Seven ways to improve your practice and become a better saxophone player

Saxophone lessons are a great way for you to improve your musical understanding, learn new techniques, set goals and develop your playing. However, if you really want to improve it is essential to complement your lessons with individual practice outside of sessions with your teacher. If you want to progress on the saxophone and accomplish your musical goals an ability to practice well is vitally important. In fact, in my experience, the speed at which a student progresses and the level they reach is dictated more by their ability to practice efficiently than by their innate musical talent. Unfortunately, practice as a skill in its own right is often overlooked leading to frustration and disheartenment. Students often come to me asking why, despite practicing every day, they are not improving. The answer to this question is nearly always related to counterproductive or inefficient practice. Luckily, the ability to practice, like any other skill, can be learned and improved - practice itself requires practice!

With this in mind, I’ve put together seven tips for improving your practice. In these tips, I am referring to practice specifically as the process of learning new material and correcting mistakes. This should be distinguished from playing for enjoyment (playing a tune or piece you enjoy or know well for fun for example). Not that practice, when done properly, isn’t enjoyable, but the two modes of playing are quite different.

1. Don’t try to practice everything

Scales, arpeggios, articulation, long notes, tunes and pieces, sight reading, chord progressions, improvisation, and more the list of things that need practicing can be overwhelming. A common response to this problem is to try to practice everything. By doing this you might feel you are covering a lot of material, but in reality you are spreading yourself to thin and not learning anything deeply. A far better approach is to focus on a few pressing musical challenges and learn them thoroughly. Remember that everything you practice informs everything else. For example, by mastering your major scales, not only will you be paving the way for your minor scales, but you will also be improving your technique, which, in turn, will benefit your improvisation, sight reading, ability to play technical passage and more. Over time as you master more ideas and techniques you will develop a deep musical basis to your playing that simply could not be achieved by learning a lot of things at a surface level.

2. Get specific

You’ve narrowed down the number of things you are going to practice, now it’s time to get really specific. Say you’ve decided to learn a particular piece. Find the specific bars or notes that cause you the most difficulty and just work on these. For example, there might be a couple of bars that always trip you up. Practice these bars in isolation until you have mastered them then put them into context. Remember you don’t need to play the whole piece just to practice a few tricky bars. The same principle applies to scales. Find the part of the scale that causes you the most difficulty, master it then put it into context. By targeting your practice in this way your learning becomes efficient and focused helping you make the most of your practice time.

3. Don’t practice your mistakes

You’ve chosen a piece to work on and have isolated the bar that is giving you the most trouble. Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks and do some practice. You play the bar in question and make the usual mistake, so you play the bar again and make the mistake again. You’ve played the bar twice now, surely on the third play through you won’t make the same mistake? Inevitably, you make the mistake a third and maybe even a fourth time. This incredibly common pattern of behaviour, which essentially amounts to practicing your mistakes, is clearly counterproductive and stems from a lack of engagement with the problem. Rather than just mindlessly repeating the problem bar and hoping for the best, it is far better to spend a moment analysing the reason for your mistake. Are your fingers moving correctly? Maybe you’re unconsciously adjusting your embouchure? Maybe you don’t really know the notes as well as you thought? After identifying the problem work to correct it. If it’s a technique issue slow the passage down until you can play it correctly. If it’s your embouchure, focus on the muscles around your mouth as you play. If it’s the notes that are the problem, take a moment to make sure you really know what notes you should be playing. By identifying and working to correct the reasons behind your mistakes you are far less likely to repeat them in the future.

4. It’s all in the mind

Good practice requires mental focus. The learning process can be mentally tiring; however, like physical exercise, whilst a good practice session may feel like hard work at the time, when it’s finished the satisfaction of knowing you have improved, even by the smallest amount, is well worth it. Sustaining mental focus for an extended session can be difficult. The temptation is to slip into a passive frame of mind and start noodling, or playing something easy or familiar to you. Try to notice when this happens and refocus your mind on the musical task at hand. Reward yourself after a practice session by playing something you know well for fun. Remember, the act of sustaining mental focus can be improved, and the more you do it the easier it will become. With practice you will be able to slip into a focused frame of mind automatically as soon as your practice session starts.

5. Little and often

One of the most common questions I am asked by my students is how much should I practice? The answer to this question will depend on the time available to the student; however, as a general rule, short, regular practice sessions are far more effective than occasional longer ones. Say you set aside an hour once a week to practice and have decided to master your C, G and D major scales. On a given week your practice goes well, and, by the end of the session, you feel you have mastered the scales; however, when you come back the following week you find a lot of your learning has faded away and you can no longer play the scales fluently. As an alternative strategy, you set aside ten minutes each day to practice. Over the course of a week you are able to master the scales; however, this time you find that when you return to them a week later, although a little tidying up is required, you have retained a strong impression of how to play them. The take away from this example is that short, regular practice sessions cause you to internalise material far more deeply than occasional long ones. When scheduling your practice sessions try to have them take place at the same time each day. An action that takes place at the same time every day quickly becomes a habit and good habits make the process of learning and developing new skills much easier (if you are interested in habit formation and the benefits of good habits, I highly recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear).

6. Trust the process

As your practice progresses you will inevitably find some concepts and techniques come more easily than others. It is also quite normal to occasionally reach plateaus where you see little or no progress for an extended time. When struggling against some stubborn material or negotiating a plateau the temptation is to get frustrated and lose focus; however, it is always best to trust the process. Targeted focused practice does work and, if sustained on a regular basis, will help you reach your musical goals, I promise!

7. Know when to stop

The steps outlined above represent an idealised framework for productive practice. Of course, we are all only human, and not every practice session will be perfect. Occasionally you will find frustration getting the better of you. You keep making the same mistake, nothing seems to be working and you struggle to keep to focus. This causes you to ‘try harder’ to correct your mistakes leading to more frustration and a complete loss of focus. When this happens (and it will) it is best to put the saxophone down and come back the following day with a fresh mind. As tempting as it might be to continue trying to overcome whatever barrier is causing your practice to go astray, in these circumstances this will only lead to more frustration and, more often than not, a sense of failure. Remember that the brain continues to learn even after your practice is over, and it is quite likely that, when you pick up the saxophone again the next day, you will be able to play whatever it was that was causing you so much grief.