Coats & Richard Booth
Note from Paul:
I know this is not exactly for beginners, but instead is
intended more for private instructors. I felt it would be
good for students to read this, and perhaps gain an
understanding of what they should expect from a private
I asked fellow
saxophonist Richard “Bootman” Booth to offer additional
comments. Bootman and I “tag team” pretty well, I think.
Hey Paul! I am
thinking about starting a job in teaching music lessons.
However, I don't know how to approach a student who has
never picked up the horn or even read music before. I know
that I should obviously teach the student the basics, that
is, bass and treble clef. However, how much of the basics
should I cover before allowing the student to finally pick
up the horn?
Andrew: ALWAYS have your horn out for a lesson. The
student needs to hear you play, and see that YOU also
prepared for the lesson.
Booth comments: It is best to have you horn ready to go.
They do indeed learn from hearing you play. It is a good
way to inspire them to further their playing. Playing silly
little ditties from popular TV shows, cartoons, or pop tunes
often can be helpful when demonstrating to kids.
Paul: Prepare a
notebook for yourself, with a section for each of your
students, where you will make notes of your assignments for
that student, his progress, etc. As you proceed through the
lesson, make notes, and mention to the student, "For next
week, I want you to work on X."
assignments in your notebook on that student's page. At the
end of the lesson, copy the assignments for his next lesson
on a piece if paper, an “assignment sheet.” Perhaps give
him some priorities... "Each day, work on X for 10 minutes,
then Y for 10 minutes, and then practice Z for 15 minutes."
A student needs guidance on how to best utilize his time.
When you make
assignments, explain to him the purpose of each exercise,
and play an example to demonstrate how this technique is
used in music. He must understand that finger-busting
exercises are not assigned to make his life difficult, but
to give him the skills he needs to play music on his
instrument. We do NOT assign “busy work”, we teach students
to play the saxophone!
Richard: I have
found that sometimes it is best to let the students play the
exercise first. If I demonstrate each lesson before hand
every time, the students start to copy what I was playing
from memory rather than reading the music and understanding
it for themselves. I let them go through it once or twice
first before I demonstrate it. Always give them songs or
studies that are within their ability to play, a small
challenge is good but too much challenge and you have lost
Paul: At the
beginning, for the first two weeks, do not let him play the
sax. Have him work only on the mouthpiece blowing. It is
NOT important that he freeze a tuner’s needle exactly on A
(for alto sax). A simple pitch pipe is sufficient as a
pitch reference. Have him work to get a clear, strong,
steady mouthpiece pitch.
If he cannot get
a clear, strong tone on the mouthpiece, he is not playing
correctly... some facet needs improvement... perhaps
tighter, looser, more or less mouthpiece insertion, etc.
But if all these conditions are met, and a good tone
produced, then, if he plays the sax the same way, he will
get a fine tone.
In that first
lesson, you will need to test play the student’s
instrument. Explain to the parents, and write down exactly
what needs to be done... what materials need to be
obtained. Make it simple for the parents... cork grease OR
ordinary Chapstick!!! Yes, Mom can pick it up at the
grocery store! Key oil OR ordinary Singer Sewing Machine
Oil (but never 3-in-1 brand oil... it gums up). Mom
probably has or can get a Gerber Baby Bottle Nipple Brush...
the plastic shank prevents scratching the tip rail... it
makes a perfect mouthpiece brush. Have a prepared list for
the student and parents, check off the items he has.
if YOU cannot play the student’s saxophone and produce a
good tone, how can the student? “Good enough to learn
on”... that should be abolished... only saxes
good enough to play well on are
suitable. And as you know, I am not a high priced horn
snob... but a sax must seal well, have good adjustment, etc.
Of course, for
health reasons, when playing a student’s instrument, use
your own mouthpiece, or sterilize the student’s mouthpiece
before and after you play it.
student’s sax must be in good working order. If not, it
must be fixed up so that he can continue to learn on the
instrument. It is unacceptable for a student to have an
instrument in poor working condition.
the student cannot afford a Selmer S80 or Vandoren
mouthpiece. But he can afford a good student mouthpiece
(Bundy, Conn Precision, Rico Graftonite A3, Runyon 22, etc),
for maybe $25... be practical. A good, affordable item is
better than the world's best that will sit in the store
forever due to price. A Rico reed is just fine, #2 (or if
he has difficulty, a #1 ½) to start.
The parent needs
to sit in on the first few lessons. For later lessons, have
a place in another room where the parent can relax, read a
magazine, watch TV, etc.
Richard: This is
particularly good with young students. They seem to feel
more assured with their parents in the room.
Paul: Always use
positive reinforcement, never negative. Acknowledge
difficulties, but advise that they can be overcome. Use
phrases such as, “Yes… that IS a very common problem. “X”
is the cause of this problem. There are several solutions,
but this is what I feel is the best solution. As you become
more experienced, and practice these assignments, you will
Experience is the best teacher of the teacher. As you
progress you will tend to recognize the same type of problem
and then be able to offer a range of ways to fix the
problem. Remember, what works for one student doesn't
necessarily work for the next student. There is more than
one way to skin a cat, so to speak.
Paul: Give the
first lesson free of charge. For young students, 10-11 year
olds, lessons should be no longer than 35-40 minutes... they
get tired and their mind wanders. For older students, you
can use a full hour. For adults, I usually teach 1 1/2 hrs.
Richard: I work
on half hour lessons for younger students, one hour lessons
for adults. I am always generous with the time so as they
feel that they are getting value for money from their
Paul: In those first two
lessons, teach basics of assembly, instrument care, etc.
