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The Ultimate Guide to


By Nigel McGill
About Nigel McGill

Nigel's saxophone playing has been featured at festivals, clubs

and theatres around the world. As a performer and musical
director Nigel has worked with some of the biggest names in
show business today from London's West End to tours in
Europe, Canada and Japan. Nigels saxophone music can also
be heard on movies and television shows including 24 Me-
dium and Brothers and Sisters. As well as running the big
band for the award winning West End show "Rat Pack Live
from Las Vegas", Nigel is the band leader for top UK singer Do-
minic Halpin and is busy performing around the world.

In 2011 Nigel created Sax School

which has already helped thou-
sands of sax players worldwwide.
Sax School is a huge online re-
source of lessons covering all as-
pects of saxophone playing from
getting started through to learning
Published by McGill Music Sax School pop solos and classic jazz tunes.
Denby Dale, England UK Although originally from Australia,
McGill Music Sax School 2013 Nigel, his wife Emma and two boys
are now based in the UK and when
not performing, enjoys getting out
and enjoying the British country-

than ever its important to understand how to

Introduction use your time effectively to get the most

benefit from whatever time you can

I hope you enjoy working

through this book and use
it regularly during your
practice time. By fol-
lowing the steps out-
lined in the follow-
ing sections you will
So, You Want To Get Better At Playing learn how to de-
Saxophone? velop a regular effec-
tive practice routine.
Ill let you in on a little secret. There is a short cut to becom- And then you will know the secret to
ing awesome on the sax. Its easy to do and anyone can do it. getting better on the sax, and more impor-
Its not expensive and it doesnt involve brain transplants or tantly will be playing great!
hypnotherapy! It will enable you to play things you only
dreamed of on your saxophone, and will leave you with the
amazing sense of confidence and satisfaction that comes from Good luck and happy practicing!
truly knowing your instrument.
The secret........
practice regularly - but in the right way!

In this book Im going to show you how to get the most out of
your practice time so you can get the most out of your playing
time. We are all busy people with busy lives so now more

Unfortunately, lots of people associate the idea of practice

Why practice anyway? with endless hours of boring, repetitive drills and exercises.
Not very enticing. The good news is, it doesnt need to be that

In my opinion, the real trick to practicing is little and often.

And, doing it in a fun, structured and effective manner that
you can see real benefits from. More on this later.

The real reason for practicing though, is that amazing feel-

ing you get when you can now do something on your
instrument that you thought impossible only a few
days before. That is an awesome feeling. And its
Practice takes addictive too.
Starting a new instrument is great fun. It feels fan- your potential
tastic to be able to make your first sounds and melo- and makes it a Music is a journey that starts with picking up a new
dies and to be able to share music with others. Re-
reality! instrument for the first time, and lasts your whole
gardless of whether learning a new instrument
life. There really is no end to where you can go with
comes naturally to you or you have to work at it from
your instrument, what you can play and who you can
the start, everyone has a point where they reach the share your music with. And like any
limit of their natural ability. Its at this point that you will journey you need to be in great shape to
need to have a game plan on how to keep progressing. really get the most out of it. For us saxo-
phonists that means fit embouchures, flexi-
Although I feel everyone is capable of becoming awesome on ble fingers and lots of hot air!
the saxophone, you need to make the decision to approach it
systematically if you really want to get there. So starting and maintaining a practice
routine that works for you is going to
This is where practice comes in. help you keep musically fit and flexi-
ble so you can exceed your natural abil-
Practice allows us to move beyond the limits of our natural ity, have more fun playing sax, and make
ability. Practice takes our POTENTIAL and makes it a REAL- the most out of your musical journey.
ITY. Thats a powerful concept and one which most people
dont really think about.
You might be surprised where you end
Start slowly. Take your time and remember to always focus

Effective practicing on accuracy! In fact, a great measure of your progress is to

make sure you can play each phrase, scale or musical passage
3 times completely accurately before moving to the next one.
This sounds easy, but if you are really strict with yourself this
will quickly show any errors in your playing.

I was once told a great analogy about this:

Green Balls, Red Balls And A Big Black

So youve cleared your diary, your instrument is out and
youre ready to start your practice session... Practice time is
precious so you need to make the best use of it. Firstly, make Imagine that you have a big black bag - like one of those ones
sure you havent got any distractions. a magician might have and a bunch of green and red balls.
When you are practicing, imagine puting a GREEN ball into
So that means: your black bag every time you play your piece or scale abso-
lutely correctly. However, every time you play a piece or scale
Turn off your mobile phone (or at least put it in another with an error, you put a RED ball in the bag.
Now think about how
I know you havent got the TV or the radio on right?.... many of each you might
have at the end of a prac-
Leave facebook alone for the next few minutes! tice session, or after a
Get comfortable. week of practicing!

