Today we are going to be talking about a contentious issue with the saxophone—how to play your saxophone quietly.
The saxophone is a loud instrument. Naturally, it wants to sit at quite a high volume. This can be annoying for your neighbors, parents, family or people around us when we are practicing.
It's very hard to practice in those types of situations.
Here's what Charlie Parker once told fellow alto player Paul Desmond in a 1954 radio interview:
I put quite a bit of study into the horn, that's true. In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once, when we were living out west. They said I was driving them crazy with the horn.
— Charlie "Bird" Parker
So how do you get the most of every saxophone practice session without driving your neighbors completely mad, whether it's in a hotel, an apartment or your home?
The short answer—you're looking at three options if you want to practice your saxophone silently: MMD Saxmutes, or the two most popular acoustic saxophone mutes, Saxmute ONE, and E-Sax Whisper Mutes.
Let's look at each of these options.
How to Mute the Saxophone
Now, unfortunately, when muting the saxophone, you can't just close off the bell to muffle the sound because we have lots of tone holes along the body, all of which release their own sound.
So if you are were asking "Why can't I just stick something down the bell, as trumpet players do?" there's your answer.
And trumpet, trombone and tuba players all have practice mutes. Some of these practice mutes even attach to control units so you can hear yourself and possibly change a raft of other options.
In order for us to mute the saxophone, we need to think about it in a slightly different way.
Solution #1 — MMD Saxmute
The MMD Saxmute is really a much more refined version of the old idea of a popping a sock into the bell. Sax mutes are sufficiently effective for most people.
MMD Saxmutes come in three different-sized sponge-like parts that are most effective in certain areas of the saxophone. They work by cutting airflow in the saxophone.
The smallest mute goes into the mouthpiece, the next one goes into the receiver between the neck and body of the sax, and the largest one sits inside the bell.
The mute that goes into the bell is almost superfluous—it doesn't change the volume level of the saxophone a lot.
There is a little bit of a drop, to be sure, but it's definitely not huge.
The problem is that when you try and play low notes, it cuts them out completely. So if you are looking to explore the bottom range of the instrument, the mutes in the bell are not effective at all.
The place where sax mutes are most effective is in between the neck and body. The reason being this is sort of like the choke point of the saxophone.
It cuts out the most air.
You can play around with each mute to get an idea, hopefully, of how effective each one is.
This is the nicest cheapest entry-level solution. However, because of the way it affects the saxophone, it is not necessarily the best solution for beginners or those who have just started learning the saxophone.
It restricts the way the saxophone voices and you might think it's you instead of the mute having that effect, or the other way round.
Solution #2 — Saxmute ONE Acoustic Sax Mutes
Acoustic sax mutes are more of mid-range-to-high-end solutions, so they are a little bit more expensive.
These are whole instrument mutes.
The typical acoustic sax mute is a plastic molded case with some acoustic muffles designed within it to soak up all of those sound waves coming from your saxophone as you play it.
In order to set them up all you need to do is take the back half of the mute and have it seal against the magnetic seal on the rest of the mute.
Your hands then go into the two hand inserts on the back half of the mute, and the neoprene inserts help make it a little bit more comfortable.
Acoustic sax mutes have sufficient space within them to allow you to play the saxophone freely.
You saxophone is not restricted from voicing by this type of mute in any way.
In my mind, this type of mute is beginner friendly. It encourages good posture and the mute itself will not affect the way the saxophone plays except by bringing down that volume level.
In some setups, these mutes are designed to work in conjunction with their stands. That is going to be their most effective setup but you also put it on a PA stand or on other objects.
While you can strap acoustic sax mutes on your neck strap, I did find that was a little cumbersome and it gets in the way of practicing.
Solution #3 — E-Sax Whisper Mutes or Sax Partner
The final mute I wanted to talk about is the E-sax mute.
This is a little bit more of an expensive solution to muting the saxophone with a better quality of finish on this product, and a couple of additional features on it.
The e-Sax mute is a similar acoustic mute to the Saxmute ONE.
Because it has a microphone system in there, as players, we hear the true voicing of the saxophone coming through headphones.
One area of limitation with these type of mute is it's not quite as large as the Saxmute ONE, which means it restricts the airflow in the lower regions of the saxophone, so the low notes are not properly voiced.
This isn't the saxophone, this isn't you this is the mute and the way it is changing the physics of the instrument.
This mute is not stand compatible like the Saxmute ONE and there is an additional weight involved. you need to rest it on things when practicing, and that can take the weight for you.
If you hook yourself in with a neck strap as you would with a normal saxophone to take the weight, it's going to be across your legs, or if you're wearing the harness, across your shoulders.
For tenor sax, especially, they are ridiculously heavy. And if you get in the habit of playing them without the stand, you will develop some seriously bad posture.
Sax Partner is another product I would put in the same class as E-sax largely because they come with identical features except with latches instead of a front and back cover.
These two are the most expensive solutions.
Sax mutes are really good bits of kit because there will be plenty of times when you want to practice when it's not really okay to those around you.
The mutes take care of that.
My Top Tip for Practicing the Saxophone Silently
Tip #1 — Sometimes You're Allowed to Be Loud
Speaking from a U.S. point of view, for the most part, if you are playing between the hours of 8 AM. to 10 PM., in most states, you are allowed to do that.
Other than that, I can't be of much here except to point to your state ordinances, and there are rules for your apartment building, your car, wherever you are and so on and so forth.
Familiarizing yourself with these will be your best bet.
The idea is not to make a ton of annoying noise, of course, you should be wary of your neighbors, but if you're practicing between 8 AM and 10 AM, generally, you should be okay.