On Monday I had my first sax lesson. It began with meeting the instrument I’ll be renting. It’s a Berkeley, not a brand I’ve heard of. If you read last week’s post, you’ll know that doesn’t matter much, since it’s not a rent-to-buy. But getting comfortable with it will be a key step in any successful re-introduction to the skill. With some research I learned that the company is headquartered about fifteen minutes from where I lived in New Jersey before joining my husband in Providence. It’s made in China, as are most saxes these days.
Here are some things I noticed during my first lesson. As many times as I adjusted the neck strap, it was still too long for me. Turns out I wasn’t doing it correctly, because I was pulling on just one of the double ribbons. It looks a lot like a lanyard, but you have to pull both pieces up or down to adjust it. Not an auspicious start.
That finally accomplished, I moved on to feeling out the octave key. On the sax, the left hand curves around the top portion of the horn to reach the upper keys. The left thumb rests on a spot near the octave key. You rock your thumb onto the lever to engage the octave. That key is one thing that differs across various makes. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’m not wild about the action of this octave compared to my old sax (appropriately an Olds brand). No, seriously. I can’t quite rock my finger on it correctly.
On the left side of the top portion of the horn are some secondary keys (for sharps and flats, as I recall; I haven’t gotten that far yet). It’s a struggle for me to avoid those side keys when I use the octave one. This wasn’t a problem when I was in high school. Apparently my height is not the only thing shrinking with age. It seems that my fingers have gotten shorter as well. My childhood instrument was more comfortable in my hands, finger shrinkage not withstanding.
An important part of the saxophone is the mouthpiece and reed. These felt quite familiar in my mouth right out of the case. My instructor talked to me about embouchure, the position of your lips on the mouthpiece. There are three standard ways to get sound out. I tried (or tried to try) each one. We decided that the one where you curl your lower lip over your bottom teeth and tongue the middle of the mouthpiece seemed to work best for me, at least for now.
I have no recollection of having this explained to me when I started playing in seventh grade. Perhaps the band teacher figured most of us would quit in a year anyway, so why bother. By the time I reached high school, I had apparently developed a style of blowing that got the job done effectively. (No wise cracks, thank you.)
Let’s jump ahead to when I arrived home and set things up to practice. My piano (with it’s built-in music stand) is in the basement, but I decided to practice in our dining area at least initially. That meant finding a way to prop up the study books I’d purchased. It occurred to me that my Lucite cookbook holder would be perfect for this. I knew exactly where it got stored when we moved into our condo last September. Some of you are rightly thinking: “What a miracle!” since you know how seldom I cook.
I dusted it off and made a commitment to myself to practice at least a half hour almost every day. The day after my first session, my lower lip was worn raw from rubbing against my lower teeth. (I took that day off.) I’m trying to remember if I might have used a different embouchure in high school. Sometimes, I make it a point to not think too much about mouth technique and to focus instead on the fingering with my crab-like, stunted hands. More sacrifices for my “art.”
One thing missing from this new round of playing is our childhood Beagle, Cindy. She’d howl when I practiced. We all thought it was hysterical, but we had only one nearby neighbor except in summer. As I prepared to practice here one afternoon, I noticed a neighbor walking his dog across the way. I popped out the door to warn him that the dog might howl once I got going. Turns out, he played alto in high school, too. He still has the instrument in his basement. I think I hear a duet in the wind…