Saxophone FAQ

Click to listen to “Gingerbread Boy”, from my CD “For Joey”

Charles Socci, The Visit

Charles Socci, For Joey

How DO you learn to play jazz? I can tell you how I learned. I can also
tell you about my own teachers and their teachers. I didn’t start playing the saxophone until I was
eleven years old. I had actually started with the clarinet and tenor saxophone but gravitated to the alto saxophone because
there was a girl I was interested in who played alto in the school band. No lie.
I didn’t play any sports and was pretty sheltered as a child. So, music was my thing.

My grandmother was a professional singer and was hired as a soloist at churches
throughout Connecticut where I was born. We always had a piano in the house, I had early lessons
but was too young to appreciate them. My uncle played and I would hear him play when he visited.
My mother had a cabaret act in the 50’s and early 60’s and quite a bit of theatrical experience.
She had mostly quit that line of work by the time I was a young child; but she would still perform on occasion.

My point is that I had a fairly early exposure to music. I don’t think it mattered what kind of music; just that
I was developing a sensibility in my head of sound, composition, and how people respond to music.

One of my first teachers was a man named Johnny Hesser. He was primarily an accordionist – but worked
as an arranger in various capacities for some musical agencies in New York City. He was mostly retired.
He was an ‘old school’ music teacher who taught all the instruments. He had a band he put together of his
students, which included his youngest beginning students and his adults. He wrote all of the music
and tailored each part to the ability of each student. I had no idea at the time how unique and
special a teacher he was in that regard! I began improvising solos in that band. It was from him
I learned a beginner’s grasp of music theory – mostly just the major and minor triads. I started applying
these chords on the piano, and was playing very simple arrangements of standard tunes like Misty and Saint Louis Blues
on the piano by the time I was 12 or 13. My mother had a bunch of fake books and the chords were usually
pretty simple. So, in the left hand I played triads, and in the right hand melody. Later, in college I’d start
learning about things like chord voicings. Mr. Hesser did give me an early introduction to stride piano – with an
oom pah style – root, chord – fifth, chord. But I’m getting off the topic.

By the time I was in junior high school, I was extremely interested in jazz, idolizing a number
of the great saxophone players. People like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were still beyond what I could
really understand musically. So my early favorites were saxophonists like Lester Young,

Buddy Tate, and Stan Getz‘s Jobim recordings. I spent a lot of time
in the library down the street reading about different musicians, their lives, and whom they played with.
I started buying records (vinyl in those days, no CDs!) of various people I had read about – I found the
Bird With Strings Charlie Parker recordings and those became an early favorite. As those solos
became a part of my musical memory, I began listening to anyone whose records I could get a hold of.

When I was about 12, I started studying with another teacher who specialized in teaching only the
woodwinds. He began teaching me scales and exercises. We’d have conversations about saxophonists.
I was listening to Sonny Rollins, Bird, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean as well as some of
the pop-jazz type things like Weather Report, Steely Dan and Spyro Gyra.

When I got into high school, I found a small community of musicians to hang out with who went to the
same high school. It was very rural. Three towns shared one high school. The kids were all older than I was.
We had a jazz band and played stock arrangements… We’d rehearse once a week at one of the guy’s houses. The local music scene, and music education scene at the high school
were poor. The band director quit the year I got there. The choral director took over for a while. After him, it was mostly a succession of substitutes whose heart wasn’t exactly in building a strong music program. In fact, for a time, I actually became the defacto band teacher…

That summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school I attended the Hartt Summer Youth Music Program
a summer session for high school aged kids to get exposure to a music conservatory setting and study with some
university level teachers. I thought I was pretty special at that point and was rather shocked when
I placed 14th among 15 saxophone players in auditions. I met a really great saxophonist there named Phil DeLibero
who was the saxophone teacher at the university. After my humiliation of being next to last, I began a course
of study with Mr. DeLibero. I began practicing two hours a night. Every night. I started getting into meditation; and I would put
a stack of vinyl records on the record changer and let them play one after another with the lights out. So in addition to practicing I was also
spending a great deal of time listening to some of the masters. I went back to the Hartt
summer program the following year and placed FIRST. The conductor of the wind orchestra walked in, took his place
on the podium and nearly fell off when he looked over to see who his principal saxophonist was. He remarked ‘My, I guess someone did
some work this year!’. They had also begun having a jazz band that year and I won the lead alto chair. I also joined an honors yourth wind ensemble around that time and used to travel up to Hartford on Saturday or Sunday mornings to rehearse.