Most people (if

they are honest
Ready? Here we go. with themselves)
will have loads
more red balls
than green balls!
After all, its so
tempting to just keep hammering on when we are trying to harder and harder to play as you speed up. In fact
learn something new. It takes much more discipline to take it is often impossible to fix problems with notes
the time to go slowly and concentrate on accuracy. and technique in a piece
while you are speeding it
The real test for this exercise though is when it comes time to up.
perform your scales or pieces. Reach your hand into your big
black bag and pull out the first ball that you touch. Is it a If however you take a
green.........or a red one? few moments to get
your piece com-
Most people spend too much time putting red balls into their pletely correct at a
big black bag when they practice. In other words, most people nice slow tempo first,
dont focus on accuracy when they are practicing and end up then speeding it up will
playing things incorrectly over and over. The end result being be a piece of cake!
that the incorrect version of the piece or scale is programmed You will be surprised
into their playing making it very unlikely that, under pressure, at how quickly you can
it will be performed accurately - and you will pull out a RED get a piece or scale up to
ball! a fast speed if you do the slow accurate ground work first.
Your brain is like a big black bag, so please take your A golden rule when practicing is to make sure you can
time when practicing to make sure you only put green play each phrase 3 times completely accurately be-
balls in there! Slowly, accurately, programming fore moving onto the next. This goes for scales too.
your brain to play the piece or scale correctly. Always play 3 Be strict with yourself - its a great habit to get into
times accurately and will make sure you are programming the cor-
before moving rect patterns into your mind when practicing.
Accuracy Not Speed! on.

Although its tempting to steam through your pieces when

practicing, its so important to understand the importance of Practicing Is Not For Your Neighbours!
accuracy over speed.

The thing is, if you can play something slowly but accurately, One final but very important thing about practicing. We prac-
you can always speed it up. But, like an unbalanced wheel tice to work on the things we cant yet do.
that wobbles worse and worse as it goes faster, playing a piece
with poor technique, messy fingers or wrong notes will get

That sounds really obvious but its so important. We spend
our practice time working on the things in our playing that we
cant yet do. In that way we are always improving.

This is important because too many of us spend our precious

practice time playing things that we think our neighbours or
house mates will enjoy. It is great to spend a little time at the
end of your practice playing something that you feel great
about and you know sounds really cool. But please dont fall
into the trap of spending the bulk of your precious practice
time playing stuff you already know.

This is really one of the most important lessons about effective

practicing. And, unfortunately its a lesson that Ive even seen
pro musicians neglect.

I was fortunate to study at a music conservatorium in Austra-

lia which was exclusively filled with very talented young musi-
cians. All of us spent hours every day practicing. It was ex-
pected of us and part of the experience of being there. How-
ever, talented as many of these musicians were, it was surpris-
ing how many would spend hours each day playing through
pieces they already knew - mainly for the benefit of their com-
petitors in the next practice room!

Im sure it made them feel better about themselves but did it

make them better players? Top Tips:
Be strategic about the valuable practice time you can spare No Distractions
and you will get the most out of it. And if your neighbours or
house mates get really peeved by listening to you practice, Start Slowly, accuracy not speed!
then give them some free tickets to your next concert!
Play each thing 3 times completely accurately before mov-
ing on.

Practice is not for your Neighbours!


Planning your practice

time 1. Tone exercises / warmup (your strength)

2. Flexibility and technique exercises (your fitness)

3. New pieces or studies

4. Something fun to finish with!

Regardless of how much time you have to practice, start by di-

viding that time in half. Half of your practice time should be
Structuring your practice time is essential to see great pro-
spent on New Pieces or studies, with the remaining time split
gress. It is so important to be strategic when planning your
amongst Tone Exercises, Flexibility and Something fun!
practice and the things you cover during each session. Being a
great well rounded player is a combination of so many differ-
ent skills including finger flexibility, tone, stamina, breath con-
trol and musicality. So, in an ideal world we should try to So if are able to spend 30 minutes practicing, your practice
cover each of these skills when practicing. plan would look like this:

Sounds complicated?
A 30 minute practice session:
Here is a simple formula to help cover all your saxophone
bases in each practice session: 15
Breaking Up Your Time 5
To get the most out of your practice, every practice session
should contain these 4 elements:

exercises like long tones, slow melodies, and exercises using
intervals and dynamics you can really build massive strength
If youre a really busy person and only have 12 minutes avail-
able then your schedule would look like this: in your embouchure. This will also dramatically help with in-
tonation or tuning, and your breathing. Tone building exer-
cises dont have to be boring and they dont have to take hours
A 12 minute practice session: to do. Just like you might do in a fitness training session, its
most important to be consistent and focussed during these ex-
WARMUP 6 ercises to get the best results in the shortest amount of time.
PIECES At least 2-3 minutes regularly here will make a huge differ-
SOMETHING FUN ence to your playing!

