These are some questions about saxophone, flute and clarinet teaching that I have been asked over the years. To find out my answer just click on the question!

How long does it take to learn the saxophone/flute/clarinet? or How long before I can play a tune? or How easy is it to learn?

These questions are almost impossible to answer – because of course it depends on your aptitude, and “aptitude” is almost a synonym for “patience” in the learning of music.

The best thing is to have a few lessons and see if you like the process of learning music. If you don’t then there’s no problem - it's probably not for you! If you do enjoy it, then there’s a whole world out there which was shut off from you before. The process of learning music actually never stops.

However, it is true to say that most woodwind instruments are relatively easy instruments to learn compared to strings and piano. I think it is safe to say that the oboe and bassoon are much harder than the saxophone, flute or clarinet!

I can't read music - will I be able to learn?

The majority of the world’s great musicians cannot read a note of music! I am talking about the great classical musicians of Africa, India and Indonesia, and the majority of folk and popular musicians throughout the world. It hasn’t stopped them and I am sure they have never worried about it.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Western Classical Music culture lays emphasis on the reading of music. The reason for this is that to play many ensemble pieces (such as in string quartets, wind bands, orchestras, jazz big-bands, etc) it is quicker to get the band up and running if everyone can read – you don’t have to teach everyone everything by rote. Also, Western harmonically based music is musically and socially very complex, and reading it helps the organisation of it on other levels.

On the other hand, the tendency to teach music through notation undoubtedly puts many learners off and handicaps others. Most classical musicians at music conservatories can’t improvize a note, and if you try to make them they look as if they’re going to have a nervous breakdown! Clearly this is the antithesis of what music is about – improvization and playing by ear (“making it up as you go along”) are the essence of music - notation is just a convenience.

So – to learn music – you don’t need to be able to read music before you start. But I do teach it – gradually, and music notation is much less complex than speech notation (also called writing).

NB the question asked would be obviously irrational if you applied it to speaking and reading – “I can’t read words – will I be able to learn to speak?”

I’m an adult and I’ve never learnt a musical instrument before – will I be able to learn?

Yes – as long as you’re patient. Most adults’ experience of learning something new once they are past school age is that they can learn fairly quickly. For example – how long did it take you to learn to drive? Most things you try to learn after school you either want to learn (for your hobby) or you need to learn (for your job) – so you learn – as opposed to the common experience of school where you are “learning” because someone else thinks you ought to! (My experience of being at school was that I was mostly waiting around for something to happen.)

My experience of adults learning music is that most of them learn very quickly indeed. The only problem is that they don’t seem to realize this. I think that what happens is that we all judge our progress in learning by the achievements of our peers. When we’re at school, if we’re in Year 6, we generally don’t worry very much that we haven’t achieved the same level of knowledge and skill attained by those in Year 12. We judge ourselves by the other people in Year 6 and maybe feel a little superior to those in Year 5. Most children learning a musical instrument will very happily make very little progress for very many years, and they are quite happy with this because that is what their peers are doing! Most adults though, are learning in isolation from other adult learners, so they compare themselves with other adults who have already reached a high level of attainment – in other words – professional musicians. Of course, this is an unreasonable expectation. Many adult students give up just as they’re getting somewhere. (There’s a common phenomenon in modern language learning where adult students give up just when they’re starting to get good. The explanation advanced is that the student suddenly starts to realize how many mistakes they are making and they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead of them.)

So my advice to adult students is yes you can learn – but be prepared to stick at it. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it takes 10 years to become really good on an instrument, but you can be reasonably good in 3 years, and if you learn to focus on the process of learning rather than the end result, the time it takes will no longer matter to you – we’re doing it for fun remember?

How old does my child have to be to start?

It just depends! With the saxophone, the child needs to be able to get the fingers onto the keys without accidentally pushing down the side keys. The weight doesn’t matter – it can be rested on a stool and the height adjusted with books until the child can take the whole weight. Also there is a new saxophone on the market (the Alpha saxophone) with cut down features that make the saxophone lighter to hold and easier to finger. I have taught only one child using this saxophone - and it seemed to do the job in that the student in question moved on to a normal saxophone within a couple of years.

With the flute, you need to be able to hold the instrument without totally distorting the torso. There are flutes with a curved headjoint to help young students with this. Having taught a few students using a curved headjoint I now advise against it because the headjoint slips under the pressure from the jaw. It seems to me that it is better to wait until the student is the right size to start with a standard 2' flute.

