Today I want to talk about how hard it is to learn to play the saxophone, especially completely on your own without a tutor.
It the question I get the most from other instrument players, especially guitars and piano players, and from people considering playing the sax in general.
Even online I get a lot of emails of people asking, hey, I'm considering playing the saxophone, but could you tell me how hard it is... how long it will take me to get anywhere on the instrument... how long will it take me to do this...or that...?
The short answer—how hard it is a relative question because it depends on what you are staking it up against. Whether you are comparing it to a guitar, piano, trumpet or violin, for example. In comparison to other instruments, I would say that the saxophone is in the range of the harder instruments to get started on, but not as hard as the trumpet to get anywhere with. On a professional level, any instrument, even guitar, is as hard as you make it.
Let me explain.
Is the Saxophone more difficult to learn than other musical instruments?
I said that comparing instruments is a very relative thing. It is also quite difficult because you have to make a lot of sweeping assumptions, but I will attempt it because that is how people new to most instruments assess difficulty.
I know that's how I did it.
But on a professional level, you can make any instrument as difficult as you want. Any instrument can be incredibly hard to play. You really can do things on any instrument that others find incredibly difficult to learn.
Still, the saxophone is one of the harder instruments to get started on, but on the harder hand, once you get started and you are in the groove, the instrument is beyond magical.
So, if it really depends on what you are stacking it up against and who you ask, is learning to play the saxophone difficult compared to playing the trumpet?
#1 — Which is easier to play, Trumpet or Saxophone?
The trumpet and violin have the reputation that they are the hardest instruments in existence to really play at a high level.
That's true, for the most part.
In order to keep your tone with a trumpet—just to get anywhere with that instrument really, you need at least three hours of practice every day.
Otherwise, don't even bother starting!
The saxophone, on the other hand, is a one-note instrument, so it's not as hard as the trumpet to keep your tone. With half an hour or an hour a day of practice, you will be able to get a consistently good tone after a year or two.
A good tone translates as what people would describe as a mature tone. Something pleasant to listen to.
That's means before that year or so, it's probably ill-advised to play a lot publicly, because the sound is just not nice enough yet for most people to enjoy listening to.
As far as instruments go, the trumpet and violin often come out top as the hardest according to most musicians on a professional level. But, again, it depends on who you ask.
#2 — Saxophone vs. Piano difficulty
The maturity of tone really makes a big difference when you contrast it with something like a piano for instance. You can look at a piano as having its own music that is consistent inside of it.
The notes are perfect no matter who presses the keys.
The saxophone is on the other end of the spectrum in this regard. It is really you creating the sound. So if you can't do, or don't have well-developed technique doing it, it won't come out the same.
And, people love the sound of the saxophone.
Going purely by the number of people that look me up after a show, and tell me how much they love the sound of a sax or say it's just one of their favorite instrument, is quite a lot.
I suppose that appreciation of sound is the sort of thing you notice instantly when you are playing the saxophone.
That's really something that makes the saxophone one the instruments (same as the trumpet or violin), where it takes quite a bit of time and effort, in the beginning, to get somewhere.
But once you start somewhere—the journey as you figure it out, more or less—is so much fun.
As far as studying music goes, of course, the sax is a one-note instrument.
On a piano, you can play many keys at the same time, where you have a left hand and the right hand where you have a bass part and a melody part, you are doing two things at the same time, right from the get-go.
A saxophone, in that regard, is a melody instrument. You're not that concerned with harmony at all, with things such as progressions and baselines.
The saxophone is really an instrument for the solos and the melody. That chops away a certain degree of difficulty right there, although, in order to play well you still have to understand harmony.
You just don't have to develop any skill of playing harmony as directly on the saxophone as on a piano or guitar. So in that regard, the saxophone is slightly easier.
#3 — Is Saxophone harder than Guitar?
It really does take quite a bit of effort to do anything with the saxophone that an audience can even start to appreciate
Whereas with a guitar or piano, you can learn some chords and within a day you are playing your song and it's really nice to listen to, or you can just play some chords and it's already nice music.
But as with anything, there are people who play with guitar and the things they play are incredibly difficult to do, even with decent practice.
So on a professional level, all instruments are equally hard.
How long does it take to master the saxophone? / How long should I practice saxophone for?
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 I was living out West. She said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day. I did that for over a period of 3 or 4 years.