2 2:
Flexibility and technique exercises (your fitness)
Any athlete knows the importance of build-
ing coordination and flexibility. As a
saxophonist these things are equally im-
portant to you. By practicing exercises
Regardless of what time you can spare, its essential to include
that loosen up your fingers like scales
all four elements in each practice session. This way all the im-
and studies you can make massive im-
portant skills are covered helping you to make the best pro-
provements to your finger flexibility
gress in the shortest amount of time.
and smoothness. Again, focus and consistency
makes all the difference and will allow you to
So lets look at each element of your practice routine a bit
achieve more in a shorter amount of time. Us-
ing a metronome here really helps to keep you
even (and honest!). Plus you can see how much
you are progressing. Check out the example ex-
Tone building exercises (your strength)
ercises at the end of this book for some ideas
on what to practice here.
The strength of your mouth or embouchure has a massive im-
pact on the quality of your tone. By working on tone building
New pieces and studies

Youre warmed up, flexible and ready for action. Now its time
to get busy with a new piece or study that challenges you. Re-
member that we learn by pushing ourselves to do something
new and different. So dont fall into the trap of just playing
something you already know here. Practicing isnt for your
neighbours! Its only working towards things we cant yet play
that we get better, so make sure to work on something that
pushes you outside your comfort zone. New pieces, transcrip-
tions of recorded solos and studies are all great things to work
on. Again consistency, focus and determination will see you
make massive improvements in the shortest amount of time.
You will be amazed at what you can achieve!

By including all four of these elements in every practice ses-

Something fun! sion you will be working on all of the main skills you need to
get your sax playing charged up. Its a great idea to keep a list
Well done! Youve stuck to your practice plan, and worked in of the exercises in each section that you enjoy working on.
a focussed and consistent way through the first three sections. Over a period of time you will have a library of exercises and
Now its time to reward yourself! studies that you can come back to over and over.

Finish each practice session by playing through something Remember, practicing is a long term project. Make it a habit
you really love. Choose something that makes you feel good and part of your weekly schedule. Most importantly, plan to
and you are proud to be able to play. This could be anything keep track of your progress over the long term. Put all these
from a scale to a concerto! elements together and you will be on track to see massive pro-
gress with your playing!
though, the more time you can allocate on a regular basis, the

Little and often... more improvement you will see.

Make your practice a priority when planning your day out.

Steal 15 minutes from your
TV time to practice, or fit it
in while the kids are getting
ready for school. Or per-
haps get up 15 minutes
earlier?.... Be crea-
Remember tive about when
The best habit to have when working on your sax to treat yourself you can fit your
playing is a regular practice routine. And the best at the end of each practice in. Stick
practice routine is little and often. Dont fall into week of to it. And, most
the trap of 1 big practice session every now and then. practice! importantly, re-
ward yourself for
Learning an instrument is like training as an athlete. sticking to your prac-
Ideally you should try to practice 3-5 times a week, even if it is tice schedule with some-
only for 10-15 minutes each session. thing fun at the end of the
If you are really serious about making amazing progress then
the ultimate scenario is to find time every day to do between By finding a routine that
10-30 minutes. OK, 30 minutes might be difficult for most works for you and sticking
people every day, but any time you can allocate daily is awe- to it you will be creating a
some. saxophone habit that will
really get your playing on
When I was studying at the music conservatorium in Austra- track!
lia, I practiced 4 or more hours every day, but in normal life
this is a little difficult to manage! At the end of the day
The first step is to get hold of a

Tune in. music tuner. Traditionally standa-

lone digital tuners were the way to
go, and you can get a digital tuner
online or from your music store
quite cheaply. The other option,
and one which I use daily, is to get
a tuner app on your smartphone.
There are tons of these available -
some free or very cheap.

