and between Scott's videos and his personal responses to my questions, along with other videos, I've got a much better grip on the instrument than I had either time before.  I did also buy into the lessons on https://www.infinitemusician.com/.  These are classes by David Liebman, who's suppose to be a legend.  Having never followed the saxophone world, I'm not familiar with him, but I'm finding his lessons useful.

I'm still learning to play in different keys, but I'm not sure how far I'll take that.  I can always transpose songs into different keys if i need to, so why learn all the keys?  I get it if you're going to play in a band and need to play and improvise in any key, but I have no plans to do that, so for me it's more a matter of just working on my tone, smooth transitions, overtones, finger speed and precision, and learning songs I like. 

I really don't plan on getting into improvisation.  Honestly I like a cleaner, less busy melody.  Trying to squeeze more notes in than needed doesn't really appeal to me.  I hear some people improvise and you can't even recognize the song after all the embellishment thrown in.  It's kind if like when a lead guitarist starts improvising; yeah there's a lot going on and it's busy, but how many times can you hear the same types of riffs?  I have written a few of my own songs, on guitar, and I find that more rewarding.

Another thing I decided was not to spend a lot of time on is using a metronome and trying to accurately count 1e&a2e&a, etc..  Scott is very good at doing that counting to a beat, but he has to be, because he plays professionally.  Me, if I know what the song should sound like, I can make it sound like that.  Also, trying to play with a metronome is just distracting to me.  If I'm off the slightest bit it messes me up, but if I'm not playing in a band it doesn't really matter.  If I need to play smoothly in a song I make an effort to do that, but close enough is close enough.  I could see myself spending hours writing beats under the notes trying to hit them exactly, for what?  I enjoy playing, my significant other says she likes listening to it.  So, what more can I ask?  I'm going to stay with Scott's classes and pick and choose out of them what I find useful.

The Reed and Mouthpiece

I've settled on a Legere synthetic reed 2.25 (Scott Recommended) and a Yamaha 5C mouthpiece.  The Selmer came with what seemed like a 4C equivalent and it was just too stuffy.  I felt like I could blow a lot harder and it was just holding my air back.  I've also tried from 1.5 to 3.0 cane reeds and even a metal jazz #6 (tip opening more like a #7 Yamaha actually) mouthpiece.  But, with the wider opening, I found the high notes much harder to control (I can flatten and sharpen them over a wider range), which at this point is probably not good for me.  The 5C seems to work really well with the 2.25.  I can hit the highs and lows and it has good volume, and there's no licking and wetting needed.  Put it on and play.  It's not cheap to replace if you nick it or something, but it's a perfect compromise between a 2.5 (getting to stiff) and a 2.0 (too flexible).

8/10/2022 Update: 
I've purchased a metal #5 mouthpiece, which is a 1.9mm tip opening, from the same eBay reseller I got the #6 from (which is a 2.03 opening).  With the 2.25 reed it's really a nice combination.  Good volume, not muffled, and plays across the whole range without excessive pressure, while still relatively easier to control than the #6 from that supplier. 

And actually my 2.25 reed wore out.  I tried trimming the tip a little but it came out too stiff.  I tried going back to a cane 2.5 reed, but again, I just find it too stiff, and needing to wet them is kind of annoying now that I'm used to the plastic reed.  So, I'm experimenting again.  I could just get get another 2.25, but at $34 dollars a piece, that's a bit ridiculous.  I know enough about plastics that that I know there's maybe a couple pennies of plastic there.

I had previously purchased a Bari synthetic Medium, which they say is a 3+.  That was ridiculously stiff.  I took a shot at sanding it, but that did not work and I tossed it.  I now went and tried their Medium Soft which is supposed to be a 2.0-2.5.  Yeah, it's probably a 2.5-2.75.  Too stiff.  I tried sanding one of those down also to get it softer but it didn't play well, so tossed that also.  I now have an order in for the Bari soft, which is supposed to be a 1.5-2.  Judging by their other reeds, it's going to be a 2.0 or slightly higher, at least on my scale.  The Bari reeds are $13 each plus shipping, so I can get three of them for not much more than one Legere, figure in the long run, if it works it's worth the experimentation. 

