Thinking of learning soprano saxophone? Here are 3 reasons why it is tricky to play!
Should you start learning a soprano saxophone first? It’s a great question and something that I get asked all the time from new people coming into Sax School.
I want to share with you three reasons why soprano can actually be a really challenging instrument to start learning. Hopefully this will help you to decide whether you should start on soprano saxophone either as a new beginner, or if you’re changing from another saxophone.
Also, I want to show you in today’s video about the gear that I’m using. I’ve got this fantastic new Custom Dark Soprano mouthpiece from Jody Jazz. I’m going to show you what it sounds like and tell you a little bit about the projects that I’ve been working on on my soprano lately.
Learn a Soprano Saxophone
Why are we talking about soprano? Well, I often hear things like this from new people who come into Sax School, who are just starting out on sax.
“The soprano sax is pretty, It’s cute – it’s bound to be easy to play, right?”
“It’s small and I can take it on a holiday with me”.
“It reminds me of learning recorder.”
I hear all those things all the time!
Let me just tell you – you’re completely wrong!
Soprano is super difficult to learn. In fact, I would say it’s probably the hardest of the four normal saxophones to learn, which are the baritone, tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones. We will look at this in more depth in a moment.
The other reason why soprano saxophone is at the top of my mind at the moment is I’m busy working on my playing, and writing some new lessons for Sax School. We have a lot of members of the Sax school that are very interested in Kenny G , so’ve been digging into the style of Kenny G. And in fact, I’m going to demonstrate a Kenny G track on this mouthpiece on this video. I actually think it’s a good challenge to try playing music that’s really outside of your normal comfort zone -and it’s great fun. It’ll be interesting to see what you think about it.
Our Accelerator Coaching Program
Now, the other thing that’s going on at the moment is we’ve got some new students in Sax School who were in our high-level Accelerator coaching program, which is our personal one-to-one coaching program. A couple of students are working on their soprano saxophone playing and working towards some big performing goals. I’m enjoying working with them – as are the other tutors – on soprano sax skills. It’s been really good to fun to dig out my soprano and get back into it.
My Soprano Saxophone Set-Up
So here’s the set-up that I’m using on my soprano at the moment.
Mouthpiece: This is a Jody Jazz HR Custom Dark in a 6 star tip opening. Jody sent me over this mouthpiece a few months ago. I’ve been playing it since then and I absolutely love it. In fact, I use the Custom Dark on all my saxes at the moment, and it’s got a really great sound. I’ll show you a bit more about that in a second.
The ligature I’m using is a Silverstein Hexa ligature and it’s fantastic. Now I’ve been using Silverstein ligatures for years and they really open up the sound for me. You might not be able to hear the difference, but when I’m playing with one, it makes the saxophone a lot more responsive.
I think it’s a great combination with this mouthpiece and the reed. The reed I’m using is the Légère Signature and I find a size 2 ¾ works well for me with this mouthpiece.
Choosing a Soprano Saxophone Mouthpiece
Finding the right mouthpiece for your soprano saxophone can be really tricky and I’ve been through quite a few. Let me show you what I’ve been using over the last few years.
Selmer C Star: This was my first soprano sax which I used for years, particularly when I was doing lots of classical playing. I used to play with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia and I used this very mouthpiece.
It’s a standard classical mouthpiece, and it’s really easy to control and you can get a lovely round sound. Actually, I was using this mouthpiece when I made the Englishman in New York video. I really love the sound of this mouthpiece, but it doesn’t give me a bright enough or big enough sound. So if you want to do anything, that’s a bit more commercial, it’s quite challenging.
My Theo Wanne Gaia 2 mouthpiece has a tip opening of 8. It’s quite a big mouthpiece, but it is really lovely.
I also have a Theo Wanne Durga 3 (also in a size 8). This is an amazing mouthpiece for a bright commercial sound. It sounds fantastic, but for me it’s sometimes it’s a little bit too bright. I want something that’s in the middle.
3 Reasons Why Soprano Saxophone is Difficult
Let’s talk about why learning soprano saxophone is difficult and it’s all about what we’ve just been talking about.