One part of practicing so often overlooked is Tuning. Tuning

is really important, particularly if you are playing with other
musicians. Even if you are just playing alone, a good sense of
tuning will help you to have a better overall sound, and musi-
Getting Tuned Up
Before starting any tuning ex-
ercises make sure your
Tuning is not only about individual notes on your in-
Always work sax is nicely warmed up.
trument but how each note on your range compares
slowly with your A cold sax will always sound flat. Also, if you are
to the others. Every instrument has certain notes
that are more difficult to keep in tune. Understand-
tuner - accuracy is practicing in a really cold room you might find that
most important! the top of the sax is warm but the bottom is cold.
ing your particular instrument and how to deal with
This is going to make your low notes flat, and your
its tuning will make a huge difference to the quality
top notes sharp! So if your sax is cold, blow some air
of tone you can produce.
through it to get it up to room temperature. You could
also do some long notes to get the whole instrument up to tem-
So how do we work on tuning?

Once warmed up make sure your sax is in tune overall. A chro-
matic tuner will show your tuning on any note, but its best to
start by checking the notes, A and F# in both your low register Tuning Your Sax:
and upper register (with the octave key on). These notes are
good to check because they are in the middle range of the sax
and arent traditionally problem tuning notes. Push your mouthpiece IN to
make your sound HIGHER or
Start by playing a solid long tone on each of these notes while SHARPER.
watching your tuner display. If your tuner says you are play-
ing sharp, or too high, then move your mouthpiece out slightly
on the neck cork.

If your tuner shows your sound to be a little low or flat, then

you will need to push your mouthpiece further in on the neck

As a general rule, most saxophones are roughly in tune with

about 1 cm or 1/2 an inch or cork showing beyond the mouth-
piece. When making adjustments to the mouthpiece position,
only move a millimeter or so at a time and then re-check with
your tuner.
Push your
With some practice you will soon get to know where your mouthpiece OUT to
mouthpiece needs to be on your sax to be in tune and the proc- make your sound
ess of tuning becomes much faster. It is however a great idea LOWER or FLATTER.
to make tuning part of your daily routine. Even if you have
been playing for years there will still be notes that you can im-
prove your tuning on!

Tuning Exercises:

Scale tuning
Choose an easy scale starting in the middle of your saxophone. A good one to start with is C major, starting on middle C. Play each
note slowly checking your tuner to make sure it is in tune before moving to the next note. Work your way down to the lowest note
possible. Then return to the middle and work slowly up to the highest note making sure each note is in tune before moving to the
next. Once you can do this easily on C major, move on to more advanced scales.

Interval tuning
Start again on an easy note like middle C (Ex. 1). Check the tuning then play the same note an octave above checking the tuning
here. Then progress up a scale first playing the low octave note, then the same note an octave above. You can work through all
scales in this way.

For some variation, try playing this exercise using different intervals. Ex.2 uses an interval of a 5th (C-G), and Ex. 3 uses intervals
of a 10th (C-high E). You can make this exercise as difficult as you like. The more obscure the interval, the more difficult it will be
for your ear to guide you with your tuning - which is really good for you!

which all music is created. Even

Make friends with a ancient tribal music was based

around the beating drum.
metronome! These days fortunately we dont
need to have a big sweaty man in
a lap lap beating an animal skin
stretched over a log when we prac-
tice. Your smart phone is a much
more pleasant and practical solu-
tion. And a more portable one!
A metronome is an often feared device amongst musicians!
There are hundreds of free and
Why? cheap metronome apps available
for all smart phone platforms.
Just like a tuner, the metronome tells no lies. Its a truth Digital metronomes are also readily available in music stores
sayer that can often be the bearer of bad news and a everywhere for very little money (less than $10). And if
slave driver! There you are a traditional kind of person you can still buy
are loads of the big windup tick tock kind. Any style of metro-
Sounds dramatic right? great free or nome will do. The real key to making friends with
cheap smart your metronome is using it consistently and taking
The thing is though, it is so important to make phone metro- your time to be very accurate.
friends with it because the metronome is one of the nomes
best practice aids around. Always use your metronome when practicing any
scale or piece. Start slowly. As with all music the key is
Along with a good concept of tone, a great sense of TIME is accuracy first.
one of your greatest assets as a musician. Time or beat is the
glue that holds all music together and the framework around Your metronome will not only keep your beat really even, it
gives you something you can measure. In other words, al-

though you may only have been able to play
a scale at 60 beats per minute this week, you
may be able to play it at 70 next week and so

Over time your metronome will become your

best friend in practice. An ally rather than
an enemy, and an indispensable tool that
will push you to exceed your expectations
and show you how you have progressed.