With the clarinet, you need to be able to cover the holes.

I was given my comeuppance once in a junior school where a very perky but very small girl wanted to learn the clarinet. I said that I didn’t think her hands would cover the holes – they were tiny. Her friends who were learning at the same time were much bigger and had bigger hands. I said I’d have a go but I didn’t think it would work. As it turned out, this little girl was the only one of the group who could cover the holes!

If your child is really desperate to get started on a wind instrument, but he/she isn't quite big enough to start on sax, flute or clarinet, then try to encourage them to start on recorder. This is the instrument I started on at the age of 7 or 8, and I didn't start the flute till I was 12 or 13, but then I made very rapid progress because I was already used to woodwind fingerings and to reading and playing music.

Do I have to do exams? Can I play just for fun?

There is no reason that I can think of for playing a musical instrument other than for fun. Why do it otherwise? As soon as it stops being fun for me I will find another job.

Exams are a tool in the process of learning. They have no other purpose. For some students, the validation provided by an exam is valuable – for others the idea of a music exam is a scenario for an unbearable fear situation. I do enter people for exams if they want to take them and/or are able to. I never enter a reluctant student for an exam, and I never enter even a willing student until I think they are ready. I use Associated Board and Trinity exam syllabuses.

Contrary to popular belief, passing music grade exams is not necessary for entry to music college or the music profession, and of the two boards I use, no one is superior.

In recent years Grades 6, 7 & 8 have attracted points for university entrance. I can understand why this has happened because students and their parents want recognition of the hard work that goes into getting these higher grades. But of course it has a disadvantage in that there is sometimes pressure on a young student to do these exams to enhance their prospects for university entrance rather than for the sake of learning the instrument. But as long as you are still learning for pleasure I guess there is not too much harm in it.

Do I have to get my child to practise?

Gently encourage them to play! because it's for fun!

Don’t under any circumstances nag them, they might give up – just send them to the lessons and leave it to me.

The best things you can do to encourage them are to take them to concerts and to learn and/or play musical instruments yourself while they are around. Nagging and bribery do not work and they only make home life miserable so forget about these two tactics.

(Warning - More harm than good is done, and more people are put off music by well-meaning parents & teachers going on and on to their kids about practise. Two of my best students ever gave up because of this, and one of them had got to Grade 6 by the age of 12 when she gave up. Her mother said they had terrible rows at home over practise – but my view was (and is) that if she got to that standard without practise it didn’t matter. In my lessons she learnt something every week.)

The great advantage of not practising is that you won’t practise the wrong things! In a lesson you are supervised.

One of my best students ever got to Grade 8 by the age of 13, went to music college and is now a class teacher in a school. But when I was teaching her she barely practised. If she had practised – ok – she might have been a professional at 17, but then she also might have given up.

There is some excellent preparation that you can help your child with – and that is to take them to musical play groups such as Kindermusik. I have taught many students who had this training when they were very young and it makes a noticeable difference to their ability to learn music later.

My great-grandfather played the saxophone in the army in 1896 and we’ve still got his instrument. Is it good enough to start on?

An instrument that is good enough to start on is one that works, plays in tune, is at modern concert pitch, and is capable of being played well by the teacher. I recommend certain student instruments as the minimum standard that I expect in an instrument. There are also many instruments sold as student instruments that are not good value and will lead to disappointment. Most older instruments that people have brought along need a lot of work doing to them – and it needs a lot of playing experience to choose a mouthpiece for them – so generally it is not a good rule – but by all means tell me what you have in your attic and I will advise.

What I recommend is

Saxophone – Yamaha 275
Flute – Yamaha 211S
Clarinet – Yamaha 26

I will certainly offer my comments orally on any other instrument you are thinking of buying or renting, and if you can get an instrument that you’re thinking of buying on approval from the shop, bring it round & I will check it free of charge with no future obligation about me teaching you. Phone me for concrete advice before you buy.

When you are budgeting for an instrument – you should bear in mind the cost of extras - such as reeds, cleaning cloths, and on saxophone and clarinet the need to buy a quality mouthpiece in the future. See the questions below which deal with these issues in more detail.

Should I start on alto or tenor saxophone?

Smaller children should start on alto. If you can hold a tenor and you want to play it then start on that. I wouldn't advise starting on baritone unless you are an adult or well built youngster. I wouldn't advise anyone to start on soprano if they can help it – in my opinion it is by far the hardest of the saxophones – and I'm speaking as someone who played soprano as my main sax for about 9 years.