But DO NOT LET HIM PLAY THE SAX. Make this clear to the
parent. Tell the student he will not get to play the sax
until he can blow the mouthpiece efficiently. For the third
lesson, if he can produce a clear, resonant tone with the
mouthpiece, let him play the sax.
Richard: I have
them playing a song in the first lesson. If they can play a
song, then they are more likely to practice their
instrument. Normally I choose Hot Cross Buns, as it is a
simple song that they will know and will be able to play it
from memory easily. I concentrate on embouchure things much
later after I have got them playing their sax for a little
bit. I don't use the mouthpiece only method of instruction
as it tends to be more efficient to get them playing. I
work on the diaphragm support from the beginning, getting
them to do diaphragm exercises. Raising a book with their
stomach as they lay on their back on the floor and holding
it there for 20 seconds is a very effective exercise. The
benefits of concentrating on the air support from the very
start become apparent over time, as the student progresses.
A lot of this is
due to different cultural expectations. You must do what is
right according to your background. There is no hard and
(Richard and I
differ here, but do what you think is best for you and your
Paul: You should
play his sax, with his mouthpiece. Find the mouthpiece
placement on the cork where the sax plays in tune. Use a
good tuner. Mark the cork with a Sharpie permanent marker.
Tell the student to put the mouthpiece onto the cork up to
that mark when assembling the sax and practicing. Later, he
can fine tune from that point.
Richard: I worry
about this much later. I am more concerned with them being
able to produce a sound. I normally place the mouthpiece in
the approximate tuning position on their saxophone myself.
Paul: Make sure
he CAN place the mouthpiece to that mark... many new saxes
have neck corks that are much too large. If necessary, YOU
should sand the cork for him, fitting it to his mouthpiece.
Put tape on the neck (black electrical tape is good) to
protect the neck from being scratched by the sand paper.
Make sure he can get the mouthpiece on to the mark without
excessive force. Show him how to use cork grease, and tell
him he should use it every time.
them how to use cork grease, even more important with
beginner clarinet students.
Paul: Tell the
student he does not necessarily assemble the sax straight.
Instead, he must sit straight, with erect posture, etc,
adjust his neck strap, and adjust the saxophone’s neck and
mouthpiece angle to fit him. Show him how to do this. A
good, easy to adjust neck strap is a necessity. Emphasize
to the student, “Make the instrument fit you, do not bend
YOU to fit the instrument.”
posture is critical for being able to play. Make certain
that the neck strap is adjusted correctly so that the
student isn't bending his neck forward or down to play the
instrument. This constricts the air passages, and
conversely, makes it harder for them to blow a note on the
Paul: For a
young child, the alto is ALWAYS held on the side. For
larger students and adults, on the side or in front, both
are correct. For tenor and baritone sax, while sitting,
always play on the side, regardless of age, size of student
or adult, always on the side. Otherwise the right hand
position will be poor.
Richard: I play
tenor in the center, between my legs when seated. The
reasoning behind this has to do with air support. If I sit
with the tenor draped to the side I am bending my body
slightly to counter for the weight of the instrument. This
in turn makes the left hand side of my diaphragm constrict
which means that I have less air to play the saxophone. Air
support is critical on all saxes, but is most noticeable on
tenor. If I have an adult student starting on tenor, I get
them to sit on the front of the chair, feet planted firmly
on the ground. This allows for good posture on the back,
good air support, and thus makes it easier for them to
produce a good tone from the beginning.
using the Standard Of Excellence book, by Bruce Pearson... a
fine beginning band book. Examination of this beginning
band series will show you why I make this recommendation.
But feel free to use whichever method book(s) you feel is
are good books. Accent On Achievement is another good one.
I use these when I am teaching kids from a band program.
One of the best private tutor books I have ever found is A
Tune a Day by C.P. Herfurth. It is a very old method book
but I have yet to find one which betters it in getting
students going quickly.
Paul: Now you can
introduce him to the treble clef. It is not necessary to
confuse him with bass clef at this time, as all of the music
he will play for the next few years will be written for him
in the treble clef. When you introduce him to the other
clefs, show him the grand staff, and that the bass clef is
merely an extension of the upper clef. But this can come
Richard: Bass clef isn't
necessary for a beginning sax player until much, much
later. Teach them the notes by using simple rules.
Introduce the theory as they need it with what is happening
in their next lesson or as they require it for the next song
in the tutor book. Continually test them from week to week
to make certain that they have retained their knowledge of
Paul: In each
lesson you should explain a little music theory to him. If
possible, the theory lesson should be related to the music
he is playing. For example, as he is introduced to scales,
also teach him the major scale structure, minor scale
structure. When he begins to learn arpeggios, relate these
notes to chords. Play these chords on a keyboard so that he
can hear how the notes harmonize to form the chord.
You should not be
alone with a student... always have an open door, other
people around (wife and kids, etc). Do not allow a parent
to drop off a student at your home and not stay there, at
least in the next room with an open door. In this day and
age, you need no possibility of accusations... you know what
I mean. If at a music store, in a lesson room... the door
stays open, and people walking by should be able to see all
in plain view. Sit with your backs toward the door to
minimize distractions. You must protect yourself. This is
not music, I know... but it is a shame that we even need to
consider such things, but that is how it is.
Richard: This is
critical. An accusation can cause you to a lot of damage,
even if you are innocent. I teach with the door open and
others around. It isn't foolproof, but it the best way to
protect yourself that I know of. Group lessons are also
good with young students as a protective measure for the
teacher. Here in Australia you have to pass a police check
before you are allowed anywhere near children as a music
teacher, sporting coach, scout master, etc.
Paul: Well, if
you have any other questions, please feel free to write.
Paul Coats & Richard Booth