Woodwind Studio

This web site contains information about Beth Purkhiser and her woodwind studio. Visit for help with choosing equipment, performance and practice techniques, and to contact Beth concerning lessons at her studio in Lafayette, Indiana.

Saxophone Assembly and First Note

Lay your case down on the floor – preferably on carpet for the first week or so – with the emblem up. If you close your case after assembling your sax, make sure to engage at least one latch so everything doesn’t go flying out of your case if you pick it up. I guarantee this will happen at some point if you don’t get into this habit.

Do not pick up the body of the saxophone until everything else is assembled.

1) Put the thin end of the reed in your mouth to wet it while you assemble the sax.

2) Put your neckstrap on – make sure it is not twisted.

3) Check the cork on the neck and if it isn’t greasy, apply cork grease from tube and massage it in with your fingers.

4) Twist the mouthpiece onto the neck.

5) Put the ligature on the mouthpiece with the screw or screws facing the right. Some ligatures have the screw/s on the bottom and some are on the top.

6) Place reed on mouthpiece – this is by far the most difficult part so be patient – you need to take your time with this. Holding the ligature towards the tip of the mouthpiece so you have plenty of room between it and the mouthpiece, slide the thick end of the reed underneath the ligature, taking care to never touch the tip of the reed. You can fine tune the placement of your reed by manipulating it at the bottom end with one hand, and from the sides near the tip with your other. You should see a tiny bit of black over the tip of the reed and the reed must be perfectly centered – check this by feel as well as sight – you shouldn’t see more side rail on one side of the reed than the other. If you can push the reed up and still see black, you had the reed too low. Bring the ligature down near the bottom of the mouthpiece and tighten only after making sure once again that the reed is perfectly placed. (Often more fine tuning is required after moving the ligature into its final position.) If you sound terrible or have a great deal of difficulty producing sound, it is almost certainly because of the reed – nothing is more important in sound response and tone production than reed quality and placement.

Now you’re ready to deal with the heavy, awkward body of the sax. The best way to lift it out of your case is to grasp the brace that connects the body and bell of the sax between your middle and ring fingers. This results in a perfect balance as you lift it out of your case. Another good way is to grab the bell since there are no keys you could accidentally bend there – but be prepared for the weight to be imbalanced and for the sax to feel quite a bit heavier.

Make sure the screw at the top is somewhat loose and using a small back and forth movement, connect the neck to the sax and then tighten the screw. (This screw usually only needs to be turned 1/4 of a turn – unscrewing it any further once it moves freely will not result in a wider opening for the neck.) It is properly positioned once the octave mechanism (the part that points up and fits under the only moving part of the neck) is very slightly to the left of the metal ribbing (where the neck is reinforced with extra metal) on the neck.

Attach your neckstrap to the ring on the sax, located midway down.
Place your right thumb under the thumb rest at the bottom of the sax, and your left thumb on the black button at the top. Skip the highest key on the front of the sax and put your first finger on the next key down. Skip the small key and place your second and third fingers on the next two keys. There are only three keys for the bottom hand, so place your first, second and third fingers on these keys. Until you are used to finger placement, you will be tempted to pull the sax towards you to look at the keys – if you do this, be sure that the reed is not in danger of rubbing against your clothing or hitting your chair – many reeds get broken this way. You’ll need to carefully position the sax far enough to the left so it won’t brush against anything before turning it toward you to see the keys.

Your sax should come to you – you do not go to the sax. You have three ways to adjust your sax to get it to come directly to you: neckstrap height, neck angle, mouthpiece angle. Sit upright with a good posture, find a point directly across the room and keep your eyes on that point while you bring the neckstrap higher. This will ensure that you find the right height for the neckstrap. If the neck is too far to either side, readjust it so that it points directly to your mouth. Never adjust the position of the neck without first loosening the screw slightly and then tightening it back up after you achieve the desired position. (If you move the neck while the screw is tight often enough, you will cease to be able to tighten the neck at all and it is not easy to play the sax when the neck is flopping around.) The third step to bringing the sax to you is adjusting the angle of the mouthpiece. There is no need to tilt your head to accommodate the mouthpiece angle – adjust it to your comfort and proper posture.