Why do I need to buy another mouthpiece when the instrument already comes with one?

Nowadays student saxophones - and for that matter most professional saxophones - come with a cheap utility mouthpiece which will get you going. The ubiquitous Yamaha 4C is the standard for this type of mouthpiece, and it is much better than many of the other starter 'pieces I have come across over the years. But although this mouthpiece usually works well on alto sax, it doesn't work at all well on tenor sax, and I really don't understand why Yamaha put this mouthpiece in with their tenor. Even on alto, a 5C works better than a 4C. Likewise, I am never very impressed with the Yamaha mouthpiece on their student clarinet.

So - although there are other solutions - this is what I recommend getting with your student instrument as soon as you possibly can.

Alto sax - Yamaha 5C mouthpiece
Tenor sax - Meyer 7 mouthpiece
Clarinet - Vandoren B46 (Profile 88)

For all these mouthpieces I recommend getting the appropriate sized Rovner (lite) ligature. For the Yamaha 4C or 5C alto mouthpiece this is the Rovner L-6. These ligatures do the job - they fasten the reed to the mouthpiece quickly and they perform well. If someone in a music shop says that they don't stock Rovner, but they have an equivalent - then go to another shop! There are many imitations of the Rovner ligature on the market but they generally don't work as easily - and they often slide around.

Of course there are lots of fancy expensive ligatures around - but don't bother buying one until you are more experienced on the instrument and are capable of assessing the difference.

Eventually you will want to move to a professional quality mouthpiece - even if you never aspire to a high standard of performance.

Why? Because - providing that your embouchure (mouth shape, position and muscle tension around the mouthpiece and reed) are correct - then a professional quality mouthpiece, carefully chosen, paired with the correct strength properly prepared reed - will ensure that you produce the best possible sound on the instrument. It is cheaper to upgrade your sound by upgrading the mouthpiece than by upgrading the sax - though it is also true that a top of the range saxophone will always sound better than a student model.

A professional mouthpiece will be made of hard rubber, steel, brass, bronze, wood, resin or rock crystal. A metal mouthpiece is not inherently better than a rubber one, and a very expensive one is not inherently better than a cheaper one. When the time comes to choose a quality mouthpiece there is no foolproof rule as to which one you should graduate to, and you should take your time in choosing. By the way - the mouthpieces I have recommended as starter mouthpieces for tenor and clarinet above are already professional quality.

NB It used to be the case - 50 years ago - that saxophones came with a mouthpiece matched to their instrument. Acoustically this is what should happen. But probably because of the changes in taste in saxophone sound which came about with the advent of rock 'n' roll and other forms of amplified music manufacturers realized that the mouthpiece they put in with the instrument would probably soon be replaced, so they started to not bother with a matched mouthpiece. Recently a new manufacturer has returned to that standard. This is the Cannonball range of saxophones. Their mouthpieces play their instruments perfectly. I haven't had an opportunity to try their student range - but it is possible that they put the same quality mouthpieces in with their student instruments as with their professional range. If this is so then Cannonball student instruments would be well worth trying.

Where should I buy my instrument?

There are many - but fewer than there used to be - quality retailers of woodwind instruments in the UK.

I always recommend going to your local quality dealer - they need your support. In the region in which I teach there are three of these retailers of which I am aware. I am in contact with all of them regularly and they know me well. All of them are totally reputable. I don't get any commission from them when they make a sale through my recommendation, though I have been slipped a box of reeds or two! All of them will let you spend as much time as you like discussing purchase and renting options and trying out instruments.

These are my local dealers -

Allegro Music, Oxford
01865 798165

0118 988 5566; 07804 651 142

Dawkes Music, Maidenhead
01628 630 800

If it is more convenient for you to buy in London then I recommend the following dealers

Howarth of London (for saxophones and clarinets)
020 7935 2407 (for saxophones)
01892 662533

All Flutes Plus (for flutes)
020 7388 8438

Should I rent or buy? Is buying secondhand ok?

Most dealers have a renting scheme which allows you to try the instrument for (say) six months, with an option of a refund of your payments if you then buy.

Some dealers have a buy-back scheme whereby if you buy the instrument outright immediately they will refund the purchase price less the VAT or a charge which in the end works out better than renting.

One of the best deals is to buy outright a "returned hire" instrument. These instruments are always in near perfect condition (they are usually returned because they have hardly been touched), but they can't be sold a second time as brand new. To all intents and purposes you are getting a brand new instrument - maybe with a scratch or two.

