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Hi I've been playing tenor for around 6m now, former pianist to semi-pro standard so I have a strong ear and a decent idea of what I want from my sound.

My current practice routine consists of:

  • Long tones (10 mins)
  • Technical exercises (octaves, 1-2 articulation, groups of 3 etc, 5 mins)
  • Scales/ arpeggios, slurred and tounged (10 mins, rotating through keys each day)
  • Play patterns from several books (20 mins, working through a few of the Chad LB books as well as Jay Metcalfe's "pentatonic patterns for improvisation")
  • Improvise over some 2-5-1s (15 mins)
  • Play along over some (non-bebop) tune on the radio (recently alot of african music and soca, 5-10 mins)
  • Work on a transcription or maybe play from the omnibook (whatever time I have left)

Any thoughts would be appreciated. Have been amazed at how much my sound has come along in such a short time, but I guess that's daily practice for you!

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    Sounds like you're doing fine, man – Judy N. Oct 5 '20 at 23:42
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It's great that you are practising, and welcome to the saxophone club! But I'm not sure what exactly your question is. Oh, and don't get surprised if you reach a plateau in your sound development in the next 6 months. But you should be familiar with that from playing piano.

If you haven't upgraded your reed strength, now is probably the time. If you had started out with 1.5-2, like almost everyone else, you should move on to 2.5-3 now. If you still have any unused soft reeds left, you can donate them to a school or to someone who is starting out on the saxophone.

Your entire routine amounts to 70+ minutes, and you don't specify how you break that up (if at all). I've had 2 saxophone teachers (and most of the information from this post is going to come from what they have taught me), and both recommended not practising for more than 25-30 minutes without at least a 5-minute break. The last teacher insisted on it so much that he asked me to use a timer for each practice session (that's what he does himself). Once the timer rings/beeps, put down your instrument and move to something else (ideally, not related to music). If you love the instrument, it gets all too easy to get stuck in working on a particular concept or piece. I personally intersperse my saxophone and flute practice with physical exercise (push-ups, pull-ups and so on), but anything works, really.

Do you keep a practice diary, or do you just go through your exercises randomly? Do you start and finish practising around the same time each day? Those things are important too. Especially as you move along and more exercises and scales get added to your repertoire.

How do you practise long tones? It's a boring exercise that is best combined with something else (in general, at least the more you practise, it is best to combine practising 2 or more things within the same bit). I usually practise long tones by going through major triads (the pattern is: C-A-F-A-C [C is the 5th]; C-G#-D#-G#-C [C is the 3rd]; C-G-E-G-C [C is the root]; you can do the same with minor triads).

By the looks of it, you focus almost exclusively on jazz, and I don't think that's enough. But it's probably a personal choice.

Another thing that seems to be missing from your practice routine is overtone exercises, which are important for developing a consistent sound and eventually being able to play in the altissimo register. The way I was taught to do them was to play overtones on the 4 low notes (C#, C, B and B♭; if you have a baritone, you can add the low A to the list) and to try to match the sound of regular fingerings to the sound of those overtones as much as possible (not the other way 'round!). So, for example, your regular middle B♭ fingering should sound like the 1st overtone on low B♭. But check that your low end is actually in tune before doing that. Most saxophone models (especially "student" ones) are notorious for how ridiculously bad and out-of-tune the low end is.

Yet another exercise recommended to me by my second teacher is note-bending. The idea is to start from the top of the regular range (high F, even if you have a high F# key) and try to progress as far as you can downwards without changing the fingering. So, for example, finger a high F and try to play a high E without changing the fingering, then high E♭ and so on.

You don't mention metronome or legato tonguing either. Do you practise your scales at different subdivisions of the beat with a metronome? Legato tonguing is a necessity in jazz saxophone playing as well (and a somewhat difficult thing to describe). Basically, the idea is to slightly tongue every second note without fully stopping the airflow. The reason for that is that you can't really play "jazz triplets" on higher bpm settings, and pretty much the only way to give notes a "jazz feel" is to slightly tongue the note that'd normally be a triplet-8th-long following a 2-triplet-8th-long note.

You might also want to add some "advanced" techniques to your practice at a later stage, like growling, flutter-tongue and multiphonics.

You've also tagged your question with bebop. Are you familiar with the common bebop scales, how they are normally played and the music theory behind it? For example, the bebop major scale is normally played ascending, and the bebop dominant scale - descending.

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    First of all, thanks a lot for such a detailed answer, and for excellent suggestions. Apologies for the lack of clarity on a few points. I believe what you refer to as legato tounging is what I call 1-2 articulation. Yes, I am pretty religious about practising with a metronome and also mix it up between 4 beats, 1&3, 2&4, just 4 etc. Overtones is something my teacher has just got me working on, as well as vibrato, and I do tend to break up my routine to fit around my day. I'm very curious to know what you meant by 'jazz is not enough'? What else do you think I should look at? Cheers! – Michaelborn Oct 20 '20 at 17:52
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    Also should mention that I do use a tuner for the long tones - I recently upgraded from a beginner horn as well and noticed a massive difference. – Michaelborn Oct 20 '20 at 17:59
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    @Michaelborn, I hope it was helpful. What you refer to as 1-2 articulation is not exactly the same (provided I understand what you mean by it). Playing the 1st note legato and the 2nd tongued is slightly different compared to playing all notes legato and tonguing every 2nd note. With the latter, there are no stops in the airflow (except for breathing). When you tongue a note normally, you fully push the reed against the mouthpiece, closing the air vent. With "legato tonguing" you just slightly close it (like a door left slightly ajar). – Pyromonk Oct 21 '20 at 22:16
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    @Michaelborn, if you intend to play jazz (or anything besides classical, really), you will eventually want to improvise, and your phrasing will be a lot more interesting if you also invest some time into classical music (very counterintuitive, I know) and rock. I'm personally a huge fan of involving woodwinds in metal music as well. Diminished scales sound surprisingly sexy in some jazz. The difference between a new horn and an older one could also be the state of the pads, but I hope your new instrument will continue working better for you! – Pyromonk Oct 21 '20 at 22:16

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