The Saxophone is a popular choice amongst beginners because they see and hear many images of performers in popular music such as Rock, Jazz and Contemporary Jazz. Interestingly, it is made out of brass, but because it has a single reed as the source for producing the sound, it is considered a woodwind instrument.
There are four main types of Saxophones, all having the same fingering system: Alto, Tenor, Baritone (Bari) and Soprano. Most students start on the Alto, and then when their hands get larger, they can play the Tenor or Bari Saxes.
The Saxophone also appears in Classical music, and has had a prominent role in some French classical pieces. There is not as extensive a repertoire in the Classical genre since the instrument was invented later than the rest of the woodwinds (c. 1841). The Alto Sax has the most repertoire, while the Soprano Sax has the least.
The Saxophone Family
The Soprano Sax is a rather difficult instrument to play. Even though it is the smallest of the bunch, it is very difficult to keep in tune. This instrument is usually not attempted until a student is in the later years of high school or in college. (*An important point: the smaller the instrument does not mean the easier it is to play! The Piccolo is very small but requires a well-developed embouchure and very developed “ears” to keep in tune, just like the Soprano Sax.)
The Alto Sax is the most popular saxophone to start with. Students can quickly learn the full range of the instrument (with a proper embouchure and excellent breath support). This saxophone plays inner harmonies in a beginning Concert Band setting. Usually the lines are the same as the French Horn. Exceptional Jazz performers like Charlie Parker made the Alto Sax very popular. Phil Woods played the famous Alto Sax solo in Billy Joel’s, “Just the Way You Are.”
The Tenor Sax is a larger and lower sounding instrument than the Alto. The weight of the instrument on the neck and right thumb can be a hindrance without the proper neck strap and good posture. In beginning Concert Bands, the Tenor Sax will alternate between bass lines and lower inner harmonies. The Tenor Sax is very popular in Jazz and Rock music. Many of the great sax solos, especially in the 1950’s, were on Tenor Sax, with players like Junior Walker and King Curtis. Billy Joel’s hit, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” features a famous Tenor Sax solo.
The Baritone (a.k.a. Bari) Sax is a deep, rich, low sounding instrument. Very few students play this instrument because of the size. Many Band teachers have stands to rest the instrument on so the weight of it is not on your neck. Some students can even get away with carefully resting it on the floor while playing. You hear the Bari Sax in Jazz and Rock music, but there is also some Classical repertoire as well. In beginning Concert Bands, the Bari Sax will play bass lines. Gerry Mulligan and James Carter are two people to check out with regard to the Bari Sax.
In this YouTube video of Ravel’s Bolero, you will see all the instruments in the Orchestra highlighted. The Clarinet comes in around 1:25, while the Tenor Saxophone is featured around 5:55, and the Soprano Saxophone at 6:52. (I included the entire piece because it is beautiful, and also you get to see and hear firsthand the instruments I have been writing about in my Blog.)
Here’s a video featuring Charlie Parker’s classic tune, “Now’s the Time”. (This video features the music and some still pictures.)
Here’s a video of Stanley Turrentine (one of my faves) on Tenor Sax performing his classic tune, “Sugar”, on David Sanborn’s show in the late 1980’s, Night Music. (David Sanborn is also a phenomenal jazz Alto Saxophonist.)
I had to put this last video in of some really INCREDIBLE sax solos on alto and tenor saxes. Phil Collins released a Big Band recording a number of years ago that has some phenomenal solos. On Pick Up the Pieces, two standouts are: Gerald Albright's (alto sax) solo at 2:05 and James Carter's tenor sax solo at 17:41.
Advantages to Playing the Saxophone:
- The Saxes are prominent in modern popular music, such as Rock, Jazz and Contemporary Jazz.
- The Classical repertoire is expanding for the Saxes.
- The Saxophone can play beautiful ballads as well as up-tempo funky Rock and Soul music.
- One of the great things about the fingering system on the saxes is that once you master the fingerings from the lowest “D” to open “C#”, add the octave key and repeat the same fingerings for the same notes an octave higher.
Points to Consider:
- The Saxophones rarely play melodies in Concert Band settings unless there is a solo. Usually the saxes play the inner harmonies and frequently are paired with the French Horns for Beginning Band arrangements.
- The weight of the Saxophone falls on the player’s neck and right thumb and can be very heavy for some beginners. I recommend using the Neotech neck straps for beginners because it is well padded and takes much of the weight off the neck and thumb. (Right now, I personally use the new VanDoren Saxophone Harness. It is expensive to consider for a beginner, but may be worth it for students in high school who do a lot of playing. It also may be worth it for a Bari Sax student who doesn’t use a stand to hold the instrument up.)
- As with the Clarinet, you must buy boxes of reeds on a consistent basis. Sax reeds will cost $20-$25/box; the larger instruments will have less reeds in the box. I recommend Rico Royal Strength 2 for beginners.
- All saxes have the same fingering system. For example, you would finger a “C” the same on all the saxes.
- If you like playing harmony lines, consider the Saxophone.
- If your hands are larger and you can handle the heavier weight of the Tenor Sax, that may be a good choice too. (Less beginning students play the Tenor.)
- The Bari Sax is a great instrument and has a really low range.
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