How long does it take to learn the Sax?
With our student range of Zetland saxophones selling like warm baked goods, a question we get asked a lot at Headwind by eager beginners is:
"How long does it take to learn to play the saxophone?”
Despite an overwhelming urge to answer their question with another question regarding lengths of string, I try to take the time to answer it as accurately as possible. Walk out rate during my explanation is about 60% so don’t feel bad if you want to bail now.
I think there's a more important question that every student should ask themselves first.
What do you mean by 'play the saxophone'?
There's a HUGE difference between being able to play the pink panther without any 'wrong notes' and being able to effortlessly negotiate be-bop changes at 250bpm. The difference being a matter of about 10,000 hours of practise (give or take a few thousand).
So the first thing you need to do is choose your end game, and make it realistic. If you're under 25 years old and willing to dedicate the rest of your life to the instrument then you have a decent shot at being a top draw professional. If you're 45+ with three kids and a full time job, chances are you don't have enough time to dedicate to the instrument to one day headline a jazz festival (brutal but true). However, with a reasonable amount of allocated practise time and enthusiasm most people should within a few years (2 -4) be able to read simple melodies with ease, improvise neat diatonic lines and play comfortably with others in an ensemble, which for most will mean many years of enjoyment. I’ve had tons of feedback from people much older than me (ripe 32) who started learning only a few years ago but are now completely sax mad and experience unparalleled satisfaction from playing their saxophone.
So you've identified your realistic end game, now just need to reword the initial question and it becomes vaguely answerable:
How much practise time do I need to allocate to reach my goal?
This is a slightly easier question to answer, with the most basic and patronising answer being ‘the more you practise the quicker you’ll get there' but in light of not wanting to come across like a complete d*ck, here some rough guidelines:
So you’re not looking at making a career from music, you just want to get to a point where you can play some tunes you like and maybe join your mates in the office big band (should totally be a thing btw), but you don’t have a tremendous amount of free time and Netflix isn’t going to binge watch itself, so what’s the plan?
Ok, start with just 20mins every day and you should see some rapid improvement within the first year, then maybe look at going for longer practise sessions to get really stuck in but don't beat yourself up about missing a few days here or there, if you could average an hour every other day for 2 to 4 years with regular guidance from a good teacher you should hit your target. #saxgoals
“I’m not going to get lessons, I’m just going to teach myself using YouTube”
Let me quickly talk about tuition. Good quality one-to-one tuition is invaluable and almost every great player has had some (usually a lot) at some point in their life. This isn't to say that you can't learn a lot by yourself, especially if you have prior musical knowledge, but to think that you can do it all from scratch by watching YouTube videos is naive bordering on mental. YouTube is a fantastic learning resource, I use it all the time, but I know enough now to sift through the thousands of videos posted by people who are a bit deluded about their own playing level let alone their ability to teach. I'd say that more than half of all 'how to' videos relating to the saxophone on YouTube are complete nonsense and will undoubtedly set you back more than you’ll gain (again, brutal but what I believe to be true). In an ideal world you should get a lesson every single week, but I know that’s not exactly desirable / affordable for everyone, so at the minimum just check in with a teacher now and again to make sure you’re not learning bad techniques and you’re practising the right things. You’ve already invested this much time and money into your new hobby…what’s £30 and an hour of your time once in a while? (especially right at the start)
For the more ambitious beginner who wants to sound like Brecker, Coltrane or that other one that did loads of smack, get ready to live and breathe saxophone every waking hour of your day. You'll even need to knock over some 'maintenance practise' between Christmas and New year's and take you horn on holidays with your girlfriend/boyfriend, assuming you haven’t managed to alienate yourself from every member of the opposite (or same) sex you come into contact with by talking about triad pairing and altissimo fingerings (did I say that without being sexist?). If you’re young enough to consider words like ‘woke’ and ‘hype’ to be a normal part of your vocabulary then a formal 'jazz education' route may help you maintain direction and give you access to necessary resources but it's NOT THE ONLY WAY!! You don't need to spend loads of money and four years at a conservatoire to become a burning sax player, there are plenty of living examples of this. Furthermore you don't have to start playing at the age of 8 to be truly great (Didn't Andy Sheppard start in his early 20’s and teach himself?!). Either way you need to hit it hard, and box smart, you'll never become a great player by running up and down scales over the same old standards on your iRealbook app, it just won't happen. You need to first understand the underlying theory of jazz harmony (get a copy of the Mark Levine Jazz Theory book and start learning piano voicings...to start) and then spend an enormous amount of time laboriously learning scales, arpeggios, patterns and transcriptions beginning at a snail pace until it all effortlessly oozes from your fingers….apparently! As a rough guideline, you should be looking to average about 3-5 hours of practise every day (even more some days) if you want to be the best of the best.
When Chad Lefkowitz Brown visited us last year someone asked him during the Q&A "how much time should I practise" to which he replied "I don't see the point in doing much more than 3 hours a day" ....so to all you sadistic 8-hour-a-dayers just think about that for a minute, Chad LB....3 hours a day, goes like the clappers.
I should point out that I am exclusively talking about learning to play jazz, not only because it's the genre which the majority of aspiring sax players want to learn, but it’s the only thing that I can vaguely claim to have attempted to learn over the years. However, If you want to be an accomplished classical saxophonist (like that bonnie lass off the proms) then you probably need to find a really good classical sax teacher, do your grades and go to music college…..and don’t listen to me. You may also want to consider learning the clarinet and flute as well (double reeds if you've got the bottle!) because finding gigs as an exclusively 'classical sax player' is unimaginably tough.
If you want to play any other western genre apart from classical or jazz then just learn jazz anyway because it is the most theory driven non-classical discipline out there. Yeah, big claim.
So this is the bit where I should say something deep and meaningful to round off this questionably constructive blog that may or may not help you achieve an intangible goal that exists solely in your mind and increases in difficulty the closer you get to it by infinitely dividing increments of progress, or something.
….and don't do smack.
As a little encouragement / make you wonder why you bother...here's Chris Potter aged 15