Thoughtful Advice for Saxophone Lessons and Other Woodwinds From a Professional Instructor

When considering to take saxophone lessons, clarinet lessons or flute lessons it is important to start the “right way” from the very start and that is of-course by taking saxophone lessons from a professional saxophone (woodwind) instructor.cornelius-boots

At Starland we hire what we consider to be the best of the best, and our current long-term saxophone teacher sent me his most thoughtful and complete saxophone lesson, clarinet lesson, and flute lesson advice and guidance to help you be the most successful on your journey to learn how to play the saxophone, how to play the  flute or  how to play the clarinet.

Our instructor Cornelius Boots took a break from a sax lesson to write this article for all of you out there wondering if there are any tips you can utilize in your saxophone lesson, clarinet lesson, or flute lesson.

1) Breathe from the Heels

Conscious and deep breathing is essential for all woodwind pursuits and it also leads to improved mental clarity, psychological stability and physical well-being.  The average modern human breathes shallowly and irregularly: although we will improve this through woodwind instrumental training, it will be up to the student to transfer this new approach to the “deceptively simple” act of respiration into your daily life…and reap the fruits thereof.


2) Trust your Teacher

When you commit to instrumental training, you are receiving a Guide on a long path, and this Guide has travelled  this territory many, many times with many, many people.  It does take Courage and Will to begin a craft that uses creativity and physical skill in equal measure, and you might not always know what the next step will look, sound, or feel like so your best approach is: trust your teacher.

3) Trust your Instrument and Interface with it

Your instrument is a collaborator and an interface to new dimensions, not a possession or object (although you do need to take care of it as well.)  The more you can be present and open while working with your instrument in the way your teacher has recommended, the sooner you will make your own  “a-ha!” realizations with it and maybe even reveal a new facet to your teacher!

4) Pay Attention to the Sounds You Make

This is another recommendation for being very present, but in music there is a kind of “splitting off” that happens: you are both making the sounds and listening to these sounds at the same time.  In other words: don’t just make a honk and not listen to it.  If you are really there with the sounds you make, often your tone and musicality will improve on their own just by giving your full attention to even the simplest passage.  This is equally true of first-day beginners as it is 30-year veterans.

5) Commit to Your Goals and Reassess Regularly

Only you know, deep inside, the one, two or twenty reasons that you have decided to pursue woodwind performance training; and there is no “better” reason to play than to not play, everyone is different.  But whatever the reason(s) you have the interest, you do need to tend to that motivation and possibly nourish it into enthusiasm or, at least, as mentioned above, pay attention to what is going on when you engage in the activity.  And of course, all things have their cycles: maybe you are a life-long player or maybe you just wanted to play “Happy Birthday” in all twelve keys on the baritone saxophone for your 102-year-old great-uncle and then be done with it.  Only you know what you truly desire to do, so revisit your decisions but also, be committed.

6) Face Yourself and Conquer your Fear: PRACTICE

What do you think early humans did in the “Golden Age” when animals and plants could effortlessly communicate their thoughts and uses to us? What do you suppose Adam & Eve did all day hanging around in the Garden of Eden?  “Performance” is not really a goal for most instrumental players, or at least it shouldn’t be.  What is commonly termed “practicing” is in fact the essence of what most people only call “performing.”  In other words: every time you play your instrument, you are engaged in the core activity that you have chosen.  You don’ need a “gig” or a “venue” or “downloads” or judges on some weak reality show!  Practicing is 100% where it is at! This is really why we play our instruments: they are incredibly fulfilling to play.  Not that you can’t go out and play for people sometimes, but that is optional.  So don’t be afraid of “messing up” or “not having time” (another false notion that would take a much longer blog to write about) just pick up your instrument and play.  You will be rewarded  AT LEAST in equal measure to the time you put it.

7) Understand the Supremacy of Tone and Rhythmic Integrity

As woodwind players, we are like the singers of the instrumental world: breath fuels our efforts and being expressive is one of our main jobs.  In this way, Tone is supreme.  However, almost exactly equal to this is what I have termed “rhythmic integrity.”  Others might suggest to “have good timing” or “use a metronome” but in fact, it goes much deeper than this.  It is like taking an oath or having allegiance to a creed.  Western wind instruments primarily have orchestral or jazz roots.  This means we are 95% of the time members of an ensemble of some size.  Ensembles are literally only as strong as their weakest links: your sense of pulse, ability to count and the accuracy of your rhythms is incredibly vital to your training on these instruments, even if you never play with another person outside of your lessons.  This is at the core because it is part of your instrument’s lineage and development.  The only possible way out of this is to create your own non-rhythmic, pulseless repertoire for your instrument from scratch (or switch to shakuhachi, more on that in another blog).

8) Listen

This means listen to yourself as you play (#4 above),  listen to your teacher (#2 above), listen to your instincts and motivations (#5 above) AND listen to great music that inspires and motivates you.  Experience passionate, committed and creative performers live, both on your chosen instrument and not.  Your brain does not work exactly like the small part of your conscious awareness that you call “me” thinks it works: it is always taking in and adapting information and stimuli. The more incredible music and performance you experience directly (live and through recordings) the more you will have to draw on every time you play your own instrument.  Sometimes this will be an obvious, direct influence, and sometimes it will be more subtle or hidden, but it is always going on.

9) Stay on the side of open creativity rather than competitive judgment

Once you have progressed a small or medium way down this path, you will be tempted to compare yourself to a) others and b) yourself.  There is necessarily some amount of this involved (see #4), but openness and flexibility will serve you better than harsh judgments, frustration or self-criticism.  Don’t beat yourself up about things, especially little things: life is way too short! Plus, that is your teacher’s job (see #2).  Remember the advice of Alan Watts and paddle your canoe in cooperation with the flow of the water, don’t take on the doomed task of going directly against or dangerously confronting the current: which in this example represents the inevitable flow of what we might call “Things.” Progress is never a straight line up: there are peaks and valleys and a steady upward rising trend.

10) “Have a good time, all the time.”


Okay, so this is the life philosophy of Viv Savage, the keyboard player for the legendary Spinal Tap, but I think it merits a place on this list.  In spite of everything I have written here, and some of it is “deep, heavy and serious”, truly the most important thing is to be absolutely present and show up for yourself as much as possible in every activity in your life, and this includes instrumental performance training.  In fact, we have discovered that instrumental music (and especially woodwind training, see #1) is a most useful activity for demonstrating the benefits of being more aware and present in all aspects of your human life.
“Enjoyment” is one of the primary modalities of experiencing existence in a state of presence, so, it boil down to this:
Breathe deep, enter the flow and enjoy.