There are many good deals on second hand student instruments, but you should budget for the possible cost of a re-pad. On a saxophone this can be as much as the cost of the second hand instrument in the first place, so be careful. But it is also true that many second hand student instruments are in excellent condition because they have hardly been used. A good source for these instruments is Gumtree.

How much will I have to practise?

First – don’t practise – play! because it’s for fun!

Secondly, you just need to get the instrument out for about 10 mins initially, preferably daily. Some people say they don’t think they’ll have time, but everyone has 10 mins in their day & that’s really all you need. 10 – 15minutes a day (really every day) will get most people to around what’s called Grade 5 level within 2 years.

What book shall I buy?

This depends on your previous musical history. But generally I start people on Learn As You Play Saxophone/Flute/Clarinet by Peter Wastall (Boosey & Hawkes) and then move them on to The Jazz Method by John O’Neill (Schott). There are certain very glossy books out there which I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole, but for obvious reasons I can’t mention them here.

I use lots of other material – written and recorded – as well – but these are the books I usually get people started with.

What reeds should I get for saxophone or clarinet? Are there other accessories I should buy?


Saxophone - start with Vandoren JAVA (Green packet) grade 2.5.
Clarinet - start with Vandoren Classique (Blue packet) grade 2 or 2.5

When you ask for these in a music shop - even the ones I recommend - they will look at you as if you are mad and will advise you to get 1.5 reeds.

I don't know why this is, but I guess there is an assumption that beginners need soft reeds to begin with.

But the strength of reed depends primarily on the tip opening of the mouthpiece, not on the strength or experience of the beginner. Even a baby can blow a professionally set up saxophone (I know this because I've seen it happen).

Bear in mind that people who work in music stores are usually not experienced teachers. I have been teaching for almost 40 years and I am absolutely right on this one.

If there are some free reeds being given away with your bought or rented instrument - and you find that they are 1.5 reeds, then ask for them to be replaced with those I recommend above. It is worth fussing about it because reeds are expensive.

If you try your sax or clarinet for the first time before you have a lesson with me, then soak the reed in water for 5 minutes before playing. Unfortunately it may still not work to begin with and you may think that the reed is too hard and that you should have listened to what they said in the shop. But it is almost certainly not the case that it is too hard - but it may be unbalanced! I will balance the reed for you in the lesson. And I can show you how to do this yourself.

When you get your saxophone, the dealer will almost certainly advise you to get a so-called "Pad Saver". This is like a mop which fits inside the body of the saxophone when you store it away. Don't get it! It is completely unnecessary - and it won't save your pads. Condensation from your breath and saliva is what destroys pads, and if you think about it, if you leave the mop inside the saxophone this moisture will also stay there. To look after your instrument clean it out with a good pull-through and if possible leave the case open to the air for a bit. That's all you can do.

You also do not need a special reed case. The best way to store reeds is in a home made case made from rough porous cardboard. I will show you how to do it. Reed cases which don't allow the moisture to escape result in the possibility that the reed will rot. I have seen many student reeds with what looks like wet rot - and it doesn't seem to me to be a very good idea to put these in your mouth!

You do need a good pull-through to clean the instrument out.

For flute I use a handkerchief type pull-through which fits into the end of the cleaning/tuning rod which comes with the flute.

For clarinet I use a slim clarinet pull-through.

For saxophone I use a clarinet pull-through for the mouthpiece and crook, and a large handkerchief or imitation chamois leather type one for the body of the sax.

Do you teach in groups?

No I don't. As a matter of fact this is one of the chief reasons I stopped teaching in schools.

There is a lot of pressure on school instrumental teachers to teach in groups because the lessons appear cheaper. Of course they are less money per lesson, but they are really more expensive because the student gets much less attention.

When group teaching became the norm in schools I found that I didn't have enough time in a lesson to make sure that each student had their instrument set up properly, and I felt that I wasn't giving a good enough service.

I like my lessons to be focussed and intense, and for a student to feel that they have really made some progress and learnt something in the lesson - and for that reason I only teach individual lessons.

How long are your lessons? Can I have a one-hour lesson?

My lessons are generally 30 minutes long - and I try to make them well focussed.

Occasionally with a very highly motivated student, or someone who is at an advanced level, or to whom I am teaching music theory as well as a practical lesson, I will offer a 45 minute or one hour lesson, but for most people 30 minutes is enough.

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