I also tried some 1.5 Rico cane reeds, they were just too soft and didn't play well across the full range of the instrument. I still have a plastic Legere 2.0 that didn't play well with my Yamah #5, but with my #5 metal mouthpiece it plays amazing; easily across the full range.  Being that I'm waiting for the Bari, I've been using the Leger 2.0.  My hope is that the Bari Soft is close to the Legere 2.0; all the advantages of a synthetic reed, for a fraction of the Legere price.

I'm actually amazed at what a difference these reed strengths, and mouthpieces make to the playability.  The general principal is with a stiff reed you use a lower number mouthpiece.  Otherwise it will take a lot of effort in both air and lip pressure to play.  With a stiff reed I can't get through much of a song before my lips are Jello.  Also, it takes a lot of initial tongue pressure when you press and release to start a note, and I'd find I just get air flow, not the note.  Some combinations are relatively effortless, others can make it near impossible to hit certain notes consistently.

My teacher Scott recommended I get a Yahama 4C and the 2.25 synthetic or 2.5 cane reeds.  After only playing less than two months it became clear that the combination was stuffy and limiting my air flow.  I'm glad I took the time to try the metal mouthpieces and experiment with reeds.  Now at 8 months of playing, I'm starting to zero into the combination that I'll stick with.  If the Bari reeds don't work out, then it will probably be another Legere 2.0 or 2.25.  I don't see any weakness in those reeds, only the price.

Ear Plugs

I do play with ear plugs.  First week or so I think I actually hurt my ears.  I play in a room and the sound bounces off the walls, and it's loud!

Carpel Tunnel Playing Sax

I use to spend a lot of time on a computer in my career and I developed some sensitivity in my wrists. I solved that problem with a split keyboard.  But when I started playing the sax, that pain was starting to come back in my left wrist.  After looking at the mechanics of what was going on, I concluded I was just too big, at 6'4".  The angle that my wrist was making in order to hit the keys was all wrong.  I figured out a way to attach a secondary strap to the sax to actually rotate the bell to the right by about 45 degrees.  That made all the difference and I no longer get those pains.

Muscore

Muscore is a great music composition and notation program.  Free and it allows you to write music on a staff and play it on your computer.  I've actually used it to transcribe quite a few songs that I find on Youtube (sax sheet music wit a backing track).  I just put the music in Muscore and learn it.  I can also Transpose it to different keys there, so when I'm practicing a key, I can have songs in that key to practice on.  Also, transcribing music has improved my reading speed.  Great tool.

Sheet Music

I don't like paper.  So, unless the songs are in the books I bought, I keep them in Muscore, and a use a very sturdy music stand that I can put my laptop on and read directly from Muscore on my laptop.  Save some trees!

Update 8/10/2022, General Discussion Regarding the Saxophone Learning Process

Playing 8 months now, I can play many of the songs in my two songbooks, Hal Leonard The Big Book of Tenor Sax Songs and First 50 Songs You Should Play on Sax .  And I've got another 20 I transcribed from various sources into Muscore, and whatever songs are in Scott lessons.  Not shy to try different tunes.  If I don't like them, or they seem too difficult I move on. 

I've working on, and can play pretty well, Behemian Rhapsody by Queen.  There's a lot going on in that song, and I remember a few months back I heard a guy play it and was amazed.  I'm not quite as good as he is, but hey, I'm playing it!

The metronome is definitely a no go for me. Everything I read says use the metronome.  Timing is everything.  I agree, timing is everything.  With songs that I'm not familiar with, if my timing is even slightly off, it just sounds like a bunch of notes being played.  But there are also times when I'll start playing a song that I wasn't familiar with, and then as I play it by sight I realize I've heard it.  I've realized that my internal sense of timing is very accurate, and if I know a song I can play it very well; the timing is good, the rhythm is right.  Soon as I throw a metronome in, the slight differences between my playing and the metronome tics are extremely distracting; a lot of my brainpower then goes into saying "crap, I missed that one, faster, slower, crap..." They say everyone has like $10 dollars of attention, once the $10 dollars is gone, there's nothing left.  I find the metronome takes way too much of my $10 and I get no value from it. 