As I said earlier, shoot for at least half an hour of practice a day and you should be able to get a consistently good tone after a year or two.
Is it possible to self learn saxophone? / Can you learn the saxophone on your own without a personal tutor?
In fact, I will do more than just tell whether it is possible to self learn a saxophone. I will give you ten common things (habits, if you like) that hold back saxophone self-learners.
The 10 Things That Hold Back Saxophone Self-Learners Every Beginner Needs to Avoid
#1 — Being "Too Careful" With Your Expensive Saxophone
Now, this might sound a little strange, but what I've noticed that there's one theme that's particularly common with beginners, especially those trying to self learn the saxophone at a young age.
Almost everybody who learned to play an instrument when they were little, develops an unhealthy carefulness, a fear of the instrument almost.
They are kind of afraid to touch the instrument, to see them as just fun objects, probably because they've had the experience of parents tell, when they were little and impressionable, to be careful with the instrument.
Getting too careful with the instrument really holds self-learners back early on.
It's very important as a self-learner that you see your instrument as something that's fun, something that you can play around with without fear of "spoiling".
#2 — Not Understanding the Basic Mechanics of Your Saxophone
Most self-learners, I find, do not take the time to really understand their saxophones. Most skip over the part where they need to understand how the instrument works.
Understanding the basic mechanics of your saxophone is crucial. Things such as how it produces sound and how it is designed are really important to know because once you understand how your saxophone works you eliminate a whole lot of problems, fear or too much carefulness.
As a self-learner, take the time to understand your instrument every chance you get.
Many beginners, especially self-learners, send me messages related to not understand their saxophones—such as getting things such as weird sounds when they are playing, or that they think something is broken—all the time.
Most of the time, all I really have to do to help them with this is to just tell them how the instrument works.
Weird as it sounds.
Things such as how it produces sound.
As soon as they understand how the instrument works, how it produces sound, it's very easy to locate and fix problems on your own. It's easier to know, for instance, if a spring is broken, or if maybe one of your tone holes is leaking.
Most problems are very easy to at least find, then you can go to your repairer and say, "Look, this particular thing is broken, can you fix it?" It gets pretty cheap that way, and you have some power for yourself—you know exactly what's going on, so you are not at their mercy.
Many little problems, such as a spring that's lost some tension, you can easily fix yourself.
As a self-learner, you really cannot skip the step of really getting to know your saxophone.
Playing an instrument where you keep hearing a weird sound and don't know what's going on eats at your subconscious like a motherfucker!
#3 — Thinking You Need to Be Able to Read Sheet Music to Play Your Saxophone
This is the motherlode.
Most self-learners seem to think that learning to play the saxophone, is somehow linked to how well or fast you learn to read sheet music. That the two go hand-in-hand.
That is absolutely not true.
You really have no reason to put off learning the saxophone until you learn to read sheet music.
In fact, you can learn to play the sax surprisingly fast by ear, pretty much just goofing off and playing what you hear. Actually, you develop a pretty good understanding of your instrument and hand technique this way surprisingly fast.
Learning to read music and play off the sheet from scratch generally takes upwards of a year or at least two years of slow gradual progress.
Many self-learners, even students with tutors, combine the two, especially in classical style saxophone schools, and all they do is play off the sheets, play off the sheets.
As a self-learner, you want to spend a lot of time away from reading anything—just playing.
Pick up your sax and play whatever tune comes to your head, or play along to the radio and you'll make very fast progress that way.
Separate the two learning curves, because if you combine learning the sax and learning to read sheet music, your development will be much much longer. Your ability to learn to read music will hold you back on the saxophone a lot.
I find that most people, especially the more musical people, can learn to play little songs very easily. In fact, using just finger charts, you can learn to play little songs in minutes, literally.
It's really not that difficult. And you can learn hundreds of songs that way before ever reading a single note.
Now I am not saying that you completely side-step reading, it's a great way to open yourself up to a lot of other music, and to play new songs with other people, but, early on your focus should be on learning the play the saxophone.
Learn these two things separately.
#4 — Playing Alone for Far Too Long
Wait, probably wondering how playing alone can hold you back.
Isn't that the whole point of self-learning the saxophone?
Let me explain.
Many self-learners are usually pretty scared to play with other people, and for good reason—they haven't really mastered the instrument. So they wait for far too long.
Learning the saxophone, understandably, takes quite a bit of time.
