It was the 1980s when I finished high school and went to Music University. Think Crocodile Dundee, Top Gun, (like – the first Top Gun.)
But compared to learning sax today, and starting out on a music career, what has changed?
Today I’m talking to Ben. He’s eighteen years old. Ben is finishing sixth form college this year and heading off to Music University. That’s like 40 years after I did it.
So what’s changed for people learning sax today? Is it different? And is it easier or harder?
What does a career look like for a saxophone player these days? That’s what we’re going to dig into today.
Starting a saxophone career
So if I’m honest, talking to Ben made me feel a bit old! Because I’m 53, and Ben is 18. That’s a big difference.
But what I thought was interesting when I met Ben, is that is that his journey is almost identical to what my journey was like, all those years ago.
So I remember when I was heading off to university, I had this idea in my mind that the best gig I could do would be to play on a TV show or something like that. And then by the time I finished university, all of those TV show gigs were kind of over.
So I wanted to ask Ben how he imagined his saxophone career might go.
“I don’t think I’ve got any concrete idea,” says Ben, “but for me, I’ll measure my success on just being able to perform for a living….just being able to go out there and play my saxophone, and that be enough to get by. That would be ace!”
Learning sax today at university
Ben lives in Yorkshire in the UK, and he’s chosen to study classical saxophone at the Birmingham Conservatoire. I asked why he chose that course.
“I wasn’t sure whether classical saxophone was the right way for me” says Ben. “But it all came about because I went to a jazz Open Day at the Guildhall School in London. And I realized I didn’t want to restrict myself for four years doing one genre of music.”
“And I felt that by doing a classical saxophone degree, I would get the basis of training, but still be able to play lots of different genres on the saxophone. So I’d be studying a degree in the saxophone, not just doing jazz. “
I complete understand what Ben is saying here. It was 1987 when I went off to university. I know – that seems like black and white olden days! But I did a classical degree as well. And the reason for me back then was that there were fewer choices of courses.
Ben’s really fortunate living in England, where there are so many great places to go for learning sax today. As well as the Birmingham Conservatoire and The Guildhall School in London, there’s Leeds Conservatoire and the Royal Northern School of Music in Manchester.
Choosing which genre to study
For me, I come from the north of Australia and I went to the Music Conservatorium in my state, which was 24 hours away on a bus.
And actually, they did have a jazz program there, but it wasn’t as good as the classical program which was really good.
So I planned to do the classical program and then just do as many jazz classes as I could.
I asked Ben if he hoped to develop other styles while he’s studying classical saxophone in Birmingham.
“So one of the big things that kind of persuaded me to choose Birmingham was they’ve got a whole ethos about encouraging creativity and different kinds of music,” explains Ben.
“They have a really exciting folk ensemble, which has 40 plus some players. There are sax players, string players, vocalists, everything. And they’re working without sheets, without dots. And they just play the craziest fusion, exciting folk music. They tour the UK. And you get classical vocalists there. So it’s a really exciting ensemble.”
Plus, one of the great things about learning sax today at university is meeting and interacting with all sorts of different people. And that opens up lots of different possibilities for you as a player.
My first album that got me going with the saxophone was a Glenn Miller big band album – which was old fashioned back then! But I loved the sound of the saxophone and that got me interested in a whole bunch of jazz stuff.
So I asked Ben about the saxophone music that got him excited.
“When I first started it was hearing Careless Whisper and all those big sax solos in pop songs that everyone knows,” says Ben. “And then I started listening to more sax players 3 or 4 years ago. And that’s when I started to discover people like Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair, Eric Darius, Dave Koz. They’ve got this massive contemporary, edgy sound that really excited me.
“And then in the classical scene it was people like Timothy McAllister, Arno Bornkamp, Jess Gillam. What they’re doing, and their sound was interesting to me. And the music they’re playing as well doesn’t feel like classical saxophone. It’s something new. It’s refreshing.”
Learning saxophone online
When I was learning saxophone forty years ago, the internet wasn’t even invented. So I learned in school, and then I had a local teacher. And I listened to recordings (on vinyl!) to learn how to play the saxophone.
Ben has grown up in the internet age. So how much was the internet part of his learning?
“So for a long time, the internet wasn’t part of my saxophone learning at all, apart from listening,” explains Ben. “I started my teaching with Sarah Baker, who runs a music school in my postcode. And all the way through to grade eight, she’s been my teacher. She still is.”
But with the pandemic and lockdown, Ben turned more to the internet for his learning. “That’s when I suddenly started listening more. I started watching your videos, the Better Sax videos, the Saxologic videos that were starting to get massive over lockdown. And I started listening to more players. I started playing transcriptions.”
This was the moment that Ben began to think about playing saxophone as a career. “That’s when I started to work out, – I enjoy this thing. Maybe I could do this as a job.”
Playing gigs on saxophone
When I was at school and I was Ben’s age, I’d already started doing gigs. I grew up in a small town. So for me, the options were limited. But I played in a dance band on the weekend. It was my introduction to paid work as a 16 and 17-year-old. I wanted to know about the gigs Ben’s doing.
“I play with a wedding band where I’m just a horn player, and that’s exciting not to have any of the responsibility,” says Ben. “But I also do a lot of arranging and organizing for my band, which is called Third Floor Soul. We’re like a little Motown funk soul band.”
The band started out when the band members played together in a community soul band.“There was a “Battle of the Bands” in college and that we thought we should play in that because we sound good together,” explains Ben. “And we started rehearsals and then the Battle of the Bands got cancelled, unfortunately. But we thought, well, Our rehearsals have sounded good. Why don’t we start doing gigs? We started regular rehearsals, started to develop a bit of a sound, and we started doing gigs to maybe a hundred people.”
Ben has also done some busking, which has led onto other opportunities too. “I started busking and then, people started asking me if I would do Ibiza-style stuff” Ben says. “Then out of that, and I got into doing wedding bands and playing in horn sections.”
Running your own band
I remember realizing that although it’s great to play in bands, it’s even better to run your own band. Then you can steer it in the direction that you want.
I asked Ben if this is something he is enjoying too.
“Knowing they’re all my friends as well – it’s exciting to play with them,” says Ben. “And when I get an opportunity to play with them and then get paid – it’s like, this isn’t work. This is just fun!”
The dream gig
I asked Ben what would be his dream gig after he’s finished his studies.
“To be a resident saxophonist for a massive rock band or something that, doing stadium tours all over the world,” says Ben, “being there to do an improvised solo in a few songs, and being part of that band and having that touring lifestyle….That’s the dream.”
We can’t wait to see where Ben’s saxophone career takes him – we will be watching!
Whether you’re dreaming of a career playing saxophone, like Ben, or you want to play for fun, Sax School Online has the resources, lessons and support you need to level up your skills and make fast progress.