Around that time, one of the substitutes from the foreign languages department heard me playing the piano during lunch period. There was a decent piano in the auditorium, which
was almost always empty. He told me he played piano and that he got together weekly with a guitar player and drummer once a week to play. So I started playing with those guys once
a week… I was 15 and they’d pick me up and drive me to whomever’s house we were going to be playing at and then drive me home. We didn’t have a regular bass player – except sometimes
Tony Scherr would come by with his homemade electric bass.
He was 16, and lived nearby in Branford, CT. He went on to North Texas State and became a really fantastic
musician who now works with people like Bill Frisell, Norah Jones as well as his own
bands. We just played tunes out of a fake book – badly – and took endless long and trippy solos. There was a strange combination of influences in that band – The Grateful Dead,
Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, and whatever I brought to the mix.
It was a very free, unrestricted and fun environment for a young player like myself to begin experimenting in.

There was also a famous jazz club in
Hartford at that time called The 880 club – and on Sunday nights they had a jam session. I was driving myself
up there on Sunday nights as soon as I turned 16. 16 and hanging out in a smokey jazz club… and getting up for school
the next morning… I learned a lot from those times. I got my young butt kicked by
any number of musicians up there! People like Don DiPalma and Larry DiNatalie
were mentors to quite a few musicians in the Hartford area.

A drummer friend of mine told me
that he was going to a concert in Hartford of Jackie McLean’s students at the Hartt School of Music. I went to the
concert. I was in awe of the students I saw. I wrote Mr. McLean a letter and he invited me to come up
to the school and meet him. Then he invited me to stop by his home for a lesson. That began my six year term of
study under Jackie McLean.

Jackie McLean began showing me basic theory from the jazz perspective and had me learn all my major, minor, and diminished
scales inside and out. He also showed me how to start transcribing the solos of people like Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker and
Lester Young. I took that a step further with a half speed tape recorder and learned many classic jazz solos.

Jackie McLean grew up in New York City and was surrounded by the greatest innovators of modern
jazz throughout his childhood. One of his very first teachers was the legendary pianist Bud Powell. His career would
begin with subbing gigs for Charlie Parker himself and joining Miles Davis‘ band. He later played with Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey,
and Charles Mingus among others. For me, having such a direct link to these masters through him was invaluable. He told me
he learned to play by recording live radio broadcasts of Charlie Parker and learning his phrasing and solos note for note.
Jackie has one of the most unique sounds and vocabulary of any jazz saxophonist. So for those people who claim that transcription
and mimicking in the early stages of jazz development is not essential and only leads to cloning; I say that’s nonsense.

Learning to play jazz is the same as learning any language. Even the best players started out by appreciating and assimilating the musical language of their predecessors in one way or another.
Charlie Parker learned all of Lester Young’s recorded material. Art Tatum was a disciple of Fats Waller. Fats Waller was a
disciple of James P. Johnson. Coltrane sounded a lot like Dexter Gordon on his most rare earliest recordings. Sonny Rollins
was an intense fan of Coleman Hawkins. I began combining elements from various saxophone players into my own conception.
Around that time, I think I actually started to sound a little bit like I knew what I was doing. This is how you learn the language.
Eventually, you put it together in your own way. Or, perhaps you come up something entirely new!
But, I’m a firm believer in knowing where the music comes from first.