And it's natural to be nervous when playing with other people—you don't want to mess up other people's music.
But still, it's very important to play with other people, because if you don't you confine yourself to this whole other path of evolution away from getting better faster.
Find a local free improvisation workshop or something similar and go there. Your little melodies are nice but you really need to master the instrument if you want to play professionally.
You need to play with other people because from that you learn a lot that will really help you bridge the gap between playing alone and playing with other people.
Find something like a little band or anywhere you can play in little sessions with other people. Pretty soon you'll find yourself playing with a lot of people.
I believe it was Sonny Rollins, one of the absolute masters of the tenor saxophone, that said that playing with other people for an hour is worth about four weeks of playing alone, and I really believe that's true.
Get out there as soon as you can even if you feel uncomfortable. I would say that if you've been playing for upwards of three weeks, that's good enough. Get out.
If you are serious about practicing, find some local music events, venues or workshops, join, meet with local musicians, be open about the fact that you've just started and then go from there.
This will enormously boost the speed of how much you can get better and you'll be glad for it.
#5 — Getting Hung Up on Technical Details, Accessories
This is a subtle trap that even I fell into at the very start.
As a beginner, we are all just too aware that for the first year or year and a half you're just not going to sound really really great.
The saxophone isn't just one of those instruments like a piano where it doesn't matter who presses the key because it always sounds the same.
You really do have to put in the work and soldier through the learning curve just to get to a point where other people will start saying that you're starting to sound okay now, or that you sound really nice.
That's just something we all have to get over.
Something that happens to a lot of self-learners is that instead of being honest and accepting that it will take some time, they think what they need is an expensive mouthpiece, or a more expensive saxophone, or this other type of reed, or ligature or whatever it happens to be.
You tend to go, especially if you have the money, into this obsession with tuning your setup.
Early on, you do not need that amazing instrument, that, to be honest, you can't really work yet.
All you need is a good solid instrument to learn on.
All you need is a good solid student saxophone to play on for a year, or a year and a half, and really practice it to get to a point where you can really appreciate the differences.
Where you can put a different mouthpiece on your saxophone and actually feel the difference—feel what it does, and how the sound changes.
Most of these things are not accessible to a beginner because all sounds are alike. You can really discern the nuances.
You can't overcome a beginner's inexperienced technique by buying a lot of gadgets. It really doesn't improve your playing and it's really a massive waste of your time.
Resist the temptation.
#6 — Sticking With Only One Music Genre
This is, in many ways, similar to playing alone for too long.
If you were not self-learning, for instance, and you went and got a tutor instead, the first thing you'll notice is that they have some method books and most of those things focus either only on jazz or classical music.
In general, people tend to go in the direction of one genre, especially once you start to good at playing jazzy or classically, and stay in that.
While the reasoning is that once you get good at something it makes sense to keep doing that, it's actually way better to really push yourself in the other directions as well.
Do not get bogged down by some of the numerous myths swirling around in the musical world. Such beauties as, you know, classical players can't play jazz, jazz players can't play classical and things like classical people can't play blues.
From my experience, all of that is utter bullshit. Some of the greatest saxophonists, trumpeters, and pianists have spanned across multiple genres.
A classical style saxophonist is only bad at jazz if they haven't practiced it at all. So yes, they are bad at it, because they haven't practiced it. This goes for any genre.
This is something that begins at the very beginning because right from the start, we tend to focus on what we like until we are good at that, and then we keep moving in that direction neglecting everything else.
You will be a much more rounded player—a much better saxophonist, and you'll develop much faster if you very consciously push yourself, to not only stay confined in one specific genre.
Keep mixing it up, right from the start.
#7 — Not Knowing or Learning Any Piano
I know what you are thinking. You are trying to learn saxophone here, not piano.
Most saxophone self-learners don't learn any piano. And no matter how strange that sounds, not knowing the piano will hold you back immensely.
Why should you learn the piano?
It has a lot to do with music theory.
The piano is really one of the very few instruments that lay out all the notes in the 12-note system in use in virtually all popular music today. It's one instrument where you can see all of it.
I am not saying that you need to know enough piano to play something like Beethoven or Mozart or something demanding like that. Far from it.
All you need to have is just a little bit of experience playing the piano. Something like five lessons with a piano teacher or following some online courses will usually suffice.
