If you only had time to work on one thing in your saxophone practice – what would it be?
I’m often asked this, and to be honest I always ask it when interviewing the world class players and teachers who do sessions for Sax School too!
So what is the one thing you should practice on saxophone? Although there are lots of answers to this question, there are a couple of common themes – so really I want to boil it down to 2 techniques.
In the video below I go into detail about this and show you the two exercises I ALWAYS come back to when I am short of time but still need to practice.
Hope it helps you too!
What to work on
If I’ve had some time away from my saxophone and I’m feeling out of shape, I want to get back into it fast.
I want to work on my tone quality. I want to work on my fingers. I want to get my embouchure really warmed up. I want to just make myself feel a bit looser with the saxophone bit more comfortable.
These are the two elements to my practice when I’m short on time.
One Thing to Practice on Saxophone: #1
The first element I’m going to work on is chromatic scales. These are like the golden ticket to fantastic technique. I think that I’ve always worked on them and loads of the great pro players that I’ve interviewed over the years, all say the same thing: “Chromatic scales are the miracle.”
If you want some tips on the chromatic scale, check out my seven chromatic warm-ups video. There’s loads of great stuff in there. If you’re not familiar with what a chromatic scale is, it’s basically a scale where we go up in semitones or half steps.
Why Chromatic Scales
I really like chromatic scales because you get to use every single key on the saxophone. And that gives you a good workout with your fingers, because you get to use all these different combinations of fingerings. You’re going to use every single note that you could possibly use in any piece of music.
Now I’m going to work on chromatic scales in octaves; so from G to middle G, so one octave. That’s short enough that I can focus on it and really make sure that I’m getting everything right.
I’m going to set my metronome on really slow, at about 70. I’m going to play in quavers or half beat.
What I’m trying to focus on here is my fingers. I want to make sure my fingers are super-even. I’m thinking about my sound, and I’m making sure my sound is even, so there’s lots of air. I’m trying to play the scale nice and even, up and back down again.
The temptation is to go really fast. You’re probably thinking “this is too slow. I can go faster than that.” Big mistake. You WANT to go slow, so that you can really think about the details. Because if you want to play fast, you need to look at the tiny details.
That might not sound very sexy! But it’s what you need to do if you want to go faster – you need to practice slowly in order to go fast. I always practice really slow. I’ve got my metronome set to 70, and I could even go slower. At 70, I’ve got time to think of all those individual notes.
You might want to go slower. I might do this at 60. I’m going to play the chromatic scale again, and I’m going to really listen to those details.
That time, I thought between C-sharp and the D was a bit glitchy so I’m going to really think about that this time.
Once I’ve got that right, I’ll going to start on a G sharp and work up one octave again.
Keep going, starting on one note higher each time and working up the chromatic scale.
And that’s great because you’ve only got one extra note to think about. And also means every time you do your next iteration, where you go up another semitone and a half step, you’re practicing all those other notes in the middle. You’re really giving your fingers a great workout.
Now, only once you can do it all over your range and feel super-comfortable, then you can start to increase the tempo. It’s going to be gradual, so don’t rush yourself. If you go from 70 to 80 over a week, then that’s fine. But to be able to play fast, you need to practice slow first.
The chromatic scale is so useful to you because it uses all your different notes. So you’ll find that the fingerings that you’re working on in your chromatic scale will come in handy in any piece of music that you play.
If there’s one thing you should practice on saxophone, it’s your chromatic scale.
One Thing to Practice on Saxophone: #2
The second thing to work on to get your technique back in shape is simple blues improvising.
Basically, I put on a blues backing track and I blow through a blues. I keep it super simple. And the reason that I work on this is because I want to get my creative muscles flowing.
I’m working on my creativity, but I’m also just brushing up that link between my ears and my fingers, so that I can play whatever I hear in my head. Those two things really work together. If you can build that link between the ears and your fingers, and you can practice your creativity, then those are the two most important skills that you’ll need to make killer solos. Put that together with some great harmonic knowledge and you are onto a winner.
A Simple Blues
So on my iPad there’s a ton of blues patterns that are already set up. I’m going to use a really simple blues for this exercise.
I’m going to change the tempo so it’s nice and slow. I’m also going to change the key to something really simple, like a C blues. That means it’s in the key of D for me on tenor saxophone, and for an Alto player it will be in the key of A.
We are keeping it really simple because we are just working on those two elements, we’re getting our creativity going and we’re working on that link from our fingers in our ears.
If you need some tips on how to play blues, check out my other blues lessons in here, because blues are a great gateway to working on improvising and also really developing those two skills – your creativity, and the link between your fingers and your ears.
As I play through the blues, I’m going to be thinking about my melody shapes. I’m going to try to create interesting shapes but keep my ideas simple. So that means simple rhythms, simple melodic ideas, and thinking about the timing, and really try to shape out all the notes in that chord.
Now, whatever your ability is with improvising, it doesn’t really matter. This exercise is simply about putting on a blues, and trying to create some nice melodies. Just focus on those two skills – your creativity – so coming up with something different every single chorus – but also developing that link between your ears and your fingers.
Now, if I work on those 2 parts of my practice, working on my chromatic scales and then doing some simple improvising, I’m going to be really warmed up. I’m going to be confident with my technique. My embouchure is going to be warmed up, so I’m going to be confident with my sound. But I’ve also done some work on that link between my ears and my fingers, and my creativity.
And I find if I spend a few days doing that, I’m soon feeling back in shape again. And the longer that you practice, the quicker you’ll get back to that point where you were before you took a break.
How to Practice on Saxophone
I hope that’s been helpful to you. I think it’s really important to have a strategy for how you can structure your practice. If you want more tips like this, check out my Ultimate Guide to Practicing Saxophone e-Book. Thousands of people use this book now, and it really helps them because it lays out in simple terms how to structure your practice so that you can be effective.
So, whatever you’re doing, I hope you get some good structure with your saxophone practice today and keep practicing hard.
If you want to really get your saxophone progress on track, take a look at Sax School. You can get a 14 day free trial here: