If you want to play the saxophone, you should try it, but consider some difficulties first to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Read on to learn what can make the saxophone tricky and some potential solutions to those issues:
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The weight is one of the biggest reasons the saxophone can be harder than some instruments. The alto saxophone is the most common type, weighing about four and a half pounds.
A tenor saxophone weighs over six pounds, and a baritone sax weighs over 11 pounds. Meanwhile, the soprano saxophone weighs just over two pounds.
It can be hard to get used to the different weights of the various saxophones. The fact that you hold the instrument vertically in front of you can cause your right hand to bear more weight, even with a neck strap.
The trumpet weighs about as much as the soprano saxophone. So if you switch from trumpet to any other sax, the weight can be an issue. Luckily, a good neck strap and plenty of practice can help you get used to the weight.
Another thing to consider is the transposition of the saxophone vs. other instruments. The soprano and tenor saxes are in Bb, the same as the trumpet and other brass instruments when reading treble clef.
However, the alto and baritone saxophones are in Eb. That transposition isn’t as common, and it can be hard to get used to playing in that key, especially if you already play an instrument.
Sure, any good composer will transpose your sax parts for you. In an ensemble, you may need to discuss notes or keys in a concert pitch.
Learning to transpose down a major sixth takes a bit of practice. Be sure to get used to that transposition before you start playing the saxophone with others, especially if you want to play alto or baritone.
The saxophone is technically part of the woodwind family, so it uses a reed and mouthpiece to produce a sound. While you don’t have to buzz like on a brass instrument, you do have to learn the embouchure.
A good embouchure requires you to fold your lower lip over your teeth. Then, you place the mouthpiece in your mouth at a 90-degree angle and close your lips over it.
Even after you learn the embouchure, you have to learn how to choose reeds. They come from all different brands and in multiple strengths or thicknesses.
Not only that, but you can’t use the same reeds on saxophones of different sizes. If you want to play alto and tenor, you must repeat the reed-shopping process for both instruments.
If you already play the trumpet or another brass instrument, you may be comfortable with the fingering system. You use one hand and either three or four fingers, depending on how many valves there are.
However, the saxophone has 13 buttons that your fingers have to press. That doesn’t even include the various palm keys, of which there are six, for a total of 19 keys and buttons.
You have to use both hands together for most fingerings, though exceptions exist. Also, playing the saxophone left-handed is basically impossible.
While you can play a trumpet left-handed, the saxophone’s design means you have to play right-handed. That can make it particularly difficult for left-handed musicians.
Now, once you get the hang of things, the fingering system is pretty easy to understand. However, it can take some practice before you get to that point.
Another potential difficulty depends on the music you want to play. If you want to play jazz music, the saxophone is actually an easy option because there’s so much jazz music for the sax.
However, that’s not the case with classical music. The saxophone wasn’t invented until the 1840s. By the time it gained popularity, the modern orchestral setup was finalized.
Also, composers like Bach and Mozart were no longer around to write for it. You can play transcriptions of works by those composers, but it’s not quite the same.
If you want to stick to original music, you’ll almost always have to learn jazz. There are some more modern classical pieces, but they’re all quite difficult, especially compared to Baroque or Classical era music.
As you advance, you can start to learn the altissimo register. This goes above the normal saxophone range, and you can play quite high.
However, playing these notes takes a lot of practice and isn’t easy. Use the right fingerings and embouchure, and the combination may differ between saxophones.
So what works on your instrument might not work on your friend’s saxophone. What works on your alto sax might not work on your tenor or vice versa.
Luckily, you can get away without playing in the altissimo register for quite a while. If you want to be a soloist, you’ll probably need to learn it eventually.
The altissimo register isn’t the only part of the range that can be an issue. Most saxophones can play from a written Bb 3 to a written F6 or F#6 in the normal range.
That’s a lot smaller than the range of the trumpet and other brass instruments. Also, the lowest note your sax can play is the lowest it will go because you can’t play pedal tones.
While you can extend the range up, beginners shouldn’t attempt that. The range can be pretty limiting when it comes to fundamentals, like scales or improvised solos.
Of course, you can switch to a different saxophone if you want to play outside the range of your current sax, but that can be a hassle, especially in a performance where switching instruments isn’t practical.
If you decide to learn the trumpet, you can get away with only playing the trumpet. You may have tons of performance and teaching opportunities on that one instrument.
However, if you want to specialize in the saxophone, you may need to play multiple types. You might start on the alto, but you’ll probably eventually need to learn the soprano, tenor, or bari sax.
Sure, the written notes and the fingerings will transfer. You’ll need to relearn the proper embouchure for the smaller or larger saxophone.
You also have to purchase and maintain another instrument and its various accessories. That can be difficult playing-wise but also financially, and you’ll need to split your practice time between your different saxophones.
Sometimes, you may even need to double on other woodwinds, like flute and clarinet. Those instruments can both be difficult to learn, increasing your costs.
Another thing that can make the saxophone difficult is how competitive the section gets. Especially if you want to audition for an ensemble, the sax section can be harder to get into than the brass sections.
Compare the sax to the horn, euphonium, and tuba, which aren’t super common. In some cases, only a couple of players are in those sections.
However, the saxophone section can be much larger if the ensemble doesn’t have auditions. If the ensemble does have auditions, they may let fewer sax players in than trumpeters or other brass players.
That means you need to be really good to get a spot in some ensembles. Luckily, you can form your own small group, such as a saxophone quartet or a jazz combo, and you don’t need to audition to get in.
The cost doesn’t necessarily make the saxophone harder to play, but it can make it harder to start. As mentioned, you have to pay for more stuff as a sax player than if you play the trumpet or another brass instrument.
Saxophones can be more expensive than trumpets of a similar level. Also, you need to pay for reeds; you can’t just buy one and have it last forever.
Serious players may only get a month or two of use out of a reed, and reeds aren’t cheap. Then there’s the fact that you may need to buy multiple saxophones and reeds for each of them.
Even if a saxophone costs less than a trumpet up front, that might not stay the case over time. After you add up the cost of reeds and mouthpiece or ligature swaps, the sax may cost you way more.
If you’re on a budget, playing the saxophone is quite difficult.