No. 1: Those little mouthpieces
A soprano saxophone mouthpiece is tiny. And that means that all the adjustments on it have to be so small in order to get them right. If you’re a new player, who is brand new to saxophone, then it can be super-difficult to find the right position on the mouthpiece that’s going to give you the optimum sound levels.
Plus setting up the mouthpiece with the reed can be really tricky too.
Even coming from alto or tenor saxophone to soprano, you can find that transition really difficult. Just purely the mouthpiece size can cause all sorts of trouble.
No. 2: Intonation (or tuning)
The reason that many soprano players have got terrible intonation is because of the mouthpiece, and because of difficulty with getting the setup right.
If you’re starting out on soprano saxophone, even if you’re coming from another saxophone, it is important that you spend loads of time working with a tuner or playing with backing tracks, and being aware of your intonation. You need to be comparing your intonation with other instruments, or a tuner, but also thinking about the tuning within the range of the saxophone.
With our students inside Sax School, we work on things like playing octaves or intervals of fifths, over the whole range. We work with a tuner, or with a drone, or with a backing track, so that you can compare those notes and make sure you get the pitch exactly right.
And what we’re really doing here is training our embouchure and our subconscious, I suppose, to know which adjustments we need to make, so when we leap up to that other note it’s going to sound in tune and give us confidence as players as well.
No. 3: Tone
The reason why soprano can be difficult to learn is getting a consistent tone over the whole range.
There’s a couple of things that contribute to this. I see a lot of people choosing the wrong mouthpiece to start learning soprano saxophone. This Durga is a fantastic mouthpiece, but it’s not a good mouthpiece for a beginner. So if you’re brand new to saxophone, let alone soprano saxophone, a challenging mouthpiece like this Durga, or a mouthpiece that’s got a wide tip opening, is going to be really hard to control. It’s going to be very difficult for you to get an even sound over your whole range.
A better choice would be something like the Jody Jazz Custom Dark, or even the Selmer C Star that I mentioned before, because they’re just much easier to control.
Now once you’ve got your mouthpiece and reed set-up correct and appropriate for you as a learner or a new soprano player, then you really need to spend lots of time on long tones and tone building exercises.
So try practicing beautiful, slow melodies, not only in the middle range, but right down the bottom and right up the top, so that you can get a consistent, rich, beautiful sound all the way over your whole soprano.
A lot of people neglect to spend the time really building those muscles and that’s why they struggle to get a lovely sound.
Testing the Jody Jazz Custom Dark Mouthpiece
Let’s hear how this mouthpiece sounds.
I mentioned that I’m working on some Kenny G projects inside Sax School, and I’m actually writing a tune that we’ll be learning with our members soon.
As a template I’ve been listening to the Kenny G track “Going Home“. It’s an iconic track from Kenny G and in fact, some of our members in Sax School are working on that tune right now. He’s got a very particular sort of sound and it was a challenge to try and get that sound on my soprano. Let’s see if you think I’m getting close.
I’m using the Jody Jazz Custom Dark with a 6 star opening, Silverstein Hexa ligature and the Legere 2¾ reeds.
What do you think?
I think I need to spend a bit more time to get Kenny G’s vibrato right. He has a very particular type of vibrato, which I found quite difficult to replicate, but I think with some practice I can get closer.
I’m certainly enjoying learning this new style, which is maybe a little bit outside my comfort zone. It’s going to be fun to write a song in that style for our members in Sax School.
I hope you found that useful. If you are thinking about learning soprano saxophone, I don’t want to discourage you from starting, but just be mindful of those 3 points that I mentioned in today’s video and that’ll help you to make a more balanced decision about getting started.
If you’re already a saxophone player, I think the transition to soprano is a bit easier. But whatever you do on soprano, make sure you choose a good mouthpiece that will make learning much easier.
And if you’re ready to really move ahead with your playing, come and join the thousand students that we’re helping every day inside Sax School. Right now we have a 14 day trial which you can check out here. I’d love to see you there and start helping you along with your playing too.