You’re Not Getting Worse, But Your Instrument Might Be

Don’t worry, your instrument can be fixed.

Does it take at least a half hour to warm up every time you sit down to practice your saxophone, or any woodwind instrument for that matter?

Do you feel like you are going braindead the more you practice?

Just maybe these two thoughts have a common factor that link them together and it’s not YOU.

As a young musician many years ago I found myself pondering those very questions. I was at least an active professional with four years of music college and three years of military band experience under my belt but the more I practiced it seemed like the worse I got. Then one day I had an epiphany. Eureka! It’s not me, it’s my instrument! My theory was that each day when I sat down to play, the pads were dry and didn’t seat well on the tone holes. After breathing through my horn for a half hour, the moisture from my breath softened leather pads, they seated better, and “I was then warmed up”. The next day the cycle started all over again.

So I ran down stairs from my teaching studio to the repair shop and my suspicions were confirmed. To my relief, it wasn’t me, it was my instrument. Lesson learned!

There is a philosophical saying: “A craftsman never blames his tools.” I would like to respectfully add an addendum to these words of wisdom: “But a craftsman also properly maintains his tools.”

It is sometimes difficult as young students to know if it is you or the instrument failing when practicing. As a private teacher, I check my students horns regularly to eliminate a half of the question.

There are a couple of ways to check your instrument. First, literally look at the pads. If they appear dry and brittle, or even cracked, they probably leak and need replacing. If they are not too bad, you might be able to salvage them and extend their usefulness by carefully applying (with a Q-tip) unscented baby oil to soften and moisturize every leather surface.

Second, if the pads look good, there might be a tiny leak in one of the pads. (The higher up the horn, the more problems it causes!) To find one or more leaks you will need a drop light. A small string of LED lights work really well. Drop the string down the body in a darkened room, close the keys with your fingers and start searching. If you see light, air will be escaping as well and you will at least be aware of your problem. To fix this, slight bending of the keys might be necessary and should be brought to an experienced repairman for this task.

If all goes well, and your instrument is “tight”, practicing will be lots more fun and rewarding.