If you play solo saxophone, or you’re thinking about getting started playing solo saxophone, you’ll want to watch this video.
Chris is a solo sax player. He’s one of our Sax School members, and in today’s video, we’re having a conversation about a residency that he’s just completed, performing solo sax in one of the top pub venues here in the UK.
We’re going to find out what was good about the experience, and what was not so good. And hopefully, we’ll also get a bunch of tips that can help you become an even better solo sax player.
Getting the gig
The venue for Chris’s residency is a “gastro pub” – that’s a British term for a fancy pub that’s known for great food. It’s an old 15th century coaching house in the south of England.
“And it’s got a nice big outdoor space, which they’ve spent some money on,” explains Chris, “So that was the opportunity to play there during the summer.”
I wanted to know how Chris had got the gig at such a fancy venue.
“It was through, it was a referral from a pro player called Steve Turner, who’s on the south coast,” says Chris.
When I talk to players of all levels, this is something I hear a lot. Opportunities come about through connections. Those connections are important. And not only knowing the people, but letting them know what sort of things you’re looking to.
Chris went to check out the venue, then showed the manager some of the videos he’s shared in our Sax School Community “to show him I could play”, says Chris.
The venue wanted a solo sax player who could move around the diners, and who would play modern music. Chris was feeling the pressure.
“I think the newest [song on my playlist] was Baker Street!” Chris says.
Planning a solo sax gig
Chris has been playing sax for long time, and has lots of experience of playing in community bands. But I wanted to know what he had to do differently to prepare for a gig as a solo sax player.
“This is the first time I’ve done a paid spot,” explains Chris, “so instantly you feel you’ve got to do something different than what you’ve been doing when you’ve been playing with your friends and family”.
The venue wanted two 45 minute sets. “So that’s quite a lot of material,” says Chris, “it’s around 20-25 songs.”
When you’re playing a gig like this for the first time at a venue, choosing your set list can be a challenge. How do you know what songs will appeal to the audience?
“It was clear that I couldn’t just play jazz standards and swing tunes and a few things from the eighties. I had to bring it up to date,” says Chris.
Chris found loads of great tunes, as well as backing tracks, from Brendan Ross, who created some awesome pop sax courses in Sax School.
“I think you have to play what you enjoy playing,… but you also have to have a broad appeal,” says Chris. “But I think I’ve come up with a set list and people have said they enjoyed the range that I gave.”
Pro Tip: Mini sets
Chris arranged his songs grouped by style. This is a great way to plan your set list as a solo sax player. “So I’d have sort of two or three soul numbers, and then some swing, and then some eighties, and then some more modern stuff” says Chris.
Create mini sets of songs in the same style.
Also, Chris added variety to his performance by playing a set on alto sax, and then a set on tenor sax.
Dealing with performance nerves
When you’re performing as a solo sax player for the first time, there’s a lot to get your nerves jangling!
Chris was particularly nervous about memorising his music. “I felt I should be able to play some of them without standing behind the sheets,… and I’ve never done that before,” says Chris, “so that was what I spent a lot of time on”.
However, Chris didn’t try to learn the whole set from memory.”Of the 25 songs, I probably memorised, all the way through, about five or six. For some of them [I would memorise] just the main sax bit then I’d go back to the sheets. But that’s what stressed me out most”.
To give himself some confidence, Chris didn’t try to play without music for the first couple of performances. “And then progressively as I got more confident, I would step back from [the sheet music] either through the whole song or just bits of it. And then I’d go back for the verse, or whatever.”
Over the season of performances, Chris found that his confidence grew and his knowledge of the songs in his set list improved too. So it’s important to remember that most solo sax players don’t start with all the music memorised. It’s a process of learning and memorising over time.
For Chris, there was a huge sense of achievement when he was able to play without the sheet music. “It’s a wonderful feeling…and I think you play the songs better than when you’re reading as well,” he says.
Once you are able, like Chris, to play without the music, you’ll give a better performance because you can focus on listening and on connecting with the audience.
Playing in front on an audience
I asked Chris how he had felt playing in front on people.
“Once I start playing, I’m fine, once I get that first number out of the way,” says Chris. And he has another great tips to share to get over those initial nerves at the beginning of a performance.
“I’d always start with nice, easy ones… my go-tos are things like Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World, or The Kink’s Sunny Afternoon or Feeling Good or something.
This is a great tip, because as you’re warming up, you’re also warming up the audience.
Dealing with the unexpected
When you’re playing gigs as a sax player, you need to be prepared for things going wrong occasionally. Chris tried to avoid problems by being organised when he was preparing and setting up for gigs.
“I had quite a lot of equipment and my goodness, how easy is it to just forget a single piece? … So I had a list that I had stuck on my sax case and I just checked off all the things I had to take along.
As well as remembering your gear, Chris recommends checking your settings to make sure there’s nothing that could distract you or throw you off course. “When you’re using things like Forscore, you could easily forget to take the loops off, for instance. Or the volume between one track and the other isn’t right.”
Just taking a moment before starting the next backing track to check these settings can save you a lot of stress.
I asked Chris if anything had gone wrong during his performances.
“A cable came out about three-quarters of the way through [a song] and the backing track stopped, so that wasn’t great. …It was obvious to everyone what happened. But rather than just stopping, I finished the thing. I got a round of applause for doing that!”
Chris’s scariest moment came not from a problem with his gear, but from a wasp!
“I would say don’t play, as I did for the first couple of weeks, underneath an apple tree, especially in August. Because you’ve got wasps landing on those apples… And I was on the tenor and this wasp landed on the neck and it was just wandering towards me. [And I was thinking] I’m going to keep going, I’m going to keep going…”. And I kept going and it didn’t get to me!”