So to try and sum up, I think early exposure develops an ear and a conception in one’s mind.
The value of a strong public school music department is so important. Unfortunately we didn’t have one. Fortunatley I
was able to make up for some of that by participating in some programs and activities on my own.
Have a drive to do it. For many years, music was EVERYTHING for me, it defined me, it was my social life,
my education, my relaxation, my partner, my mentor, my joy and tears – make it part of who you are. Learn as much about your instrument as possible.
Reading is essential – especially if you plan on earning a living in music, but music itself is about the EARS, not the eyes. Most instruction today is about
reading, this is a ‘C’ and this is how you play it, with the middle finger on your left hand.
This type of instruction is ok. But its got to go along with some type of ear training. Pick things out that you hear
on the radio. Play that silly Clorox jingle… Whatever… Just use your ears and start connecting your ears
to the instrument in addition to your eyes!

  • I am a beginner; what
    kind of saxophone should I buy? How do I buy a saxophone?

There are many good instruments to choose
from. Generally, instruments are classed as student, intermediate
or professional – with prices that reflect! Getting the best
saxophone you can afford is an obvious goal. It is NOT necessary
to have a pro horn to learn how to play the instrument – and play
it well. In fact, for at least your first year of study, you will
not be skilled enough to reap the benefits of improved tone and
intonation provided by a pro horn. Pro horns are much more expensive, made of better
materials and to more exacting standards and tolerances. There are
excellent saxophones made by Selmer and Yamaha (EXCELLENT
intermediate instruments). I prefer Selmer saxophones – I play a
Mark VI tenor from 1966, and a Super Action 80 Alto of more
recent vintage. The most important thing for a student is to have
a saxophone in good repair. Any type of instrument in good
repair will provide much better service than a great horn in bad
shape. Generally, music stores pay about one half of the
suggested retail price. NEVER pay suggested retail for a horn. 20
– 30% is about a standard discount – but try to do better and
don’t be afraid to pay a little more at a store with a good
reputation for service. Try for USA Horn and other dealers.

  • Should I get an alto,
    soprano, tenor or baritone saxophone? What kind of saxophone do I buy?

This is entirely up to you; small children
do better with alto, as their fingers fit the keys better. Alto
is probably an easier horn to start on, with baritone and soprano
presenting their own challenges which make them quite a bit more
difficult to learn on – Baritone is BIG for a young child, and soprano is
generally tougher to play in tune.

  • How do I buy a used

If you are going to buy used, I suggest you insist on the options to return the instrument if it proves unsatisfactory.
Have someone knowledgeable check it out. There are excellent buys available for a
used horn. Don’t worry about the lacquer (how shiny it is). Are
there many dents? Do the keys rattle when you finger them? Look
down the inside of the bore (inside the instrument with the neck off) – does it look like a perfect cone,
or does it seem to veer off to one side? (if so, it was probably
dropped, not a good bet to buy). Look at the pads, are they
supple or dried out and tough? These are general suggestions – some horns for the right
price are well worth fixing up!

  • What kind of saxophone reeds
    should I use?

I like Vandorens, although they are
expensive and less consistent from reed to reed. I have also
had good luck with Rico Royal. I like
reeds a little on the stiff side, although the relative stiffness
is greatly affected by what type of mouthpiece you play. I play
medium open mouthpieces with #3 and #3 1/2 reeds. Something a
little softer would be good to start out (a 2 or 2 1/2).

  • How do I work on saxophone reeds?

The Larry Teal Book The Art of Saxophone
Playing (published by Summy-Birchard, inc 265 Secaucus Rd.,
Secaucus,NJ 07096-2037) is great, has a section on reed theory
and how to work on them. I have also seen some great articles in
Saxophone Journal, but basically repeat Larry Teal’s advice. It
takes practice working on reeds, there is a real feel to it and
often you can tell just but looking and touching if the reed is
any good or not. The reed should be equally thick on both sides.