What I find curious is that there is this huge focus on improvising, scales, licks, arpeggios.  So, the idea is, yeah take a song, make it your own add and take away notes as you see fit, but do it exactly on metronome time.  But when you look at some songs, they switch timing in mid song, play some notes long, switch keys, etc.. but play with the metronome.  Scott even talk about how some people play slightly ahead of the beat, some after the beat, as part of their style.  Guess what I've concluded is that you can have a lot of freedom in how you play a melody and have it still be recognizable, on the other hand you can also take that freedom too far and improvise so much that you can hardly recognize the underlying melody.  In the same way, lack of timing can make a melody non recognizable, so that's what I focus on, making it recognizable, the execution of the verses, the relative timing, not the ticks of a metronome.  More power to anyone who finds following a metronome second nature.  If you're playing in a band then obviously you have to time to the beat.  I wish it cam easier for me, but it doesn't.  I'm also easily distracted...

I find that I'm now at a point there I can play a relatively simple song, by sight, the first time, fairly well.  It has me asking the question of where do I go from here.  I'm learning my seventh major key.  I'll probably stop there or learn the rest at a really low priority.  I'm doing Scott's chop shop which is patterns and builds dexterity.  I tried messing with altisimo notes, but I've concluded there's no need.  There's no song I can't play in the normal range of the Tenor, at least no song I care to play. The reason I bought a tenor is because I like that lower sound.  Even the same song played on a soprano is not appealing to me.  Learning chords and weird scales doesn't do it for me, I don't see any purpose to them right now.  I understand quite a bit of music theory, but if I'm not going to improvise or play in a band, so much of that is irrelevant.  I am starting to think about composing some songs.

I am playing around with overtones.  That seems useful in getting a full sound and having control.

I did sell the Selmer TS600 and kept the Eastern Music Reference 54 saxophone.  I would not hesitate buying another saxophone from Eastern Music.  From what they have told me my guess is they make the Antigua Saxophones, and they have worked with Peter Ponzo, though I can't confirm it.  Either way, a new TS600 use to sell for $2500-$3000.  The fact that I find the $700 Eastern Music a better sounding horn, says a lot. And I've read reviews on the Power Neck my sax came with.  Even professionals say it's impressive.

Breathing.  I've seen these videos that talk about three part breathing.  Breath in by extending your stomach first, then your lungs.  I find that completely counter intuitive, and I can't get nearly as much air in my lungs by doing that.  If I just breath in as much as I can, my chest expands and my stomach sucks in.  I get significantly more air in my lungs doing that, as demonstrated by my ability to hold a note significantly longer.  The proof is in the pudding.  If I can hold a note longer, than why is that breathing wrong?  The one thing I have heard is don't raise your shoulders when you take a breath.  That make sense, since it puts additional stress on your body, when you should be as relaxed as possible.  Just let your lungs expand naturally.

So, in Summary:
1. Play lots of songs because that's the whole point of learning the sax.  Playing a wide variety of songs exposes you to different song structures and improves your sight reading.
2. Get those songs either through books, or better yet by transcribing them into Muscore from Youtube or other online sources.  Using Muscore to transcribe makes you a better sigh reader.
3. Play the major scales. In my book, the rest are optional.
4. Experiment with mouthpieces and reeds.  It helps your understanding what influence they have, and you may just find something that does make you a better player.  You don't know how they may be limiting you until you feel the difference.  Yamaha 4C or 5C is a good start point with a #2 or 2.25 Legere reed.  Try up or down.
5. Embouchure.  Lot of schools on this.  I don't use my top lip.  Tried a double embouchure, it felt dumb, but I do use minimal pressure and I don't wrap my bottom lip much around my teeth, the fish approach.  Focus on playing with minimal pressure on the reed/mouthpiece.
6. Breath. Take deep breaths.  Not to fill your lungs up all the way, but to a comfortable point, because holding too much air that you don't need is counterproductive.
7. Embouchure should start loose and tighten only as much as needed.  Fish lips seems to work better than classical wrap the bottom lip over you teeth.
8. Experiment with how much of the mouthpiece you put in your mouth. 
9. The position of your tongue supports your notes.  Flat in your mouth for low notes, hunched up in the middle for high notes.  Scott Paddock has some good videos on Embouchure and using your tongue.