Technique is nothing without hard, obligatory practice. John Coltrane was noted for putting in long, uninterrupted hours on his saxophone. Allegedly he once practiced the C major scale for 6 hours. Now it’s your turn.
I offer this formula for practice: STUDY + REPETITION = ACCURACY.
Another formula? Yep. But before we get into our formula, let’s
step back and build a larger framework around it. The purpose of
practicing is to get better…but to do so, you must practice with
purpose. Each practice session must have a short term target (or goal),
which must also be a means to a long term goal.
"You must practice with purpose."
“Today I want to get measures 32-64 of my piece worked out.” That’s a good short term goal. Next you need a strategy to achieve that goal. (This is part of the “STUDY” component of the aforementioned formula.) Pick up the pencil. Does anything need to be marked before you make a mistake? Start slow and work out the rhythm. Correct fingerings = correct notes. Dynamics—are they being done? Phrasing—are you playing musically? Is intonation okay? All the musical elements and mechanics must be in good order.
You know how to play the saxophone. But your fingers do not.
Practicing is actually teaching your fingers what your brain already
knows. It’s teaching your fingers how to play the sax. You are laying
down muscle memory. (It is akin to playing golf.)
"practicing...is teaching your fingers how to play the sax."
And that leads to the next part of the formula, REPETITION. This may be the boring part of practicing, but quite necessary. Difficult passages will only improve with repetition—correctly! Now here is a challenging question to ask yourself regarding repetition: How many times should I play a passage correctly before I move on?
There is no right or wrong answer to this, but let me offer some things to think about as you work on your reply. If you play a passage with accuracy one time out of two, does that mean you have it down? Does that mean you can play it 50% of the time? I bet not. What about two times out of four? Now does that mean you reached 50%? We may be getting closer. How about five times out of ten? Probably, but 50% is not your goal.
Let’s continue our hypothetical situation by imagining playing something correctly three times out of five. Sounds okay, right? Consider when you play a passage accurately. What if the accuracy came in the first three times and you messed up the next two? Should you go on? Absolutely not; you have encountered a problem that needs to be solved.
Regardless of how many attempts are made at a section of music, the bottom line is how many times in a row you can play it right. If you are working on a difficult phrase, and after a number of attempts you can consistently play it correctly three, four, or maybe five times in a row, it may be safe to say you’re getting it surrounded!
Do you now have it worked out? The answer is, can you play it again right the first time a day or two later? That’s the real acid test to saying whether or not a passage is under your fingers.
"Practicing is like being an auto mechanic."
Practicing is like being an auto mechanic. There is something wrong with a car. First you have to identify what the problem is. Then you remove the malfunctioning part out of the entire vehicle. You work and work at repairing the broken part. (Just simply replacing the part doesn’t work in my analogy.) You test the component a number of times. Next you put the newly fixed part back where it belongs. We now have the whole car. Lastly, you test drive the car a couple of times. Fixed!
Unlike the auto mechanic, you are not going to charge by the
hour. Yes, time on the saxophone is essential. You cannot improve
without it. The only way to learn an instrument is to play the
instrument. It’s more important to work toward a musical goal than it
is to simply play for a set number of minutes. It is not just the time
put on the sax, but what is done in that time that determines the level
of success that day. Don’t play to the clock, but rather reach for the
goal you have set for yourself.
"Don't play for a clock, but for a goal."