With the reed flat and facing up, Draw an line from the top left edge to the bottom right edge of the shaved part of the reed.
Draw another line from top right edge to the bottom left edge of the shaved part of the reed.
You should have an X – centered in the middle of the shaved part of the reed. STAY AWAY FROM THE CENTER OF THE X.
Work by sanding, rubbing, or using a reed knife on the four outer points of the x until they are balanced with each other.

Its hard to explain this
without showing! Of course the mouthpiece must be balanced as
well (equal on both sides opening, rail width). Often an
unbalanced reed will play great on an unbalanced mouthpiece
because the imbalances complement each other. You can feel the
tip, flex it (don’t break!) often you can feel one side stiffer
than the other. Work the tip at the upper and outer corners, stay
away from the middle or heart. Experiment, get a box of cheap
reeds, very stiff (like 4’s or something) and practice. If the
reed seems balanced, just work the area right behind the tip,
leave the sides and corners alone. Try this – in a mirror take
mouthpiece with reed on it and suck through the opposite end so
that you get an obnoxious noise. Watch the way the tip vibrates
in the mirror. You can lightly sand the flat side with #400,
extra fine or whatever is equivalent Usually I only use a piece
of paper and make sure its on a flat surface and rub the flat
side of the reed against that. I wouldn’t work on the flat side
too much, only to flatten and compress the fibers and smooth out
any slight irregularities. I use a flat piece of glass (cosmetic
mirror), a really sharp reed knife and nail files.

There are all types of ways people cure or treat their reeds. I can’t even begin to go into them.
I’ve found it is useful to rotate reeds. They tend to wear out quickly when they are new, and if you rotate through a set of
reeds instead of playing the same one all the time you will get more wear and tear for your money.
I LIKE the way new reeds play – so rotating gives me more ‘new reed’ time… Some people only like them after they have ‘broken in’.
One school of thought is that as you rotate them, they somehow last longer – they become more resistant to deteriorating, whereas you can play one new reed to death very quickly…
Many students will break the reed in the process of putting it on the mouthpiece… The ligature (the metal part that holds the reed on the mouthpiece) goes on FIRST, THEN slip the reed into the ligature.
I’ve seen too many students crush the tip of the reed in the process of slipping the ligature on.
‘Reed Guard’ type devices that hold extra reeds and keep them flat are very helpful.

  • What kind of
    saxophone mouthpiece should I use?

A good mouthpiece can make a fair horn play
like a good horn…it is VERY important. I recommend beginners
start with a medium, middle of the road mouthpiece (Meyer 5,
Selmer c*,c**,d,brillhart 5-6). There are mouthpieces available
which allow for very bright and harsh sounds, and very mellow
sounds. I prefer to have one mouthpiece that allows me to do a
little of everything. I use a Berg Larsen (don’t know the specs, medium chamber, medium open) on alto and an old
Hollywood Dukoff #7 on tenor. The sound is in your head and
no matter what mouthpiece you play on, you
will tend to revert back to that natural tendency (until that
concept changes). So, pick a mouthpiece that lets you make your
sound with the
LEAST amount of EFFORT.

  • What kind of setup do
    I play?

Tenor: Mark VI 136,000 series (1966),
an old Hollywood Dukoff about a 7, #3 1/2 – 4 Vandorens or any
reed with good aged cane. Alto:
Super Action 80 series I bought in 1985, Berg Larsen or Meyer medium open mouthpiece, #3 1/2 reed. Soprano: Sonora solid silver, Selmer S80 c* 3 1/2
reed. Clarinet: Buffet R13, Vandoren B45, #3 reed. Flute:
Gemeinhardt Solid Silver closed hole or Yamaha open hole. Baritone: Yamaha model 61,
Yamaha #5 mouthpiece or Meyer 10, #4 reeds.

  • Can you recommend any
    good books or magazines about the saxophone?