Now you’re ready to play. Roll your lower lip over your lower teeth far enough so that the reed will rest on your skin beneath your lip rather than the lip itself. This lip provides a cushion between the reed and your teeth so it needs to be soft and spongy – don’t tighten your lip or chin muscles at all or your tone will suffer. Take the mouthpiece into your mouth to the point where the reed starts touching the side rails. You can check to see where this is by looking at the side of the mouthpiece – soon you’ll get used to putting in the correct amount and won’t have to keep looking. If you have taken too much mouthpiece into your mouth, you will produce a horrible honking sound – take less mouthpiece if this occurs! If you are too close to the tip of the mouthpiece, you can get either a very small, closed off sound, or no sound at all, because the reed is very thin at the tip and can collapse against the mouthpiece, allowing no air through. You have to find just the right place on the mouthpiece to get a nice, open sound without much effort. Place your upper teeth firmly on top of the mouthpiece, directly above your lower lip. Bring the corners of your lips forward so that no air can escape out the sides when you blow. When you need more air, you bring the corners away from the mouthpiece and inhale through the sides of your mouth – don’t disturb any other part of your embouchure (mouth placement) including your upper lip.

Your throat should be relaxed when you blow – just like it would be if you were blowing warm air on your hands when you’re trying to warm them up, or if you were trying to fog up a mirror. This is called using “warm air.” Take a deep breath through the corners of your mouth, and blow a strong, fast air stream through your sax. The lower abdominal muscles generate this air stream – everything else from your throat to your mouth should be stationary – no moving or tightening up beyond what is needed to keep air from escaping the sides of your mouth. Keep your cheeks in when you blow – don’t let them puff out. If you have trouble with this, you can practice on a balloon in front of a mirror. You will notice that it only takes a slight tightening of your smile muscles to keep your cheeks from puffing out. Later you will learn how to “articulate” which means using your tongue to control when the air is released into the sax, but for now, just blow as if you are saying “hoo.” This is called using a “breath attack.” Once you get used to the proper embouchure, then you can learn how to tongue.

Your hands may accidentally open one of the side keys on your saxophone until you get used to the proper hand position. This will make a very distinct sound you will learn to recognize easily, and you won’t be able to make different pitches with different fingerings – everything just sounds pretty much the same. Figure out which hand is opening the side keys – it’s usually the top – and bring your hand out a bit to give your fingers some room. Your fingers should always point directly across the sax on both hands. The most common hand position problem comes from holding the left wrist too high and letting those top hand fingers point down rather than across. This causes multiple problems later on and bad habits are much harder to fix than simply establishing good habits in the first place.

When disassembling the saxophone, start by separating the neck from the body of the sax. Remember to loosen the screw before removing the neck. The sax should then be swabbed, preferably with a “pad saver/shove-it swab.” Don’t release the sax until you can tell it is all the way down. Next slide the reed off and wipe away any excess moisture with a cloth (a square piece of cotton cloth from an old t-shirt is perfect.) Slide the reed carefully into a reed guard which holds the reed flat while it dries to minimize warping. Next twist off the mouthpiece and wipe away moisture from both ends of the neck. It is not necessary to swab the inside of the neck although you can if you’d like, using either a small drop through swab included with the sax, or purchasing a shove-it swab. (Please note though, shove-it swabs for the neck are not meant to be left in the neck like they are in the body of the sax.) Pull the cloth through the inside of the mouthpiece and then wipe away any moisture that may still be in the inside corners of the mouthpiece or on the side rails. The mouthpiece is the most important part of the sax to be swabbed. Leaving your spit to dry in the mouthpiece will allow bacteria to build up, leading to a bad smell and eventually developing a white paste which hardens onto the mouthpiece, ruining it completely. If you have time for nothing else after band practice, at least get the mouthpiece dried out – it is possible to get very fast at doing this. Place your mouthpiece cap over your mouthpiece and don’t forget to take your neckstrap off.

