The most daunting thing for most 10-year-olds learning to play the alto saxophone is the sheer weight and size of the instrument. While in its case, it’s heavy--and it remains heavy when being held to play. So it’s a good idea to start an average to larger-than-average size child on the alto saxophone rather than a smaller child. If you have a child that has their heart set on playing the saxophone but is on the small side at age 10, start them on the clarinet. They can play that for a year until they “grow into” the saxophone. The fingerings are essentially identical on most ranges of the saxophone so what is learned on the clarinet very easily transfers to the saxophone.
If the child refuses to listen to the suggestion about playing the clarinet first (which they often do), take them to the band director and ask him or her to let your child hold a saxophone for about 5 to 10 minutes in the playing position. The director can also let the child walk around the band room with the instrument in its case. The student usually learns quickly that the instrument is really heavy for them right now. This doesn’t always work, but it’s worth the effort in order to give your child a good chance at a successful band experience.
The tendency for 10-year-olds who are struggling with holding the instrument is to let it dangle from the neck strap. This is a VERY bad thing to do. A large number of used alto saxophones will show signs of repaired damage on the bottom curve and bell area. That damage usually means the instrument was dropped while dangling from a neck strap. It can be repaired, but repair bills on alto saxophones can be very costly.
It is best for the beginning saxophone player to work with just the mouthpiece and the “gooseneck” (top joint) of the saxophone for a week or two. The student needs to get very comfortable with the way the mouthpiece should feel in his mouth and how a good sound can be produced. Once the student is comfortable with that, it is easier for him to guide the instrument into proper playing position with the whole instrument in his hands.
By working with the mouthpiece and gooseneck alone for a week or two and learning the right amount of air needed to produce a sound, the switch to playing and holding the whole instrument will be much smoother. The child will be well-grounded and on their way to a successful experience as a saxophone player. Using the “gooseneck” along with the mouthpiece will give a much more pleasant sound than using just the mouthpiece alone. The mouthpiece alone gives a sound very similar to an unpleasant duck call.
The parts of the saxophone are: mouthpiece (plus ligature and reed), gooseneck, body of the saxophone, and neck strap. There is also a mouthpiece cover, which should always be used when the instrument is placed back in the case. Remember to remove the reed after every use and not leave it in place on the mouthpiece. The ligature is the metal (or plastic) piece with small screws, which slips over the mouthpiece. The purpose of the ligature is to hold the reed in place.
The student should begin with at least three Number 2 reeds. In this beginning stage, there is no need to purchase expensive reeds, the basic ones will do just fine. Until the student learns how to properly handle the reeds, there will be breakage, so be prepared for this. The instrument cannot be played with broken reeds, so have extras on hand. After the first month or so, the student gains proficiency with handling the reeds, and both instrument and reed breakage will greatly diminish. The placement of the reed on the mouthpiece is very important and does take some practice.
When first learning to assemble the instrument, sitting in a carpeted area is recommended. Mouthpieces are easily dropped and often break when they hit a hard surface.
To begin assembling the mouthpiece and gooseneck of the saxophone, use a bit of cork grease on the cork on the gooseneck. This makes it easier to assemble and take apart, and prevents damage to the cork. Don’t use a lot of cork grease, it will only be messy and cause the instrument to be slippery. While doing this assembly, the reed should be placed in the mouth so that it will be wet and ready to play when the instrument is put together.
After applying cork grease on the gooseneck, put the gooseneck and mouthpiece together by gently twisting the two pieces together. Next, slip the ligature over the mouthpiece. The screws should be toward the back of the mouthpiece. Holding the mouthpiece with the left hand, use the left thumb to raise the ligature up slightly and then slide the reed against the mouthpiece (shaved side up), pressing the unshaved part of the reed with the right thumb, and let the ligature slide down on to the mouthpiece. NEVER touch the tip of the reed with a finger or thumb, because it will bend very easily and crack, and is then useless for playing. Instead, adjust the placement of the reed from the sides, touching only the unshaved part, making sure that the tip of the mouthpiece and the tip of the reed are even, and the reed is straight up and down. Now, still holding the mouthpiece in the left hand, hold the reed in place with the left thumb and tighten the ligature screws gently with the right hand, not too tight, just enough to hold the reed in place without slipping around. Now the gooseneck and mouthpiece are ready for the student to begin learning to produce a sound.
Learning the correct embouchere (placement of teeth and lips on the mouthpiece) is the single most important thing the beginning student will do which will produce a successful experience learning to play the instrument.
The correct embouchere for the alto saxophone is formed in this way: the student needs to first roll the lower lip slightly over the lower teeth, just enough to cover the tops of the lower teeth. The mouthpiece, reed side down, then sits directly on the lower lip. Holding the mouthpiece at approximately a 75-degree angle downward, the top teeth go firmly but not tightly on the top of the mouthpiece. Then close the lips snugly around the mouthpiece so that no air will escape when blowing into the mouthpiece. The whole embouchere needs to be firm but not extremely tight and compressed. Once the mouthpiece is set, simply blow into the instrument without puffing out the cheeks. It is not necessary to blow excessively hard into the mouthpiece.
If no sound comes out, the lower lip and top teeth are probably compressing on the mouthpiece too tightly; relax this and try again.
If there’s still no sound, the student may not have their top teeth placed firmly on the mouthpiece. Some children dislike the feeling of their teeth on the mouthpiece at first and will try to avoid doing so. It won’t work that way; a good sound cannot be produced that way. Once they have it set right, there’s no rattling or buzzing, and they become comfortable with playing the instrument.
If there’s a loud screech, the lower lip is not covering the lower teeth enough. Correct that and try again. No great force is needed to produce the sound. The child should seek to produce a medium-volume, long steady tone.
When assembling the whole saxophone, place the body of the saxophone, bell (curved side) down, over the right knee/thigh area, pointing the top of the saxophone to the left and do a sort of “gentle hug” by placing the right arm over the body of the saxophone to hold it in place. Using the left hand, guide the gooseneck into place and align. Use the right hand to gently tighten the screw which holds the gooseneck in place – still doing the “body hug” on the saxophone body. When the gooseneck and mouthpiece are in place, attach the neck strap and place the right-hand thumb under the thumb rest and the left hand on the top part of the instrument, left thumb on the thumb button.
Now the student is ready and set to really start learning to play this wonderful instrument. The saxophone is a very versatile instrument and very necessary to a great band program, both in the concert hall and on the parade grounds. The saxophone student can have many enjoyable experiences from middle school right through high school participating in band activities of all kinds. College band experiences are great fun too and a good saxophone player would always be welcome.