The Art of Saxophone Playing, by Larry Teal,
published by Summy-Birchard, inc 265 Secaucus Rd., Secaucus,NJ
07096-2037 – Available from

Practice Like The Pros, and the Step One: Play series, by Sue Terry Available at Sue’s site, or from Sue is a friend going back
to the Hartt School of Music days, and an EXCELLENT composer, player, and author. Sue has worked with some of the most influential musicians including:
Barry Harris, Clark Terry, Al Jarreau, Dr. Billy Taylor, Walter Bishop Jr., Mickey Roker, Chaka Khan, George Duke, Irene Reid, Howard Johnson, Juan Carlos Formell, Jazzberry Jam, Teri Thornton, Hilton Ruiz, Dr. John, Mike Longo, Dianne Reeves, and many others.

Joe Viola – Technique of the Saxophone (series) Available from

  • How should I
    practice the saxophone (can you recommend a practice routine)?

ALWAYS practice SLOWLY…practicing too fast
only reinforces your mistakes. Spend equal time on sight-reading,
scales, technical exercises, articulation exercises, and
intonation/tone development. Hint: practice long tones, matching
a fixed pitch (synthesizer or tuner that plays references
pitches) for a fixed duration of time which should get longer as
you progress.
Check out Sue Terry’s article on

  • What are some good saxophone links?

When I first started my web page there were very few saxophone links on the web. Today, there are many great sites. Here are a few to get you started:
Sax on the Web; The International Saxophone Homepage; Directory; The Sax Shed
and Saxquest

  • Can you really make a living in the music business?

You can. Don’t expect to learn everything in school. The opportunity
to study with and know someone of Jackie McLean’s stature when I was still in high school was a tremendous opportunity for which I’m very greatful. But the jazz program at Hartt did not mirror the
reality I encountered upon graduation. A handshake, a diploma, and many thousands of dollars later I was off and alone; to painfully discover
that making a living playing the saxophone would be
completely different from anything I learned in school.

Making a music career work is about versatility and learning to market yourself really well – all the while having the money in your pocket to keep it going.
Unfortunately, jazz music is one of a number of things that do not fit into the capitalist paradigm very well. Unless you have generous parents, another source of revenue, or a wealthy patron sponsoring you, you will find the balance between your bread and butter ‘GB’ gigs (weddings, bars, etc), your day job, and your true creative pursutis a tough one – especially in a City like New York.

When I graduated, the people willing to pay me as a musician didn’t care about hearing me play Cherokee in twelve keys, or chorus
after chorus of rhythm changes… What they wanted was someone who could read anything, transpose on sight, double on clarinet and flute, blend into a section, and not be the soloist. I spent a lot
of time playing with Latin dance bands, and doing musical theater. Through that experience I learned to double and read well.

To make a living in the music business you must be extremely versatile. You have to be more than a ‘sax player’. You need to be able to write music.
You need to be able to teach. You need to be able to arrange. You might consider producing music for other musicians. You might consider booking bands. You might write your own music, put together your own band, find your hidden marketing genius and book your own.
The keys for most players setting out are going to be how well they read, how well they play, and how adaptable they are. You also can’t be shy – you MUST sell yourself.
But you also must be a likeable enough person that people enjoy having you around! It isn’t always the best players who work. It is the ones who are the most reliable, the easiest
to work with, and the most capable.
While there is always room at the top for the next great soloist; there is so much competition – so many great saxophonists out there –
that unless you really have something special and different to offer you’ll need to find other sources of revenue.

  • What are you doing now?

You can check out my “me” page for personal information.
I don’t play the saxophone as often; although I do play gigs occasionally. There came a point for me
where my musical career did not feel like the creative journey I originally set out on. I also
had two kids with my partner and felt unable to provide adequate financial
My present musical interest is focused on the piano and it is very much a private pursuit for the time being. I’ve always loved
the piano. I work full time managing information technology for a large humanitarian NGO in Manhattan. That keeps me very busy and provides
a great deal of security for me, my two children and my wife. I’m also a graduate student at Columbia University.

2 thoughts on “Saxophone FAQ

  1. WOW! I’m amazed :) What a resourceful article about common questions new saxophone players stumble upon. And you know what, I’m one of them LOL! Thanks so much for providing me such informative article! Have a nice day buddy!

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