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How to get the most out of your practice.

How to practice.

You will hear stories of people such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane practicing for 8 hours a day every day! For a beginner little and often is enough. If you can manage half an hour a day you will make progress.

For many people finding the time to practice is a problem. If you structure and plan what and when you are going to practice you will make the most of your time and see results.

“As long as you’ve got your horn in your mouth you’re developing”

Zoot Sims

Fast Track

One of the secrets to progress is consistency.

If you want to see results try keeping a weekly practice timetable. A practice timetable will list the scales and pieces you are currently working on and help keep you focused. It will get you into a routine and ensure that you make progress.

Your practice timetable should start with a warm up. Ideally long note exercises then you can move on to scales or studies.

My timetable broadly consists of scales, pattern, pieces and technique.

The learning process involves development, maintenance and rest. Musicians need to maintain their technique as well as develop other areas of their musicianship. Rest is an equally important part of practice, over practice can be counter productive. Musicians who practice regularly often find an improvement in their playing after a holiday or break. Why this happens I have no idea! It’s clear that the brain and body need time to fully absorb new information. There are also those musicians who take the 'rest' phase a little too far.

A beginner’s practice timetable should be kept simple. Don’t give yourself too much work.

You can divide the time table into things that you know and just need to refresh and new things that need more focus.

Practice involves a lot of repetition. What ever you are practicing, play it slowly over and over again and only increase the speed when you can play accurately. Muscle memory and coordination will develop with repetition.

If you find the practice timetable too rigid or it takes the enjoyment out of your music then don’t do it! You will eventually find what works for you.

Learning scales.

Learning is about repetition and recall. When learning a scale start very slowly. Play it as many times as you can and when you become more confident gradually increase the speed. There is no point playing a scale fast and stumbling along. Play slowly and methodically until you have control.

Once you are comfortable with a scale try descending from the route. Then play it starting on every degree of the scale. The more ways you can play a scale the better! Get to know the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th note of every scale. Scales and arpeggios are the basic tool for jazz musicians and improvisers.

I will return to a new scale or piece several times in one practice session. This helps me get into the habit of recalling the scale.

Playing from a reference point.

A scale can also be thought of as a reference point to learning tunes and improvisation. The more scales you learn the more reference points you have. Learn all of your major scales and then you will quickly have access to many other scales types.

Learning from memory.

Get into the habit of memorizing scales and pieces.

Again, repetition and consistency is the key.

Think of scales as patterns under your fingers. When you play your scales feel the shape that your fingers move in. Try it slowly, one note at a time.

Students are often surprised at how much they can remember without written music.

The ‘left brain right brain’ theory suggests that the two different sides of the brain control two different modes of thinking. It’s believed that the left brain is logical, analytical, sequential and the right side creative, intuitive, subjective.

It has been suggested that reading music and improvising uses the two different hemispheres of the brain.

Many students have told me they can’t improvise or equally can’t read music. Very often it’s just a case of training the brain and getting used to a different way of thinking. The ‘can’t do’ attitude is most common with adult students and can be the result of a negative experience with a previous teacher when learning as a child.

You CAN achieve anything!


  • If you struggle with motivation leaving the saxophone out of its case in full view can help. Some people buy a saxophone stand and leave it on that. That way you don’t have to take it out the case and put it together. It may sound a little silly but for some people this works!

  • Don’t try and do too much. Keep your practice fun and enjoyable.

  • Set yourself a goal of a piece of music you would like to play and give yourself a deadline to achieve this.

  • Keep listening to your favorite saxophonist. It’s great for motivation.

A note on reading music.

Reading music can be a struggle (it was for me!). The best way to develop your reading is to make sure you do a little every time you practice. Start with very simple pieces. Slowly work through the piece a bar at a time until you get to recognize the notes. Picking one note as a reference point may be helpful. Some people pick middle B as it sits in the middle of the stave. Writing where the beats sit in each bar will help with understanding rhythm. When note recognition becomes easier start looking at the rhythm of each bar. Breaking a piece down bar by bar is a good way to learn. Try clapping the rhythm of the piece. You don’t always need your instrument to develop your reading skills. You can read through a piece while sitting on the bus or train and get into the habit of recognizing notes and rhythms.

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