Saxophone students who struggle with their technique would oftentimes point to pain as a deciding factor behind their poor performance. This is an indication that something is not right in their approach to practicing the instrument. One of the most overlooked aspects of mastering an instrument is good posture, which is surprisingly responsible for fast-tracking the learning process.
Here is a quick overview of how to hold saxophones for optimal posture & technique:
- Keep your back and your neck straight
- Shoulders should be relaxed
- Curve your fingers slightly
- Your right hand should make a C shape, with the thumb below the thumb rest
- Make the same C shape with the left hand, with the thumb near the register key and the thumb rest
- Play naturally
In this article, we'll be elaborating on these and other tips for improving your saxophone technique.
How To Hold A Saxophone
In the opening paragraphs, we discovered why it's important to maintain a good posture while playing the saxophone. Now let's find out how this is achieved.
1. Sit Or Stand Straight
First, it's important to note that there is no practical difference between sitting and standing positions when playing the saxophone. Some people would claim that the standing position allows for a better airstream. However, this is not inherent to the standing position itself but rather to the body's alignment. If there are differences, they are certainly minimal.
The case could be made that abdominal muscle activity is decreased significantly when sitting because we are pressing our abdomen against our lower extremities. For this reason, we must ensure that our sitting position is as close as possible to our standing position insofar as our abdomen should be free enough for correct belly breathing.
Hence, if you need to sit, make sure that your legs are as straight as possible to avoid abdomen compression. The chair should be used barely to support the body while you remain at the edge of the seat whenever possible, with your thighs inclined downwards.
The crux of the issue is whether your position is straight. This is important because curvatures hinder the passage of air from our lungs to the instrument's bell. For this reason, your back and neck must rest in a straight position.
The neck should, furthermore, not be tilted horizontally. Try to look straight ahead and not turn to the right or the left. This will enable the diaphragm to expand more to deliver stronger notes with more expression.
The neck strap length is another relevant factor to consider. You should not feel compelled to reach toward the mouthpiece when you play the saxophone. Rather, the mouthpiece should be readily accessible. By doing this, you are not forced to bend your neck or your back.
Moreover, you must remember to adjust your strap length whenever you shift from a sitting to a standing position and vice-versa. Many soloists during big band gigs skip this important step, but sometimes understandably so. If the piece being played is excessively “busy”, the chances of doing anything other than blowing the horn are very slim. As a result, some opt for adjusting their straps to an average length with minor compromises in postural health.
2. Keep Shoulders Relaxed
After the neck and back, the shoulders are the body parts most susceptible to suffering pain and strain during or after a saxophone-playing session, especially in the case of saxophones without a neck strap (such as sopranos).
While we should strive to keep our back and neck properly aligned, sometimes we tend to lift our shoulders to reinforce our posture, which is not a good practice. We must ensure that our execution is as comfortable as possible; thus, our muscles should be relaxed and not forced into unnatural positions. This is true for shoulder muscles especially.
3. Curve Fingers
You may already realize how important it is to retain a good finger position relative to your saxophone, as the fingers carry the burden of operating the keys that, in turn, shape the air column to produce specific notes and phrases.
The reason why fingers should be curved is that it's very easy for our fingers to suffer fatigue and turn unresponsive when stretched beyond a reasonable span of time. Our fingers are in a rest position when curved, and, as highlighted above, the whole idea is to increase comfort and reduce strain.
While stretching your pinkies from time to time may be inevitable, these movements should feel conceivably natural.
4. Make A “C” Shape With Right Hand (The Thumb Below The Thumb Rest)
Whereas our neck, shoulders, and back are responsible for supporting the instrument's weight, our hands are tasked with stabilizing the instrument so that the weight is as equally distributed as possible.
Just as our fingers ought to remain curved (resting position), likewise should our whole hand be as curved as the saxophone's diameter and our playstyle permit. Ideally, the right hand should be C-shaped, and the thumb should easily sit below the thumb rest.
5. Make A “C” Shape With Left Hand (The Thumb Near Both The Octave Key And The Thumb Rest)
Same as with the right hand, the left hand should be flexed, with the fingers positioned over the top keys and the thumb in contact with the thumb rest as well as with the register key.
The thumb should be placed in such a way so that you don't need to move it to operate the register key (a piece of advice not often heeded by beginners). Otherwise, your technique will diminish considerably in quality.
6. Play Naturally
This last tip may sound ambiguous, and that's because, in a sense, it is. All human beings are built differently and can find comfort in distinct ways.
Sometimes, we form habits that, at first sight, are not very healthy but that work best for us at that given point in time, specifically when playing an instrument. Thus, while we aim to develop the correct position, we should not force our way to it. Instead, it should be developed naturally. In a nutshell, it should become a habit.
For this purpose, it's better to work our way slowly through these postural guidelines, overcoming challenges one step at a time. With time, we'll begin to feel comfortable with our newly developed postural habits, and, as stressed numerous times, comfort is crucial for playability. Nonetheless, we should also be mindful that the sooner we correct our posture, the better our chances of enhancing our integral health and avoiding potential incapacities.
One effective method that's often recommended is practicing in front of a mirror. That way, you'll always remain aware of your movements and can correct postural mistakes on the spot. With time, these corrections form new movement patterns that flow spontaneously.
For the record, not many professionals or even famous saxophonists develop a correct posture when playing. This is not to encourage laxity in this regard by following “bad examples”, but to remind beginners that not even the best in the field get this right and that they shouldn't feel regret for not accomplishing a correct posture right away.
The Importance Of Maintaining Good Posture When Playing The Saxophone
Good postural health is not only profitable for your musical output but virtually every facet of your life. Good posture is increasingly correlated with a boost in productivity and physical and mental wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, optimal posture has become a core concern for workplaces and offices worldwide.
Saxophones are manageable instruments, but they're not precisely light. Even saxophones as small as sopranos can be troublesome to manage if we don't correct our posture, but the challenge increases with bigger saxophones.
Maintaining a good posture during your execution is very influential in its quality. Not only will you manage to perform fingerings with more ease, but, in addition, you'll undoubtedly improve your blowing capacity, as there would be no undue compressions on your respiratory tract, lungs, or abdomen.
You will likewise ameliorate your muscle and bone health as a whole as you prevent them from wearing out or fatiguing due to overload. Ligaments and tendons will correspondingly provide better support for your spine, hips, legs, and shoulders, delaying degeneration and aging.
Lastly, as there is less strain on your muscles, you'll be less prone to experience injuries down the road that would consequently avert you from playing the instrument or doing other chores. Bad saxophone posture, conversely, is responsible for a myriad of conditions such as joint, back, and neck pain, as well as shoulder injuries.
Here is a summary of the benefits of good saxophone posture:
- Revamped playability
- Less pain after performance
- Less susceptibility to injuries owing to muscle, bone, tendon, or ligament wear
- Delayed aging