I asked Chris to give us a quick run-down of his setup.
- Forscore on iPad with the 2 set lists
- Stand for iPad
- Two Yamaha powered speakers
- Clip on microphone
- Effects pedal (set on “ballad” to provide reverb)
- Mixer (for balance with backing track)
Chris sets up his iPad stand on a low height setting to the side, so he isn’t playing behind it. He also uses a cable to connect the mixer to the iPad (although many models use Bluetooth).
“It was a great setup,” says Chris,”It was over the top for that venue. I think I probably could have played a venue five times the size, so 200 people…Do it was all turned down low because I was supposed to be sort of background most of the time.”
If you’ve been inspired by Chris’s story to start playing gigs as a solo sax player, Chris has this advice.
“You certainly don’t need all that gear that I’ve got,” says Chris. “I played in mostly for friends and family for a while, so take any opportunities that come your way or try and create them,” Chris suggests.
It’s a great idea to start out with a few songs you feel really confident playing – think of these as your ‘signature dish’. “You’ll build your confidence that way,” says Chris. ‘Play something you are comfortable with, at any opportunity can and just build from there.”
You don’t need lots of complicated gear to get started playing solo sax gigs, either “There’s plenty of other nice simple one-box solutions that work just great,” says Chris.
Chris used this type of compact “busker” setup at a local event this summer.
Once you have got some experience and confidence with a simple setup and a few songs, you can grow from there.
The Accelerator Program
Chris is on our Accelerator Program at Sax School, which means that he works one-on-one with me. I asked Chris if Accelerator helped him prepare for this gig.
“Yeah, of course,” says Chris. “It was fantastic because after agreeing to do the gig, I had thankfully, a month run to bring my setlist up to date. “So working through with you and selecting those, and just getting those songs sort of gig ready so that you’re happy to perform them…. I have to work at it, you know? So having that guidance from yourself through the process was fantastic”.
It’s really useful to be able to bounce ideas off someone else, on the order of your setlist, for example, of which songs to include for a particular audience.
And of course, it’s important to enjoy the process and keep it in perspective. “[you need to] remind yourself that you’re not playing Ronnie Scotts to jazz aficionados… you are playing in the background of a nice local venue – but you want to do the best you can. Sometimes you have to not be too hard on yourself,” says Chris.
Another great tip for preparing for these types of gigs as a solo sax player, is to practice your performance. This is something Chris did too.
This means practicing:
- getting all of your gear set up
- running through a group of numbers
- working on the transitions between songs
- doing it with the mindset that you’re in front of people.
“So in those weeks leading up to my first performance, I was standing in my garden studio room, in my mind, in front of an audience every time… And I would run through those numbers I was trying to memorise, every day, and iron out all the mistakes and errors,” says Chris.”So, by the time I came to perform, I had messed up just about everywhere… But I was confident enough to get back into it and keep going.”
What’s next for Chris?
Now Chis has his setup and the experience of a successful season of gigs, Chris is ready to do more. “The venue want me back next year, which is nice,” says Chris. “So I’ve certainly got to introduce some more songs, a bigger repertoire, and get better at playing more from memory“.
As he’s working on some Dixie numbers on soprano, Chris is thinking of testing these out as part of his set too.
Chris’s tips on doing a run of solo sax gigs
Before we finished, I wanted to ask Chris if he had any tips after doing this whole series of gigs that he might be able to share with you. Check these out.
Playing quietly is good!
“Because I had a PA system that was overkill for the job I was playing more quietly than I normally do,” says Chris. “And, I played much better as a result, I think. So I was trying to tone it down and work on dynamics… rather than trying to sort of blast out every single one.”
So tip number one is to get practice at playing quieter.
Have a plastic sheet handy
What do you do when you’ve got all your gear set up outside, and there’s a big black rain cloud overhead? It’s a great idea to be prepared for a change in the weather.
“I did have some plastic sheeting just ready to throw over all that expensive gear… in case there was a storm – rather than hurriedly having to unplug stuff in front of everyone!” says Chris.
Have some music for you breaks
It’s a great idea to think about what will happen in the breaks when you are not playing.
“I did have a little playlist of backing tracks,” says Chris, “so it can be sympathetic to what you are playing – that seemed to work well,” Chris says.
This is a great tip, because while some venues will have the house music that they can put on when you have finished playing, not everywhere will have this. So it’s good to be prepared.
The audience may not always clap
When you are playing a series of gigs at the same venue, like Chris, the audience may be different every week. And that means they may respond in a different way to your performance. So if they are eating, for example, they may not clap!
“I found that quite disconcerting,” says Chris. “I was getting very little feedback and I found that strange. So you’ve got to remind yourself that you are playing a good set list and you’re playing well. But that took me a while to get used to that.”
Chris has this tip for building a connection with the audience,
“If you look around, there’s always some people who are quite more engaged than others. And if you could identify a table … and engage with them during the break, or make eye contact when you’re playing, you’ll feel like you are performing to them, and you’re getting something back … And then actually you would find that they would then give you feedback, and that would encourage others to do so.”
This is a great idea, because it builds a bond with the audience and encourages them to maybe leave you a review. It helps to build up that relationship between you, and the venue, and the guests.
And hopefully, that means the venue will ask you back to perform again!
If you want to get started with gigging as a solo sax player, don’t forget to get our free solo sax guide with loads of tips on getting gigs, choosing your setlist, your gear, and more.