Whats On My iPhone?
My favorite metronome app at the moment is Tempo
made by Frozen Ape. I think it is about $1.99. I have also
used many free
apps but I like
Tempo because
its so simple,
easy to use and

Heres an example of how your completed Practice Planner

The practice planner may look like:

Its so important to keep track of your practice as you go

along. By keeping a record of not only what you have worked
on but how you have progressed with new challenges you can
easily measure your development. This is great not only for
setting yourself a target (major scales at 120 beats per min-
ute!) but as a pick me up for those days when you feel less

The easiest way to keep track is using the Sax School practice
Use this link to download the practice download down-
planner. Fill this in each practice session with details of what

you have worked on for each segment of your practice, in- load download
cluding time spent and notes on progress made. download down-
Keep load download
Use the practice planner like a diary keeping all detailed download down-
your entries together. Its great to look back over notes to measure load download
the last week, month or year and see how you have how you are

download down-
load download

2. G Warmup
Tone Building Exercises

Long tones are brilliant for building your tone, embouchure

strength and stamina. The following exercises can be played
in all keys. Also try to play them over your whole range to give
yourself a great workout.

1. C Warmup

3. Dynamics.
Although this exercise looks really easy, it is a monster work-
out for your embouchure! Concentrate on making a very
smooth transition from very soft (ppp) to very loud(fff) and
back over each long note. Use your metronome to measure
your progress and make a note of the tempo you practiced at
in each session.

As with the previous exercises, work on this exercise over your

whole range and in different keys.


Flexibility and technique


Exercise 1.
This example is in G major, but try this exercise over all your
scales. Start slowly using your metronome and speed up
gradually while keeping your fingers really even. The aim
here is to keep your fingers as even as possible. Remember to
keep your fingers close to the keys and your movements very
efficient. Also, keep an even flow of air through your instru-
ment to maintain an even tone.

Exercise 2.
This is a tricky exer-
cise using scales
played in 10ths (oc-
tave and a third). You
can play this exercise
on any scale and is
best practiced over
your whole range.
Start slowly with this
exercise and concen-
trate on getting the
same quality sound
on every note.

Flexibility Exercise 3.
This exercise uses major arpeggios going up and down chromatically. It covers all major triads so is a fantastic workout!

Practice Tips:
Major Scales
Start slowly and keep a careful eye on your Key Signatures.

Try playing these scales over your whole range. So, start on
the first note, continue up the scale to the highest note you
can play, then play down the scale to the lowest note you can
play, and return up the scale to the starting note.

Always use a metronome when practicing to keep your beat

event. Also, keep a record of how fast you can play your
Being fluent on all of your major scales is so important in your scales accurately during each practice session and see how
saxophone development. Because all western music is based you progress from week to week.
on scales, they are the building blocks of music. The finger
Experiment with different articulations: All tongued, all
patterns that we learn when practicing scales will come up slurred, two tongued and two slurred. Be creative!
again and again in pieces.
This scale list includes all major scales up to 7 sharps and 7
Its important to make scales part of your regular practice rou- flats, however some scales are duplicated enharmonically.
tine. Scales dont have to be boring - be creative with how you In other words, C#Major is actually the same scale as Db Ma-
practice them! There is an endless number of ways you can jor, F#Major=Gb Major and B Major = Cb Major. These
mix up your scales, play them in patterns or with different scales are spelled differently but are played the same.
rhythms. Also, as you get more confident with your scales you
can challenge yourself with the harder scales with 5,6 or 7
sharps or flats.

ests you. Wether you want to learn classical saxophone, jazz

Final Thoughts... or just to play your favorite pop sax solo there are lessons
available to help you. And of course with youtube there is an
endless supply of videos of great players to get you inspired! I
urge you to connect with other musicians using forums, face-
book and other online music communities. It will add a
whole new dimension to your learning experience, and you
dont need to leave your house!

Also, getting involved locally with other musicians through

community music groups, local bands or orchestras, or even
just having a regular jam with mates is a wonderful way to use
As you develop on your instrument its important to not only what you have learned in your practice. Step outside your
be a student of saxophone, but a student of how to practice. comfort zone a little and youll be surprised how much you
Understanding how to be more efficient with your practice will get from the experience of playing with others. But
goes hand in hand with actually doing the practice. There are mostly its loads of fun!
always new ideas and techniques to inspire and motivate you
so seek them out and keep learning. Whatever your saxophone goals are, I hope this book has in-
spired you to develop and maintain a systematic approach to
These days we are very fortunate with the internet to be con- your practice. Making your sax practice a habit - an integral
nected to a huge community of like minded people and this is part of your daily life, is the best sure fire way to achieve your
a fantastic advantage when it comes to learning an instru- musical goals.
So, practice hard, be systematic, get inspired and have fun!
Places like Sax School allow you to connect with other sax play-
ers and discuss technique, equipment or how to practice. Or,
simply to get some support from someone working towards
the same goals as you.

The other great thing about learning online is you have a huge
spectrum of lessons available so you can focus on what inter-