All you need to do is just get the basics down, such as playing some chords on the piano, being able to play a little harmony here and there, which isn't really that difficult to do (you can learn that in a few hours).
This is what will help you immensely later on as soon as you start getting into music theory. Music theory is something that you have to get into if you want to start improvising if you want to be able to solo really well.
It is essential knowledge.
Music theory can get a little difficult, but if you play just a little piano, that'll make it a whole lot easier and much more palatable.
#8 — Not Knowing Your Intervals
A half step between two notes—no matter what key, no matter where on the keyboard you play it from—always sounds like danger is coming!
If you don't know your intervals, by heart, and you can recognize them by ear, it will make music theory way, way, harder than it really is.
And it's actually insanely easy to learn the intervals.
It's a very simple trick that you can learn in, say, a week of two-hour daily practice, and you will then never forget it, and it will open up a whole world of music theory for you.
I know so many people who struggle with music theory for years and once I explain it this to them, the whole theory just straightens out and starts to make a lot more sense.
This is really important stuff.
If you do not know your intervals, it will not just hold you back immensely, it will hold you back in a way that can't quite put a finger on exactly what it is that's holding you back yet it's very, very, easy to learn.
#9 — Not Playing More Freely
This one kind of envelopes some of the other points we mentioned above.
Most self-learners don't play freely enough.
The result of that is (you won't believe) very advanced players—players that I have met, and I know for a fact have played upwards of 8 years—who can play Charlie Parker solos right off the sheet extremely well, yet when you tell them to play freeform, they completely freeze up.
Simply can't do it.
And it's because even though they can play anything off the sheet, they are not truly in sync with their instrument.
Let me explain.
If I sing a note and say to you now sing that same note, almost anybody can pretty much sing that same note right away.
Quite easily actually.
You don't have to look for it in your voice box, you just grab the right one and sing it right out.
The same thing happens when you remember a melody from a TV show or song that you like, and you never have to search for the notes, no matter how complex the melody might be because your mind and voice box are completely in sync.
And you've probably learned that over lots and lots of years unless you are quite young.
That's what I am referring to as being in sync with your instrument. The only way to do that is to treat it like a body extension. As something that you use all the time.
The exercise that I want to give you for that is this:
Imagine a melody in your head. After you imagine it, try to play it on the saxophone only once without making a mistake. If you make a mistake repeat it the correct way. Then move on to another melody and play it out without a mistake and keep at it.
Over time, you'll find that you've actually brought your mind in sync with your saxophone.
Eventually, you will find that if you hear something on the radio, and grab your saxophone, you play it as easily as you sang that melody with your voice after hearing it just a couple of times.
That's what you need as a self-learner—playing freely.
#10 — Not Taking Control of Your Own Learning Curve
The last thing on this list sorta reflects back to your whole learning experience from a time far into the future—that is not taking control of your own learning curve.
As a self-learner, only you know what will challenge you a lot. Only you can push yourself to find it. And only you can push yourself to do it.
I feel that this is a hand point to put across to you eloquently, succinctly, yet it is the thing that saves you the most time because it hits your learning curve directly.
If you let other people tell you how to learn, on average, it will take anywhere from four to six years to acquire just average saxophone skill.
Many people that get average skill in the year, or year and a half, a timeline that I keep mentioning are not only self-taught—they push themselves really hard.
And, these are the sort of people who when you hear play you think they've been at it for five or six years. But no, they've been playing for just a year!
There's a lot of things I can point to and say that that's why they've learned so fast, but, by far, the most important reason they have learned so fast is that they took control of their learning curve.
They simply are not satisfied with people telling them this or that is what you should do or focus on for this month or the other. They control their learning curves. Anybody that's ever gotten anywhere fast with a saxophone is doing that all the time.
No saxophone teacher or number of courses can do that for you.
Any bar you walk into, or anywhere you start playing, people just love the sound of the saxophone.
People seem to love bands that are accompanied by saxophones, people seem to love saxophone solos, I suppose because the voice of the saxophone is very close to the human voice.
People love just it.
That's all I really have to say about ease or difficulty or learning the saxophone right now.
I hope I didn't demotivate you.
I think it's a great instrument and I have completely been in love with it since I started listening to jazz as a teenager. And, I can wholeheartedly recommend putting any effort when getting started on this beautiful instrument.
I hope that gives you some indication of how long to wait and what amount of effort you have to put into it.