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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Saxophone Skills: Shake Your Tail Feather

by Sarah Anne Wolkowski

According to Daniel J. Levitin, to become a true master of the saxophone, you will need to practise TEN THOUSAND HOURS. That’s a lot of hours. On your feet. Blowing your horn.

Are you up for it?

Dr. Levitin is a musician, neuroscientist, author and professor at McGill University. He studies how music functions in the brain. In This Is Your Brain On Music, he confirms some ancient wisdom: practise makes perfect. Brushing aside the idea of talent (which is just a demonstration of existing skill - hear, hear!) he provides some tangible numbers. Ten thousand hours, he explains, works out to approximately three hours a day for ten years.

I hope you find this fact as heartwarming as I do. Truly, anyone can become a master musician if they have the time, patience and discipline to see it through. Yes, you will also need excellent instruction, and this costs money. But if you are keen and motivated to learn, oh the things your teacher will do to support your journey.

Becoming a master of the saxophone is totally possible, but the road is long. How can you get the most out of the time you set aside for music? There are many answers. Here is one you aren’t expecting:

Exercise.

‘What?’

‘Wait a second,’ you are thinking, ‘I started playing the saxophone because I didn’t make the basketball team!’

No problem. You don’t have to be ├╝ber athletic. You don’t have to participate in organized sports. You should, however, build some physical activity into your life.

Don’t forget that our beloved hybrid is just a conical brass tube. YOU have to provide the air. YOUR neck has to support the weight of the instrument. YOUR fingers have to push the keys. You really are the wind beneath the saxophone’s wings!

Get fit: it will accelerate and improve your saxophone skills.

I recommend light cardiovascular training, light weight training and lots of stretching. Here are some of the benefits:

1. Superior Brain Function
Aerobic activity in particular improves information processing, memory, and the growth of brain cells. Trying to memorize a piece without much luck? Take a jog around the block, then try again. You may surprise yourself! Exercise also improves concentration. More exercise = better sleep = a rested mind = increased ability to concentrate. There is a beautiful clarity of mind that comes during and after aerobic activity. Why wouldn’t you want to help your brain work better? You will feel calmer, more logical, and concepts will be more readily understood.

2. Better Breathing
Any activity that improves your ability to breathe efficiently is beneficial. Swimming is ideal. Try doing freestyle/front crawl with a breathing break every five strokes. Notice the similarities: when your head is face down in the water, you are blowing a steady stream of bubbles (an underwater long tone, if you like) until you exhaust your air supply. You swiftly twist your neck to one side so that you can open your mouth to inhale as much oxygen as you can. Quickly - or else you will enjoy the taste of highly chlorinated pool water. Yuck. You turn your face back to the water and you repeat the process. It’s efficient. It’s also how we are supposed to breathe when we play the saxophone. Cross train by practising this in the pool and you will become a lean, mean, breathing machine!

3. Increased Endurance
n alto saxophone weighs somewhere between 2-3 kilograms or 5-6 pounds. A tenor saxophone weighs approximately 3-4 kilograms or 6-7 pounds. That may not seem like a lot of weight, but who has to do most of the work? How does your neck feel about the burden of all that extra weight? (Hint: not thrilled.) To be fair, although the neck supports most of the weight, your entire frame is involved. Toned muscles make it easier to stand with perfect posture for long periods, resulting in less fatigue.

4. Better Physical Awareness
Exercise helps us to isolate and identify what it feels like to exert different muscles. It’s easy to explain how the abdominal muscles are involved in pushing air into the mouthpiece to a pilates expert. He or she is keenly aware of what abdominal exertion feels like. This awareness of feeling is transferable. It speeds up the learning process.

It’s no surprise that students who have strong rhythm skills and an impeccable ability to keep the tempo are dancers. Having trained to move in time to the music, they are completely comfortable working inside a set tempo. Double-time requires but a sliver of explanation, as those-who-groove are accustomed to moving in time, then twice as fast, and back again. Compound meter is also easily understood, because dancers often subdivide their movements while maintaing the beat.

It’s just a fact: dancers have great rhythm. Think of Michael Jackson. Why not get up and try your best moonwalk right now. Don’t stop ‘til you get enough!

5. Injury Prevention
When we practise, some of our body parts are easily overworked. The most obvious example: the fingers. Improving your fitness level can help to avoid overuse issues in the first place. Remaining injury free is a worthwhile aspiration and a motivation to keep up with best practices. Interestingly, exercise is also the answer for musicians who suffer from chronic conditions that make practising painful. As prevention or therapy, exercise in the answer.

You’re practising. It’s going well. Until magically, unexpectedly, a brick wall appears before you. Your resolve to keep working has been blocked. Your mind flips between ‘my neck hurts’, ‘what’s for dinner?’ and ‘why are Mario and Luigi building the wall in front of me rather than helping me to smash through?’ 

What a mind you have!

What do you do?

Reboot your brain and your body with any or all of the following:

  • Arm circles, forwards and backwards.
  • Hold your wrist or hand and push your palms out in front of your body; breathe in and out several times.


  • Put your hands behind you, hold your wrist or hand, extend your arms back for a chest expansion; breathe in and out several times.


  • Tuck your head as close to your body as you can and roll down slowly to touch your toes. While holding this position, keep your abdominal muscles engaged and hold opposite hand to elbow for a deeper stretch. Roll up slowly, one vertebrae at a time, keeping your head tucked in. Repeat.


  • Look straight ahead and relax your shoulders. Let your head tilt to the side, letting the weight of your head pull your ear towards your shoulder. Repeat on the other side.


  • Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth three times, slowly.

You’re ready to keep playing!

Sound body = sound mind = one happy saxophonist.



Series presented by

Sarah Anne Wolkowski, B.Mus (McGill) M.Mus (U. of Alberta)
Saxophone Performance and Instruction

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah:

What a great article. Thanks so much. I will send this out to my students to read. Please keep them coming.

Jeremy Brown DMA
Calgary