The mouthpiece/reed/ligature combination is the most important part of the instrument. This is what actually generates the sound, the rest of the instrument simply shapes it, so this is where you want to spend your money. Instruments aren’t cheap and it’s tempting to skimp on upgrades for the mouthpiece and reeds until later. I highly recommend against this. Most beginning rental programs include a cheap, acrylic mouthpiece that needs to be upgraded to hard rubber as soon as humanly possible – for the sake of your ears as well as the decreased frustration for your child. Good mouthpieces can range from $70 to about $150. The $70 mouthpieces are very inconsistent – only about 2 out of every 10 are good – so you should really only go that route if you have somebody who can select the mouthpiece for you. I recommend going with the Vandoren Optimum AL3 which costs $100. This is what I use and I haven’t run across a bad one yet. A mouthpiece cushion should be affixed to the top of the mouthpiece before playing to protect the mouthpiece and make the teeth more comfortable. These can be purchased for about $2, and may already be supplied with the sax. The best cane reeds are Vandoren and 3 individual Vandoren reeds or up to a full box (10 reeds) are usually included with the sax. A box of ten reeds usually costs around $25. There is no way to know how long each individual reed will last. Some start playing badly after a few days, others last a few weeks. All of my private students use a very high quality synthetic reed which usually lasts right around 3 months. I use these reeds myself as do many other professional players. They have countless advantages. They don’t need to be moistened at all and play consistently until they eventually wear out. Since they don’t absorb water, they don’t go through the daily drying out process which warps the cane reeds and causes them to play differently from day to day. They can be stored on the mouthpiece rather than in reed guards so that the next time the sax is played, it is immediately ready to go. Each of these reeds is considerably more expensive than the cane reeds but cost effective since they last so much longer. I recommend the Legere *Studio Cut* for saxophone. The regular Legere reed is not nearly as good. Cost is around $17.50 per reed. They are not nearly as easy to chip as the cane reeds, but can be damaged if hit hard enough. And of course, it’s a bigger deal when kids damage the Legere reeds as opposed to cane, because of the greater expense. I recommend the Legere reeds as soon as the student can handle the sax properly. Many kids can go to the Legere immediately – very fidgety kids might want to hold off.

We generally start with a reed strength of 2 and a half. As the muscles in the embouchure develop, more resistance from the reed is needed and a higher number reed should be purchased. Kids should generally advance a half strength if using cane after about six months. Legere reeds can be purchased in quarter sizes and I recommend starting with a 2 and 3/4 reed. Each new reed should be a quarter size harder until they reach either 3 and a 1/4 or 3 and a 1/2. Everybody’s morphology is different so this is a gross generalization – some kids may never need harder than a 3 or 2 and 3/4, and some may need to start with the 2 and a 1/2 Legere rather than the quarter strength higher. It is difficult to advise in a group setting – reed strength is much more easily handled one on one.

Kids will not take the time, and often don’t have the time, to use the pull through swabs when they’re at school. It is much quicker for them to simply insert the “shove-it” swab into the sax and put it away. Cost is around $12. Keeping the sax swabbed will prolong the life of the pads which will save you money.

We don’t have a music store in town so you can either purchase reeds and other supplies from Paiges Music, 1-800-382-1099, https://www.paigesmusic.com/paiges/run?id=6 – or online from Weiner Music, http://shop.weinermusic.com/ or The Woodwind and Brasswind, http://www.wwbw.com/. Paiges can be the most convenient and quick since they deliver to the school, but are often more expensive. You must order by Friday to assure delivery by the next Tuesday. I prefer Weiner Music out of New York because they are usually the cheapest, and of course orders will come directly to your house rather than the school. Orders over $48 are shipped for free and there is no tax at time of purchase. I take care of all orders for my own private students. If you are interested in signing up for lessons, I teach out of my home at 2404 Yuma Drive which is located near the Tippecanoe Mall – directly behind Miami Elementary School. I charge $20 for half hour, weekly lessons – or I also offer a flat monthly rate of $80 – no extra charge for months that include a fifth week. My phone numbers are 427-1355 and 471-8177. My email is beth@bethpurkhiser.com. I have a website at www.bethpurkhiser.com but please don’t try to email me through it since there seems to be a glitch and I’m not receiving all my emails through it. My qualifications include saxophone performance degrees from Indiana University and Arizona State University, and over 20 years teaching experience on all levels. I perform with the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra and Lafayette Citizens Band among various other groups and I occasionally solo with the Tippecanoe Chamber Music Society. I teach both sax and clarinet. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions.